The Simpsons, the show Time magazine named the century’s best television series, airs its 400th episode this month—an astonishing feat for any show, let alone an animated series about a yellow dysfunctional family. The Simpsons has outlasted Friends, Seinfeld and Cheers. Accolades for the show include 23 Emmys and lavish praise from critics. “It raised the bar for all TV sitcoms,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The show’s creator, Matt Groening, “will go down through the ages as one of the most influential figures in the history of television,” in the estimation of National Public Radio. And this summer the long-awaited Simpsons Movie hits theaters. As Homer would say, with a Duff beer in his four-fingered hand, “Woo-hoo!”
The Simpsons has been a television trailblazer skewering social and political folly, but mostly it has been hilarious fun. Of course not everyone has approved. It has countless die-hard fans—as obsessed as Trekkies—but The Simpsons has succeeded in gaining the attention of prominent detractors as well, from religious leaders to the first president Bush, who publicly bemoaned the show’s values. “Americans should be more like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons,” he said. Americans disagreed, at least if the ratings are an indication: The Waltons lasted nine years; The Simpsons is still going strong after 19.
One is hard-pressed to name a celebrity who hasn’t made a cameo on The Simpsons. The list includes Elizabeth Taylor, U2, Johnny Carson, Stephen Hawking, Frank Gehry, Meryl Streep and Hugh Hefner. The Simpsons characters have become heroes and role models. Bart, of course, is the quintessential underachiever (“and proud of it”). Beehived Marge, Homer’s wife, is an unlikely sex goddess. (Groening once cracked, “‘Marge Simpson nude’ was the number one Internet search of 2002.”) And then there’s Homer, an inspiration to laggardly, beer-drinking, sexist, doughnut-and-ice-cream-eating males everywhere. “It’s not easy to juggle a pregnant wife and a troubled child,” he said in an early episode, “but I managed to fit in eight hours of TV a day.” His motto: “Never try.”
In addition to The Simpsons, Groening created Futurama. The Simpsons was a hard act to follow; at the time, Groening said, “Now I know how Paul McCartney felt when he started Wings.” But Futurama lasted five seasons and was a critical favorite, called “the funniest show of the 31st century” by Entertainment Weekly. It still airs in reruns, along with what seems like infinite Simpsons episodes, and new Futurama shows are currently being produced for the series’ return to television in 2008.
For nearly 30 years Groening has also written a weekly comic strip, Life in Hell, which appears in 250 newspapers and magazines. Like Groening’s other works, the strip has spawned merchandise and books, including the irresistible Love is Hell and Work is Hell.
Groening grew up in Portland, Oregon, where his father, Homer, once told him, “You can’t draw.” (His mother is Marge. Two of his sisters are Maggie and Lisa. Two other siblings didn’t make it onto The Simpsons.) After graduating from high school he attended Evergreen State College before moving to L.A., where he began penning Life in Hell in 1977. He self-published and distributed the underground strip while working as a music critic, chauffeur and ad copywriter.
Groening conceived The Simpsons on the spur of the moment, before a pitch meeting with the producer and director James L. Brooks. In 1987 the cartoon debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show, on which it ran for three years before Fox spun it off.
From it and his other ventures, including licensing items from T-shirts to Bart dolls, Groening has made a fortune. He is divorced and has two children. Homer (called Will) and Abe. (They are the Will and Abe of the forthcoming book Will and Abe’s Guide to the Universe.) He admits to being a frustrated rock-and-roll musician and, with fellow authors Dave Barry, Stephen King and Amy Tan, is part of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band that plays for charities.
Contributing editor David Sheff, who conducted our April interview with Bill Maher, met Groening at his Los Angeles production studio.
“It quickly becomes apparent where Lisa and Marge get their heart and soul,” Sheff says, “but even more where Bart and Homer get their irreverence. Hardly a moment goes by without a wisecrack. Posing for the pictures to accompany the interview, Groening deadpanned, ‘Now for the unsexiest photo ever to run in Playboy.’ He warned our photographer, ‘Be sure to take the picture from the waist up only. I’m aroused.’
