The man himself.
Matt Groening (1954) started off in 1977 as a underground cartoonist, best known for his comic strip Life in Hell
. Influenced by Peanuts
, Underground Comics
and cult artists like Frank Zappa
, Captain Beefheart
and The Fugs
the comic is perhaps Groening's most personal work. Its central characters are two gay little men called Akbar and Jeff and a white rabbit family. The cartoons already poked fun at topics that Groening would later attack in his animated shows: politics, religion, school, family, work, relationships and modern society in general. The comic became a cult success and by the mid 1980s Groening was approached by James L. Brooks
to make an animated TV adaptation of "Life In Hell". Initially Groening agreed, until he learned that he would lose the rights to the comic strip. So instead, he came up with a totally new concept, which became The Simpsons
started off in 1987 as extremely short cartoons used as bumpers before and after commercials during the Tracey Ullman
Show. Despite being crudely animated and a lot of Early Installment Weirdness
the segments caught on with the American public. By 1989 Groening got the chance to turn the series into a full length prime time animated series, something that hadn't been done since The Flintstones
in the 1960s. The show quickly became a critically lauded mainstream success, especially thanks to Breakout Character
Bart Simpson. It became the first prime time cartoon series since The Flintstones
to become popular both with children and adults. Its clever satire, edgy subversiveness, hilarious gags and beyond all that recognizable emotional depth were praised. Its cult success paved the way for other adult cartoon series such as Beavis And Butthead
, South Park
and Family Guy
. Yet, the show wasn't without its critics. Especially in the early years many parents and educators complained about certain scenes they deemed to be offensive or unsuitable for children. Even president George H.W. Bush
attacked the series during the 1992 Republican National Convention by claiming that "the American family should be a lot more like The Waltons
and a lot less like The Simpsons
." Only a week later The Simpsons
reacted by letting Bart say: "Hey, we're just like the Waltons. We're all praying for an end to the depression too." Coincidence or not, but Bush lost the elections later that year.The Simpsons
continued its succesful run and is still on television to this day, despite claims that the show isn't as good as it used to be. In 1999 Groening launched another animated series , Futurama
, around a totally different concept. Set in the far future, "Futurama", mostly spoofs every science fiction or future dystopia concept in a similar satirical way like The Simpsons
. The program never reached the same amount of immediate popularity that The Simpsons
did and was thus cancelled by FOX until Comedy Central
revived the series a few years later. Still, its audience keeps growing and will probably be Vindicated by History
Also worth mentioning: his entire work is very fit for analysis of the Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory
kind. The themes can be interpreted in several ways, though, for the record: Groening is a liberal (in the American sense of the word) and identifies himself as agnostic.
Works of Matt Groening:
Tropes used in his works:
- Ambiguously Gay: Akbar and Jeff in Life in Hell, Smithers, Lenny and Carl in The Simpsons.
- Amusing Injuries
- And Knowing Is Half the Battle: Always parodied.
- Animation Age Ghetto: Subverted. Though The Simpsons and Futurama "can" be watched by children there are a lot of subversive moments or otherwise adult themes that in most cases will just confuse them or fly over their heads.
- Animation Bump: Compare some of the older Simpsons episodes to the newer ones, and you can clearly see this in effect.
- Art Evolution: Groening has never been a great artist from a technical point of view. He can only draw people with bug-like eyeballs and huge overbites. The early Simpsons cartoons look very ugly because his animators used to trace his own drawings instead of modefying them. In time The Simpsons' art became impressively better, though "Life in Hell" hasn't evolved that much.
- Artistic License
- Art Shift: Also done regularly.
- The episode "Brother From The Same Planet" had a cameo of Ren and Stimpy, animated by animators of that show themselves.
- In "Lady Bouvier's Lover" Homer imagines his children becoming pink creatures with five fingers on each hand. Cue to Bart, Lisa and Maggie suddenly transforming into realistically drawn white people for a second.
