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Matt Groening: Life Is Swell
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, July 19, 2007. (Cover Story)
Move to Los Angeles.
Let your jaw wobble in amazement.
Gasp for air. Rub your eyes.
Catch your breath. Check your wallet.
Curse your fate . . .
“How to Write a Weekly Music Column,”
Los Angeles Reader, 1985
In his 30 Los Angeles years, Matt Groening has never been busier than he’s been over the past few months: The Simpsons recently broadcast its 400th episode and shows no signs of slowing down. Futurama‘s back in production (although not necessarily for prime time). He’s got a new book out, an empire to oversee, his Life in Hell deadline each week, two teenage sons and, of course, The Simpsons Movie.
It takes us two months of scheduling, but eventually Groening and I arrive at his beach house, at sunset. I’ve been here once before, for late-night pizza and beer with six or seven others after a mutual friend’s art opening. This familiarity saves us a good 10 minutes of precious interview time — 10 minutes I’d otherwise have to spend jaw-dropping and eye-popping; it’s that kind of a house. Huge, but not ostentatious; just big and friendly, with high ceilings, good light, good art and beverages. We grab a few beers and head out back, along the stepping stones and past the pool to a pair of immense sliding walls. Groening opens one, I open the other, and we’re left standing on sand about 40 feet from the Pacific, with nothing between us and the water, and nothing between the water and the sky.
We stand there below the steps — two broad slabs of rough-hewn timber embedded in the sand, separating home from beachfront. We sip our beers. We say “Oh, man” and sigh several times.
Groening considers a nearby melon-size boulder.
“This rock has moved,” he says. “A few days ago, it was over here. The ocean is powerful.” I point out a set of seagull prints that lead directly to the rock. He nods.
Groening’s concerned about my recording device’s ability to distinguish our voices from the crash of extremely nearby waves.
“Want to sit in the kitchen?” he asks.
“Sure. But can we wait until . . . ?”
“Yeah. Let’s wait until the sun goes down a little bit more.”
We settle in on the steps and I notice, between us, a pair of mangled, lens-free black plastic sunglasses.
“These yours?” I ask, picking them up, examining, mumbling, “probably not,” and putting them down again, albeit not in the same place.
“Wait!” Groening tries to stop me.
“What? I put them back wrong?”
“Wow!” Groening picks up the frames and adjusts his glasses to better observe the source of the wow. “Wow,” he repeats — a different wow — as he seems to arrive at an understanding.
“Aww,” he says. “How sad!”
“I’m not going to let it affect me.”
“There’s a story behind these,” says Groening, setting the frames aside. “When I was a kid, something like that would make me have to think about where they came from. You know?”
“I do,” I say. “I have a case of the pathological background empathies too. If someone starts crying — like a kid lost in Kmart — I have to suppress the urge to join in.”
“If I hear a kid crying, I go check and see if the parent’s abusing the kid.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I was not abused, physically, as a child.”
“No,” says Groening. “I was not abused.”
“My father did not strangle me, unlike with Homer and Bart. That came from The Katzenjammer Kids. I recall, vaguely, the Captain strangling Hans and Fritz.”
“Like this, or like this?”
In 1977, after graduating from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, 23-year-old Portland native Matt Groening (rhymes with “raining”) drove to Los Angeles to write and draw. He did, and ended up creating many fine and notable things, including a comic strip, Life in Hell, which has run in L.A. Weekly for 20-plus years and, before that, in the Los Angeles Reader (where Groening also worked as a proofreader, paste-up artist, editor, critic and columnist); the cult-favorite television series Futurama; and the most subversive network show ever to launch a vast intergalactic merchandising empire, The Simpsons.
The subversion began to take form in 1985, when producer James L. Brooks (Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment) contacted Groening to see if he’d be interested in developing a series of animated Life in Hell bumpers — short transitions between the main program and commercials — for The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening was interested, but also concerned about losing the rights to his beloved, rabbit-style creations. So just before a pitch meeting with Fox executives, he quickly sketched out some new characters — a family of five humanoids, which he named after members of his own family, substituting an anagram of “brat” for the character of the son, based somewhat on himself but mostly on his older brother.