“It’s no surprise that Groening is funny, but he is also thoughtful, gracious, self-deprecating and humble. Throughout the interview he made a point of sharing credit for the success of The Simpsons with his collaborators, including the show’s writers and animators. He said it slightly embarrasses him to get all the attention but then added with a shrug, ‘Oh well, it’s part of my job. I’m the show’s supermodel.’ ”
Playboy: With 400 episodes under your belt, are you still involved in making The Simpsons TV show every week?
Groening: If I don’t have a competing project, I’m very involved. But often other deadlines are looming. Right now the Futurama writers are working on new episodes of the show, which will be back on the air in 2008. We’re barreling down the final stretch of The SimpsonsMovie. About once a week, on Thursday, I suddenly remember I have a weekly comic strip to write. Still, I try to make sure I’m there for the TV show at the very last part of the process, the final sound mixing, when we make our last-minute tweaks the Tuesday before Sunday’s broadcast. Many other people deserve more credit than I do and more than they receive, though. I’m just the one who goes out there and puts my foot in my mouth.
Playboy: You have been talking about a Simpsons movie for years. Why now?
Groening: The idea of doing a movie always sounded good, but it was such a huge amount of extra work. Coming up on the 400th episode and the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons’ debut on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, we thought we should do the movie now.
Playboy: How was making the movie different from making a TV episode?
Groening: Jim Brooks and The Simpsons All-Stars, as we sometimes call ourselves, got together and wrote the movie sitting in a room that’s too small. We’ve been banging chairs against each other’s fingers for the past two and a half years. A single episode of The Simpsonshas enough incidents to sustain a conventional live-action movie. Taking an episode and keeping the same velocity for 90 minutes would probably wear people out, so we’re playing around with the pacing. No, we’re not padding it with a lot of songs. We tried. And to answer your other question, no, there are no dancing penguins. We want to justify people paying admission, so the animation is more ambitious and the story has greater scope. It does have an environmental and political theme, just like at the beginning of The Simpsons series when I decided Homer was a safety inspector at a nuclear power plant.
Playboy: Why did you choose that job for Homer?
Groening: I thought the idea of a nitwit like him working at a nuclear power plant was funny.
Playboy: Does their long-term exposure to nuclear radiation explain why your characters have never aged?
Groening: Actually, it’s why The Simpsons have yellow skin.
Playboy: Why do they have yellow skin?
Groening: Originally they were black-and-white outlines. For TV they needed color. I thought the conventional weird pink that passes for Caucasian in animated cartoons would look repulsive. It always bothered me that Walt Disney made Mickey Mouse a Caucasian mouse. It’s freakish. So when it came time to give them skin color, the animation colorist, Gyorgyi Peluce, chose yellow skin. She has never gotten proper credit.
Playboy: What inspired the strange Simpson hair?
Groening: It’s just the way I drew them. I know it’s a very odd look. I always thought what was memorable in cartoons was characters you could identify in silhouette. That’s why The Simpsons have distinctive hairlines. Bart has the picket-fence spiked hair. If you see it in silhouette, you can’t mistake it. This is my advice to cartoonists: If you want to invent a memorable cartoon, draw characters that can be identified in silhouette.
Playboy: You named the Simpson family after your parents and siblings. Were they flattered or horrified?
Groening: I think it’s an ongoing mixed bag shading toward nightmarish. Back at the beginning we all fantasized about various aspects of fame and wild success and wouldn’t it be neat to name cartoon characters after our families. Well, I did it. I just didn’t think through the consequences. I named Homer after my father, Homer, and my mother’s name is Margaret; Marge is what many people call her. I have a sister Lisa and a sister Maggie. When she was very young, Maggie did actually walk around in a blue sleep suit, incessantly sucking on a pacifier. I also have a brother Mark and a sister Patty, whom I did not name characters after.
