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Articles

An Interview with Matt Groening

February 22nd, 1999

PETER ROTH, president of Fox Entertainment: I was delighted a couple of months ago, when Matt told me that he had finally -- after three years of begging -- that he would finally do another series for our network. And so it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you the man responsible for "The Simpsons," the man who is responsible for one of our most exciting new prospects for the future of "Futurama." Mr. Matt Groening.

GROENING: I just want to say -- the three years of begging were begging by Peter Roth. Not me begging him. Do I stand here or I sit? I sit, okay. Am I talking or -- I'm just answering questions? Or, or what?

QUESTION: What is "Futurama?"

GROENING: What is "Futurama?" The first question. "Futurama" is the TV series that my team and I are working on right now. It is a -- it comes from having grown up reading science fiction and -- even before I read science fiction, my older brother Mark [sp] had a huge collection of science fiction books and magazines. And I would -- I loved those covers.

You know that thing at the end of "Planet of the Apes" with the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand? Well that was done as a science fiction magazine cover about fifteen times. And I loved that. And I want to do that kind of thing on a TV show. All these great visuals. I thought it would be really neat to take some of the conventions of science fiction and, and have fun with them in a "Simpsons"-style way. And, that's it.

The poster here (hanging over Groening's head at the news conference) is actually pretty indicative of the visual style of the show. If you look closely you see -- you'll see the characters have the big eyeballs and the overbites a la "The Simpsons." However, it is not a spin-off of "The Simpsons." Their skin is not yellow.

I also was going to -- at one point -- give the characters five fingers instead of four. And, we designed the characters with that in mind. The animators complained about a term they have in animation called pencil mileage. And, over the long life of a TV series, the pencil mileage of having to draw that extra finger adds up. [laughter] So we have gone back to the four fingers. However, (the robot) -- that one in the middle -- has only three fingers, so -- that's pretty much a good beginning. Next question?


QUESTION: So, who are the characters?

GROENING: The three main characters in "Futurama" are Fry -- who is a guy from our time who has a tragic mishap on New Year's Eve 1999. He gets frozen. He gets frozen -- and I'm not going to give you the details. But he ends up waking up a thousand years in the future on New Year's Eve 2999. And he ends up meeting up with this alien woman named Leela -- with the one eye there. She wears her hair down a little, too. Sort of to disguise that. [laughter] And -- I thought it would be really cool if we could design this sexy woman that had one eye, you know. Make -- anyway.

And then there's Bender. And Bender's like -- he's the standout character right now on this show. He's our robotic Homer Simpson. He's just totally corrupt -- lovably corrupt -- a la Homer. Loves his vices. I think he's the first robot in science fiction who shoplifts. He's got a little door in his abdomen that he's able to put things in. And also take out whatever props we need. A la Bugs Bunny. You know how Bugs Bunny always pulls out the -- I'm losing my ... those are the three main characters. And, like "The Simpsons," "Futurama" will have dozens and dozens of other characters in every episode.

We took such a long time developing this thing. With "The Simpsons" it's just -- it's Springfield. It's this fictional town and there's the equivalent of Dairy Queen and Denny's and, you know, normal beers and stuff like that are all fictional versions of them. On "Futurama" it's the same thing, except we're doing the whole universe. And, so, it requires a little bit more planning. And that's why it took three years to put this thing together.


We have -- again, there was so much fun on "The Simpsons," creating the kinds of details that other TV shows -- live action shows can't do. On "The Simpsons" we have TV shows within the show. We have "Krusty the Clown," and we have Kent Brockman, the newscaster and we have the "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoon. So, a cartoon within a cartoon. We have all that on "Futurama," too. The number one show -- in the future -- is "The Mass Hypnosis Hour." [laughter] And, no doubt it's on FOX. [laughter] And we have - you know - highly addictive soft drinks and all sorts of other futuristic things.

