Follow TV Tropes


Creator / Matt Groening

Go To
The man himself.

"Git outta ma office!"
Matt Groening (according to his attorneys)

Matthew Abram Groeningnote  (born February 15, 1954 in Portland, Oregon) is an American cartoonist, writer, producer, and animator, known as the creator of Life in Hell, The Simpsons, Futurama, and Disenchantment.

Groening began his career in 1977 as an underground cartoonist, with Life in Hell making for his first big break. Influenced by Peanuts, Underground Comics and cult artists like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Residents 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 redrew his rabbit characters as people, named them after members of his family, and that's how Groening came up with one of America's most enduring TV shows: The Simpsons.

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 with lots 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 primetime animated series, something that hadn't been done since The Flintstones in the 1960s (or, if you want to be anal, since Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in the early 1970s). The show quickly became a critically lauded mainstream success, especially thanks to Breakout Character Bart Simpson (though later, Homer Simpson would be the breakout star and later still, it would be all the ancillary characters).

The show was the first primetime cartoon series since The Flintstones to become popular both with children and adults, being routinely praised for its clever satire, edgy subversiveness (of its time), hilarious gags and emotional depth. Its cult success additionally paved the way for other adult cartoon series such as Beavis and Butt-Head, South Park, King of the Hill, and Family Guy. However, 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 rerunning an episode and, before the episode proper began, letting Bart say, "Hey, we're just like The Waltons. We're all praying for an end to the Depression, too." Coincidence or not, Bush lost the election later that year.

The Simpsons continued its successful run and is still on television to this day, though many fans believe that the show's quality has long since faded away (thanks, in no small part, to all the Follow the Leader shows that have cropped up and found success — some of which did have former writers of the show itself).

In 1999, Groening launched another animated series, Futurama, around a totally different concept. Set in the far future (and playing out more like a "fish-out-of-water" story mixed with a workplace comedy and a Deconstructive Parody of sci-fi and futuristic pulp stories), Futurama mostly spoofs every science fiction or future dystopia concept in a similar satirical way like The Simpsons. The program never reached Simpsons-level popularity (mostly due to Fox screwing the show out of a potential audience) and was cancelled by FOX, but developed a rabid cult following through reruns via Cartoon Network's [adult swim] block (and DVD sales) and was eventually revived and given a proper ending (albeit left with the possibility of another continuation) on Comedy Central a few years later. In 2022, a second revival, this time on Hulu, was announced.

Groening's third animated series, a very self-referential medieval fantasy spoof called Disenchantment, premiered on Netflix in 2018. Much like Futurama, Disenchantment isn't as beloved as The Simpsons, but it does have its share of fans.

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:

Acting roles:

Appearances in documentaries:

  • Peefeeyatko (1991): A documentary about Frank Zappa.
  • Revenge of the Dead Indians (1992): A documentary about composer John Cage.
  • The BBC Late Show Special: Frank Zappa (1993): Another documentary about Frank Zappa.
  • The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart (1993, broadcast in 1997): A documentary about Captain Beefheart.
  • Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens (2000): A documentary about animator Chuck Jones.
  • The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005): A documentary about Daniel Johnston.
  • Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents (2005): A documentary about The Residents.

Tropes used in his works:

  • Adults Are Useless: While not every adult is useless, most are fairly incompetent. Matt Groening talks about many of the adult characters as morons. He said in an interview that authority isn't always quite as smart as it should be, and people like teachers and doctors all have flaws. Invoked in the "Nightmare Cafeteria" segment from Treehouse Of Horror V where Bart and Lisa tell Marge about the cannibalism going on in their school, and Marge promptly dismisses them telling them that she cannot fight all their battles and they should forcefully tell the teachers to not eat them.
  • Alan Smithee: Groening had his name removed from "A Star Is Burns" due to viewing the episode as a half-hour commercial for The Critic, leading to a well-publicized spat with producer James L. Brooks (who had fought to bring The Critic to Fox).
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: Only with The Simpsons though. He decided not to use the yellow skin design for any of his other projects.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Akbar and Jeff in Life in Hell; Smithers (though his closet seems to be getting more and more transparent), Lenny and Carl in The Simpsons (though that was phased out near the end of Mike Scully's run on the show).
  • Amusing Injuries: Groening had said in an interview: "The more horrible bone crunching noises we use for injuries on "The Simpsons" the harder people laugh. It's a sick world."
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle: Always parodied.
  • Animation Bump: Compare the earliest Simpsons shorts, in which animators were simply tracing over his own crude drawings, to when it went to series and, much later, switched from Klasky-Csupo to Film Roman for its animation. Many of his projects have also survived so long that they eventually evolved from traditional hand-painted cel animation to digital ink and paint and finally 2D computer animation.
  • Art Evolution: Averted to Groening himself, who has has never been a great artist from a technical point of view and whose personal drawing style of people with bug-like eyeballs and huge overbites hasn't evolved all that much even after decades in the business. However, his collaboration with animators and character designers has led to vast visual improvements in works which bear his name.
    • The original Simpsons shorts were extremely crude, as the animators were tracing over his drawings. More sophisticated character designs were created once the show went to series and gradually became more anatomically correct and solid while still retaining their distinctive looks.
    • By Futurama, he'd concocted a three-step method for character designs, in which he'd do a crude character design, have a professional designer do a more polished version, then take the polished version and draw it himself to "re-crude" it. The result is a much slicker 50/50 of Groening's drawing style and more technically animatable characters, which remained consistent throughout the series.
    • Both Disenchanted and the much later episodes of The Simpsons exchange traditional animation for Toon Boom, allowing for slicker (though more economical) animation.
  • Artistic License: Both "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" follow a certain reality, but sometimes this is thrown out of the window for absurd gags. Word of God says that his work is mainly based on "what I know is real and what I know is fictional."
  • Art Shift: Also done regularly.
    • The Simpsons episode "Brother from the Same Planet" had a cameo of Ren & 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: The 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".
    • "Angry Dad: The Movie" has stylistic parodies of The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, Wallace & Gromit, and Toy Story'', all animated in 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 "Reincarnation" has stylistic parodies of the Fleischer cartoons, early computer games and anime.
    • The Family Guy episode "Simpsons Guy" involves the Griffins getting lost in Springfield.
  • Author Appeal: A lot of the stuff referred to 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.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Several jokes in Groening's work poke fun at the absurdities and inconsistencies of religion, its purveyors, and its practitioners.
  • 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: All of Groening's works tend to have a very cynical sense of humor; though their brand of black comedy isn't nearly as pitch black as, say, what Seth MacFarlane or Trey Parker and Matt Stone tend to come up with.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Happens occasionally.
  • Brick Joke: Used often.
  • But Not Too Evil: According to Groening Bart Simpson was created out of his frustration with this trope; as he put it, the traditional brat in television was usually just a decently mannered kid who spoke too loud, in contrast to Bart's genuinely disruptive and anti-authority behavior.
    • Of course, back in the day Matt got what he wanted and more: when The Simpsons first began airing (and particularly during the first two seasons) Bart's behavior set off a firestorm of protests from angry parents' groups saying Bart was a terrible role model. Unlike many examples on this page, though, all this complaining was roundly ignored by the show's writers, who refused to change a thing. In fact, it inspired an episode where Marge stages a censorship campaign against Itchy and Scratchy. The campaign works, and I&S becomes incredibly bland and boring as a result.
    • Ironically, either through shifting culture or Villain Decay (probably a little of both), Bart can now be reasonably accurately described as a "decently mannered kid who speaks too loud".
      • Even in his heyday, Bart could almost be a subversion. While he genuinely enjoyed causing mayhem, most of his antics were more meant to drive authority figures crazy rather than cause any genuine harm. There were lines that even Bart wouldn't cross, and when he realized he went too far, he'd actually feel bad about it and try to make up for it.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Binky and Bongo in Life in Hell.
    • Bart, Homer, Milhouse, Moe, Smithers, Hans Moleman, Lenny, Gil, Squeaky-Voiced Teen, Scratchy, Martin Prince, Principal Skinner, Grandpa, Richard Nixon, George Bush Sr. in The Simpsons.
    • Fry, Zoidberg, Kif, Richard Nixon in Futurama.
  • Capitalism Is Bad / Corrupt Corporate Executive: Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, and Mom (the owner of Momcorp) in Futurama act as the primary antagonists of their respective series. On the other hand, Groening himself isn't exactly poor either, thanks to his shows being so commercially successful.
  • Catchphrase: Most of his characters have at least one catchphrase, Homer's "D'oh!" being the most famous.
  • 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.
    • One example from "Bart Sells His Soul" - for context, Bart and Milhouse are discussing the existence of the soul while Reverend Lovejoy is punishing them for a prank by making them clean the church's organ pipes:
    Milhouse: "Every religion says there's a soul, Bart. Why would they lie? What would they have to gain?"
    Reverend Lovejoy: *while counting the money given to the church* "I don't hear scrubbing!"
  • Corrupt Politician: Always corrupt or not to be trusted. Mayor Quimby in The Simpsons, Richard Nixon in Futurama, and Odval in Disenchantment are perhaps the most prominent individual examples.
  • Crapsaccharine World / Crapsack World: His work can both be cynical as well as celebral of life.