Playboy: Do they feel left out?
Groening: There were just too many people in my family. They lost the drawing.
Playboy: How tall is your mother’s hair?
Groening: In the 1960s it was very tall. She denies it, but I have photos.
Playboy: Was it ever blue?
Groening: It was not blue. That’s another tribute to Gyorgyi Peluce.
Playboy: Given Homer’s notable lack of motivation, love of doughnuts and beer, and slim intelligence, why would you name your own son Homer?
Groening: Homer the cartoon character and Homer my son were born around the same time. I named my son Homer in part trying to prove to my dad that I had the best intentions. I wasn’t just trying to get back at him for some perceived slight. Also I love the name Homer. When I was wheeling him around in a stroller when he was very small, though, people would ask my baby’s name, and I’d say, “Homer.” They’d burst into laughter, thinking I was joking. They’d get horrified looks on their faces when they realized I wasn’t kidding.
Playboy: Was your father much like his cartoon namesake?
Groening: Not at all. My dad had hair and a chin.
Playboy: Are their personalities similar?
Groening: One of the great things about the character Homer, unlike my real father, is that he is ruled by impulse. We are self-effacing and guilt-ridden and try to do the right thing and fail. Homer, though, doesn’t bother. He wants whatever he wants at the moment, with all his heart. My dad was nothing like the character. He was accomplished and brilliant. He worked as a filmmaker, cartoonist and writer and was an amazing artist. He had an astonishing life.
Playboy: Did he end up looking at his namesake as a tribute, or was he appalled?
Groening: He loved The Simpsons. The only thing that offended him was the time The Simpsons’ car broke down in the desert, and Homer made Marge carry the deflated tire back to town while he waited behind. My dad said Homer shouldn’t have done that. He was very perturbed by it. I said. “But he strangles his kids! You aren’t bothered by that?”
Playboy: When The Simpsons became popular, was it unsettling for your family to share the characters’ names?
Groening: Strange things happened. Someone returned a Bart Simpson doll to my family. They thought it was lost because my name was printed very large on Bart’s ass.
Playboy: How much of you is in Bart?
Groening: Bart is a combination of myself and my older brother, Mark.
Playboy: But no one would describe you as an underachiever.
Groening: Yes, I’m a little more motivated than Bart is. Maybe a little smarter. In fact, I worry about Bart. I think he’s headed for juvenile delinquency. Bart as a teenager will probably be pretty sad, drug abuse and all.
Playboy: What traits do you and Homer share?
Groening: A love of beer, ice cream and doughnuts.
Playboy: Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’?
Groening: We did an ad campaign for Winchell’s, actually. I wrote the slogan. Homer holds up a doughnut and says, “Doughnuts made me what I am today.” They used it, and I was just thrilled.
Playboy: Were you ever concerned about exploiting The Simpsons?
Groening: Concerned that I didn’t exploit them in every way possible? We have turned a few things down, believe it or not. I know it’s hard to tell. We turned down Simpsons slot machines in Vegas because we thought, You know, you have to draw the line somewhere. I had a rule that none of my Life in Hell characters would ever endorse anything‚ except Akbar and Jeff, who would endorse anything. A beer company made plans to have an Akbar-and-Jeff party train that would go down to Florida. If you were seen with an Akbar-and-Jeff tattoo, you’d be invited to party on a yacht. But then the beer company read in Rolling Stone that Akbar and Jeff are gay midgets and said, “The deal is off.”
Playboy: Has anyone ever approached you to sell Duff, Homer’s favorite brand of beer?
Groening: A company in Australia started putting it out, and Fox swiftly took action to shut it down.
Playboy: Are you pleased that so many lines from the show have become part of the popular lexicon?
Groening: Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s annoying. I love it when I’m in a store and somebody drops his keys and says, “D’oh!” But I was once pulled over by security at the airport and given the full inspection. They tore through everything, and a little kid went by, pointed and went, “Ha-ha,” like Nelson. It was annoying as hell.
