Matt GroeningBy John W. Kim
"Keep 'em Laughing"
It is almost impossible to imagine television today without The Simpsons -- Matt Groening's brainchild and the longest running animated prime-time series on TV.
However, the beginning of the hit series -- and Groening's career -- was less than certain. Now in its 10th season, the program, which begain as a series of 30-second shorts, or "bumpers," for Gracie Films' successful The Tracey Ullman Show, was considered a high-risk proposition for an upstart cable channel desperate for programming. Today, Groening and Futurama co-developer and former Simpsons staff member, David X. Cohen, now sepervise two prime-time series -- an unprecedented feat in network annals.
From high school class president in Portland, Oregon, to his years at Evergreen State College, Groening has always taken the path less traveled. But the beginning of Groening's own journey to Hollywood was inauspicious, With little or no knowledge of the inner working sof the television industry, Groening moved to Los Angeles, only to meet with a series of disheartening adventures that gave birth to his long-running comic strip "Life in Hell."
"I came to Los Angeles in 1977 to break into Hollywood," says Groening, "and I had no idea or way to do it. So I looked in the Los Angeles Times classifieds under 'Writer,' and there was one listing, It said, 'Wanted: Writer-Chauffeur.'
"It was an old director who needed someone to drive him around and help him with his manuscript," says Groening. Although Groening discovered he was one in a long line of former "writer-chauffeurs, the job did offer him insight into the marginal workings of Hollywood, but it was not necessarily the glimpse he was looking for. "Unortunately, he was losing his mind," remembers Groening. "I'd drive him through Beverly Hills, and we'd see a house, and he'd say 'Oh, there's Cary Grant's house. Boy, the parties we'd have,' and then he'd reminisce and drift off into a story. Then the next day, we'd be driving by the same house, and he'd say, 'Oh, there's Laurel and Hardy's house. Boy, the parties we'd have.'"
After a brief stint delivering newspapers for the alternative weekly paper The Los Angeles Reader, Groening was eventually hired by the paper as a music critic. "Eventually I was moved up to writing, where I allegedly wrote about rock-and-roll. That's where I started writing Life in Hell," says Groening. "It was on the back pages for a while. Then, after the Reader fired me, we went to the Weekly." Groening continued working on the strip, now synicated in more than 250 papers until producer Polly Platt, working with James L. Brooks at Gracie Films, noticed the comic and suggested to Brooks that the cartoonist might contribute to The Tracey Ullman Show.
Unaware of the television process, Groening, in a now-legendary tale, admits that he created much of the show in the lobby of Brooks' office while waiting for his first meeting, using the names of family members for the characters and employing Homer, named after his own father, at a nuclear power plant.
Bumps in the road to production included the fact that Groening did not consider himself an animator but rather "a writer who draws." In the beginning, he says, "I was drawing very quickly, on oversized storyboards, and the animators were just tracing them. I thought, 'You know, it's kind of Thurberesque.' But after I saw the first episodes, I realized we'd have to work harder to define exactly what we wanted. Also, it was very low-budget. After two seasons, we got more support." After producing 50 of the shorts over three years, Groening was approached by the fledgling Fox network about a prime-time series.
"We decided to hold out for 13 episodes," says Groening, who knew that the high number of episodes ordered -- for an unknown quantity -- was uncommon. "It goes against everything that networks want. It's the usual pattern with networks. There's an initial burst of enthusiasm, followed by fear, anxiety and panic."
Groening's inspiration to create a show came from such classic television animators as Jay Ward. "When I saw Rocky and Bullwinkle I realized that you didn't necessarily have to be a great cartoonist or artist to make a great cartoon," says Groening. "All you needed was great writing."
Despite initial worries, the first episode was produced and aired in 1989, with regular series episodes airing in 1990. The show quickly became a surprise hit, with catch phrases such as "cowabunga" and "Don't have a cow" quickly working their way into the popular lexicon. As a result of Bart Simpson's charismatic lawlessness and the show's popularity, The Simpsons also gave birth to a great deal of controversy among parenting groups and censors.
Much of this was blunted by Groening's argument that The Simpsons, being a prime-time show, was not actually directed at children. "We argued that since it was in prime time, we couldn't possibly be aiming these jokes at kids," says Groening.