In 1987, the Simpsons shorts began a two-year run on Ullman’s show, during which Groening, Brooks and Brooks’ colleague Sam Simon developed the half-hour version, which debuted on December 17, 1989, and hasn’t stopped since.
On the few occasions that we’ve spoken over the past 10 or 12 years, Groening has always appeared conspicuously and genuinely modest. No matter how fast he speaks, how excited he gets, something about him remains low key. This is not a man who set out to conquer the world and become a rich bastard. This is a neobeatnik surfer-scientist art-dude man, who, by his own estimation, was in the right place at the right time.
As the sun sinks lower and the bottles grow lighter, we talk of early comics and cartoons. I have a small collection of 16 mm shorts — mostly Fleischer Studios and early Warner Bros. cartoons, which I inherited from my older brother before the dawn of home video. I have no projector or room to store them in. Groening has both, and he offers the collection a loving new home and, perhaps, a screening later this summer.
“Most of my dad’s stuff is on 16 mm,” says Groening, whose father, Homer, was a professional filmmaker, as well as a writer and cartoonist. “Almost all of his movies had to do with water — surfing, mostly; skiing, underwater films. It was the 1960s, and he went back and forth between doing these very commercial, promotional films to pay the bills, and doing these kind of arty, sort of one-step-removed-from-underground films that were just abstract images of water and surfing. One of his best films is called A Study in Wet, from 1964. The soundtrack is a musical composition that consists only of water dripping into bathtubs, organized into a rhythmic and melodic composition. It’s an amazing movie.”
After more than 400 episodes over 18 seasons, there’s constant pressure on The Simpsons writers and producers to invent new ways to be funny, top themselves and surprise the rest of us. And while Groening hasn’t been the show runner since season three, he continues to oversee things as executive producer, creative consultant and all-around big cheese. The pressure’s still on.
“Do you ever see The Simpsons not being around?” I ask.
“If I got hit by a truck tomorrow,” says Groening, “The Simpsons would continue on indefinitely. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. And sometimes, you know, I go, ‘Is my work redundant? Am I just doing the same thing again and again and again?’ But I feel like every week I learn something new — I learn something about writing, I learn something about other people, I learn about storytelling, I learn new jokes. And it’s entertainment, for me. I get to be on the scene where these brilliant people are making this amazing show, and, Oh, yeah — I created it! That is to say, I got the ball rolling, and now it’s a snowball that keeps on picking up speed. It’s really fun! And . . . it’s not very charming to be having such a good time.”
“You with your fun — you’re not charming.”
“You need to be tormented! You’re supposed to be tormented!”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m starting to think torment’s overrated. What about . . . do you ever feel guilty? Like, there’s just too many good things?”
“Of course there’s guilt. But on the other hand, I think to myself, ‘Look. The world is full of talented people who don’t get the credit they deserve. And then there’s me: I’m one of those people who gets more credit than I deserve.’ So I go, ‘Well . . . very few people have that experience! It’s very nice!’ So do I feel guilty? Yes. Do I admit it? Yes. And then I move on.”
Groening adds that, in spite of all his success, he’s still a working stiff. As we speak, he’s past his deadline on his next Life in Hell comic strip, which was due yesterday and which he hasn’t started yet. He also says that, in more than two decades of writing the strip, he’s never once set foot inside the L.A. Weekly offices.
“Wait. You’ve never been to the Weekly?! Even the old building?”
“Never been to the Weekly offices. I’m sure very nice people work there, but! Here’s the thing: I used to work at the Reader, and I noticed — and also in hanging out at small radio stations, and any kind of operation where there’s a lot of very intense work for a lot of personal satisfaction but not necessarily great reward — that people go crazy. Maybe this is true of everything, but I certainly noticed it at small weekly newspaper offices. The office politics get really crazy, and they certainly got crazy where I used to work — so crazy that the Reader fired me. I had sold my comic strip to the Pasadena Weekly — which was nowhere near where the Reader distributed its paper — for $10 a week. And the Reader said, ‘You must quit that paper, because, contractually, you can’t be published anywhere else in Los Angeles County.’