Playboy: What’s the genesis of Homer’s d’oh?
Groening: It was written in the script as “annoyed grunt.” Dan Castellaneta, who does Homer’s voice, did a version of the sound that the character actor James Finlayson did in old Laurel and Hardy movies. He’d squint with one eye and say it with a long, drawn-out high-pitched noise. Dan shortened it.
Playboy: What’s the origin of Bart’s “Eat my shorts”?
Groening: It came from the sixth grade. It’s what kids used to say. “Don’t have a cow, Homer” came from my younger sisters, Lisa and Maggie. They used to say “Don’t have a cow, Homer” to my dad. They called my dad Homer, which I never dared. For me the idea of kids calling their dad by his first name is like kissing the pope.
Playboy: Do your children call you Matt?
Groening: Pops—when I’m lucky. One told me he doesn’t want me to be his dad anymore. He wants Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane.
Playboy: Have you been surprised by the guest stars you’ve managed to wrangle for The Simpsons?
Groening: It’s an astonishing list. I can barely believe the people we’ve had on the show—Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, the Ramones. Hugh Hefner had the Bunnies working as research scientists in the basement of the Mansion. Elizabeth Taylor was on twice. Once she played herself; the other time she played the voice of Maggie saying “Daddy,” her first word. We did 24 takes, but they were always too sexual. Finally Liz said, “Fuck you,” and walked out.
Playboy: Do you go to the recording sessions when celebrities are on the show?
Groening: When I can. I was there for Mick Jagger, but I missed Keith Richards. My favorite line from that episode was Mick, as the guy running a rock-and-roll fantasy summer camp, looking over the expenses late at night, saying, “We’ve got to find a cheaper oatmeal.” I also showed up for my all-time-favorite guest star, the author Thomas Pynchon. I wanted to meet him so I could lord it over my snotty intellectual friends.
Playboy: Conan O’Brien, who was a writer for The Simpsons before he got his own show, has been back.
Groening: Having him come back after escaping from the writers’ room and getting his own TV show was a high-water mark.
Playboy: Who has declined an invitation?
Groening: We were once told Prince wanted to do the show, so we wrote him a script. It didn’t work out, because his chauffeur had written a script too, and Prince wanted to use that one. Also, we were told the investors in Planet Hollywood‚ Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, whoever‚ were willing to do the show if we mentioned the restaurant. We wrote a script for them, but it turned out that some publicist made the thing up. We got our vengeance: We slammed Planet Hollywood on the show.
Playboy: Are there any sacred cows when it comes to subjects you wouldn’t tackle on The Simpsons? You regularly make fun of religion.
Groening: One of my favorite jokes is Homer seeking refuge in a church from a mob and the Reverend Lovejoy saying, “Well, maybe you should go become a missionary in the South Pacific.” Homer says, “I’m not religious. I never paid attention in church.” The mob is chasing him, and Homer runs away, yelling, “Save me, Jebus!” He can’t remember the guy’s name. We also did a parody of a commercial about the new Catholic Church that was shot like a beer commercial, [in an announcer’s voice] “The new Catholic Church. We’ve changed.” Fox asked us to change it to Presbyterian because they would be less likely to come after us with pitchforks.
Playboy: Has anyone ever come after you with pitchforks?
Playboy: Homer has said, “A woman is like a beer.” What else about women can we learn from him?
Groening: A lot of men have thanked me for a Chief Wiggum line. He gives Marge a ticket, and as she drives away he says wistfully, “Why are all the beautiful ones crazy?”
Playboy: How would you characterize Homer and Marge’s sex life?
Groening: We didn’t do the standard sitcom device of the wife not wanting to sleep with the husband. Marge is attracted to Homer. They have a healthy, if goofy, sex life. They giggle a lot. In my experience there is not quite as much lascivious laughter in bed.
Playboy: Has Homer ever cheated on her?
