When Matt Groening shuffles into his Santa Monica, California, office at 10:30 on a Monday morning, he’s weighted down by a large cardboard box full of 45s. “Show and tell!” he hollers, brushing a tuft of his salt-and-pepper mop away from his face as his two office mates gather around. “They were twenty cents each, so I bought 350 of ’em.” Groening’s work space is cluttered with crap: Several years’ worth of magazines overflow in one spot, piles of items marked “To be autographed by Matt” in another. Looking more closely — at the Homer Groening sign hanging over a storage closet, for instance — one remembers what got the forty-eight-year-old cartoonist this office in the first place. This year, Groening’s animated series The Simpsons enters its fourteenth season and celebrates its 300th episode. Consistently one of the top-rated shows on the Fox network, The Simpsons is shown in more than sixty countries, and the franchise — syndication, toys, books, calendars, Pop-Tarts — is valued at approximately $1 billion.
Since The Simpsons debuted in 1987, the show has featured more than sixty guest musicians, from Robert Goulet to Britney Spears to three Beatles. This season’s premiere, called “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation,” takes patriarch Homer to rock & roll fantasy camp, where his teachers include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello and Brian Setzer. You won’t find music by any of those artists in the record room at Groening’s office: “I sold all the rock & roll stuff,” he says. The thousands of CDs, audiotapes and vinyl LPs that line the walls are organized alphabetically by place of origin. “Africa, Bahamas, Bali, Bali, Bali,” he says, running his finger along the spines of the discs and noting that the Bali section expanded exponentially during his recent trip there. “Brazil, Bulgaria. I took home all the Colombian cumbia music. Cuba, France, Ghana, Greece, Guinea…”
Born in Portland, Oregon, Groening began his career as a cartoonist in 1980, when his Life in Hell strip — still appearing weekly in 250 newspapers — began running in the Los Angeles Reader. The Simpsons — Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie — was born seven years later, after Life in Hell caught the eye of television producer James L. Brooks, who recruited Groening to draw animated shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show. Though Groening leaves the writing to the writers and the animating to the animators, he still makes certain that The Simpsons stays true to its original spirit: “It has to be a celebration.” He’s considering doing a Simpsons movie, and he has another season of his animated sci-fi series Futurama to shepherd. In what little free time the divorced father of two has left, he’s got a rock & roll project to work on: He’s choosing bands to perform at next summer’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Los Angeles. For the indie-rock event (curated in previous years by Sonic Youth and Belle and Sebastian), he’s already laid down at least one mandate: “Anyone who wears a costume is in. Except Michael Jackson.”
You used to be a rock critic, didn’t you?
Yeah. Right after college, I moved to Los Angeles and wrote about rock & roll for the Los Angeles Reader, which is no longer around. I also worked at a record store called Licorice Pizza and at the Whiskey a Go Go. It was during the heyday of punk, and that was when I started Life in Hell as a little Xeroxed zine. I put it with the punk magazines, and I was quite honored — the punks actually shoplifted my comic book. At the Whiskey, I got to wait on Elvis Costello, and Patti Smith played in the parking lot of the record store. And all the rock stars of the day came into the store to buy their coke vials, because, in addition to selling records, we sold drug paraphernalia. They would say, “Five hundred amber vials please,” and I’d say, “What’re you gonna do with all of these?”
Was there a bulk discount?
No. I had to count them out, because they had the caps separate from the bottles. It was really funny to take your time when somebody was coked up. Kids would come in and buy bongs and then come back and go, “It’s defective, man” — after they’d used it. People were so stoned they would call up Licorice Pizza and order licorice pizza.
Did you have any yearnings to write rock criticism in college?
Not really. I love music, but my tastes were always too eccentric: I never bought a Bruce Springsteen album or a Bob Dylan album. I was more interested in music that was more challenging rhythmically than ninety-nine percent of rock & roll. That’s a tough position to come from if you have to interview arrogant jerks. I interviewed David Byrne, and the tape broke at the end of the interview. He said, “I hope you have a good memory.” I met him again a few times, and he’s a good guy. Here it is twenty years later, and he’s on The Simpsons playing himself.
When did you stop covering music?
In 1986 or ’87 — about the time “The Simpsons” started on The Tracey Ullman Show. I had a weekly column making fun of rock & roll. I used to review bands based on their publicity photo. Oh, God, I was such an asshole. I learned that nobody was buying the records that I was reviewing, so I started making up bands and records. I knew that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life, so I just did it until I got fired. One of the reasons I have a sizable record collection is because instead of trading them in for money, I traded them in for other records. That was how I was able to buy all my oddball music: imported world music, African music, stuff like that.
Did you like oddball music when you were a kid?
I had a little plastic radio shaped like a rocket ship. One night when I was twelve or thirteen, I was tooling around and I heard this piano music that just blew my mind. It was a world-premiere recording of a two-piano version of The Rite of Spring, by Igor Stravinsky. That was what opened up my mind. And then, almost exactly at that time, I bought the weirdest-looking album cover that they had at the grocery store: Freak Out! by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
Did you ever think that The Simpsons would become a venue for popular musicians?