“I said, ‘I’d understand if there was an overlap in the distribution — that would make sense. But this is 10 bucks! And that means a lot to me!’ They said, ‘Nope — a contract’s a contract.’ So I said, ‘That’s fine, but when my contract is up in two months, then I’m going into Pasadena.’ Then they said, ‘Okay, fine, you’re fired.’ And I said, ‘Well, then I’m gonna sell my strip to the L.A. Weekly.’ And they said, ‘Not for two months, you’re not.’ After that, I decided, ‘You know what? For all I know, they’re lunatics at the L.A. Weekly too. So I’ll just mail in my cartoon and not find out.’ All I know is that the last time I showed up at a newspaper office, I got fired.”
“By the way,” Groening says, “no one has noticed this, but if you look in the upper left-hand corner of my comic strip, it no longer says Life in Hell.”
“What does it say?”
“Life Is Swell.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Yes it does. I changed it in 2007.”
“In the large type?”
“In my little Japanese calligraphy pen which I misuse to make that scribbly look. It says Life Is Swell. Why? Well, I got sick of the word ‘hell’ as a comedy term about 15 years ago. But it was my trademark, my thing. So I was looking for a positive election in which I would change the name. I even put it in the strip. I can’t remember which election it was — Gore or Kerry — but I said, ‘If the election turns out the way I want it to, I will change the name of the strip to Life Is Swell.’ Then I kept it Hell until after the 2006 election. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m happy enough with the midterms, so I’ll change it in 2007.’ Like I said, nobody notices. I just think ‘swell’ is a funny word.”
“How to Write a Weekly Music Column” [continued]
. . . Start working in an office downtown.
Answer phones, type up classifieds, think up headlines, proofread, paste up issues, write articles, draw cartoons, deliver newspapers.
Start delivering in Chinatown, and work your way west, ending up in Malibu as the sun goes down . . .
It’s getting dark. I ask Groening if he ever has dreams in which he’s interacting with Simpsons characters.
“I only recall one,” he says. “And I barely remember it. I just remember saying, ‘Well, wait a minute. I’m real life, and this is a cartoon, so something’s wrong here.’?”
“When I was getting into animation as a child,” I say, “I had some really vivid dreams where there were animated characters interacting with live action. The best one involved this cartoon puppy — the happiest, friendliest puppy, who just wants to love and be loved by everyone. But he has a lighting bolt for a tail.”
“And if he touches you, you die. My brother and I were riding our bicycles, and the puppy was romping after us, and we’re going, ‘Yes! Good puppy! But don’t kill us!’ It was kind of an Edward Scissorhands situation. Or maybe I’d just learned about nuclear bombs.”
“Wow. That’s great. Did the dog have a name?”
“I believe it was Cartoon Electric Puppy — Electric Puppy, for short.”
“I have lots of dreams about working on The Simpsons,” Groening says, “but they’re all real-life dreams. The most recent one is the best one, because . . . well, it was just a good dream. I dreamed I was in the back row of a giant auditorium, and I didn’t know where I was or why I was there. But it was this crowded, formal event, and I say to the person sitting next to me, ‘What is this?’ And he says, ‘These are the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies.’ And I say, ‘Really?’ He goes, ‘Yeah — you should be very excited. The Simpsons is up for the Nobel Peace Prize.’
“I say, ‘Wait a minute — no! It’s a cartoon! What’re you talking about?!’ He says, ‘I agree it’s far-fetched, but, you know, you should have a speech ready, because there’s a good chance that you might win.’ I say, ‘That makes no sense at all! That makes no sense at all!’ And then, [half-assed announcer voice] ‘And the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize . . . The Simpsons!‘ So I go up onstage, and I say to myself, in the dream, ‘I’d better have a joke.’ And I say, ‘Gee, it’s such an honor for The Simpsons to win the Nobel Prize. You know, this hasn’t happened to a cartoon since Porky Pig.'”