QUESTION: What are your sci-fi inspirations? And can you give us an idea -- you always do a good job with the voices matching these crazy characters -- any voice names that you can give us?

GROENING: We're in the middle of negotiations with somebody who's really big and -- I can't do, I can't leap and say that my big -- give my big announcement today. But, we've got lots of -- we got good voices. Nobody from "The Simpsons" -- wait, I take that back. Tress MacNeille who does voices on "The Simpsons" is one of our cast members, but none of the other -- is that true? Is that right? Nobody else? Yeah. I wish I could make the announcement now, but I can't. Maybe in a couple of days.

QUESTION: Your sci-fi inspiration?

GROENING: Oh, yeah -- sci-fi. ... well, literarily -- I grew up reading -- again, my older brother has a science fiction collection. So I read Asimov and Heinlein and Phillip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley and Clifford Simak and Alfred Bester and Cordwainer Smith and, you know, on and on. So I read it all.

And, I threw away or got rid of most of those books. And, I spent -- starting five or six years ago -- I started assembling my collection again. And -- what's amazing about all these science fiction books, by the way, is you can still find them in used bookstores. They're just, they're all -- you can find them. And, a lot of them don't hold up in that a lot of them take place in the early `80s, you know. And, things turned out a little differently than most of the books depict. But, they're still really fun.

So anyway -- yeah -- so, the inspiration is partly all these things in literary science fiction. When I was a kid, I would read these books and I was so excited by some of the adventurous ideas. Particularly Phillip K. Dick and I really thought Robert Sheckley's work was very funny. And, I thought, boy, it's really going to be great when I'm grown up and special effects get so much better. And, they'll be able to do all the things that are depicted in these books. And, I grew up and I found a lot of science fiction concepts really annoying. And, so this show is an opportunity to both honor some of the conventions of science fiction and satirize them. Have fun with them.


QUESTION: Mr. Groening -- back here. A question about --

GROENING: [overlapping] I'm sorry, this person was next and then --

QUESTION: When will we see this good show?

GROENING: It's mid-season. No particular time, yet.

QUESTION: Matt.

GROENING: Yes.

QUESTION: You mentioned before that, you know, that obviously these characters resemble "The Simpsons" characters. Are you concerned that -- even though you're saying it's not a spin-off -- the viewers might think that it's some sort of spin-off? Or is this an intentional thing that -- people obviously love "The Simpsons" characters so this is going to help build an audience for the show?

GROENING: Well, this is -- no, this is the tragedy of my limited drawing skills. All -- I've been drawing this way since I was a kid. If you read my "Life in Hell" comic strip it's -- they all look the same too, you know.

QUESTION: Did you try to come up with a different style or work with people who could --

GROENING: You know, we once -- we had Jay Leno on "The Simpsons" and -- do you know how impossible it is to draw Jay Leno with that chin in "The Simpsons" style? [laughter] It can't be done -- you know?

QUESTION: Are you guaranteed the post-"Simpsons" time slot?

GROENING: No. No -- I don't know what they're going to do with the show.

QUESTION: Matt, you note that "The Simpsons" --

GROENING: [overlap] I think it would make sense, but -- [laughter] What?

QUESTION: You note that "The Simpsons" are still on a thousand years in the future. But what about -- in this reality -- how long do you see "The Simpsons" actually continuing? Do you hope that "Futurama" ultimately can one day sort of bridge the gap, that once you have that established that "The Simpsons" would go away? Or do you think "The Simpsons" can go on for another ten years? And what is the current status of your deal with FOX? Is it up this year?

GROENING: I don't know how long "The Simpsons" is going to run. It's surprised me that it's gone on this long. But -- the surprise isn't so much -- I mean, I love the show. And, I was just saying during lunch that -- this coming season on "The Simpsons" is as good as any we've ever done or better. The writers -- led by Mike Scully, executive producer, are fantastic. They get the characters. And they're writing to the characters. And they're creating original stories that not only don't repeat what we've done on "The Simpsons" -- they also don't repeat anything else I've seen on television. This coming season has some really great, surprising stories. I can't remember the next part of your question.

