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Life in the 31st Century 

Matt Groening: Past, present, Futurama

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
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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."

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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."

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