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 HW 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.
- 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. His recurrent mocking of Richard Nixon is an enjoyment that stems from a personal dislike.
- Bad Present
- 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 very fond of Adolf Hitler jokes or otherwise racist jokes. Despite sometimes allowing a few of them in his work he mostly discourages his writers to make jokes about this topic.
- And he especially hated Hanna-Barbera animation when he first got started as a cartoonist.
- 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".
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Happens occasionally.
- Breakthrough Hit: He's a big animation name primarily thanks to The Simpsons.
- Brick Joke
- 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, George Bush Sr. in The Simpsons
- Fry, Zoidberg, Richard Nixon in Futurama.
- Catch Phrase
- Children Are Innocent: Usually subverted (Bart Simpson, anyone?) Will still be played straight on occasion.
- Corrupt Church: Religion, philosophers and people trying to get rich by selling cheap truths are a frequent target.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, Mom, owner of Momcorp in Futurama.
- Corrupt Politician: Always corrupt or not to be trusted.
- 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 meet.
- Creator Cameo: Done regularly.
- Cross Over
- 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.
- 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 drugs and sexual topics can be spotted too.
- 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.
- Eccentric Townsfolk
- 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.
- Four-Fingered Hands
- Free-Range Children: Both in "Life in Hell" and "The Simpsons" the children are 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!!
- Halfway Plot Switch
- 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.
- Hot Mom: Marge Simpson and Maude Flanders being good examples of this in "The Simpsons".
- Leela could be considered a Hot Team Mom in "Futurama".
- 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
- Loads and Loads of Characters
- 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
- 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.
- 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 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 Goons, 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, Joel And Ethan Coen, FW Murnau, Diane Arbus, Jackie Chan, Fela Kuti, Pere Ubu, The Residents....
- Parental Bonus
- 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, Phillip J. Fry) becomes a police officer, though this situation does not last long due to Status Quo Is God.
- Punbased Title
- Quest for Identity: A big theme in his entire work.
- Reciprocal Fiction Paradox: 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".
- Reference Overdosed: Most will fly over the general public's head.
- Rule of Funny
- Running Gag: Several!
- Sadist Show
- 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: Several!
- The Smurfette Principle:
- Sheila from "Life in Hell" is "basically Binky in drag", as Groening admitted himself.
- Kirk and Luann Van Houten in "The Simpsons".
- Chief Wiggum and his wife in "The Simpsons".
- 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.
- In the episode "When Flanders Failed" it turns out that Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns and Moe are alle left handed, including a large group of citizens of Springfield as well.
- Sphere Eyes
- Take That: His work pokes fun at everybody, from all kinds of the political, economical, cultural and sociological spectrum.
- Take That, Audience!
- 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, but he 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!
- Other names were burrowed from family members (Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie, Patty), 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.