Cartoon from Hell
Is television ready for Matt Groening's squabbling Simpsons?

American Film October 1989.
By Robert Lloyd.

"When I was a child," says Matt Groening, "I knew that I wanted to do what I was doing for the rest of my life. I wanted to play." So far, so good.
     It's not every young man who is paid to spend his days drawing cartoon rabbits, as Groening has done for nearly a decade in his "Life in Hell" comic strip, an exorcism-of-personal-demons/airing-of-pet-peeves syndicated weekly to 150 alternative and college newspapers. It's not every young man who winds up the captain (more or less) of his own TV show, peopled by characters of his own devising whose very goggle eyes and cantilevered overbites owe their shapes to his godlike pen. To wit: The Simpsons. Spinning off this fall from The Tracey Ullman Show to its own Fox Network sitcom, this is the first animated series since the retirement of Jay "Bullwinkle" Ward that can honestly be called adult, even if its perpetually squabbling, id-enslaved characters can't.
     Imagine this: a theme park patterned on your own brain, a fun factory whose sole charge is to bring to cartoon life the stuff you make up. Wouldn't you feel like you'd hit some sort of career jackpot? Wouldn't you be stoked. Especially if you'd weathered years of advice from Authority Figures who insisted you were not only on the wrong track, but running down it in the wrong direction. Cartooning's all right, Matt, but you'll never make a living at it. "I feel lucky," he says.
     Call it Simpsonland, a series of zillion-laffs psychic-chill rides that relate the adventures of a television family Groening describes as "good-hearted, but at the mercy of their extremely volatile emotions -- rage, self-pity, disdain." The whole second floor of Klasky-Csupo -- an animation firm now occupying rooms where, in olden times, Bob Clampett made Beany and Cecil -- has been given over to this project. There are Simpsons, Simpsons everywhere -- model charts for the "Maggie Suck-Cycle," for the "Bart Head Turnaround" and "Lisa Hands and Feet," giant stand-up figures of parental Simpsons Homer and Marge. They strike poses faithfully rendered in the Groening style -- a style that owes much to his artistic limitations, but which has now been validated by the fact that there are more than three dozens artists ("all of whom can draw better than I can") hard at work aping it.
     Groening, on the thin side of burly, bearded, with a mop of straight brown hair flopping down across his forehead and wearing a tropical-print shirt (the "What's Happening" line from Bali), ranges through the building, discussing new character design, checking layouts -- Bart thrown in a trash can and rolled down the street, Marge drunk,  Homer's vision of the Simpsons in Hell. "Excellent," he mostly says. "Great."
    "I decided that success in Hollywood is predicated on the ability to be charming in a small room with several people for months at a time," says Groening (noting that, by contrast, most families don't feel that need -- for years at a time) and names as full creative partners the animators, the voice actors and the co-developers, Sam Simon and James L. Brooks.
     Still, he's the First Principle here -- Homer digs mambo because Matt does, and the Simpsons are named for members of Groening's own family, the exception being Bart ("an anagram of 'brat,'" one animator tells me), who occupies the same familial position as his creator. But though both Groenings and Simpsons display the "liveliness of families who speak their minds," there are important differences: "The goal in the Groening family was to say the wittiest thing at the dinner table; the goal of the Simpsons is to get through dinner without exploding with rage and leaping across the table at your adversary."
     Yet, underneath all the mayhem,The Simpsons is less a show about family friction than about interdependence and (gulp) love, and Groening's optimistic enough about the whole business to have started a family of his own. His son, Homer -- named for Matt's father, not for Homer Simpson -- was born last March. "I know I'm going to screw up as a parent," says Groening. "I just don't know how. I'm fatalistic about that. But I'm going to do my best to make sure my kid has a good time in life."
     He'll have toys to play with, anyway. Forty licenses on the Simpsons have already been granted -- would it truly be Simpsonland with souvenirs? Merchandise -- it's the ultimate seal on this creation. There will be bendable dolls, beach towels, bed sheets, "crappy little games where they just stick a decal on the toy and sell it as the Simpsons. I said to the merchandise people, "Oh boy, I'll have one of everything.' They said, 'If you have one of everything, you'll have a house full of stuff.' And I thought that'd really be cool, to invite people over and say, 'Well, what shall we talk about?'"