Life in the 31st Century
Matt Groening: Past, present, Futurama
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, September 3, 1999

Begin with the signature: not the plump, flowing cursive of Walt Disney or Walt Kelly or Walter Lantz, other great men of cartoons animated and otherwise, but humble print, uppercase and boxy, like a row of half-dilapidated houses or a convention of fullbacks hit once too often. Simple, solid, yet not lacking a certain élan. A name, but also a brand name, a trademark, a logo that stands for the collective, collaborative energy of hundreds. A seal of approval, stamped upon toys and games and trading cards, contractually accompanying the appearance of its owner's famous creations. There it is on the cover of Life, the national magazine, beneath the picture of a familiar yellow boy, with Ping-Pong-ball eyes and a saw-edge haircut, who leans rakishly against a skateboard to illustrate "The Shows That Changed America: 60 Years of Network Television": MATT GROENING. The man who invented The Simpsons.

"Practice your autograph for your impending day of fame," Groening -- whose own handwriting you may now download from the Internet in a bootleg font called "Akbar" -- advised 14 years ago in "So You Want To Be an Unrecognized Genius," a strip from his syndicated comic "Life in Hell." He is now himself well-enough recognized that when, for instance, I mention to my mother that I'm going to talk to Matt Groening, I don't need to explain to her who he is, and indeed she knows already that he has a new show, Futurama, about life at the dawn of the 31st century, soon to premiere. She may even know what he looks like -- he's been appearing in promotional spots for the series, drawing and discussing its characters. ("This is Bender the Robot. Big eyes, square pupils. That's how you can tell he's a robot . . . Don't be like Bender. He's a bad role model. In fact, in general, don't be like any robot. That's my advice.") At the same time, his is not such a household name that everyone knows how to pronounce it. "Matt Groaning," says the guy at the reception desk in the building where he works. Rather, as Matt has sometimes noted, it rhymes with "complaining."

The Fox TV building in West L.A. is a big, boring, flat-featured receptacle, fitted inside with marble surfaces and old-hat po-mo fixings; at once antiseptic and grand, it is not at all the atmosphere one would imagine conducive to the creation of a colorful cartoon world. Even within the Futurama suite, uncluttered and quiet at 6 o'clock on a Thursday night three weeks before the series' scheduled premiere -- this Sunday, March 28, at 8:30 p.m., following The Simpsons -- there are only scattered indications of the business at hand. The word "robot" floats from a conference room. Four different Wired magazine covers featuring characters from the show are framed together -- characters that, in the form of cardboard standups, also line the corridor that leads to Groening's office: Leela, the sexy one-eyed alien girl (voiced by Katey Sagal, of Married ... With Children, and named for Turangalila, an Olivier Messaien symphony); 149-year-old Professor Hubert Farnsworth (after the inventor of television), head of the Planet Express delivery service; the aforementioned Bender; and Fry, the 20th-century pizza boy who, having been accidentally frozen in time-honored sci-fi tradition, wakes up, as Marvel Comics used to put it, "in a world he never made." (His reaction: "Yahoo!") Like their Simpsonic predecessors, all are goggle-eyed, with cantilevered upper lips and weak chins, and have been professionally rendered in a semi-slick translation of what Groening has called "the tragedy of my limited drawing skills."

This modest assessment aside, the man who says hello at the end of the hall -- floppy hair, midsize beard, round spectacles -- looks remarkably like his occasional self-portraits, notwithstanding that he usually draws himself as a rabbit. Except for the style of the spectacles, some gray in the beard, the length of his hair and the cost of the haircut, he's changed little over the 20 or so years since I first met him, back when the world was young, punk rock was new, and the Weekly and its rival, the L.A. Reader -- where Matt worked and "Life in Hell" (now nearly of legal age) first got popular -- were giving a generation of uncredentialed scribblers something close to carte blanche. "I think the people who ran the Reader felt so guilty about how little they were paying people," he recalls, "that they let them write about whatever they wanted." Though he portrays himself in his work as a bit of a grumbler, and though "Life in Hell" has often remarked upon the futility of human endeavor ("We've all heard the hoary old proverb, 'Today is the first day of the rest of your short, brutish existence as a sentient creature before being snuffed out into utter nothingness for all eternity'"), Groening is a cheerful and interested person in person. He's excited by Futurama, engaged by the actual world, fond of Asian food and devoted with an almost adolescent ardency to the more outlandish and ungainly manifestations of pop culture -- the sui generis creations of writers and artists and musicians working not only outside the Establishment, but outside history and taste. "I always thought there should be a magazine called Genius," he says, "to cover all these unrecognized weirdos. I aspire to be a weirdo, but I fail -- I'm too normal.

