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Life in the 31st Century 

Matt Groening: Past, present, Futurama

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
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"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.

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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 always been 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." â

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