“So you killed.”
“No, it didn’t actually kill. It actually didn’t go over very well. I said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and I got offstage. I walked backstage, and Jim Brooks — James L. Brooks, my mentor, the genius film director who’s responsible for my career — was backstage, and I said, ‘My speech failed.’ And he put his arm around me and said, ‘The secret is to pretend you’re happy.’ That’s all I remember. Then I went to work the next day and I told Jim Brooks my dream. He said, ‘God, that dream is so good, I’m gonna use it with my therapist.'”
“Hey, if I think of something to ask about The Simpsons Movie . . . you wanna?”
“Yeah. Simpsons Movie. Well . . . we’re almost done. And one of the indications of the eccentricity at work here is . . . okay, we saw that on every episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, they had a countdown clock that’s in the background, for how many days, hours, minutes it is to the next show. So we laughingly said, ‘We should get one of those for the movie.’ And the next day, there it was — a countdown clock that said, you know, 372 days, 16 hours and 52 seconds, right above one of the animators’ computers. That poor guy is probably a quivering mess of stress by now, from having to look at it all the time.
“Anyway, it got down to about 62 days, and the producer, Richard Sakai, who had put up the clock, had it changed from 62 days to 31 days, because he decided that it was time to get real, and this is what the real countdown is — not, as it was originally set, to the premiere, but to the exact second that the movie needs to be done, finished, delivered, out of our hands.
“As of this afternoon, it was 16 days and some-odd hours. We’re coming down the home stretch. We’re still tweaking, still foolin’ around. But it’s almost, almost done.”
“You’re not going to talk about what happens in the movie, are you?”
“No,” says Groening. “But even after the movie comes out, I’m not gonna talk about the plot. Because I’m so used to keeping the secret. And also: It doesn’t matter. I mean, I can’t imagine somebody going, ‘Well, I think I won’t see the film because of what the story is or what it isn’t.’ I mean, it’s a Simpsons movie — you go to see them having their adventures.”
“So, are you going to get a chance to just do nothing at some point?”
“When The Simpsons Movie is finished, and we get the fall season of the show up and running, I hope to take some time and actually resume surfing, and doing all the kinds of fun, relaxing things that I set aside to meet my deadlines. You surf?”
“No. I tried twice, in high school. Got my bell rung hard.”
“Locals only, man!”
“Sorry, man, to have upset the balance.”
“My dad was a surfer in the late 1940s, in Hawaii, before I was born, when the family lived there. Sometimes I look at these old photos and I just can’t believe how pristine, how seemingly perfect it was.”
“Do you ever go surfing right here?”
“No. I’ve investigated. I’ve gone snorkeling out here. It’s sandy — you can’t see anything. There’s got to be fish out there, because there’s birds diving. But I see dolphins, pelicans, an occasional seal, and that’s cool. I feel like it’s going to be a good day if I see a dolphin. See, I get thrilled whenever I see any kind of wild animals. Makes me feel like, ‘Oh, it’s not over yet!’ Raccoons in the garbage — yess! Although, you know . . . I’m not saying that I don’t . . . nahh.”
“I was gonna say . . . It won’t work in print, but I was gonna say . . .”
Groening says what he was going to say.
“See?” he says afterward. “Doesn’t work in print.”
Amid all the Simpsons work and fanfare, Groening published 14 Life in Hell compilation books between 1986 and 1997, then nothing. The 15th is finally on its way, and Groening seems as excited about it as if it were his first.
“I just put out my favorite book, of my cartoon books, called Will & Abe’s Guide to the Universe,” Groening says as we head inside. “It’s my favorite because it’s not me; it’s just me taking my kids’ conversations and songs and arguments and stories, and illustrating them.”
“How old are Will and Abe now?”
“They’re really 18 and 15.”
“Yeah. The book covers from when they were toddlers to just a few years ago. And then they caught on to my little scam. Here, let me get you a copy. It just came out.”
Groening goes upstairs and returns with a crisp new book.
“Aha!” I say. “HarperCollins.”
“Yep. But that’s not why; it’s just coincidental.”
