UPDATE: "The Simpsons" responded to this interview with a new chalkboard gag before the Sunday, April 15, episode proclaiming that "The true location of Springfield is in any state but yours." Check it out.
Claudia De La Roca: So take us back to the Simpsons’ foundational moment. In 1987 you were waiting for a meeting with James Brooks and you started sketching. What were you thinking?
Matt Groening: I had been drawing my weekly comic strip, “Life in Hell,” for about five years when I got a call from Jim Brooks, who was developing “The Tracey Ullman Show” for the brand-new Fox network. He wanted me to come in and pitch an idea for doing little cartoons on that show. I soon realized that whatever I pitched would not be owned by me, but would be owned by Fox, so I decided to keep my rabbits in “Life in Hell” and come up with something new.
While I was waiting—I believe they kept me waiting for over an hour—I very quickly drew the Simpsons family. I basically drew my own family. My father’s name is Homer. My mother’s name is Margaret. I have a sister Lisa and another sister Maggie, so I drew all of them. I was going to name the main character Matt, but I didn’t think it would go over well in a pitch meeting, so I changed the name to Bart.
Back in high school I wrote a novel about a character named Bart Simpson. I thought it was a very unusual name for a kid at the time. I had this idea of an angry father yelling “Bart,” and Bart sounds kind of like bark—like a barking dog. I thought it would sound funny. In my novel, Bart was the son of Homer Simpson. I took that name from a minor character in the novel The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West. Since Homer was my father’s name, and I thought Simpson was a funny name in that it had the word “simp” in it, which is short for “simpleton”—I just went with it.
Did your father contribute anything besides his first name?
My father was a really sharp cartoonist and filmmaker. He used to tape-record the family surreptitiously, either while we were driving around or at dinner, and in 1963 he and I made up a story about a brother and a sister, Lisa and Matt, having an adventure out in the woods with animals. I told it to my sister Lisa, and she in turn told it to my sister Maggie. My father recorded the telling of the story by Lisa to Maggie, and then he used it as the soundtrack to a movie. So the idea of dramatizing the family—Lisa, Maggie, Matt—I think was the inspiration for doing something kind of autobiographical with “The Simpsons.” There is an aspect of the psychodynamics of my family in which it makes sense that one of us grew up and made a cartoon out of the family and had it shown all over the world.
Any other commonalities between your father and Homer Simpson?
Only the love of ice cream. My dad didn’t even like doughnuts that much.
The name Homer has been wall-to-wall around you—your father, your son, Homer Simpson. What does the name mean to you?
My father was named after the poet Homer. My grandmother, his mother, was a voracious reader. She named one son Homer and another son Victor Hugo. It is this basic name, but I can’t separate the name Homer from The Iliad and The Odyssey and from Odysseus, even though Homer is the teller of the tale. I think of it as a very heroic name in that Homer, even though he is getting kicked in the butt by life, he is his own small hero.
OK, why do the Simpsons live in a town called Springfield? Isn’t that a little generic?
Springfield was named after Springfield, Oregon. The only reason is that when I was a kid, the TV show “Father Knows Best” took place in the town of Springfield, and I was thrilled because I imagined that it was the town next to Portland, my hometown. When I grew up, I realized it was just a fictitious name. I also figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, “This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.” And they do.
You’ve never said it was named after Springfield, Oregon, before, have you?
I don’t want to ruin it for people, you know? Whenever people say it’s Springfield, Ohio, or Springfield, Massachusetts, or Springfield, wherever, I always go, “Yup, that’s right.”
You’re on record as loving your hometown. Is it all love or is there a little love-hate?
I loved growing up in Portland, but I also took it for granted. Now, I look back and realize how idyllic a place it was. My family lived on a long, windy road on a little dead-end street called Evergreen Terrace—also the name of the street the Simpsons live on—and in order to visit any friends I had to walk at least a mile through the woods to get to their house.
But when I say idyllic, I mean the external circumstances of my childhood were pretty pleasant. That does not take into account that I was bored out of mind from the first day of first grade. Also, I was bullied. If you use certain words that can only be gotten by reading a book or two, that somehow enrages a certain kind of lug. When I was in fourth grade, these older kids surrounded me one day, and they told me they were going to beat me up after school. Knowing I was going to get beat up, I smashed one kid in the face as hard as I could, and then I got beaten up. The next day, all the kids were brought in to the school office, and they all had to apologize to me, and I just hated their guts.
Would you like to call them out by name now?
No. But maybe they are characters named after themselves on “The Simpsons.”
What did “home” mean to you growing up?
Home growing up meant certain rituals that seem to be lost these days, which is about a family being in the same place at the same time. At dinner we all sat down for dinner together. Unless I committed some type of infraction, and then I had to eat at the top of the basement stairs.
What do you think of Portland then and Portland now?
One thing that hasn’t changed is that people in Portland are in complete denial about how much it rains there.
Do you plan on moving back someday?
Yes. The only reason to live in Los Angeles, where I’ve been since the late ’70s, is if you have something to do with the entertainment industry. Everything you can experience in Los Angeles, you can have a much better version of in Portland—including, very basically, the air you breathe.
Does your mom still live in your childhood home? If not, when was the last time you visited it?