Groening: He and Ned Flanders went to Las Vegas and got drunk and woke up in a hot tub, married. I wanted Homer and Flanders to be naked in the hot tub, but we ended up being cautious. They woke up married to Vegas floozies and fled. There were no consequences whatsoever. We did later refer to Homer’s “Vegas wife,” and last season we had a funeral for her. Marge was mad, but she went.
Playboy: Did Homer confess?
Groening: I can’t remember. Here’s the weird thing about having done 400 episodes: I have only a certain amount of space in my brain forSimpsons knowledge.
Playboy: Does it astound you that other people know more about The Simpsons than you do?
Groening: Many fans do. There are a bunch of websites. One is Nohomers.net, which has the most vocal fans. They often act like spurned lovers if they don’t like something. They notice everything. With The Simpsons, you are rewarded for paying attention. If you don’t pay attention, fine, the show will roll by you. But if you do pay close attention, there are all sorts of secret little details.
Playboy: Do you take credit for shows that followed: Family Guy, South Park and even SpongeBob?
Groening: After The Simpsons came a bunch of creator-driven animated projects that don’t look like anything else on TV, though they have their own style and pacing and rules.
Playboy: What’s your favorite?
Groening: South Park at its best is some of the most astonishing TV ever made. I love the episode about Mel Gibson. The South Park kids go to see The Passion of the Christ and feel ripped off, so they journey to Malibu to meet Gibson to get their money back. It was almost anticipatory. Mel Gibson is depicted as this underpants-wearing lunatic doing cartwheels.
Playboy: It has been reported that you and your colleagues at The Simpsons loathe Family Guy. Is it true?
Groening: There’s a sense of healthy competition between the various staffs of the cartoon shows. But as far as I’m concerned, the more cartoons on TV the better. I’m glad to see them out there.
Playboy: In an episode called “Cartoon Wars,” South Park attacked Family Guy. One bit had the show’s cultural references picked at random by a manatee.
Groening: I’m glad South Park went after someone other than us. They can be vicious.
Playboy: When he was asked about it, South Park co-creator Matt Stone said, “It’s not like we’re Biggie and Tupac.”
Groening: Yeah. Thank God cartoonists are wimps. If you make a cartoonist angry, you’re going to wind up in a cartoon. There are usually no drive-by shootings.
Playboy: Do you find it ironic that Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, known for his conservative politics, has broadcast one of the most liberal shows on TV for almost two decades?
Groening: When I met him, he said he liked the show. He seemed sincere. Yes, there were little dollar signs in his eyes, but he does seem to be a fan. He’s been on. He introduced himself as “the evil billionaire tyrant Rupert Murdoch.”
Playboy: Is it unsettling or just ironic to be part of the same company as Fox News?
Groening: Fox News gives me a headache and not even so much for its political content but the spinning logos and American flags and music designed to scare you shitless. Who needs it? We make fun of Fox News on the show. The most fun we had was putting a news crawl like theirs across the bottom of the screen. It said things like “Rupert Murdoch: terrific dancer,” “Brad Pitt plus Albert Einstein equals Dick Cheney,” “Study: 92 percent of Democrats are gay,” “The Bible says Jesus favored capital gains cut.”
Playboy: What was the reaction at the network?
Groening: We were forbidden ever to do it again. Fox said it would confuse viewers. I don’t see how you would think it’s real news on a cartoon show, but we’ll see.
Playboy: When you spread a liberal message by way of Fox, do you feel subversive?
Groening: It’s fun anytime you can piss off a right-wing lunatic, but it’s also fun to piss off a left-wing lunatic. In fact everybody on the show is concerned about not being preachy or heavy-handed. We try to mix it up. Sometimes we go for satire and take a point of view we don’t agree with. In one of our classic shows Marge successfully gets the violent version of Itchy & Scratchy banned from television. As a result, children actually go out and play in the sunshine and have a good time. We’re saying the direct result of heavy-handed censorship is this pleasant outcome, which is obviously something we were being completely sarcastic about.