QUESTION: How long would you like it to go on?

GROENING: You know -- I want it to go on. I mean if we -- I want us to go out on top. I want us to go out, you know, doing great shows. I hope we don't run it into the ground. But like I said, this coming season on "The Simpsons" is fantastic. So, you know, no end in sight.

QUESTION: Matt -- last year in this room there was a FOX pitch about winning "The Simpsons" house and we got a whole lunch on that. I don't know whatever happened, quite frankly. But, did that come with your blessing? Or did you frown upon it? Or were you happy?

GROENING: I thought it was great. You know, everybody -- it seems like everybody at FOX got on "The Simpsons" jet and flew to Las Vegas. If that jet had gone down -- man. [laughter) Yeah. It was great. It was really fun. I did pitch the idea that -- at the end of the time that the house was being publicized -- that FOX actually blow it up. You know -- live on TV. But --

QUESTION: Did they do that?

GROENING: No. But, you know -- hey, they could still do it.

QUESTION: Matt, back here --

GROENING: [overlapping] You know what? Actually there is -- we don't know, I don't know -- what is the status of the house? Somebody said it was going to be -- it's going on the lot? It's not my office.

QUESTION: Matt, one of the things about "The Simpsons" that makes it so fun -- among a lot of things -- is, are the celebrity voices you bring in. And while you're not saying who the lead voices will be for "Futurama," do you have any idea of -- will you be bringing celebrity voices in for "Futurama?" And, do you have any idea of who they may be?

GROENING: Well, I will -- this is an open casting call. Any celebrity -- who's big enough -- we will have on "Futurama," if you're willing to play yourself as a disembodied head in a jar. [laughter] We've put the call out. We've got some good response. I'm taking the first leap. I am a head in a jar on the first episode. And, we also have Leonard Nimoy, and Dick Clark doing "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve 3000." [laughter and applause]

QUESTION: May I? Matt, FOX has taken -- I guess the only show that's ever worked, really -- in the ratings at least -- after "The Simpsons" -- "King of the Hill," and taking it to Tuesdays. I think the creators have said in the past that "King of the Hill" kind of helped draw maybe more viewers to "The Simpsons" because it was an environment -- kind of an animated environment. Do you have any feelings about whether it might hurt the show when they take that and put it elsewhere?

GROENING: You know, I -- I don't know. Again, as I was saying earlier today at lunch. I said, "Is there a network that doesn't change its schedule around?" I mean, you can't count on any of that stuff ."The Simpsons," we used to be on Sunday night -- back in the beginning. Then it was moved to Thursday. Now it's back on Sunday. Things move around. I do not understand the mysteries of TV scheduling.

QUESTION: Over here. Thanks. What are some of the conventions of science fiction that you skewer?

GROENING: Well, most TV science fiction is about people traveling through outer space and looking out of a porthole. Right? And there's a lot of starfield around. Because they can't afford to go to earth and show the sets. On our show, we are able to actually go to earth and deal with some of the problems and -- well, some of the problems of the future and some of the problems that we deal with right now. And, I'm sorry -- I've lost the question. What is it? What am I skewering?

QUESTION: You talked about some of these sci-fi conventions that you hated when you got older and started reading stuff. I wondered what some of the conventions were that you might be skewering on the show -- or paying homage to.

GROENING: Well I -- you know, I love "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" and all the variations on them. However, I wanted to do a TV show in which the problems of the universe are not solved by militarism guided by New Age spirituality. I just thought -- let's try something different, you know. It's not a knock. It's not a knock on the optimism of those shows. I just have a slightly -- I'm going to get fired -- a slightly more subversive take, I think.

QUESTION: Matt, from the production of an animated perspective, how much more difficult will "Futurama" be than "The Simpsons"?

GROENING: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: For both the animation and the production end of it, how much more difficult will "Futurama" be compared to "The Simpsons"?

