LOS ANGELES—Matt Groening stopped by a Borders bookstore the other night and bought a CD of the 1967 album “The Who Sell Out.”
There are a few cynics who would see an irony in that.
The Simpsons Movie
Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer
(Fox; US theatrical: 27 Jul 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 26 Jul 2007 (General release); 2007)
Groening is one of them.
On the eve of Friday’s opening of “The Simpsons Movie,” Groening, 53, sat in a hotel suite and contemplated the commercial empire that has been built on the strength of a handful of crude sketches he drew 20 years ago to impress a few TV producers.
Those few sketches became a series of animated shorts that ran during “The Tracey Ullman Show,” and later became a prime-time TV series that has not only won nearly two dozen Emmys in 18 seasons, but has been named one of the best shows in the history of television. The show evolved into a merchandising behemoth and now, a major motion picture.
“This was not the way it was supposed to happen,” the comic artist said with a shrug of his shoulders. “None of this makes any sense.
“I’m a person who is motivated by the counterculture of the 1960s, and I’d like to think I have some integrity left, if for no better reason than I still do a weekly comic strip (in the Los Angeles Weekly), although some people think I’ve sold out on that, too. After 27 years of it being called “Life in Hell,” I changed the name to “Life is Swell,” and now I’m catching hell from some people who think I’ve sold out.”
Of course, there is nothing about the comic strip, the TV show or the movie that would indicate that Groening has sold out. All three are just as subversive as ever.
“I never saw my life heading in this direction,” he explained. “I was supposed to be a journalist. But I guess I was in the right place at the right time.”
The right place was L.A., and the right time was 1987, when TV producer James L. Brooks invited Groening to submit a few drawings of his “Life in Hell” characters for use in Ullman’s show on the fledgling Fox network.
“Tracey used so many prosthetics for her characters that we’d have these long breaks in the taping,” Brooks said. “We needed something to keep the studio audience entertained.”
Groening desperately wanted to work with Brooks (who won three Oscars for writing, directing and producing the film “Terms of Endearment” and no less than eight Emmys for writing episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi”), but he was wary of the new network.
“I figured it probably was going to fail,” Groening said, “and I didn’t want its failure to reflect badly on my characters. This was my bread and butter.”
The “Life in Hell” characters were bunnies, so Groening decided to create some new characters.
“A friend of mine who was an editor at Esquire magazine had been trying to get me to draw humans, so I decided that this Fox thing would be a good opportunity to try drawing humans.”
Modeling the Simpson family after his own family—changing the son’s character from Matt to Bart because he thought it would look unseemly to show Brooks a character modeled after himself—Groening brought the TV producer a pile of sketches.
Brooks said he remembers thinking the sketches were terrific, and immediately signed Groening to work with three animators to create 15-second shorts for the variety show.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Groening said. “I assumed that the animators would make my characters look better but, instead, they just traced my drawings. I was baffled that something that crude and ugly could have gone anywhere.”
The shorts ran for three seasons, and then were transformed into a prime-time show.
Al Jean, a writer on the show that first season and now the man responsible for running the TV show, said he is not baffled by the success of “The Simpsons.”
“When all is said and done, it is a show about a family with problems, and people identify with that. It’s also a show with a beautifully constructed universe of characters that has a great capacity for invention and novelty.
“At its heart is a marriage that is not like the show `Married With Children.’ There is no antipathy here between Homer and Marge Simpson. He never does anything consciously mean to Marge. He loves her very much, and she thinks he is the handsomest man in the world. Homer is insensitive but not a brute.”
Asked about Homer’s penchant for trying to strangle his son Bart on a regular basis, Jean responds without hesitation: “Well, his son’s a wiseass, and deserves to be strangled.”
Jean said a movie version of “The Simpsons” has always been a possibility, but Brooks was hesitant to mess with the franchise.
According to Jean, Brooks held out for several years while Fox executives pushed for a movie. Jean said Brooks wanted an arrangement that the entire project could be scrapped if he didn’t deem the script worthy of “The Simpsons.”
Finally, in 1999, studio executives agreed to Brooks’ conditions. Two years later, the actors who supply the voices for the TV series signed contract extensions that included work in a possible movie. In 2003, work began on the movie.
Twelve writers sat around a table and began to toss around ideas. The week before Thanksgiving 2003, Groening brought in a newspaper article about a small town facing an environmental nightmare over pig waste. The writers had their movie plot.
In the film, the Simpsons are ostracized by the residents of Springfield after Homer dumps pig waste in the lake and causes an ecological disaster. The Environmental Protection Agency—the meanies in this story—forcibly isolate Springfield from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Lisa meets a guy, and Bart starts to wonder what life would be like in a different family.
“We weren’t worried about dealing with a contemporary issue,” said Jean, who helped to write and produce the movie while simultaneously producing the 18th season of the TV show. “Although we hoped that the environment would become less of an issue by the time the movie came out, sadly, events in the world have only made the plot more relevant.
“But `The Simpsons’ was always about big issues,” he added.
Brooks, the most experienced movie guy in the group, said it was important that the movie not have the feel of four TV episodes strung together.
“I think we have more jokes per square inch than any movie around, but that’s not what makes a movie,” Brooks said. “In a movie, the audience has to wonder what happens next. You need to have a narrative that keeps the audience interested in the story. You also need to have some humanity.”
Brooks said the writers took two years to get “loose enough to make the movie look like a loose movie.”
“I think it was because we cared so much for the characters that we didn’t want to do something wrong. On any movie, you need at least one person who feels like they’ll die if something doesn’t work. Well, on this movie, we had at least six people who felt that way.”
Jean said the writers’ biggest fear was that the movie would hurt the TV show. “But we continued because we believed that it was an opportunity to help the TV show. And I firmly believe that the goal has been met.”
Brooks said the writers wanted to remain true to the fanatically loyal fan base (almost 9 million viewers each week) but also to introduce the characters to a new audience.
“The fans care passionately about the Simpsons, and so do we,” Brooks said. “We are all in service to the characters.”
If so much is at stake, why take the chance of screwing up the franchise?
“Over the years, we have taken episodes of the show to college campuses and shown them to audiences,” Groening said. “I have always felt that the show should be seen with an audience. Everyone should have the experience of laughing together at `The Simpsons,’ and now they can.”