Playboy: The Simpsons seems to take special delight in skewering Republicans.
Groening: Ever since I was a kid the Republican politicians have seemed like villainous buffoons. Since Richard Nixon. He was such a cardboard villain. All these guys since seem to be more of the same. I have this obsession with Nixon. On The Simpsons, Milhouse is named after him. On Futurama, we made Nixon’s head in the jar president of Earth. George W. Bush seems to me equally cartoony, and we’ve only barely begun to take him on. More to come. But The Simpsons staffers don’t agree with one another politically. I’m at one end of the spectrum with a few other people on the left, but we’ve got some rabid Republicans, too. At this stage, though, there are no pro-war people on staff that I can think of. Anybody who was a supporter of Bush has abandoned him at this point. They’re too embarrassed.
Playboy: You mentioned Futurama. Why does your sexy leading female character have only one eye?
Groening: I didn’t want to animate women who looked as if they were being drawn by horny animators. I wanted to go for something a little more subtle. The standard depiction of a sexy woman in science fiction is tank top, buxom, two eyes. So I thought, Okay, one eye. Can we make one eyeball sexy? I think we did, but some guys don’t like it. They like two eyes on their women. Some of The Simpsons writers have said my biggest mistake was making Leela a cyclops. Apparently guys like more than one giant eye in the middle of the face. Who knew?
Playboy: Horny animators? Are they?
Groening: Isn’t it obvious? There has been an intent to arouse with cartoons and comics going back to Betty and Veronica in Archie. It’s hard to beat Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When it came time to design the women on Futurama I went on the Internet and looked up discussions of the sexiest women in cartoons. Surprisingly, a lot of people discuss this subject. There was no agreement on what was sexy, so I went my own way.
Playboy: Who were considered some of the sexiest women in cartoons?
Groening: Betty Rubble.
Playboy: Not Wilma?
Groening: No one likes Wilma. Everyone wants to sleep with Betty.
Playboy: You have taken on sex in your book Love is Hell. Is it?
Groening: Yes. No. I don’t know. It was. Often. A revealing thing is all those comic strips were making fun of self-help books but were secretly designed to help me.
Playboy: How did they help you?
Groening: Guys don’t write about relationships in cartoons. They write about violent fantasies and stuff that puts women off. So I thought. I’ll use my bunny rabbits and write about relationships and be vulnerable.
Playboy: With the goal of getting dates?
Groening: That’s why guys do anything, no?
Playboy: How has dating changed for you?
Groening: I don’t have to constantly mentally calculate how much is being spent at dinner. Also I don’t have to worry that my car will break down and I’ll have to get help from my date with the tire iron, which happened more than once. I’ve gone on two dates when I got a flat tire, and both times the women felt sorry for me and enlisted the help of surly, drunken passersby.
Playboy: Do you have a girlfriend now?
Groening: Yes. She’s a photographer. I have thought it would be really cool to travel and do a book together‚ me, nude, on beaches around the world.
Playboy: You were married for many years. After that was it strange to go back to dating?
Groening: Yeah, dating’s no fun. Unfortunately it’s part of the process of getting to know someone. I once said, “Love is like a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it tips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.” A lot of people have that on their MySpace page.
Playboy: If you had known we’d have Google and your comments would live forever online, would you have never said certain things in the first place?
Groening: Yeah. Many. In many ways the future has turned out to be weirder than I imagined. I never thought I would be driving down the street and see the local taqueria with a banner in my handwriting advertising its taco platter, but my handwriting for The Simpsons has gotten loose on the Internet as a font. It has been downloaded and is used in movies, on books, in advertisements. In general The Simpsonsis among the most bootlegged creative properties in the world. I find it much more amusing than the Fox lawyers do. If some bakery does a Bart Simpson birthday cake, Fox wants its cut. There’s a Russian Simpsons coloring book that looks as though the guy who drew it was shown a picture of The Simpsons for five seconds, was never able to look at it again and dropped it from his memory. I had a large collection of Bart Sanchez ceramic figurines from Tijuana, but I lost dozens of them in the earthquake. Priceless, priceless treasures—gone. I have Bart yarmulkes from Israel and from Italy little glass Bart figurines peeing.