GROENING: Work manages to expand to fill the time available to do it. And there's certain things on this show that we are -- that are going to gain us some time. We're doing some computer animation, which is also going to make the show look flashier. And then -- but because of those ambitions, we're really pushing ourselves and it's going to take about the same as "The Simpsons," which is a lot of really, long hard work.

One of the nice things about this show is that this comes after -- you know, I've been doing "The Simpsons" since 1987 on "The Tracey Ullman Show," and I've learned pretty much what works comedically, and this is -- the whole phenomenon of "The Simpsons" in 1990 was based on 13 episodes that we did without knowing how they were going to turn out. All of those first 13 episodes were in the works before we got the results of first episode.


On "Futurama," we've got the luxury of looking back at the whole history of "The Simpsons" and picking out what worked on "The Simpsons" and trying some of that and trying some new stuff. And one of the things I'm really excited about is I'm working with an animation house called Rough Draft, which is run by Greg Vanzo [sp) and head animator Rich Moore, who are original "Simpsons" animators. And it's just -- back in the beginning of "The Simpsons," these animators -- there had never been a show like "The Simpsons." And it took quite some training in order to make the animation clunky enough to fit these clunky characters.

We had a scene in the first episode of "The Simpsons" in which Marge and Homer go out dancing. And the animators animated it absolutely beautifully. It was Marge and Homer. They were dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And I said, "No. They're middle-aged creaky people and the whole -- even as beautiful as it is, it's extremely disturbing to watch. [laughter) Anyway, so we've learned a lot in the past 11 years and we're going to try to build on that.

QUESTION: Matt, this morning we had a panel here with a lot of the top producers in the business. And they were asked what their favorite show was, and most of them named "The Simpsons." Do you have any idea, as the creator of that show, what is the creative success of it? Is it the writing? Is it the -- what do you think it is that makes so many levels of people out there like that show?


GROENING: It's really funny, you know. I think because it's a really -- it really delivers the goods just on that level. It's a really funny show. I think the characters are surprisingly likable, given how ugly they are. [laughter] And when it came around, there really was nothing else like it on TV.

I mean, again, it's hard to imagine this, but when "The Simpsons" was first -- when FOX first took the plunge with "The Simpsons," it was considered controversial to put animation on in prime time. That was like a big deal. You know, obviously with all of these animated shows now, it's not a big deal. But it's just amazing that -- to me -- that that was considered an absolutely unbelievably risky move.


QUESTION: Well, after 11 years, how hard is it to hold that -- up the quality of it?

GROENING: Well, we got -- a lot of writers moved on to other things. Conan (O'Brien), you know, went on to his thing. We got a bunch of new writers. We have writers now who tell me they grew up watching "The Simpsons." [laughter] It's bizarre. They're writing some really funny stuff. Let me just -- we got a -- I don't know, I'm just telling you these little plot lines. I don't know if it's going to mean that much, but -- [reading] "keeping a secret proves difficult for Homer when he lands a personal assistant job working for Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. [laughter] It's a good one.

"Homer becomes obsessed" -- he wants to be like Thomas Edison in an episode. He wants to -- and he figures he's never going to catch up with Thomas Edison. It's a whole show about trying to beat Edison. That's a bizarre one. We have our obligatory Jerry Springer appearance on "The Simpsons." We have an "Ally McBeal" crossover coming up. [laughter] [Fox publicists later told critics there will not be an "Ally McBeal" crossover]

We finally find out Homer's middle name. All these years, it's been Homer J. Simpson. And we find out what the "J" stands for. [Several critics urge Groening to spill the secret, but he refuses with a grin.] Come on. [laughter]


"Homer raises a lobster." [laughter] You know, he goes to the store and he wants to get lobster. It's too expensive, so he gets a baby lobster to raise it. [laughter] There's a good one.


