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Life in the 31st Century 

Matt Groening: Past, present, Futurama

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
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Photo by Anne FishbeinBEGIN 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." (Find it on this paper's Letters page.) 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.

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