- In "The Itchy & Scratchy Movie" several old Itchy & Scratchy cartoons from the 1920s and 1940s are animated in a different style mimicking cartoons from that time period. This happened again in "The Day The Violence Died", when the first Itchy the Mouse cartoon from 1919 was seen and a parody of Schoolhouse Rock was broadcast on TV.
- The episode "HOMR" has a parody of Davey and Goliath, also done in their typical claymation style.
- Bart tells a scary story, "Dark Stanley", in the episode "Yokel Chords", which is also animated in a different, more macabre style.
- In "How Munched Is That Birdie In The Window?" the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon "Dog Gone Hellody of 1933" is a stylistic parody of Pluto's Judgement Day.
- The episode "Angry Dad: The Movie" has stylistic parodies of The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, Wallace & Gromit and Toy Story, all animated in different their respective styles.
- The couch gag of "What To Expect When Bart's Expecting" has a stylistic parody of the claymation cartoons of Art Clokey, even with a cameo of Gumby.
- Several couch gags have been animated by guest animated directors, including John Kricfalusi, Sylvain Chomet, Bill Plympton,...
- The Futurama episode Reincarnated has stylistic parodies of the Fleischer cartoons, early computer games and anime.
- The episode "Simpsons Guy" is a crossover between "The Simpsons" and "Futurama".
- Author Appeal: A lot of the stuff referenced in his comics and animated cartoon shows is semi-autobiographical. Little winks to his childhood friends can be found, as well as references to his own personal favorite artists and topics. His recurrent mocking of Richard Nixon is an enjoyment that stems from a personal dislike.
- Bad Present
- Belief Makes You Stupid: Several jokes in Groening's work poke fun at the absurdities and inconsistencies of religion.
- Berserk Button: Groening really hates Richard Nixon and thus poked fun at him several times in his work. In "Futurama" Nixon is President of Earth, but ridiculed whenever he appears. In an interview Groening expressed pleasure "in kicking Nixon from beyond the grave".
- Groening is also not fond of Adolf Hitler jokes and otherwise racist gags. He discourages his writers to write jokes about these topics, but has let a few good ones pass.
- And he especially hates Hanna-Barbera animation.
- Bilingual Bonus:
- Happens regularly in The Simpsons.
- In "Futurama" a fictional alien language is used in backgrounds so that fans can decipher it.
- Biting-the-Hand Humor: Especially the Fox network.
- Black Comedy
- Boarding School of Horrors: "Life in Hell" even has a volume called "School is Hell".
- Also a prominent theme in "The Simpsons".
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Happens occasionally.
- Breakthrough Hit: Groening's a big animation name primarily thanks to The Simpsons.
- Brick Joke: Used often.
- Butt Monkey:
- Binky and Bongo in Life In Hell
- Bart, Homer, Millhouse, Moe, Smithers, Hans Moleman, Lenny, Gil, Squeaky Voiced Teen, Scratchy, Martin Prince, Principal Skinner, Granpa, Richard Nixon, George Bush Sr. in The Simpsons
- Fry, Zoidberg, Richard Nixon in Futurama.
- Catch Phrase: His work has several ones.
- Children Are Innocent: Usually subverted (Bart Simpson, anyone?) Will still be played straight on occasion.
- Corrupt Church: Religious people, philosophers and frauds trying to get rich by selling cheap truths are a frequent target. Reverend Lovejoy is the most self-evident example.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, and Mom, owner of Momcorp in Futurama act as the primary antagonists of their respective series.
- Corrupt Politician: Always corrupt or not to be trusted. Major Quimby in "The Simpsons" and Nixon in "Futurama" are perhaps the most prominent examples.
- Crapsaccharine World
- Crapsack World
- Creator Backlash: Groening was so opposed against the Simpsons episode "A Star Is Burns" that he took his name off the episode. He felt that producer James L. Brooks simply wanted to make a commercial for his other animated series The Critic by letting Jay Sherman and Homer Simpson have a Cross Over.