“He owns everything. He probably doesn’t even know what he owns anymore.”
“And,” Groening laughs, “he’s got really good taste.”
“I’ll be right back.” Groening stands and disappears. He seems to do that. I don’t. I remain seated on the couch, flipping through Will & Abe’s Guide. Gifts are good. Surely Groening will soon kick me out. How long have I been here?
Groening reappears, holding a thin pamphlet.
“So!” he announces jubilantly. “I found it!”
“Congratulations. Found what?”
“This,” he says, “is a highly collectible item. Every year, for five years, I did a little hand-done collection of my stuff that I just gave to friends. This one is from 1986: Life in Hell Bonus Funfest Holiday Treat #5. It’s just my old Reader column, Sound Mix, and it goes up to my last few columns before I got fired. [Laughs.] In fact, the last column is called ‘How to Write a Weekly Music Column.'”
“Was that written before you found out, or . . . ?”
“Just read it. That’s for you.”
“Wow! Thanks, man.”
“But if you don’t want it, give it back, because there’s only a couple.”
“Like I’m gonna give it back. Jesus.”
“I just thought you’d appreciate it, because it’s your kind of thing. And it’s like . . . it’s so wrong. I mean, there are so many wrong things. Let me show you what I mean by wrong.” Groening takes obvious delight in thumbing through the booklet.
“Okay, first of all: I was walking by a junior high school on the last day of school, and I saw this kid walking out of the school, and he flipped his notebook over his head and it went into the bushes. And I picked it up. A kid named Dusty Cohen. The stuff that was in this notebook was so funny that I printed it in my column. And it was such a hit that I went back and I went into dumpsters, outside of schools. This one’s a vocabulary test, taken from different . . . actually this one’s taken from one person:
“Sentences to Vocabulary Words”
I abated the furnace heat.
The students accorded on the answer to the paper.
The girls face was abominable.
Billy abridged the wood.
He abstain himself from crying.
The knife was very acute at the end.
We adopted a buiseness furm.
Number 8, blank.
I glued the wood together so they would adhere.
He abhors his english teacher.
Groening laughs himself dry and recovers with a longing sigh. “Oh, it was sooo good!”
All right. It’s been almost three hours. If Groening’s not going to do it, I’ll have to just kick myself out. The Groenings have to get up early to go to the Federal Building and get Will a passport, so he has options to join his father on the international Simpsons Movie promo tour. Only one issue remains unresolved: Did Groening or did he not suffer the effects of overexposure to a certain old sitcom character — a young beatnik played by Bob Denver on an ancient show called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, created by a long-dead long-lost cousin of mine.
“Is it true that you had a substantial Maynard G. Krebs experience?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah. Of course. Maynard G. Krebs was a huge influence on me,” says Groening. “I can remember, as a little kid, saying, ‘Crazy, man, Daddy-o.’ It was like he was the only guy on TV who talked like a real human being, you know? There was a little bit of Jughead in him, unfortunately, but I loved him. He had a goatee! He was the only guy on TV who had a goatee!”
“Yeah, at the time, in the early ’60s.”
“Did you know that was my cousin, Max, who wrote that?”
“Max Shulman? Oh, my God!”
“I never met him. He was my dad’s cousin, and my dad only met him once, when my dad was a kid and Max was a teenager. I went to his funeral service at the Writers Guild in 1988 and saw all these people who looked like my dad. It was pretty weird.”
“Wow,” says Groening. “Yeah, I have an older sister, Patty, who was a beatnik, or hung out with what I considered beatniks. I remember, as a little kid in the early ’60s, going over to one of her friends’ houses, and the guy was an artist who had a mannequin’s leg sticking out of the wall. For me, that was my introduction to the avant-garde.”
“Just plastered in place?”
“Yeah. It was like an art piece. This was like, 1962. Imagine Theodore Cleaver, from Leave It to Beaver, going over to somebody’s house and seeing a mannequin’s leg. It would be . . . well, first of all, it would be an entire episode. And, for me, it was, you know, the rest of my life.”