"Look at this," he says, proffering a thick, full-color guide to Simpsons merchandise. "Completely unauthorized." There are dolls, puzzles, telephones, T-shirts, toothbrush holders, cameras, alarm clocks, pacifiers, Franklin Mint plates, even asthma inhalers. Futurama memorabilia (Futuramana, as it may one day be called) is not under production. "For all this talk of synergy," Groening says somewhat ruefully, "there's no planning for a success. It's bizarre to me -- it's not how I'd run a company. But I went through this exact scenario with The Simpsons. Nobody thought The Simpsons was going to be a big hit. It snuck up on everybody."

The success of The Simpsons, for which series Groening serves as human mascot, executive producer and "creative consultant," was, of course, unreckonable; 10 years on, it cannot be measured merely in the numberless numbers it has caused to be entered in ledgers the globe over. The show's influence is massive and historic; in a small but pervasive way, it has altered and infected the world. Some of you may not remember a time when it did not exist. (In the Futurama future, it will still be running.) "Part of the reason for doing the new show," says Groening, "is to see, was The Simpsons a fluke or could we pull it off again?" Meanwhile, with Futurama's first episode still being tweaked toward completion, "I don't get to hang around The Simpsons as much, so the show is more of a surprise than ever. I was there today and said, 'What are you guys working on?' They said, 'It's something called 'Bart the Leper.' And I quickly read it to make sure that wasn't what it was."

Before there was Bender, there was Bart, and before there was Bart there were Binky and Bongo, the father-and-son rabbit stars of "Life in Hell" -- all of them (save Binky, who usually represents existential dread) constitutionally recalcitrant. Rebels. Naysayers. Abstractions of the man who created them. Their common watchword: Do not go gentle into that . . . anywhere.

Groening, who was born in 1955 and grew up in the woods near Portland, Oregon, the third of five children, is proudly a product of his era (though he managed to miss the drugs). "The best time in the history of high school was 1968 to 1972. When I started, there was still a dress code; most of the kids had short hair. By the end of 1968 it had just exploded -- there were antiwar demonstrations, there were jocks in shop class making clubs to beat the hippies in case they came up to the school. It was great." If he learned anything during his educational indentures, it was to question authority. As demonstrated in his comic strip and television show, his recall of the lies, threats, platitudes and simple brute force with which parents, teachers and other avatars of The Man assail the defenseless young, is nearly total. ("They won't get me," Bongo says to Binky. "I will not be dormant, I will not be docile, I will not give in, I will not be buried alive." Though frequently he will be bound and gagged.)

Groening's own late father was also a cartoonist and filmmaker. "Most of the films were about water. Surfing or skiing. Fishing movies." One exception, from 1963, was a "glorified home movie" called The Story, in which Matt and his sister Lisa met various animals on a walk in the woods. "It actually showed in downtown Portland at the Broadway Theater, with the movie Charade. So I saw myself on the big screen when I was 9 years old. It was pretty awesome. And as a result, I had the idea that you could make your living being creative -- although my father, who did, said you couldn't. When I went to Evergreen [State College, in Washington] my mother said, 'Matt, you're just throwing your life away. My advice to you is drop out, enroll in a community college, learn a skill that you can fall back on -- like running a lathe, for instance.' Interestingly enough, many years later she said, 'It's so great you did exactly what we told you to do. Look how things turned out.' I said, 'You told me to learn how to run a lathe.' 'No, no, we'd never do that. You've alwaysbeen clumsy. Why would we tell you to do something that would cause you to chop your hands off?' So she got in the thing about me being clumsy."

At Evergreen, "a hippie college, with no grades or required classes, that drew every creative weirdo in the Northwest," he wrote short stories, studied philosophy, edited the school paper and cartooned alongside also-later-famous classmates Lynda Barry and Charles Burns. "Lynda was good and Charles was good. I had self-esteem problems." In 1977, age 23, with "one eye on Hollywood," he headed south. "One of the things I loved about Los Angeles," he says, "as opposed to Oregon, was that in Oregon when you asked somebody what they did for a living, they would define themselves by their occupation: 'Well, I wait on tables.' But in Los Angeles people defined themselves by what they wished they were doing. And as somebody who wished he was doing something other than working in a record store, I found that refreshing. I was working at Licorice Pizza up on Sunset Boulevard, near the Whisky a Go Go, and it was during the whole punk thing, so I used to sell 'Life in Hell,' which I'd been doing as a Xeroxed comic, with all the punk zines in the book corner." He peddled himself to the town's new alternative papers as well, and was hired by the Reader -- to deliver papers.

"Life in Hell" eventually made it into the paper, and from the paper into the wide world. "[Artist] Gary Panter and I used to walk down the street in the old days," Groening recalls, "and we'd get excited if we saw one of our strips in the gutter. The high point was when I got on the bus one day, and somebody had done Binky the Rabbit graffiti in the back. And that just blew my mind. It was Binky crucified, which I didn't like very much, but it was still Binky. It may have been the Trix rabbit, actually. But I like to think it was Binky."

Groening had also begun writing Sound Mix, which was supposed to be a music-scene gossip column. "But I didn't know any gossip," he says, "and I couldn't make myself learn any." And so he turned the space to his own different ends, chronicling his various enthusiasms, obsessions, pet peeves and problems. It was spectacularly concerned with the truth. Some of it had to do with music; most of it did not. While "Life in Hell" certainly had its autobiographical moments ("Lies My Older Brother and Sister Told Me," "Lies I Told My Younger Sisters"), Sound Mix was almost all Matt, almost all the time, without the mediation of cartoon rabbits. He wrote about his family and his childhood, as in "Tales of the Beaver Patrol: My Life in the Boy Scouts." He reported his ongoing war with his noisy neighbors. He made lists of things he liked (Perez Prado, The American Thesaurus of Slang, various underground comics, William Gaddis' Carpenter's Gothic, the word defenestration), which might suddenly turn into lists of things he hated: "Style. Both the word and the concept. And the word yuppie. Also what I'm getting paid to write this. Also this bad cold I have. I hate everything. Yet I love everything." Some columns he filled with things he found on the street or in the trash: discarded school assignments, teenage mash notes, handbills of the insane -- little bits of real, mad city life. And, as with The Simpsons' signature swipes at Fox, he did not hesitate to bite the hand that fed him. "If you took all the Reader employees who have left in the last six months," he wrote, naming 28 of them, from its editor in chief down to the typesetter, "and laid them end to end, they'd reach from the Reader's front door clear to the organic cucumber bin in the health-food market across the street." Finally, he was asked to give up the "music" column and perhaps write a humor column under a different title. "What an ugly word," he wrote in his last appearance there. "Humor."

What work Groening does not do in the offices of Futurama or The Simpsons gets done in a little low building about five minutes away. "This is my fantasy clubhouse," he says unlocking the door and disarming the alarm. It seems not so much a clubhouse as a several-chambered walk-in closet, half of it meticulously ordered, half of it an undealt-with jumble. One room is full of videotapes, neatly labeled by Matt (in a hand that looks nothing like Akbar), part of a project to school himself in the history of film. (He also attempted, a few years back, to read the classics of 20th-century literature in chronological order.) Shelves in another room hold hundreds of compact discs; film canisters containing his father's films tower crookedly on a table. The originals of "Life in Hell" are neatly laid in portfolios kept in a safe, while boxes overflowing with pages upon pages of the found writing he used to reprint in Sound Mix line the hall -- an archive of ephemera, of effluvia, of which Matt has made himself custodian. "I was going to do a book with this stuff," he says, "but I never got around to it."

This is where he draws "Life in Hell" and where, at a small conference table before a marker board still covered with sketches and notes, Groening and executive producer and Simpsons vet David Cohen developed Futurama. Bookshelves hold a sizable library of paperbacks assembled for research and inspiration. "We would throw out ideas from the history of science fiction -- not necessarily good science fiction. We talked about various things we wanted to see. I had one specific notion in which our hero, Fry, had to deliver a package to a very hot planet, and after running across the hot-planet desert and up the palace stairs and down the long red carpet to the throne, there was nothing but a soft-drink bottle on the throne. And when he drinks it, he ends up having drunk the emperor." This will be seen in an episode entitled "My Three Suns."

Science fiction and cartoons, forms in which anything might happen and which operate by exaggeration, are both ideally suited to satire and so perfectly wed in Futurama. Stories of the future are, of course, always really about the present, and in the brave new world according to Groening ("a corporate, commercial confusing world," he told Wired, "where the military is just as stupid as it is currently") there will be addictive soft drinks, coin-operated prostitutes, suicide booths ("Please select mode of death: quick and painless or slow and horrible") and, in order to allow guest appearances by contemporary celebrities -- including Pamela Anderson, Leonard Nimoy, the Beastie Boys and, seen in passing, Groening himself -- a museum of disembodied living heads. Was it satisfying to create a distant future into which he personally survives? "Yeah," he replies. "Obviously. I don't know about being a head in a jar. As Leonard Nimoy says in the first episode, 'We try to lead lives of quiet dignity, offering our wisdom to those who seek it.' But then he gets fed like a goldfish in a bowl."

As to his proximate, pre-jar, wholly embodied future, Groening will continue on his fortunate path, converting play into a livelihood, giving life to anxious, haunted buck-toothed rabbits, to the bright-yellow but otherwise dim citizenry of Springfield, to cyclopic alien babes and shoplifting, beer-drinking robots -- creating new worlds to illuminate ours, working late, having fun, making cartoons.

"Playing in the sandbox with my kids," he says, "I had this kind of doomed sensation that that was what I'd be doing for the rest of my life -- when these kids had grown up and become doctors and lawyers, I'd still want to be making up stories in the sandbox. Over the years I saw various friends peel off and buckle down, and actually do pre-med and the rest of that stuff. And I'm going, 'What about over here, with the cartoons?'"

© Robert Lloyd 1999 and 2011