- Creator Cameo: Done regularly.
- Cross Over: References to Groening's other works are often made.
- In the fall of 2014 two crossover episodes will be made between "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" and "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy".
- Credits Gag:
- Darker and Edgier:
- "Life in Hell" handled themes that most mainstream cartoon strips never tackled with.
- "The Simpsons" went in the air at a time when most TV animation was aimed at children and thus very safe and formulaic. It immediately attracted attention because of its subversive content, often featuring themes that you wouldn't see or hear in mainstream animation.
- Deliberately Monochrome: "Life In Hell" is published in black and white.
- Denser and Wackier: Both "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" evolved to this point.
- Deranged Animation: Not so much in drawing style, but certain plots and scenes are really off the wall.
- Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: A theme in his entire work.
- Different in Every Episode:
- Bart Simpson writes a different line on the blackboard at the start of each episode.
- Couch Gag: The Simpsons run to their couch in front of the TV, but always do something different.
- The Church of Springfield has a different "topic for today" on its billboard whenever it gets in frame.
- "Futurama" has a different line beneath their opening credits every episode.
- When "Futurama" aired on FOX there was always a different segment from a classic animated cartoon seen on the giant television screen.
- Distinctive Appearances: Groening has a theory that characters are made memorable by a recognizable silhouette. He implies this rule with his own characters as well, specifically Bart Simpson's hairline to name one.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Many plots of The Simpsons and Futurama are actually parodies of certain films, TV shows, novels or historical events.
- A lot of Hidden Messages can be found as well.
- Innuendos and allusions to very adult stuff can be spotted too.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing
- Bart Simpson is a cool, rebellious troublemaker with no respect for authority. The character has been criticized often for being a bad role model for children.
- Bender the robot has no sense of morality or ethics, goes around insulting everybody while drinking beer and smoking cigars. Yet as Matt Groening explained: "He can't be a bad role model for children, because he's a robot!"
- Groening himself is also a good example. He often got in trouble as a kid for disobeying his teachers, drawing cartoons in class and enjoying subversive comics, books and music. His parents and teachers often told him that he was wasting his life with watching tv and drawing cartoons. Even though Matt's father was a cartoonist and amateur film maker himself! Yet, despite all the discouraging messages Matt Groening did manage to become rich and succesful from his drawings.
- Early Installment Weirdness:
- The early "Life in Hell" cartoons had a different tone. It features the rabbit Binky bickering about all of his life's problems. Only when Groening changed him into a victim of society the cartoon became successful.
- The early "Simpsons" are hardly recognizable at all. Their physical designs were very ugly, the animation was amateuristic and many jokes were still very cartoonish and generic. It did have an edginess and subversions, but only in the second season did the satirical component finally start to blossom.
- In some of the earliest episodes Barney has yellow hair and Smithers is Afro-American. Barney's hair color was changed, because the makers felt that only the Simpsons should have the same hair color as their skin. Smithers' skin color became yellow (aka "white") because the idea of a black character acting as a servant to someone else felt a bit racist.
- In the first season there are several out-of-character moments. For instance: Homer feeling embarassed about his family and Lisa being nothing more than a female bratty copy of Bart.
- Eccentric Townsfolk: Especially in "The Simpsons" you have a real sense of a community of odd people.
- Executive Meddling: Groening's artistic vision often clashes with the executives of Fox. Still, there aren't that many scenes in both The Simpsons or Life in Hell that have been censored. Most of Fox's complaints are ignored. Groening has always been lucky that The Simpsons was so succesful, so the show was never Screwed by the Network, a fate that the less popular Futurama did have to cope with.
- Fantasy-Forbidding Father: In a strange case of Do Not Do This Cool Thing Groening's own father was a cartoonist and amateur film director yet he discouraged his own son to become a cartoonist himself.
- Fat Bastard: Homer Simpson at his worst counts for this.