Playboy: Are you proud?
Playboy: You’re even proud of the kids who emulate Bart?
Playboy: You once said the only way you could justify all the TV you watched as a child was to make your own TV show. How much did you watch?
Groening: If I were to look at a TV schedule for any weeknight in the 1960s, I’d go, “Yeah, I was watching.” My memory goes back even further. I remember the premiere episode of Dennis the Menace in 1959, the animated opening sequence of this Tasmanian devil-like cyclone spinning out. I was so excited that there was an actual menace on television. If I had to go back to the first impetus for The Simpsons it would be that night in 1959 when that pilot episode was broadcast and this cyclone of a menace came out. It was a kid! I was so excited. It turned out to be this fairly namby-pamby pseudo-bad boy who had a slingshot but didn’t ever seem to use it. Bart Simpson is basically what Dennis should have been.
Playboy: Did your parents allow you to watch as much TV as you wanted?
Playboy: Did you restrict your children’s TV viewing?
Groening: Not at all. It was my escape. I wasn’t going to be a hypocrite.
Playboy: Generally were you more or less permissive than your parents?
Groening: I appalled some of my friends with how undisciplined I was as a parent. My kids talked back to me, and I laughed it off. Now they tell me I’m not funny anymore. I just assume they’re kidding. As I said, my son said he wishes Seth MacFarlane were his father. So I annoy the hell out of other parents. I’m a really bad example. I’m the dad I wished I had. I try to let my kids have a good time.
Playboy: What did you allow your kids to do that your father would have prohibited?
Groening: I took my 15-year-old to see Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman perform their stand-up comedy. It singed the hair off the top of my head. My kid laughed.
Playboy: Do you make your kids do their homework?
Groening: I ask them to, sure. I make vague gestures toward having them do the right thing.
Playboy: Do they have a curfew?
Groening: All the good stuff happens after midnight, let’s face it—even as a kid. Ice cream certainly tastes better after midnight. There is a little bit of Homer Simpson in me, okay?
Playboy: Life in Hell was written about L.A. Is it hell there?
Groening: Yes, though that was really about L.A. when I first arrived here after college. I had a series of lousy jobs. My very first was as a movie extra in When Every Day Was the Fourth of July. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this. I played a member of a lynch mob. There is a vendor selling miniature electric chairs; one of the members of the mob gets into a fight with the vendor over the price of the electric chairs. There were other memorable jobs. I wanted to be a writer, so I looked in the help-wanted ads. I saw one that said. “Wanted: writer-chauffeur.” I got the job. During the day I drove this retired movie director around, and at night I would ghostwrite his autobiography. He had made a couple of B Westerns and was obsessed with his mother. When I drove him around he would tell me, “This was the house where I went to Clark Gable’s party.” Then we’d go by the same mansion and he’d say, “That’s where Laurel and Hardy lived.” I don’t think Laurel and Hardy ever really lived together. I got fired because I said he should write a little less about his mother.
Playboy: What came next?
Groening: I applied for a job at TV Guide, writing synopses of shows, and they told me I didn’t get the job because I used the word lesbian.That’s what the show was about, but they said, “TV Guide readers do not want to read that word.” Instead I started working for the L.A. Reader [a now-defunct alternative paper] and turned into a rock journalist. I just made stuff up. To this day I’m a frustrated rock journalist.
Playboy: Apparently, you’re also a frustrated rock-and-roll musician who occasionally plays with the Rock Bottom Remainders.
Groening: Yes. We are coming up on our 15th anniversary. It’s an all-writers rock group with Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and many others. I take pride in being the least-talented member. I don’t even play an instrument. I sing in the backup critics’ chorus with Greil Marcus. That’s how I snuck in. I had a tambourine at one point, but they took it away. The height of our life as a rock-and-roll band was performing at the Hollywood Palladium and having Bruce Springsteen come out for the encore of “Gloria.” Alter the show, Bruce told us, “Don’t get any better.” It was great because we could actually fulfill that.
