No Sacred Cows for Groening

By Ted Anthony

Associated Press, April 24, 1999.

LOS ANGELES (AP) - At first glance, he's living an unexceptional Chamber of Commerce existence: league bowling on the weekends, singing in a barbershop quartet and operating the best-known convenience store in metropolitan Springfield, USA.

But Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has a darker side: the chutney Squishees he once tried to force upon an unsuspecting populace. His role in the off-off-off-off-off-Broadway production of ``Streetcar!'' (liberally adapted from Tennessee Williams). The flash-frozen senior citizen who once inhabited his dairy case.

You know Apu. He's a lot like you and me - his successes pinned proudly to his polyester Kwik-E Mart frock, his failures stashed furtively under the counter behind the food-service cans of Reagan-era nacho cheese.

Except Apu exists only in a cosmos of pen and ink, of bright yellows and popping eyes. He's a member of an unusual animated flock, sprung from the mind of an even more unusual genius: the man whose brain produced ``The Simpsons'' - and the new sci-fi cartoon ``Futurama''; the man whose pointed humor has, for more than a decade, made lots of people laugh and lots of people uncomfortable.

``We don't have a particular ax to grind,'' he insists.

So instead, with smiles and jabs and idealism and sarcasm, Matt Groening grinds them all.

Utterances by Homer Simpson, fatty foods aficionado, errant nuclear-plant employee and incompetent if loving father:
  • ''I used to rock and roll all night and party every day. Then it was every other day. Now I'm lucky if I can find half an hour a week in which to get funky.''
  • ''Maybe, for once, someone will call me `sir' without adding, `You're making a scene.'''
  • ``Ooh! Barbecue!''

One day, somewhere in the middle of the baby boom, a young boy in a sandbox looked around at his playmates. Suddenly, he saw their futures: lawyers, investment bankers, grown-ups in grown-up suits. And Matt Groening realized being a kid wasn't such a bad gig.

``I knew that other kids were going to get serious and go on and be professionals,'' says Groening (rhymes with ``raining''). ``I never wanted to go to an office and carry a briefcase. I said, `That's no fun. I want to play. I want to make up stories.'''

Four decades later, at 45, he still does.

He made up ``Life in Hell,'' a weekly comic strip that chronicles the travails of a rabbit named Binky and a nihilistic gay couple in fez hats named Akbar and Jeff. He created ``The Simpsons,'' the delightfully astute late 20th-century family sitcom and a winner of 12 Emmys. Now he has hatched ``Futurama,'' an equally offbeat cartoon that blends ``The Simpsons'' with ``The Jetsons,'' ``The Three Stooges'' and a hodgepodge of sci-fi imagery.

Groening's vision, rounded out by a team of animators and writers from across the political spectrum, evokes many descriptions: absurdist theater; crackling cultural commentary; a vast collage of American pop and high culture; the rapid-fire dialogue of Marx Brothers movies and the lunacy of Warner Bros. cartoons.

Hardly Saturday-morning ``Josie & the Pussycats'' or ``Smurfs'' fare. View an episode of ``The Simpsons'' and watch the background. Little treats abound - rewards, Groening says, for paying attention. Hidden in plain view are indictments of consumerism, jabs at bureaucracy and pokes at pretension. It is, quite simply, adult.

Consider these recent nuggets: an art museum named ``Louvre - American Style'' (``No shirt, no shoes, no Chardonnay''); an unrepentantly carnivorous steakhouse with a slab of beef called ``Sir Loinalot'' and a Heimlich machine in case of emergency; a sign that says, ``Welcome to Atlanta - Home of Ted Turner's mood swings.''

Groening and his writers (his official title is executive producer, but he retains great creative control) push to the edge of hilarity but never complete implausibility.

``A lot of television shows ... don't deal with the things people are ashamed to admit. We can do that,'' says Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer Simpson and an array of other characters, including belching barfly Barney Gumble and flame-bearded, Scottish-brogued Groundskeeper Willie.

``It's the first television show that has an underground comic sensibility,'' Castellaneta says in a decidedly un-Homeric voice. ``Very rarely do people talk about major corporations and companies taking away people's rights. In `The Simpsons,' it just sneaks in there.''