- Follow the Leader: Matt Groening's TV shows have paved the way for several subversive TV sitcoms, sketch shows and animated series for adults that would never aired without the success of "The Simpsons".
- Four-Fingered Hands
- Free-Range Children: Both in "Life in Hell" and "The Simpsons" the children are (sometimes) far more mature than their respectable ages.
- Freeze-Frame Bonus: Both in "The Simpsons" and "Futurama".
- Funny Background Event: See above.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Very good with this!!
- Grandparental Obliviousness: Granpa and Mr. Burns in "The Simpsons" are quite senile and forgetful. Professor Farnsworth in "Futurama" too.
- Halfway Plot Switch: The set-up of many episodes often result in a totally unexpected ending.
- Hey, It's That Voice!: Both "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" have featured a lot of celebrities lending their voices in special guest appearances.
- Hidden Depths: To a lot of people "Life in Hell", "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" appear to be just your typical cartoon series, but they are far more mature than one would expect from a children's medium.
- Humans Are Bastards
- Humans Are Morons
- Hypocritical Humor
- In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: His signature is on every piece of merchandise from the shows he created.
- Ignored Epiphany
- Kids Are Cruel: Bart Simpson, Nelson Muntz, Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: All his animated series have hundreds of characters, all whom appear regularly in the series.
- Long Runner: All of his three best known series are still in syndication, whether this is good or not. Apart from "Life In Hell", which ended in 2012.
- Medium Awareness: In both "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" a lot of jokes are made about television and animation clichés and conventions.
- Moral Dilemma: His characters regularly face moral dilemmas. Sometimes they just do whatever they please. Other times they do follow their conscience.
- Moral Dissonance: Trying to do the good thing is usually avoided by his characters. And even when they try to there's always a chance that their efforts won't be rewarded in the way that they would want to. They even fail more often than they win.
- Mutually Fictional: In "The Simpsons" Matt Groening once voiced himself as "the creator of "Futurama"". In the world of "Futurama" he solely exists as the creator of "The Simpsons".
- My Country, Right or Wrong and My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: In his entire work Groening shows the darker side of The American Dream.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Subverted! Celebrities who provide a special guest voice in his TV shows will usually be mocked in a certain way. Celebrities who are satirized by having one of the cast members imitate their voice don't come off too well either.
- No Pronunciation Guide: Groening's name is pronounced "GRAY-ning", not "Groaning".
- A Nuclear Error: Especially in "The Simpsons" Groening's anti stance against nuclear power is made clear. From an interview: "That's why Homer works at a nuclear plant - so we can continue to make points about the nuclear industry."
- Off Model: Especially in his early work.
- One of Us: Where to start? He may be the ultimate geek, enjoying underground comics, underground music, animated cartoons, comic strips, B-movies, exotica, cult novels, as well as 20th century classical music, jazz, blues, reggae, arthouse stuff,... As a child he watched awful TV shows and got in trouble often for doodling during lessons. His tutors and parents often told him he was wasting his time, but as he puts it: "All this stuff was preliminary research for the TV shows I would later make." Among the many things he absolutely adores are Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Fugs, The Beatles, Looney Tunes, Laurel and Hardy, Monty Python, The Goon Show, Godzilla, Robert Crumb, Peanuts, Lee Scratch Perry, Augustus Pablo, Bob Marley, Igor Stravinsky, Lynda Barry, Daniel Clowes, Walt Disney, Carl Barks, Betty Boop and ''Popeye, Olivier Messiaen, J. D. Salinger, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Ren and Stimpy, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Yma Sumac, Juan Garcia Esquivel, The Coen Brothers, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Diane Arbus, Jackie Chan, Fela Kuti, Pere Ubu, The Residents....
- Parental Bonus: Parents will enjoy and understand the majority of his work better than children would.