Playboy: How did your early jobs lead to The Simpsons?
Groening: First came Life in Hell. I worked at a photocopy place. A perk was that when I wasn’t fighting with customers—an unavoidable part of the job—I was making copies of my comics. I copied them and took them around and sold them at a record store I worked at, which was another job. Then I started the strip in the L.A. Reader. That was 27 years ago. There were no talent scouts coming, so I decided to publish my own book, which was the original Life in Hell. That’s the one thing I still do completely on my own. I’ll take full blame for everything, misspellings and all.
Playboy: Because of that, does the strip hold a special place in your heart?
Groening: It certainly gives the game away. “He really can’t draw, can he?” I couldn’t be hired to work on The Simpsons. Life in Hell is populated with rabbits by default. In high school I was drawing funny animals, and people couldn’t tell if they were dogs or bears. I gave them long ears and people said, “Oh, they’re rabbits.”
Playboy: Compared with The Simpsons, are you uncensored in Life in Hell?
Groening: I went through a phase when I decided to systematically use every possible profanity. The strip kept getting kicked out of newspapers, so I stopped. At the very beginning I had to decide whether or not to give the rabbits genitals. Bugs Bunny is neutered. All those characters are, really; there’s nothing down there. I tried drawing Binky Bunny with a penis for a while, but people were bothered by it. Akbar and Jeff appeared naked on the cover of The Village Voice with full frontal nudity. On The Simpsons we have shown Bart with full frontal nudity in a French laundry-detergent commercial. In The Simpsons Movie we can show things we do not show on television. You will see nudity, but it’s not who you want to see naked.
Playboy: The Simpsons has brought in billions of dollars.
Groening: Rupert Murdoch swims naked in one of those big vats of coins like Uncle Scrooge in the Donald Duck comics. We’ve got the videotapes, but as long as he keeps those royalty checks coming in.…
Playboy: Besides the fact that you don’t have to worry about how much a dinner date is going to cost, how has wealth changed your life?
Groening: My friends and I used to sit around when we had so little money that we had to split a burger at Astro Burger on Melrose Avenue and talk about what we would do if we ever had enough money to pay our rent on time. We wondered if we would live the way rich people were supposed to live or if we would live pretty much as we did then, except that we would have bigger piles of comic books and toys. Sadly, we’ve got bigger piles of comic books and toys.
Playboy: The Simpsons has won numerous awards and accolades. Do any of them mean more than others? Time said yours was the best television show of the century.
Groening: An executive at Fox said, “I’ll go further. It’s the best show in the history of the world.” I went, “Wow.” Our goal has always been to make each other—the writers, the animators and the actors—laugh. We’re really glad when it turns out that a TV audience seems to like it too.
Playboy: You’ve also been criticized by prominent people over the years. Were you surprised when the first President Bush said American families should be more like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons?
Groening: We were delighted with such an Elmer Fudd-y line. He said it on a Monday. At the time, we were on Thursday night. We quickly did some animation so that on Thursday we had The Simpsons sitting in front of the TV, watching a tape of the actual George Bush saying the line. Bart turns to Homer and says, “Hey man, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re both praying for an end to the Depression.”
Playboy: You’ve had many other critics. Former drug czar William Bennett criticized Bart.
Groening: We were duly honored. He was wandering through a drug-rehab clinic and saw a Simpsons poster on the wall, and he told the addicts that wasn’t going to help them. He said Bart wasn’t a good role model. We love it when people go after us. America is full of people who love to pretend to be offended. It’s always momentary, and it always passes. We respond in kind. It’s the old Daffy Duck vs. Elmer Fudd thing. If someone wants to behave like Elmer Fudd, you have to come back at him just the way Daffy Duck would—with a big mallet.