You know, I don't want to reveal too much, but -- wait, wait, wait -- this is one I'm really happy with. "Ned Flanders has a mid-life crisis." You know, Ned Flanders? Hi-diddly-o! So Homer takes him to Las Vegas where they take a walk on the wild side: waking up having married two cocktail waitresses the night before. [laughter] That's a good one. Anyway, that's enough of that.


QUESTION: Matt, I've enjoyed the book "The Simpsons" episode guide that you did with Ray Richmond.

GROENING: Yes.

QUESTION: And I just wanted to ask, it's a different book for most episode guides, and I wanted to ask you about putting that book together and what your thought is on it's completion?

GROENING: You know, it was an incredible team effort. If you don't know this book it's -- what's the actual title of it? "The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family." On the Internet, Our Favorite Family. O.F.F. is the acronym for "The Simpsons." And it really is an encyclopedic guide to the show. I mean, there's certain shows that I'm a big fan of, and I've gone to look at their episode guides, and they're pretty flimsy stuff.

On "The Simpsons," we decided to do one that would blow all of the rest of them out of the water. So the type is really tiny, you know. And we're going to do either -- I think biannual updates of the book.

QUESTION: Matt, you said how there's a tremendous growth in animation and so forth. I don't think there's too much prime-time animation on NBC, ABC, or CBS. Why do you think it's so hard for those networks to take in different format of a half hour show?

GROENING: I don't think that "The Simpsons" could have been done on any other network than FOX. You know, FOX takes chances in a way that the other networks don't.

QUESTION: But now the most successful, longest running entertainment show on television is a cartoon. Why don't the big networks try to have a cartoon or --?

GROENING: I think, again, I think FOX takes risks. You know, one of the ways I pitched "Futurama" to Peter Roth was to say, you know, "Hey, I gave you this other hit show. Let me try it again." But the show, "Futurama," is not an obvious choice. There's -- there's going to be nothing else like "Futurama" when it's on the air.

And you know, I'm eternally in Peter Roth's debt for taking that risk of trying something that's going to be pretty wild, but really ambitious. Again, I think it's unique to FOX. I think FOX does shows that you won't see on other networks. I can't imagine "The Simpsons" on another network.


In fact, some of "The Simpsons" writers have gone on to do shows on other networks, and they tried things that we've done on "The Simpsons," and the people at the other networks say, "No, you can't do that." And they say, "Well, we did it on `The Simpsons."' And they were told, we would never have "The Simpsons" on our network.


QUESTION: Matt, other than "The Simpsons," what are your favorite shows?

GROENING: I am really partial to a Japanese cooking show called "Iron Chef" Any of you familiar with that? Really? Good. "Iron Chef" is a cross between "American Gladiators" and Julia Child. It's fantastic.

The chef challenger comes out, and he gets to pick between one of three Iron Chefs to have a cooking contest with, and with big, dramatic, bombastic music, they present the chefs with a mystery ingredient and -- in one of my favorite episodes it was a giant spider crab with legs about ten feet -- it's a wild show. I don't think it's in every market. [laughter]


I like "King of the Hill." I like "Ally McBeal." I like "Dr. Katz." You know.

QUESTION: How about "South Park"?

GROENING: You know, I haven't seen "South Park" that much. I got two little kids, so I switch the channel.

QUESTION: Matt, what about all the merchandising that you do on "The Simpsons"?

GROENING: Yeah.

QUESTION: Will there be a lot of merchandising on "Futurama," too?

GROENING: Let's see -- a show that has ray guns, and robots, and space ships -- yeah, I think they'll be some merchandising. We draw the line, though. No Pogs. [laughter] No Pogs.

Yeah, we'll do it. I mean, that's part of -- look, I can't imagine doing a cartoon show ... without thinking about the merchandising. And not for the crass reasons. I mean I like that it -- I like the money, but to me, it's fun. I like the toys. I like doing that stuff, you know. To me, it's part of the whole experience. The show is the most important part, but the peripheral stuff -- like the episode guide that was mentioned earlier. To me that's not as much fun, but almost as much fun as the show.

