Move to Los Angeles.
Let your jaw wobble in amazement.
Gasp for air. Rub your eyes.
Catch your breath. Check your wallet.
Curse your fate . . .
“How to Write a Weekly Music Column,”
Los Angeles Reader, 1985
In his 30 Los Angeles years, Matt Groening has never been busier than he’s been over the past few months: The Simpsons recently broadcast its 400th episode and shows no signs of slowing down. Futurama’s back in production (although not necessarily for prime time). He’s got a new book out, an empire to oversee, his Life in Hell deadline each week, two teenage sons and, of course, The Simpsons Movie.
It takes us two months of scheduling, but eventually Groening and I arrive at his beach house, at sunset. I’ve been here once before, for late-night pizza and beer with six or seven others after a mutual friend’s art opening. This familiarity saves us a good 10 minutes of precious interview time — 10 minutes I’d otherwise have to spend jaw-dropping and eye-popping; it’s that kind of a house. Huge, but not ostentatious; just big and friendly, with high ceilings, good light, good art and beverages. We grab a few beers and head out back, along the stepping stones and past the pool to a pair of immense sliding walls. Groening opens one, I open the other, and we’re left standing on sand about 40 feet from the Pacific, with nothing between us and the water, and nothing between the water and the sky.
We stand there below the steps — two broad slabs of rough-hewn timber embedded in the sand, separating home from beachfront. We sip our beers. We say “Oh, man” and sigh several times.
Groening considers a nearby melon-size boulder.
“This rock has moved,” he says. “A few days ago, it was over here. The ocean is powerful.” I point out a set of seagull prints that lead directly to the rock. He nods.
Groening’s concerned about my recording device’s ability to distinguish our voices from the crash of extremely nearby waves.
“Want to sit in the kitchen?” he asks.
“Sure. But can we wait until . . . ?”
“Yeah. Let’s wait until the sun goes down a little bit more.”
We settle in on the steps and I notice, between us, a pair of mangled, lens-free black plastic sunglasses.
“These yours?” I ask, picking them up, examining, mumbling, “probably not,” and putting them down again, albeit not in the same place.
“Wait!” Groening tries to stop me.
“What? I put them back wrong?”
“Wow!” Groening picks up the frames and adjusts his glasses to better observe the source of the wow. “Wow,” he repeats — a different wow — as he seems to arrive at an understanding.
“Aww,” he says. “How sad!”
“I’m not going to let it affect me.”
“There’s a story behind these,” says Groening, setting the frames aside. “When I was a kid, something like that would make me have to think about where they came from. You know?”
“I do,” I say. “I have a case of the pathological background empathies too. If someone starts crying — like a kid lost in Kmart — I have to suppress the urge to join in.”
“If I hear a kid crying, I go check and see if the parent’s abusing the kid.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I was not abused, physically, as a child.”
“No,” says Groening. “I was not abused.”
“My father did not strangle me, unlike with Homer and Bart. That came from The Katzenjammer Kids. I recall, vaguely, the Captain strangling Hans and Fritz.”
“Like this, or like this?”
In 1977, after graduating from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, 23-year-old Portland native Matt Groening (rhymes with “raining”) drove to Los Angeles to write and draw. He did, and ended up creating many fine and notable things, including a comic strip, Life in Hell, which has run in the L.A. Weekly for 20-plus years and, before that, in the Los Angeles Reader (where Groening also worked as a proofreader, paste-up artist, editor, critic and columnist); the cult-favorite television series Futurama; and the most subversive network show ever to launch a vast intergalactic merchandising empire, The Simpsons.
The subversion began to take form in 1985, when producer James L. Brooks (Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment) contacted Groening to see if he’d be interested in developing a series of animated Life in Hell bumpers — short transitions between the main program and commercials — for The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening was interested, but also concerned about losing the rights to his beloved, rabbit-style creations. So just before a pitch meeting with Fox executives, he quickly sketched out some new characters — a family of five humanoids, which he named after members of his own family, substituting an anagram of “brat” for the character of the son, based somewhat on himself but mostly on his older brother.