Unlike the exclusionary in-jokes of ``Seinfeld,'' Groening's work is both accessible and deliciously obscure: Baby Maggie's attempt to break out of a day-care center would be hilarious even if it didn't feature the theme from ``The Great Escape.''

Ridiculing mass media is a ``Simpsons'' staple. Local TV news is skewered with glee, as are violent cartoons: ``The Itchy and Scratchy Show,'' a cat-and-mouse cartoon within a cartoon, features graphic dismemberment and titles like ``Scar Trek: The Next Laceration.''

Even Groening's own network isn't safe. One episode featured Homer and Bart watching ``Nonstop Fox,'' featuring ``When Buildings Collapse'' and ``World's Funniest Tornados.''

``I think what we all share is laughing at the Elmer Fudds of the world - authorities who don't like to be laughed at,'' Groening says of his writers.

This notion - that no cow is sacred - renders the Simpsons affectionately benign. Sure, Apu is a broad parody of an Indian convenience-store owner, but Homer is an equally broad parody of a second-rate suburban white American father. In the end, everybody's good, everybody's bad and everybody's a bit ridiculous - sort of like real life.

``It makes you reflect and say, `Yeah - that's me too. I've been there,''' says Cherie Kerr, a founding member of the Groundlings, the West Coast comedy troupe that has produced such favorite ``Simpsons'' guest voices as Jon Lovitz and the late Phil Hartman. ``But it's in an animated form, and that makes it less in-your-face.''

Such humor is bound to raise hackles, though, and producers of ``The Simpsons'' have become accustomed to strong reactions; last month's episode of Simpsons-spun Bible stories elicited more.

Early on, Bart annoyed people most; schoolteachers said his ``underachiever and proud of it'' attitude fostered mediocrity and rebelliousness. Now, Homer's bathetic travails dominate the show and he has become a target. U.S. Rep. Joseph Pitts, a conservative Pennsylvania Republican, recently blamed Homer and his ilk for contributing to the decline of fatherhood in America.

``People are really missing the boat on this,'' says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. ``If I had a choice between an 8-year-old watching a literate, artistic, densely packed comedy like the Simpsons or one of these supposedly friendly, family-oriented `TGIF' programs like `Full House,' tell me which is worse.''

``The Simpsons could serve for a kid today what Mad magazine did for me,'' Thompson says. ``It awakened a political consciousness, made me realize I could read something and have an opinion about it - all the useful intellectual tools you get from reading satire.''

Signs seen around Springfield:
  • ''Join the Army - and see the opposing Army!''
  • ''Mt. Swartzwelder Historic Cider Mill: Now 40 percent quainter.''
  • ''Wall E. Weasel's Pizzeria/Arcade: We cram fun down your throat.''

Lisa and Maggie are his sisters, Homer and Marge his parents. He favors sarcasm and cutting repartee, but his mischief is good-natured. He distrusts authority. He seems forever young.

Not Bart. Matt.

Groening, who names characters after relatives (``Life in Hell'' also features his sons, Will and Abe, depicted as rabbits), says he aimed to create a universe where people screw up but must rely upon each other to survive, where ``you can have a great life if you're second best - or in Homer's case, in last place.''

``The characters in `The Simpsons' love their lives, and Homer loves his life more than anyone,'' Groening says on a recent day from the Los Angeles offices of ``Futurama.''

``He follows his passions 100 percent. It gets him into a lot of trouble, but there's a part of us that wishes we had the guts to be like Homer and really savor that doughnut.''

Savoring, whether doughnuts or life, is what Groening's work is about. He still can't believe he's making a living at an activity that people warned would be his downfall.

During high school in the late 1960s and early '70s, the Portland, Ore., native watched as music and film and underground comics flourished. He absorbed popular culture like a sheet of Bounty.

``I'm a perfect age to turn out the way I did,'' Groening says.

After college, he photocopied his own cartoon magazine, ``Life in Hell.''> It became his first success and today is syndicated nationally. He got his world view moving from job to job: record-store clerk, movie extra, chauffeur and dishwasher - ``the standard stuff you do when you're trying to live by your wits and nobody's hiring.''