QUESTION: Matt, can you talk about the premise for the "Ally McBeal" cross-over and will you use all the characters --

GROENING: It's a Halloween episode. It's on our - it's one of our "Treehouse of Horror" segments. It's part of it.

QUESTION: And you use the --

GROENING: -- Bart and Lisa get sucked into the TV.

QUESTION: -- And the cast members will be doing their voices, I take it?

GROENING: You know, I don't want to give too much away. But it wasn't a joke. I mean, it's going to happen. [Publicist's note: There will be no "Ally McBeal" crossover.]

QUESTION: Matt, you say, let's take risks. Would it be more than your life is worth to make jokes about Rupert Murdoch's divorce?

GROENING: Yeah, right. [laughter] We're in negotiations with Rupert Murdoch to play himself on "The Simpsons." It will be the smallest paycheck he will ever have received. [laughter]

QUESTION: Is Danny Elfman scoring "Futurama"'s theme?

GROENING: I've talked to Danny, and he's interested. He's real busy, but if he can, he says he's interested.

QUESTION: How many episodes has FOX committed to "Futurama"?

GROENING: 13.

QUESTION: Matt, "The Simpsons" succeeded with what you called really a clunky animation style. And all through the `90s, we've seen future attempts or future efforts with animation seemingly getting clunkier and clunkier. And some of the stuff that we've seen this year, including "Family Guy," is the clunkiest of all. What do you think when you see this stuff yourself? What are you thinking?

GROENING: You know, I don't think everything has to be up the heights of Disney and Warner Bros. Classic animation. "The Simpsons" certainly got it's own limited level that -- where we can meet our budgets and meet our schedule. You do what's appropriate to the cartoon. I'm a huge fan of "Rocky & Bullwinkle." What was great about that show was not the animation, which was terrible. It had great writing, great music, and great voices. And I think if you have that combination, the animation can be clunky.

QUESTION: Were you serious about Murdoch episode?

GROENING: Yes. Yes. He -- you know, if Rupert Murdoch will do it, then he'll say the lines that have been written for him. It will happen.

QUESTION: He's playing himself?

GROENING: Yes. If it happens. It hasn't been recorded yet, so we'll see.

ROTH: Last question.

QUESTION: I'm not sure how this question is going to come out so, bear with me. How much difference does it make, do you think, in the show's longevity that you're dealing with characters that are animated? They're not real people who are changing, getting older. Does that help keep the show fresher than if you were -- if this had been the same show with real actors?

GROENING: It's just a conceptual decision that you are able to make in animation. I mean it's a great thing. You don't have the sad -- you don't have to do those sad reunion shows, you know, 25 years later. It's still Bart. He's ten. Bart's turned ten, you know, ten time now.

QUESTION: I mean a lot of sitcoms die after five years, and I don't know how much of it is just that we've become bored with it. If it's the actors we just get tired of looking at. Or it's the writers that get tired of it. And this show just seems to be able to maintain some freshness. I don't know if it's because it's animated that you're able to maintain it because they always look the same.

GROENING: I think with "The Simpsons," we've got such a huge cast of characters that it's -- we can move around. And over the last few seasons, we've explored some of the secondary characters' personal lives a little bit more. And again, same thing with "Futurama," what I always thought was something that most TV shows didn't do, and don't do, is reward you for paying attention. I mean, if you just let most shows go by, it's okay.

But on "The Simpsons," if you really pay attention, there's stuff hidden in the backgrounds. And we have even what we call freeze-frame gags which you can't get unless you videotape the show, go back, and freeze-frame it. And I love that. I love the idea that we put in jokes that kids don't get. And that later, when they grow up, and they read a few books, and go to college, and watch the show again, they can get the show on a completely different level. And we're doing the same thing on "Futurama."


JOE EARLEY, FOX publicist: All right. Thank you all very much.

 


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