  • Creator Cameo: Done regularly.
    • He appears as one of the heads in the head museum in the pilot of Futurama.
    • Groening appeared in an episode of The Simpsons where they went to a sci-fi convention and everyone was excited to see the creator of Futurama. He was also a boss in The Simpsons Game.
  • Crossover: References between Groening's various works are often made. Most notably, there was the Simpsons/Futurama crossover episode "Simpsorama".
  • Credits Gag: "The Simpsons" have frequently used a different musical arrangement of the theme music, according to the theme of the episode. Sometimes characters still talk over the credits. Sometimes they are silenced by the woman in the "Gracies Films" Logo.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • Life in Hell handled themes that most mainstream cartoon strips never tackled.
    • The Simpsons went in the air at a time when most TV animation was aimed at children (despite attempts at making adult animation in the 1960s and 1970s, as seen with The Flintstones, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, and Fritz the Cat) and considered safe and formulaic. It immediately attracted attention because of its subversive content, often featuring themes that (at the time) 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.
  • Deus ex Machina: As per Rule of Funny, in all of Matt Groening's works, there's some apparent impossible or nonsensical convenience not even motivated by a character's In-Universe luck that both allows the plot to progress, and to allow it to progress in the unanticipated but ironic message the episode tries to show.
  • Different in Every Episode:
    • Bart Simpson writes a different line on the blackboard at the start of most episodes.
    • Couch Gag: The Simpsons run to their couch in front of the TV, but usually 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 its 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.
  • 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 but a Distaff Counterpart of Bart.
  • Eccentric Townsfolk: Especially in The Simpsons you have a real sense of a community of odd people.
  • Everyone Went to School Together: "The Simpsons" managed to avoid using this trope for a long time, but in the episodes "Springfield Up" and "The Way We Weren't" they did give in to it by having the middle-aged adult characters seen as children going to the same school and/or summer camp. In real life Matt Groening also went to college with cartoonists Charles Burns and Lynda Barry.
  • 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: In both 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.
  • Genre-Busting: All of his animated series are primarily comedies that are based around parodying or satirizing a particular genre.
  • Grandparental Obliviousness: Grandpa and Mr. Burns in The Simpsons can be quite senile and forgetful. Professor Farnsworth in Futurama too.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: The setups of many episodes often result in a totally unexpected ending.
  • 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 what are otherwise considered frivolous entertainment.
  • Historical Hilarity: Many jokes poke fun at historical events and characters.
  • Humans Are Bastards / Humans Are Morons: Most people in Groening's works are either mean and foul-tempered, stupid and incompetent, or simultaneously both. Though non-human characters in Futurama and Disenchantment are not any better.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Many characters in his universe are incredible hypocrites.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: His signature is on every piece of merchandise from the shows he created.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Ned Flanders, Lisa Simpson and Ralph Wiggum in The Simpsons, each one of them for entirely different reasons. Flanders because of his faith, Lisa because she is highly intelligent and has strong ethics and Ralph because he is just naïve.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Characters will sometimes realize something of huge importance, but do absolutely nothing with it afterwards.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Bart Simpson, Nelson Muntz, Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney.
  • Long Runner: All of his three best known series are still in syndication, for better or worse. 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.
  • 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.
  • Named After Somebody Famous:
  • New Job as the Plot Demands:
    • The Simpsons: Troy McClure acts in many different B-movies. Gil perpetually dangles by a thread at whatever job he is doing. Squeaky Voiced Teen is often doing all kinds of low paid jobs. In later seasons Homer and Marge have been changing their jobs many times over.
    • Futurama: Sal, despite being a sleazy lazy guy, is seen doing all kinds of jobs over the course of the seasons.
  • No Brows: Most of his characters have no visible eyebrows, Milhouse being a major exception.
  • 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.
  • A Nuclear Error: Especially in The Simpsons Groening's antinuclear stance 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."
  • 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 the animated 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.
      • Grandpa has a tendency to fall asleep halfway through 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.
    • Futurama:
      • Professor Farnsworth announces he has "Good news", yet it is usually exactly the opposite.
      • The robot "Malfunctioning Eddie" 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."
  • 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: As a huge Peanuts fan, Groening has referenced the franchise often in his work. Akbar and Jeff from Life in Hell are in fact mutated versions of Groening's failed attempts to draw Charlie Brown, still visible by their shirts.
  • Sickening "Crunch!": Often done in his animated series, because Groening has noticed the more painful, the funnier it will be.
  • Senior Sleep-Cycle: Grandpa in The Simpsons and Prof. Farnsworth in Futurama.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Mostly cynical, but with a nugget of idealism throughout. His worlds are usually populated by characters who are selfish but mostly want to be better people deep down, and even the grossest amoral behavior is strictly tongue-in-cheek.
  • 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 (and does vocal effects for Maggie's pacifier sucking).
  • Sphere Eyes: A trademark.
  • Sucky School: Life in Hell even has a volume called School Is Hell. Also a prominent theme with the Springfield Elementary School in The Simpsons.
  • Take That!: His work pokes fun at everybody, from all kinds of the political, economical, cultural and sociological spectrum.
  • Take That, Audience!: We did say everybody.
  • Take That Me: Everybody. His most notable one is Comic Book Guy, who is Groeining's personal caricature of all of his worst habits and personality traits. Hell, one episode of The Simpsons depicted Groening as a senile old alcoholic.
  • Talking Animal: Usually avoided, but Bongo, Binky and Sheba in Life in Hell and Nibbler in Futurama are exceptions.
  • World of Jerkass: A trademark of all his works. In The Simpsons, Futurama, and Disenchantment, almost everyone is a cynical, selfish jerk whose biggest concern is their own self-interests, and their attempts at sincerity tend to be morally backwards (though as mentioned above, there are also plenty of selfish characters who want to be good deep down, and occasionally some genuinely good people).