This story originally appeared in the June 28, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.
So we lied. The Simpsons do not exist! Alas, they are paint. They are graphics. They are made, partly, in Korea. Three men, none of whom are orange, rule all that is Simpson. Foremost is Matt Groening – the cartoonist who created the Simpsons in his own family’s image and has since been forgiven for doing so. Besides Groening, there reign James L. Brooks, comedy deity (Broadcast News, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Tracey Ullman Show), and Sam Simon, ace sitcom scribe (Taxi, Cheers). These men, as executive producers of The Simpsons, conspire on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, in Los Angeles, where they tend to an empire built on boorishness and prolific licensing (dolls! bubble gum! snow boots! beach towels! talking toothbrushes!). They are T-shirt magnates who write. Together, and abetted by a crack staff, they give Homer’s family life, dyspepsia, dialogue.
Therefore, in order for Rolling Stone to interview the Simpsons, these men must convene in a room and speak in animated tongues. They must drink much coffee. They must wrestle with conceit, reality and caprice. “It’s Homer’s point of view that nobody ever went wrong trusting a reporter,” says Brooks, thus sardonically establishing the ground rules for the session. Having the Simpsons comprehend their TV stardom, it is decided, would ruin them. “I don’t think it works to have them come in for a script conference,” says Brooks.
“But,” says Simon, excitedly, “we should have them use language they wouldn’t use on TV. Can Homer say ‘asshole’?” (He can but ultimately doesn’t.) All three stress that the Simpsons are not Toons. “Although,” says Groening, ruling out no possibility, “they could be in Roger Rabbit 3!”
Buckets of swell story ideas for future episodes emerge in the exercise. Among them: “Sexual Harassment at the Nuclear Plant.” (“Mr. Burns [Homer’s boss] could enforce a dress code that all female employees wear halter tops!” says Brooks, somewhat giddily.) “Bart Goes to Camp.” (“Wow,” says Brooks, “there’s real rebellion opportunity!”) “Homer Gets a Gun.” (“I don’t know,” Brooks-Homer says, “it just makes me feel terrific to have my hand wrapped around it.” Simon adds, laughing, “He should shoot the burglar!”) And “The Repulsive Church Function,” which hatches like so:
Groening: Cake auction! Marge bakes!
Simon: And she gets her hair stuck in the cake! Then the mayor buys it!
Brooks: Wow, that’s great! Hey, even better – we put a real recipe on the screen. No, wait! A recipe book! We put out a recipe book! Pork chops! Pork chops!
The scent of merchandising can do odd things to a man.
Without Brooks, of course, it is doubtful Simpsonia would have gripped the land. He sponsored the Simpsons’ rise by hiring Groening three years ago to contribute his incisive cartoonery to The Tracey Ullman Show. (Groening’s semi-underground weekly comic strip, Life in Hell, featuring profane rabbits and gay twins in fezzes, is pure cult classicism, a decade old and thriving still.) Each week, the Simpsons, in skitlet form, bracketed Ullman’s commercial breaks. Spun off last January into a half-hour show all their own, they’ve become the soul of Fox Broadcasting, dependably notching Top 20 Nielsen ratings. (The Ullman show, which recently shut down forever, rarely got out of the bottom 10.) Roughly 150 animators – most of them in South Korea (to offset labor costs) – toil over six-month periods to complete single episodes, matching up imagery with the characters’ voices, which are recorded beforehand. (Ullman alums Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner speak for Homer and Marge; Yeardley Smith is Lisa; Nancy Cartwright is Bart; and Harry Shearer is almost everybody else, although Albert Brooks and Penny Marshall have turned up in the occasional cameo voice.)
All of which makes Matt Groening, 36, really rich.
He has, nevertheless, clung steadfastly to his wits. “It’s pretty funny,” he says. “I like it because [the Simpsons] are not glamorous. So much in our culture is designed to make you feel envious. The Simpsons definitely do not.” Last year he named his firstborn Homer, but then Groening himself is a son of a Homer. And a Margaret. For sisters, he has a Lisa and a Maggie. There is no real Bart (anagram for ‘brat’, which rhymes with Matt). “Bart reminds a lot of people of their disgusting little brother,” Groening says. “I mean, nobody I’ve ever met has ever said, ‘You know, I’m just like Bart Simpson.'”
Bart Simpson is a sociopath. He will, according to those who know him best, one day be arraigned. His will be a life of either happy crime or government espionage. “Bart is trapped in a world where everyone else is struggling to be normal,” says Groening. “Bart’s response to being normal is ‘No way, man!’ He is irreverent; he never learns his lesson and is never repentant. He is an outgrowth of those times when, as a boy, I was unfairly made to sit for hours in the principal’s office, vowing to get revenge later in life for my punishment.”
“The best part of all this,” Groening says, “is seeing Bart Simpson graffiti on freeway underpasses. The worst part is seeing Bart Simpson graffiti on the side of my house. Somebody wrote HOME OF BART, which was a little unnerving. So I guess what I’m saying is, the best part is graffiti on other people’s property.”
And there is the sheer pleasure of being banned. Bart has lately been expelled from grade schools across the map – in the form of T-shirts. The prime contraband has been garments bearing the wily youth’s countenance and the legend ‘Underachiever. And proud of it, man!’ Educators, it seems, frown upon such candor. In a prepared statement (read by Groening), Bart Simpson will only say, “I have no comment, other than my folks taught me to respect elementary-school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” He then asks, “Is it possible that grade-school principals have lost their sense of humor?”
“When people get mad about Bart,” Groening says, mustering the correct perspective, “my response is, no one should take advice from any cartoon character – with the obvious exception of McGruff the Crime Dog.”