In 1987, Tracey Ullman enlisted Groening to do a few shorts about a dysfunctional family called the Simpsons for her variety show. Those first tries were rough, angular versions of the rounded-out family we know today.

The humor stuck, and the Simpsons' own show debuted in December 1989 and became a regular series the following month. It succeeded in part because Groening, a media junkie, drew from myriad cultural sources - high, middle and lowbrow - for his humor. Everybody understood something.

``Anything he likes, he's willing to twist into his version,'' says longtime collaborator David X. Cohen, co-executive producer of ``Futurama,'' which debuted last month with a similar sensibility.

``Futurama,'' as absurdist and caustic as ``The Simpsons,'' is more ambitious. Groening and Cohen wanted to create a distinctive future that could accommodate both comedy and science fiction. But how to design it? A happy, cornball Jetsons utopia or a dark, drippy, smelly ``Blade Runner'' landscape?

They compromised.

``We decided it should be a dark, drippy, cartoony, smelly Jetsons utopia,'' Cohen says.

Like much sci-fi, ``Futurama'' deals with other times and places, making sensitive issues seem more oblique than in the Simpsons. As Katey Sagal puts it, ``there is no politically correct in the future.''

Sagal (``Married ... With Children'') voices Leela, the tough-but-sexy alien ship captain in ``Futurama.'' Despite her large and only eye, Leela is a 31st-century woman balancing career and love. Fry (Billy West, who voiced both Ren and Stimpy) is a pizza delivery boy cryogenically frozen for a millennium, coping with a not-so-brave new world. Together with a cast of neo-Springfieldian oddballs, they face life.

Theirs is a cosmos ruled by DOOP (the Democratic Order of Planets), where a wisecracking alcoholic robot lives among humans, the moon is a theme park and New Yorkers commute in pneumatic tubes.

``Futurama'' has its melancholy side, too: Fry walks through what was Manhattan's Rockefeller Center and sees the ancient ruins of his 20th-century world. His face falls.

``There's just this human quality to everybody, this vulnerability,'' Sagal says.

With all the famous voices ``The Simpsons'' has featured, from Paul McCartney to Rod Steiger to Michelle Pfeiffer, Groening anticipates and welcomes celebrity appearances on ``Futurama.'' One catch: This is an era where famous people's brains are kept alive in a disembodied head museum.

In the ``Futurama'' premiere, Leonard Nimoy's voice speaks from his pickled head; he tells of living ``a life of quiet dignity,'' then sucks up some fish food dropped into his tank. The year 3000 version of ``New Year's Rockin' Eve'' appears on TV - with Dick Clark's head as host.

And a couple of craniums down from Richard Nixon's sits a jar containing the face of a bearded, bewildered-looking man. The jar's plaque, visible for only a micromoment, says ``Matt Groening'' - another little reward for those paying attention.

Highlights of Springfield's retail landscape:
  • Guns: ``Bloodbath and Beyond.''
  • Cappuccino: ``Java the Hut.''
  • Drive-thru Mexican: ``TacoMat.''

Prime time today is stuffed with cartoons, from the mordant ``Family Guy'' to the suburb-skewering ``King of the Hill'' to the cubicle-bound nerdfest ``Dilbert.'' And ``The Simpsons'' has helped pave the way.

Matt Groening has managed to blend humor and substance into something rare - a world full of flawed characters easy to care about, each with a specific personality, from Apu to Homer, from Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel to Uter the Germanic exchange student. Dysfunctional, yes, but a community nonetheless.

``You're inviting yourself into someone's home when you do a TV show,'' Groening says. ``For all of 'The Simpsons' darker strains of satire, ultimately it's a celebration of America and the American family in its exuberance and absurdity.''

Not a bad gig for the kid who wanted to stay in the sandbox and make up stories. And now ``Futurama'': Groening's trip to tomorrow, pushing his mind toward fresh frontiers where the next-door neighbors may have two heads and six stomachs, but are just trying to put worms on the table and save enough to send the larvae off to college.

And in Matt Groening's world, where people reach for happiness but usually latch onto something a bit less, what more can anyone really ask?

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Last updated on May 8, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (