Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Albany Daily News. Posted by Ryan Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Ryan Frost
Creator of The Simpsons, Futurama, Life in Hell, and Disenchantment
Currently Known For:
Cartoonist, Writer, Producer, Animator, and Voice Actor
1970s - Present
February 15, 1954
Creator of The Simpsons, Futurama, Life in Hell, and Disenchantment
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“I grew up completely overwhelmed by TV, and part of the reason why I have gone into television is as a way to justify to myself all those wasted hours of watching TV as a kid. I can now look back and say, ‘Oh, that was research.’” Matt Groening is a cartoonist, writer, producer, animator, and voice actor who first launched his career in the late 1970s with the comic strip, Life in Hell. A decade into his stint writing the comic, Groening ventured into television with his first series, The Simpsons, which premiered in 1989 and is now the longest-running primetime television series, animated series, and sitcom in American television history. With the success of The Simpsons, Groening extended his reach with a second successful series, Futurama, which ran from 1999 to 2003 and again from 2008 to 2013. Most recently, he’s announced his third series, Disenchantment, which will debut in 2018 and undeniably add to his growing list of accolades including 10 Primetime Emmy Awards for The Simpsons and two for Futurama. But, how exactly did the Oregon native get his start in the cartoon world? We thought you’d never ask!
The Makings of a Cartoonist
“I thought I was going to make crazy cartoons for the rest of my life. I didn’t think I’d ever get paid for it, didn’t think I drew well enough, but I knew it made me happy.” The third of five children, Matthew Abraham Groening came into this world on February 15, 1954 in Portland, Oregon where his mother, Margaret, was a teacher and his father, Homer, was a cartoonist, filmmaker, writer, and advertiser. Groening’s family—from his parents to his younger sisters, Lisa and Maggie—would later inspire his work on The Simpsons. However, before he ever dreamed of becoming a published cartoonist, Groening grew up in a suburb of Portland and attended Ainsworth Elementary School and Lincoln High School. Then, after graduating high school in 1972, he enrolled at The Evergreen State College, a liberal arts college that Groening fondly describes as “a hippie college with no grades or required classes that drew every weirdo in the Northwest.”
Because of the college’s laid-back atmosphere, Groening was free to pursue his interests in the arts and started working on the campus newspaper, The Cooper Point Journal. Eventually promoted to editor, he also wrote articles and drew cartoons. “I always had this fantasy that the cartoons in my head would be liked by other people,” Groening said. “At the same time, I was this underground cartoonist whose career thus far offered absolutely no clues that anything like that was going to happen.”
Continuing to hone his talents as a cartoonist in college and even befriending cartoonist Lynda Barry who encouraged him to pursue his interests even further, Groening graduated and moved south to pursue his dreams of becoming a Hollywood writer. He settled down in Los Angeles and tried to find work in the industry but, like many aspiring artists, he struggled to gain footing in the industry and took a handful of odd jobs as a restaurant busser, record store clerk, dishwasher, chauffer, and landscaper to pay the bills.
Groening hated his life in Los Angeles so much that he started writing about his experience in a comic titled Life in Hell. While working at the record store, Licorice Pizza, Groening handed out copies of the book to customers. “Looking back, I think I had completely unjustified self-confidence,” Groening admitted. “It might not have worked out, of course. And I didn’t necessarily think it would. I certainly didn’t think it would be my ticket to stardom, or anything like that. But I did feel this is what I have to do. I may not make any money at it—in fact, I very likely won’t. I just had this conviction that I had to carry on doing it and see what happened.”
Catching His First Major Break – The Path to The Simpsons
In 1978, Groening made his first sale on a cartoon strip he wrote called “Forbidden Words” to Wet magazine. Shortly after, he was hired at the Los Angeles Reader where he answered phones, delivered newspapers, and did various typesetting and editing tasks. More importantly, he was in the same room as the editor and took a huge leap of faith by showing him Life in Hell. Editor James Vowell was impressed by Groening’s comic book and gave him a spot in the paper where Life in Hell made its debut in April 1980 and spent decades in print until its final strip was published in 2012.
Amid his growing success at the Los Angeles Reader, Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip caught the attention of Hollywood producer, director, and writer James L. Brooks who was interested in hiring Groening to create animations on several upcoming projects. Groening was first hired to develop a series of short animated skits or “bumpers” for Fox’s hit variety series, The Tracey Ullman Show. Originally, Brooks asked Groening to adapt his Life in Hell characters for the series, but Groening came up with a new idea shortly before his first pitch. In fact, Groening was waiting in the lobby when he read a magazine article about the three most iconic images of the 20th century—the CBS logo, Hitler’s mustache, and Mickey Mouse. The article set Groening’s head spinning as he walked into the meeting with an entirely new idea about a dysfunctional family… The Simpsons was born.
“When I came up with The Simpsons, that was a very deliberate attempt to follow in the footsteps of Walt Disney. For instance, I made Bart like Mickey Mouse in the sense that he would always be recognizable in silhouette,” Groening said. “It was the same thing with the yellow skin. That wasn’t my idea—one of the early animators did it. At first, I didn’t like the idea, but then it occurred to me that if anyone happened to be idly watching the television and they caught a glimpse of this very distinctive yellow, they’d know exactly what they were looking it.”
The Simpsons debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show in April 1989 and, although the Ullman show wasn’t a huge hit, The Simpsons found a broad audience as Groening made his characters as realistic as possible in terms of their feelings and situations. “Yes, crazy things could happen to the characters, but they had to react in the same way that a person would react in such a situation,” Groening said. “When they hurt themselves, they really feel pain. This was my golden rule.”
Groening’s golden rule and his determination to give audiences something other than “the mainstream trash” that was already on television made The Simpsons a huge hit and led to its first half-hour spinoff in December 1989. From there, the show became an international phenomenon that’s still on the air today as the longest running primetime animated series and sitcom in American history.
Life Beyond The Simpsons
Amid his incredible success on The Simpsons and his 10 Primetime Emmy Awards for the series, Groening extended his reach in the industry with the launch of a new series, Futurama, which he co-wrote alongside Simpsons writer and producer David X. Cohen. Although Futurama was written in most of its entirety by 1997, Groening and Cohen spent the next two years trying to convince the network to pick up the series. In March 1999, Futurama premiered and spent the next four years on the air before it was canceled. However, the series had already picked up a cult following and generated enough ratings on Adult Swim that Futurama was brought back to life on Comedy Central in four DVD films—Bender’s Big Score, The Beast with a Billion Backs, Bender’s Game, and Into the Wild Green Yonder. Following the final film, Comedy Central bought an additional 26 episodes and aired the final three seasons from 2010 to 2013.
Groening’s involvement in the cartoon industry didn’t stop at popular series like The Simpsons and Futurama. In 1994, he formed Bongo Comics, which publishes comic books based on the two popular series. The following year, he launched Zongo Comics to attract more mature readers with comics like Fleener by Mary Fleener and Jimbo by Gary Panter. So, what else does the talented cartoonist do?
Most recently, Groening is working on two seasons of his Netflix animated series, Disenchantment, and spends the rest of his time lending his talents to his main focus, The Simpsons. “I work on it full time,” he says of his role as executive producer and creative consultant. “What’s great about being in my position is I get to show up whenever I want to and sit in, mostly with the writers, and just pitch jokes along with the rest of them.” Of course, with The Simpsons now in its 29th season, Groening is a vital part of making sure the show remains relevant and avoids repetition.
“We always try to surprise ourselves and then hope we surprise the audience,” he says. “After doing so many episodes, those surprises become harder to think up. I’m very proud of some of the places the show has gone in recent years, including giving the couch-gag spot to outside animators like Banksy, Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt, and this year’s Oscar winner for best director, Guillermo del Toro. As for repetition, now we have writers on the show who grew up with the show. What’s great is they have the history memorized. They’ll say, ‘You did that in Episode 178.’”
In April 2018, Groening found himself and The Simpsons in the spotlight for a different reason when comedian Hari Kondabolu suggested that The Simpsons’ character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a convenience store owner voiced by Hank Azaria with a thick Indian accent, was racist. Kondabolu’s documentary, The Problem with Apu, made media headlines but Groening remained loyal to the series remarking, “I’m proud of what we do on the show and I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” In response, Groening and the show’s writers addressed the issue in an episode where Lisa told her mother, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Marge responded, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” as Lisa added, “If at all.”
Personal Life: Relationships and Groening’s Next Projects
Groening’s incredible success on The Simpsons and Futurama have earned him over $500 million including an $11.7 million estate in Santa Monica, California that he shares with his second wife, Argentine artist Agustina Picasso. Groening first married Deborah Caplan in 1986 and welcomed sons Homer and Abe into the world over the next 13 years before filing for divorce in 1999. Shortly after, he met and fell in love with Picasso and, after four years, married in 2011 and became a stepfather to her daughter, Camila Costantini. In 2013, Groening and Picasso welcomed their son, Nathanial Philip Picasso Groening, into the world.
Continuing to use his family life for inspiration in The Simpsons even today after nearly three decades, the 64-year-old Groening is content with where life and his popular series have taken him, which is exactly why he has no plans to wrap up the show anytime soon. In fact, there’s quite a few things left he’d like to accomplish. “We need our own full theme park. We’ve got some rides and a Krusty Burger at Universal parks, but we need a 600-foot-tall statue of Homer at the center of the theme park and you eat dinner at his head,” he says. “As for the series, I really don’t see any end in sight. It’s always possible, but I live in denial of death, much less the cancellation of The Simpsons.” So do we, Matt, so do we!