By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
In 1987, the Simpsons shorts began a two-year run on Ullman’s show, during which Groening, Brooks and Brooks’ colleague Sam Simon developed the half-hour version, which debuted on December 17, 1989, and hasn’t stopped since.
On the few occasions that we’ve spoken over the past 10 or 12 years, Groening has always appeared conspicuously and genuinely modest. No matter how fast he speaks, how excited he gets, something about him remains low key. This is not a man who set out to conquer the world and become a rich bastard. This is a neobeatnik surfer-scientist art-dude man, who, by his own estimation, was in the right place at the right time.
As the sun sinks lower and the bottles grow lighter, we talk of early comics and cartoons. I have a small collection of 16 mm shorts — mostly Fleischer Studios and early Warner Bros. cartoons, which I inherited from my older brother before the dawn of home video. I have no projector or room to store them in. Groening has both, and he offers the collection a loving new home and, perhaps, a screening later this summer.
“Most of my dad’s stuff is on 16 mm,” says Groening, whose father, Homer, was a professional filmmaker, as well as a writer and cartoonist. “Almost all of his movies had to do with water — surfing, mostly; skiing, underwater films. It was the 1960s, and he went back and forth between doing these very commercial, promotional films to pay the bills, and doing these kind of arty, sort of one-step-removed-from-underground films that were just abstract images of water and surfing. One of his best films is called A Study in Wet, from 1964. The soundtrack is a musical composition that consists only of water dripping into bathtubs, organized into a rhythmic and melodic composition. It’s an amazing movie.”
After more than 400 episodes over 18 seasons, there’s constant pressure on The Simpsons writers and producers to invent new ways to be funny, top themselves and surprise the rest of us. And while Groening hasn’t been the show runner since season three, he continues to oversee things as executive producer, creative consultant and all-around big cheese. The pressure’s still on.
“Do you ever see The Simpsons not being around?” I ask.
“If I got hit by a truck tomorrow,” says Groening, “The Simpsons would continue on indefinitely. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. And sometimes, you know, I go, ‘Is my work redundant? Am I just doing the same thing again and again and again?’ But I feel like every week I learn something new — I learn something about writing, I learn something about other people, I learn about storytelling, I learn new jokes. And it’s entertainment, for me. I get to be on the scene where these brilliant people are making this amazing show, and, Oh, yeah — I created it! That is to say, I got the ball rolling, and now it’s a snowball that keeps on picking up speed. It’s really fun! And . . . it’s not very charming to be having such a good time.”
“You with your fun — you’re not charming.”
“You need to be tormented! You’re supposed to be tormented!”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m starting to think torment’s overrated. What about . . . do you ever feel guilty? Like, there’s just too many good things?”
“Of course there’s guilt. But on the other hand, I think to myself, ‘Look. The world is full of talented people who don’t get the credit they deserve. And then there’s me: I’m one of those people who gets more credit than I deserve.’ So I go, ‘Well . . . very few people have that experience! It’s very nice!’ So do I feel guilty? Yes. Do I admit it? Yes. And then I move on.”
Groening adds that, in spite of all his success, he’s still a working stiff. As we speak, he’s past his deadline on his next Life in Hell comic strip, which was due yesterday and which he hasn’t started yet. He also says that, in more than two decades of writing the strip, he’s never once set foot inside the L.A. Weekly offices.
“Wait. You’ve never been to the Weekly?! Even the old building?”
“Never been to the Weekly offices. I’m sure very nice people work there, but! Here’s the thing: I used to work at the Reader, and I noticed — and also in hanging out at small radio stations, and any kind of operation where there’s a lot of very intense work for a lot of personal satisfaction but not necessarily great reward — that people go crazy. Maybe this is true of everything, but I certainly noticed it at small weekly newspaper offices. The office politics get really crazy, and they certainly got crazy where I used to work — so crazy that the Reader fired me. I had sold my comic strip to the Pasadena Weekly — which was nowhere near where the Reader distributed its paper — for $10 a week. And the Reader said, ‘You must quit that paper, because, contractually, you can’t be published anywhere else in Los Angeles County.’