I visited my childhood home about two years ago. I was snapping a picture of it, and the owner came out and invited me in. It was pretty much as I remember it, except what was incredibly spacious to a little toddler now seemed so much smaller. The guy let me go down to my favorite place of terror, which was the basement. My father had a place where he developed film called “the dark room,” but to me that was all it was—the dark room. It was the scariest place in the house, and it gave me a lot of nightmares. I had to go back down and look at the dark room, and I realized that it was just a dusty—dark—cobwebbed little room in the corner of the basement.
What did your father do before he became a filmmaker?
He grew up on a Mennonite farm in Kansas, speaking only German until he went to school. My father then ended up as a bomber pilot flying a B-17 during World War II. After the war, he was a surfer, filmmaker and ardent amateur basketball player. He perfected a basketball shot that he could shoot—without looking—over his head and consistently make from the top of the key. He made that shot for 30 years.
What did he think of “The Simpsons”?
My father was very worried that I was going to starve in Hollywood. He didn’t like Hollywood and thought nothing good came out of a committee. He loved the show. He was really pleased with it. The only thing he said was that Homer could never, ever be mean to Marge. He said that was a rule, which corresponds with the way he treated my mother. He was very nice to her. I thought that was a good note. I don’t know if that is a rule that has ever been articulated to people who work on the show, but everyone just gets it.
Early on your focus shifted from Bart to Homer. When and why? Did it have anything to do with your own aging?
When the first 50 short cartoons were on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” the focus was on the relationship between Bart and Homer. The way I wrote them were Homer being angry and Bart being clueless little jerk, just driven in some weird way to cause trouble. I knew from the moment we decided to turn the shorts into a TV show that Homer was going to be the star. There are more consequences to him being an idiot.
Was anything affected by the writers’ aging?
The writers on the show have been there for years. It’s an addictive place to work, because if you’re interested in writing comedy, writing for “The Simpsons,” which has no notes from the network, and doesn’t have the constraints of a live action show—it’s just a great playground for comedy writers. Whatever they want to write about, the animators can draw it.
Has your son Homer ever created something with you as a character?
Will—he’s Homer only in legal documents—and his brother, Abe, have not done anything to me yet. That’s a ticking time bomb.
Would you be open to that?
Of course, turnabout is fair play. That would be great.
It has been famously said that you can’t go home again, but is “The Simpsons” a way for you to go home again, over and over?
I very early on named a lot of characters after streets in Portland. I thought it would be amusing for people in Portland to be driving past the alphabetically laid-out streets. There’s Flanders, Kearney, Lovejoy, mostly in Northwest Portland. My goal was to name every character after streets in Portland, but we were in a hurry so I dropped that idea.
In another way, is the show a way for you to never leave home?
There is that element for me, that means nothing to anyone else, but the fact that the characters are named after my own family, and Evergreen Terrace, and things like that—that’s just a treat for my family and me.
What kind of home have you created on “The Simpsons”?
As a cartoonist I feel like I’m the jester working with a lot of really smart writers and really talented animators. I think I make it safe for everyone else to be goofy because I’m willing to pitch the dumbest ideas.
So you make everyone else feel comfortable?
I think I make people feel comfortable because I’m willing to be a fool.
So does that make you the number-one fool?
(Laughs) No, I wouldn’t say that. There are plenty of fools. I just admit it.
How typical is the Simpsons’ home of an American home? How has it changed?
I think what’s different is that Marge doesn’t work. She’s a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and for the most parts these days both parents work. So I think that’s a little bit of a throwback. Very early on we had the Simpsons always struggling for money, and as the show has gone on over the years we’ve tried to come up with more surprising and inventive plots. We’ve pretty much lost that struggling for money that we started with just in order to do whatever crazy high jinks we could think of. I kind of miss that.
You’ve spoken of the “the contradictions not acknowledged” in the sitcoms you watched as a kid. What were those contradictions between TV life and life under your roof?
In TV in the ’50s and ’60s everyone seemed very repressed. Children were unnaturally polite. My favorite character was Eddie Haskell in “Leave It to Beaver. He was so polite but blatantly false in his pretending to be nice to adults—that appealed to me. In the ’70s, and from then on, sitcom banter got so mean and sour that I was baffled. I always thought that half the time someone would say something in a sitcom, and it seemed like the spouse’s response should be, “I want a divorce.” That was the logical reply.
But no one got a divorce back then.
I’m just saying I didn’t like the bland dialogue of most of the ’50s and ’60s, and I also didn’t like the sour arguing that passed for comedy in the ’70s and ’80s. So “The Simpsons” is sort of somewhere in between.
Beyond the topography of Portland and the names of your family members, did you borrow the sensibility of your hometown or your coming-of-age years for The Simpsons?
People in Portland, and generally in the Northwest, think of themselves as independent. Oregon has no sales tax, no major military installations. Portland has turned into an incredibly friendly community with great food, great architecture, great city planning and a lot of beauty. The biggest park in the United States within the city limits is in Portland.
Have you seen “Portlandia”? What do you think of it?
If you would have told me back when I was growing up that there would be a hip comedy show based on hipster life in Portland Oregon, I wouldn’t have believed it. I think it’s a very funny show. It’s very sweet.
How often do you go back to Portland?
I go back to Portland a few times a year. My first stop is always Powell’s Books. It’s the biggest bookstore that I know of. And then I visit my family.