No. Very early on, when we had Spinal Tap playing themselves, that was just a hoot. The executives at Fox were miffed because they didn’t know who Spinal Tap was: “Why couldn’t you get so-and-so?” — whoever was Number One at the time. And then we had the Ramones, and they were equally like, “You know, man, why the Ramones?” Because they didn’t know. And the Ramones were probably the best musical guest we’ve ever had. I love that their music didn’t sound like it could be the soundtrack for a Chevrolet commercial, like everything else does. I also loved that Fox was so pissed off by it.
Have any musicians said no?
I believe one of the writers ran into Bruce Springsteen on the street, and Springsteen sort of edged away. But we have a long list of bands that have made their availability known to us. My biggest personal disappointment was I couldn’t take Frank Zappa up on his offer to “come down and mumble into the microphone.”
Are people cooperative about reading the lines that are given to them?
I think everybody’s thrilled to be in the same room with Dan Castellaneta, who does Homer. They are generally such fans of the show that they want to deliver. But Elizabeth Taylor did balk at saying “Daddy” for the twenty-fifth time. That’s how many takes we had to do.
How does music fit in with your vision of what The Simpsons should be?
The Simpsons was an experiment where I could go as an underground cartoonist into the mainstream. There’s a lot of things on The Simpsons that are very mainstream and have nothing to do with my personal music tastes. But even in the beginning, I had ideas about how to inject some oddball elements into the show. I suggested John Zorn to do the main theme, but then I played some of his stuff for everybody on the staff and they couldn’t handle it. So I put on some Esquivel, and they said, “This is the worst shit I’ve ever heard.” Which is when I went to Danny Elfman, who I knew from way back when I used to review his old band, the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo.
Isn’t it better if there are some jokes only a few people are going to get?
One of the trends in television comedy that The Simpsons went against was the pandering to the most easily offended and least-educated person watching. What The Simpsons does is try to see if you can take a genre that nobody takes seriously, and jam in some countercultural messages. Now the show is so powerful that when Fox tells us not to do something, we do it anyway. We have Krusty the Klown running for Congress as a Republican, and we take Fox News to task and point out what a rabid, right-wing twenty-four-hour spewing that station is. Fox told us to take it out, so we put more jokes in. Characters on our show drink, smoke, don’t wear their seat belts, litter and fire guns. In this season’s Halloween episode, there’s probably more gunfire than in the entire history of The Sopranos.
You would think at this point that Fox would give you carte blanche.
When The Simpsons started, Fox was run in a very intuitive way. Now it’s run like every other network. They’re scared and trying to hold audiences who are playing video games, watching The Sopranos and skateboarding. It’s tough to run a network these days, but just to show how misguided they are: I pitched a spinoff of The Simpsons — imagine the idea of Teen Homer or Li’l Homer’s Adventures. Fox wasn’t interested, which is baffling. The only thing I can figure is they didn’t like the idea of another show being done without their paws on it. Ego trumped greed in this particular case, and that’s really saying something. Rupert Murdoch might not have been happy with his henchmen, if he knew about it.
What’s the most significant way that television has changed since The Simpsons started fourteen seasons ago?
All the networks have a feeling of flailing to me. They’re so desperate to keep the viewers, they’re using all this visual chatter. It’s sort of like a fancy restaurant where everyone is talking louder because everyone’s talking louder, and you still can’t hear. This is what TV is like, with the thing running across the bottom and the little bug in the corner and the logo. What it does is it disengages the viewer. I’ve talked to networks about how the promos for their shows are so self-hating, it’s obvious that the people making the shows hate the shows. Shows come along that are witty and carefully made and blow people’s minds like The Sopranos, and then you realize that they can be done.
How do you keep a balance between sticking to your original idea and changing with the times?
The show has deviated incredibly from what it started out as, and it will continue to change as the years go on. To the show’s credit, we’re still telling jokes and stories that are new. And that’s a testimony to the writers, who do a fantastic job. We make some missteps, but we acknowledge it on the show. We had an episode where it was revealed that Principal Skinner was an impostor. By the time we finished the episode, we realized it was a mistake, and we had a judge say, “We’ll never speak of this matter again.” And we never did.
In what ways hasn’t the show changed?
The comedic message of the show can’t be that life is lousy and you’re a fool for caring. And we keep the family front and center, even though we fall in love with other characters. You’ll know that we jumped the shark when we finally do a special episode about the squeaky-voiced teen.
Do you play music at all?
I’m in a band. We’re called the Rock Bottom Remainders — it’s an all-writers band, with Amy Tan and Stephen King. Our great moment of glory was playing with Springsteen. He played during our encore at a booksellers’ convention at the Hollywood Palladium several years ago. We played “Gloria,” and afterward he said to us, “Don’t get any better,” which you could take in several different ways.
Can you relate to the role that Homer plays in the season opener? Ever wish you could have been a rock star?
Maybe if I had some musical talent. But, no, I wanted to be Igor Stravinsky. The idea of hairstyle and fashion, none of that appealed to me.
What did Igor Stravinsky’s hair look like?
He looked like Mr. Burns.