Matt Groening is a cartoonist and TV producer whose comics career consists of one single series: 'Life In Hell' (1977-2012), which features the daily grueling existence of the rabbit family Bongo, Sheba and Binky and the identical homosexual partners Akbar and Jeff. However, the world knows him much better as the creator of the cult animated TV series 'The Simpsons' (since 1989) and 'Futurama' (1999-2003, 2008-2013). All of his work is notable for its clever satire, edgy subversiveness and still very relatable humanity. He managed to appeal to audiences of all ages, both the general public as well as intellectuals. Groening is one of the few cartoonists whose oeuvre is subject to critical analysis. He is also easily one of the most influential. 'Life in Hell' had a strong impact on later alternative comics. Since the 1990s countless TV cartoons have been inspired by 'The Simpsons', particularly for adults. Various live-action sitcoms have also taken cues from it. 'Futurama' popularized science fiction and astronomy among new audiences. In many ways Groening can be called the Walt Disney of our age, even though his style is vastly different.
He was born in 1954 as Matthew Abram Groening in Portland, Oregon as the son of Homer Groening, an amateur film maker, writer and cartoonist. Despite having a creative father, Matt was strongly discouraged to follow in his father's footsteps, in the belief he would never be able to make a living out of it. At school Groening enjoyed scribbling in his notebooks and got in trouble for making caricatures of the teachers and drawing spaceships and monsters. He discovered that the angrier people got about his drawings, the better they were. He studied philosophy at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where Lynda Barry and Charles Burns were co-students of his. They'd both become large influences on his work. Among his other graphic influences are Charles M. Schulz, Robert Crumb, Carl Barks, Aline Kominsky, E.C. Segar, Ernie Bushmiller, Mad Magazine, Ronald Searle, Nicole Hollander, Heather McAdams, David Boswell, Dennis P. Eichhorn, Jay Ward, Peter Bagge, Doug Allen, Daniel Clowes, Lat, Jim Woodring, Harvey Pekar, Rowland Emett, Art Spiegelman, Charles Addams, Dr. Seuss, M.C. Escher, Walt Disney, Max and Dave Fleischer, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Terry Gilliam, Cal Schenkel, John Kricfalusi, Lloyd Dangle, Lat, Tom Tomorrow, Bill Griffith, Carol Lay, Joe Matt, John Callahan, Max Cannon and Ted Rall. He also drew creative inspiration from cult novels, underground comics, avantgarde music, outsider music, exotica and alternative media.
After graduation Groening moved to Los Angeles, where he had several low grade jobs. Groening's cartoon series 'Life In Hell' started off as a series of doodles for his friends in Oregon, which reflected how he felt about living in LA. The drawings were simple and relied heavily on verbal comedy. The gag series centered around a rabbit family, Binky, Sheba and little Bongo, because they were the only animals he could draw recognizably enough. Other recurring characters were the ambiguously gay friends Akbar and Jeff, who look exactly alike. They started off as bad copies of Charlie Brown ('Peanuts') by Charles M. Schulz, hence their similar shirts and short stature. Groening took a lot of cartooning tips from reading Jack Hamm's instruction books. What 'Life in Hell' lacked in graphical skill it made up for in its content. The underground comic offered sharp and hilarious satirical digs at school, work, relationships, politics and childhood.
After these cartoons showed up in Wet Magazine in 1977, they made their official debut as a comic strip in the Los Angeles Reader in April 1980. It was during this period that he met Gary Panter, who shared the same goals and interests. Panter's character 'Jimbo' would later inspire Bart Simpson's hairdo. Groening also collected his strip in books like 'Love is Hell', 'Work is Hell' and 'School is Hell'. These were followed by a merchandise line and the launch of the Acme Features Syndicate that distributed the strip to several papers until 2012. Acme Features was launched by Groening and his then girlfriend Deborah Caplan, and also published comics by Lynda Barry and John Callahan.
Groening's comic gained a cult following and in 1987 one particular strip, 'The Los Angeles Way of Death', motivated Hollywood producer James L. Brooks to offer Groening a TV contract. An initial attempt to adapt 'Life In Hell' to a series of animated cartoons eventually ended up as the series about the dysfunctional 'Simpsons' family. The feature started in the Tracey Ullman Show as 15-second bumpers before and after commercial breaks. By 1989, these shorts had become so successful, that they evolved into a full-blown animated sitcom. The pilot episode was written by Mimi Pond.