- Police Are Useless: Chief Wiggum in "The Simpsons"; URL and Smitty from "Futurama" seem more competent, but are prone to Police Brutality. Usually averted when a main character (Marge Simpson, Philip J. Fry) becomes a police officer, though this situation does not last long due to Status Quo Is God.
- Punbased Title: Most episodes of animation series have a hidden pun.
- Quest for Identity: A big theme in his entire work.
- Reference Overdosed: "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" are full of references to both "high" and "low" culture. The chance that everybody will "get" every single reference of joke is particularly low. Even Groening doesn't get all the stuff his writers come up with.
- Rule of Funny: Certain illogical situations happen because of this rule.
- Running Gag:
- Life in Hell:
- The Simpsons:
- Homer does something stupid and shouts "D'oh!" after realizing this.
- Mr. Burns is unable to remember Homer's name.
- Bart makes a phone call to Moe under a false alias, usually a bawdy pun, yet Moe only realizes this after the entire bar laughs at his stupidity.
- Maggie is unable to stand up straight for long and usually falls down flat with a thud.
- Granpa has a tendency to suddenly fall asleep halfway a sentence, yet he just never falls over, but just keeps standing upright while snoring loudly.
- Homer takes advantage of Ned Flanders' kindness.
- Patty and Selma insult Homer.
- Comic Book Guy reviews everything with disdain, while using the phrase "Worst... ever!"
- Mrs. Krabappel and Nelson Muntz both laugh at other people's misery.
- Professor Farnsworth announces he has "Good news", yet it is usually exactly the opposite.
- The robot "Exploding Eddy" always explodes in shock.
- Sadist Show: Groening once described animation as "creating a world full of characters who hurt each other just because you want them to."
- Scary Amoral Religion: The absurdities and inconsistencies of religion, the people who preach it and those who practice it are a frequent target.
- Scenery Porn: A lot of comedy and hidden messages can be found in the background of a scene. Some of them can only be spotted when freeze framing the video.
- Shout-Out: See Reference Overdosed.
- Senior Sleep Cycle: Granpa in "The Simpsons" and professor Farnsworth in "Futurama".
- The Southpaw: Bart Simpson is actually left-handed just like Matt Groening is. Marge Simpson started out as this, but she trained herself to use her right hand also because she was being insulted for being a lefty, which means that she's now ambidextrous.
- Special Guest: His TV shows frequently have celebrities voicing themselves or playing a character. According the "Guinness Book Of Records" "The Simpsons" has even become the TV show with the most celebrity guest appearances ever!
- Groening voiced himself in a few "Simpsons" episodes.
- Sphere Eyes: A trademark.
- Take That: His work pokes fun at everybody, from all kinds of the political, economical, cultural and sociological spectrum.
- Take That, Audience!
- Talking Animal: Usually avoided, but Bongo, Binky and Sheba in "Life in Hell" and Nibbler in "Futurama" are exceptions.
- What Could Have Been: Groening once said in a "Rolling Stone" interview that he wanted to become a composer like Frank Zappa, but lacked enough musical talent.
- Originally Life in Hell would be Groening's first animated show. Producer James L. Brooks had interest in adapting it into a TV series, but Groening feared he would lose the rights to his own syndicated comic strip and/or that if it failed it would damage the comic strip's reputation. So he came up with "The Simpsons" instead.
- Write Who You Know:
- Several names of characters in "The Simpsons" were derived from streetnames in Groening's hometown Portland, Oregon: Terwilliger, Lovejoy, Flanders, Kearney, Van Houten, Quimby, Burnside,... There is even an Evergreen Terrace! The Springfield Elementary School resembles Groening's own elementary school.
- Other names were burrowed from family members (Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie, Patty, Wiggum), friends (Dolph) or characters from TV shows he used to watch (Krusty was based on TV clown Rusty Nails, for instance).
- A lot of jokes and scenes are winks to Groening's own childhood. The theory that Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost are the same character in The Simpsons episode "Three Men And A Comic Book" was something Matt and his school friends used to wonder about.