The process of writing for the series was, as it remains today, gruelling. "We literally write in a padded room," says David X. Cohen, of the former sound chamber that makes up the writing staff's dorm-style quarters. Cohen, who broke in by writing several early Beavis and Butt-head episodes, eventually became a producer of The Simpsons and joined Groening two years ago as the developer of the Futurama series. Though there may be one or two names credited on any given episode, there are a number of staffers who work on both series at any give time. "The Simpsons and Futurama are both collaborative efforts," says Groening. "I'm the spokesmodel for them."
The intensive work-load, plus the high standards for both shows, creates a need for a large writing staff. "There are a lot of great writers who make those shows work," says Groening. "There are 17 writers, working with David X. Cohen. It's a collective process of very hard-working people. I'm not in both places at once. I'm not even in one place. I have kids. I go home before anyone else." Storylines are often developed as a group, then are written and rewritten in a kind of tag-team atmosphere. As a result, says Cohen, it is not uncommon to have only three remaining lines from a first draft by broadcast time.
"The Simpsons is extremely unique from the writing standpoint in that it's completely independent of the studios or the networks," says Cohen. "It was one of the conditions that Jim Brooks demanded from the beginning."
Along with that independence, however, comes the very real burden of quality control within the writing and producing staff. "It's a very arduous process," says Cohen. "It's not so much writing as rewriting. Everything, from working out the story to the jokes, is a group effort. We regularly spend more than a week in the rewrite room," where as many as seven or eight writers congregate at any time.
"Picture 10 roommates who live in the same room," says Cohen. "It does actually have padded walls, which is useful because, considering the hours we work, we actually may go crazy at any time. It's like an extremely cluttered dorm room."
Cohen's own path to The Simpsons and Futurama was as inauspicious as Groening's in its own way. "I had worked on the Harvard Lampoon when I was an undergraduate, never thinking that this would be some sort of career," says Cohen. "I had studied physics and them went on to Berkley, where I got my master's in computer science, and just sat around for a year in my nice, rent-controlled apartment and wrote."
From that point, Cohen submitted material to several outlets through people he knew working in the industry, including pages sent to the David Letterman show that eventually found their way to Mike Judge, who was beginning the Beavis and Butt-head series. Despite never having seen the program ("I didn't have cable," he says sheepishly), Cohen quickly put together several scripts, and ended up writing some of the earliest episodes. From there, Cohen submitted Seinfeld and Simpsons specs to The Simpsons, because he knew the executive producer, David Mirkin, through a friend.
After writing or co-writing 12 episodes between 1992 and 1998, and working as a producer, Cohen, the staff's acknowledged "science geek," was approached by Groening about a new, science fiction series he was thinking about.
"Matt came to me about Futurama," says Cohen. "We really spent a lot of time talking about what the series might be like, such as the history of the future we wanted to create, and our favorite sci-fi books we wanted to steal from. And what developed from those conversations became the basis for the series."
Despite Groening's success with The Simpsons, Futurama's beginning was not smooth. An initial meeting with upbeat network representatives soon turned into a series of downbeat memos and skepticism about the new show. "Our first meeting was our last good meeting," remembers Groening. As a result, the program was underfunded and understaffed, creating additional pressures on the skeletal writing staff. "The beginning was extremely difficult," says Cohen. "I was an inch from losing my mind. We were working seven days a week and all our waking hours on the two series."
Compounding the problems were additional concerns about their traditional Simpsons fan base. "The difficulty was to make Simpsons fans comfortable, yet create something unique," says Cohen. "Because we knew that we weren't going to have something familiar to viewers, like the family in the first series, we decided to put some people in the intermediate age, such as Fry, our traveler. The thinking was that by having characters in their 20s, we were going to be able to pursue some more romantic stories, as well as more introspective stories about the fates of our characters and their own concerns about their futures. And of course we had Matt's drawings, and the knowledge that all the characters were going to be coming from his pen, so that helped as well."
The setting of the new series was purposefully set as far as possible in the future by Groening and Cohen, as if to skip over the many previous generations of science fiction that had been produced. "I had reread a lot of classic science fiction that I had loved over the years," says Groening. "And a lot of it was actually pretty old. I mean, there were some books that were set in 1994, and they got almost everything wrong. We figured that a thousand years in the future was a comfortable enough period of time where we'd have some leeway in terms of what we created for the show."
The vast possibilities were tempered by the fact that the creators also had to fill the spaces in between events and characters, in many instances literally creating landscapes from scratch. "It's getting easier now, but initially it was extremely hard," says Cohen. "'What are the rules of this universe?' is a constantly recurring question for Matt and myself and the staff."