Much like 'Life in Hell' the earliest seasons of the show had very crude and simple artwork, yet made up for it by being a brilliant satirical mirror of present-day society. Groening knew that bad animation could be easily forgiven if the humor and writing were excellent, with Jay Ward's 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' (1959-1964) as the best example. 'The Simpsons' caught attention for its subversive style, poking fun at fun at family ethics, politics, business, religion, education, nuclear power and the United States in general. Many moral guardians felt offended and considered the cartoon unsuitable for young viewers. Particularly breakout character Bart Simpson was perceived as a bad role model. This didn't stop the yellow-skinned family from becoming a mainstream success, though. By 1991 the series was such a cultural phenomenon that US President George Bush Sr. declared during a meeting of the Republican Party that "America needs to be a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." That same week, Bart Simpson responded in the next episode of their show: "Hey, we're just like The Waltons: we pray for an end to the recession too".
'The Simpsons' eventually earned more respectability from its detractors. With a cast of numerous colourful and unforgettable characters it allowed for many different and unpredictable storylines. Their list of recurring cast members is so huge that there is even a comic book store owner, Comic Book Guy. He is a spot-on parody of every obsessive and self-important pop-culture geek, so much in fact that viewers have frequently asked Groening whether he happened to be based on their local comics salesman. He just replied that he is just "EVERY comic book store owner in the US" The show also has actual cartoon and comics characters in their own universe, namely the superhero spoof 'Radio-Active Man' and 'Itchy and Scratchy', a pastiche of cartoon violence. In 'The Simpsons', jokes and references to both high and low culture appeal to both average viewers as well as intellectuals. Some can only be caught after multiple viewings. Various celebrities have guest starred as voice actors, including Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor, Stephen Hawking, Paul McCartney, Mel Gibson, and Michael Jackson. Some of them fellow comics artists and/or animators, including Hugh Hefner (the episode 'Krusty Gets Kancelled', 1993), Mike Judge ('Bart Star', 1997), Stan Lee ('I Am Furious (Yellow)', 2002, 'Married to the Blob', 2014), Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Daniel Clowes ('Husbands and Knives' (2007), Gary Larson ('Once Upon a Time in Springfield', 2010), Nick Park ('Angry Dad: The Movie' (2011), Neil Gaiman ('The Book Job', 2011), Seth MacFarlane ('Dangers on a Train' (2013), Pendleton Ward ('Monty Burns' Fleeing Circus', 2016) and Matt Groening himself ('My Big Fat Geek Wedding' in 2004 and 'Homer the Whopper' in 2009). Several artists have also guest animated the shows' opening credits, including Banksy ('MoneyBart', 2010), John Kricfalusi ('Bart Stops To Smell the Roosevelts', 2012, 'Treehouse of Horror XXVI', 2015), Bill Plympton ('Beware My Cheating Bart', 2012, 'Black Eyed, Please', 2013 'Married to the Blob', 2014, 'Lisa the Veterinarian', 2016, and '22 for 30', 2017), Seth Green ('The Fabulous Baker Boy', 2013), Sylvain Chomet ('Diggs', 2014), Michael Socha ('What to Expect When Bart's Expecting', 2014), Don Hertzfeldt ('Clown in the Dumps', 2014), Paul Robertson, Ivan Dixon and Jeremy Dower ('My Fare Lady', 2015), Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland ('Mathlete's Feat', 2015), Steve Cutts ('Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles', 2016), Disney animator Eric Goldberg ('Fland Canyon', 2016) and Pendleton Ward ('Monty Burns' Fleeing Circus', 2016). It landed the show a place in the Guinness Book of Records for being the TV show with the most guest stars in history.
Comic Book Guy and a cameo of Stan Lee
Universally popular, 'The Simpsons' are some of the most recognizable TV characters on the planet. They inspired countless merchandising products, including a 2007 film ('The Simpsons Movie'), and have become the most succesful animated TV sitcom since Hanna-Barbera's 'The Flintstones' (1960-1967). In 1997 they broke the modern stone-age family's record as longest-running prime time animated TV series. Since 2009 'The Simpsons' is also the longest-running American TV show since 'Gunsmoke' (1955-1975). The program has won numerous awards, including 31 Emmy's. It had a huge influence on other animated adult TV series, including Mike Judge's 'Beavis and Butt-head' and 'King of the Hill', Everett Peck's 'Duckman', Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'South Park' and Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy'. The impact of the show on modern culture has been such that in 1999 Time Magazine named Bart Simpson one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
In 1999 Groening created a new animated sitcom, 'Futurama'. Its style of satire and comedy are similar to 'The Simpsons', but stories are set in the 31st century. The series is a spoof of the science fiction genre, both the naïve versions dealing with flying cars, aliens and robots, as well as more grim and frightening dystopias. Satire about human society is mixed with references to history, astronomy, math, quantum physics and space exploration. The show has featured celebrity guest voices such as The Beastie Boys, Lucy Liu, "Buzz" Aldrin, Gary Gygax, Mark Hamill, Al Gore, Stephen Hawking and almost the complete cast of the original 'Star Trek' TV series. Fellow cartoonists also turned up in front of the microphone, such as Sergio Aragonés and Groening himself in the 2010 episode 'Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences'. Despite receiving similar excellent reviews, the show never reached the same mainstream popularity and was cancelled in 2003. Thanks to a strong cult following it was revived in 2008, but met its end again in 2013. In 2014 the Simpsons episode 'Simpsorama' made a crossover with 'Futurama'.