The leap of faith that Groening and Cohen asked of themselves and the audience also had limits. "It was important to us that you have a level of realism that you stick somewhere near to," says Cohen. "Even in The Simpsons we don't pull any gross violations of the laws of physics, so working in the future, we decided early that we had to place some kinds of limits to it. In the end, Matt and I agreed that we could put the characters in any crazy situations, but that they had to respond in real, human ways. We had to have sympathy for these people and their predicaments. That was a lot of the challenge, ultimately -- to try to make it real, regardless of the fantastic situations, and that gives both series a lot of grounding."
Groening credits everything from George Orwell's 1984 to the Star Wars and Star Trek series as his inspirations for Futurama. Unlike many of those futures, however, Groening and his staff take pains to create sturdy flaws in every scenario in a world where "everything is under construction," such as the robot Bender, which Groening calls "a kind of robotic Homer Simpson. He thrives on things that harm humans. He actually gets energy from smoking cigars and drinking beer." Groening notes happily that Bender also helps with censorship problems because "he's a robot. He can't be a bad role model for kids."
Again, as with the beginning of The Simpsons, budget restrictions force the writers to work overtime on the new series. "The people who work on Futurama basically don't have lives," says Groening. "When we started, we were very understaffed." Compounding the problem is that animation writing can actually be more dense than alive-action sitcoms. "Animation is a very painful process," he says. "There are more jokes on the page, but there are no laugh tracks. I think it's more difficult, in a way, than live-action."
"The Simpsons is a much more well-oiled machine now," says Cohen. "Matt will wander in and out of the writing room when he has the time. He basically has his foot in every bucket. With Futurama, it's more a matter of desperation than anything else, because we're always so short of time. On the rare occasion that we finish early we will talk about future shows and ideas, but usually it's a race just to meet the current deadline."
Work begins with assignments to staff writers. "What we'll do is get together with that writer on a weekend day over lunch and pitch ideas, so that we have something to build on before we come into the office on Monday," says Cohen. "We try not to have writers do too much work early, because like The Simpsons, it's very much a collaberative process, and we're still shaping it."
In terms of spec scripts and breaking in, Cohen advises, "First, don't be thinking animation sprecifically. I never think, 'Oh, this person's a good animated writer.' Within the industry there's no intent to look specifically for animation writers. I know that, with some series, like King of the Hill, they specifically avoid that, because they want their show to have as much a feel of live action as anything.
Legal and creative considerations also discourage producers of most shows from accepting specs based on their own series. Groening, while acknowleding the many faux Simpsons specs that float regularly on the Internet, also acknowledges that he's legally unable to look at any of them. Most producers agree that submissions from other current sitcoms are a new writer's best bet.
"At The Simpsons and Futurama, the spec scripts we look at, for the most part, are of any of the top sitcoms," says Cohen. "If you're writing a spec, put a lot more work into the spec script than you think you should. If you think of the work and the number of man-hours that goes into our shows, it's actually many months. Also, it's almost impossible for one person to get the pace that our staff puts together in that concentrated period of time. So don't be afraid to throw stuff out, and keep punching things up repeatedly."
Finally, says Cohen, "Don't think that, just because it's animated, you have leeway to make a string of crazy things happen. Really try to build a solid story as your basis. If you really look at our shows, it's almost always within a strong 'A' storyline. So keep your writing and the story organized. In terms of submissions, we try to take only from agents, but I believe there is some kind of legal process where you can sign a waiver to get meterial looked at."
As for writers interested in creating their own series, Groening counsels newcomers to "get a cartoonist on board. Have both parts ready. The look of your characters will have an effect on the writing."
Groening continues to write the popular "Life in Hell" series for alternative newspapers across the country, and despite the long hours, he appreciates the chance to work on both series. "The dark side of that is spinning my wheels for years and years with no outlet," says Groening, who continues to supervise a series of comic magazines through his Bongo Comics Group. He has also recently spoken of a new series, based loosely on Groening's own rock-and-roll experiences, which he hopes to develop in the future.
As for the commercial succes of the shows, Groening, who knew he "had really made it" when he received free appetizers at a popular Los Angeles restaurant, says the only real signs of his success are that the stack of comic book, CDs and knickknacks are a lot deeper at his home. As for his mainstream network success, Groening admits, "I feel incredibly lucky. Once you make the first leap, there is so much support to make you look good. But if you're not interested in working with people, this is not the business for you."
Transcribed by Bruce Gomes and Jordan Eisenberg
Last updated on October 29, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)