In 1994, Groening formed Bongo Comics (named after the character Bongo from 'Life in Hell') with Steve Vance, Cindy Vance and Bill Morrison. The company publishes comic books based on 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama', among other things. Zongo Comics followed a year later, and deals with comic books for more mature readers, including work by Gary Panter and Mary Fleener. Matt Groening is also the co-producer of Paper Moon Graphics, a successful line of humorous greeting cards. Artists who have worked for Bongo Comics are Igor Baranko, Hilary Barta, John Delaney, Jason Ho, Mike Kazaleh, Carolyn Kelly, Batton Lash, Carol Lay, Oscar González Loyo, Phil Ortiz, Andrew Pepoy, Horacio Sandoval, Scott Shaw!, Mike Worley, John Costanza and Sergio Aragonés. Another associate of Groening who has made comics, but not for Bongo Comics, is Liz Climo, a storyboard revisionist and clean-up artist for 'The Simpsons'.
Groening won a Reuben Award for 'Life in Hell' in 2002 and received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame 10 years later. He has voiced characters in animated films such as J. Otto Seibold's 'Olive, the Other Reindeer' (1999) and Bill Plympton's 'Hair High' (2004). He also appeared in several documentaries, including about Frank Zappa ('Peefeeyatko', 1992, and 'Late Night Special', 1993), Captain Beefheart ('The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart', 1997), Chuck Jones ('The Magical World of Chuck Jones', 1992, and 'Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens', 2000), John Cage ('Revenge of the Dead Indians', 1993), Charles M. Schulz ('Good Grief, Charlie Brown', (2000), The Beatles ('The Beatles Revolution', 2000), Daniel Johnston ('The Devil and Daniel Johnston', 2005), Ed "Big Daddy" Roth ('Tales of the Rat Fink', 2006), Wayne White ('Beauty is Embarrassing', 2012), David Boswell ('I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!', 2015), Nick Park ('A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman', 2015), The Residents ('A Theory of Obscurity', 2015) and Steel Pulse ('Dreadtown'). He occasionally played in the amateur rock band The Rockbottom Remainders and designed the album cover of Frank Zappa's posthumous live record, 'Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute' (1996).
Groening also wrote the foreword to Monte Beauchamp's book about Robert Crumb, 'The Life and Times of R. Crumb' (1996), the 1956-1958 edition of the posthumous compilation books of Charles M. Schulz' 'Peanuts' series and Sergio Aragonés' compilation book 'Mad's Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés: Five Decades of his Finest Works' (2010). He did the same for reprints of Chuck Jones' autobiography 'Chuck Amuck' (1994) and Lat's 'Kampung Boy'. When the Hammer Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. held the exhibition 'Masters of American Comics' (2005) and published a catalogue with work by the respective artists Groening wrote an essay about Gary Panter. Groening was also one of many cartoonists who contributed a graphical homage to The Ramones' compilation CD/comic book 'Weird Tales From The Ramones' (2005).
On June 16, 2012 'Life in Hell' came to an end. Twenty-two cartoonists paid tribute, including Jim Borgman, Ruben Bolling, Carol Lay, Ivan Brunetti, Jerry Scott, Sammy Harkham, Jen Sorensen, Tom Gammill, Peter Kuper, Jeffrey Brown, Bobby London, Patrick McDonnell, Tom Tomorrow, James Sturm, Tom Gammill, Sergio Aragonés, Alison Bechdel, Jordan Crane, Tony Millionaire, Art Spiegelman and Rob Sikoryak. Another homage came from Ted Rall, who wrote words of praise on his personal blog, claiming that the success of 'Life in Hell' motivated many mainstream magazines and newspapers to publish more alternative cartoonists. In 2016 Groening was entered in the Will Eisner Hall of Fame.