An Uncensored, Unauthorized History
By John Ortved
Faber and Faber, Inc. Copyright © 2009 John Ortved
All rights reserved.
The Matt Groening Show
In which evil grade-school teachers destroy masterworks ... punk rock brings together [Life in Hell's bunnies and [Maus's mice ... Matt Groening becomes the Casanova of the LA Reader ... and Deborah Kaplan becomes the Bennett Cerf of alternative comics.
The Simpsons did not spring out of one man's brain, fully formed, like a hilarious Athena. Its inception was a process, and it has more than one parent (as well as stepparents, grandparents, creepy uncles, and ungrateful children — I'm looking at you, Family Guy), but its most direct progenitor is Matt Groening's comic strip Life in Hell, which, by the late 1980s, was being syndicated in alternative weeklies all over the country, earning him success and cult celebrity status.
But before The Simpsons, before Life in Hell, before any of the fame or money or angst-ridden bunnies, there was a little boy with an imaginary TV show, hosted by its creator, Matt Groening. He even recorded a theme song.
MATT GROENING, creator, The Simpsons (on NPR's Fresh Air, 2003): [Singing] First you hear a mighty cheer, then you know that Groening's here. Then a streak of color flashes on the ground. You know it's not a train or a comet or a plane. You know it must be Matt Groening, cool guy ... Matt Groening. Matt Groening. Matt Groening. Not a coward, superpowered Matt Groening, coolest guy there is in town, coolest guy around.
Considering that The Simpsons paterfamilias would name the animated family after his own (father Homer, mother Marge, sisters Lisa and Maggie), it would indeed be a nice touch to this story if he had grown up in a town named Springfield, but he didn't. Born February 15, 1954, he grew up in Portland, the middle child of five children in a house so close to the Portland Zoo that, as a little boy, Matt would go to sleep at night to the sound of roaring lions. Playing in the grizzly bear ghetto and the abandoned zoo's caves and swimming pools, Groening does seem to have had an idyllic childhood, especially for someone with creative ambitions. As Groening told Playboy in 1990, his father was a cartoonist, filmmaker, and writer who showed by example that one could put food on the table and succeed using one's creative faculties.
Writing stories, drawing cartoons, playing in worlds of his own imagination in the family basement, Groening was a fine student but constantly in trouble at Ainsworth Elementary School because his attentions were elsewhere. "I have to write 'I must remember to be quiet in class' 500 times and hand it in tomorrow" is an exemplary entry in Groening's diary, which he kept from an early age. "The Boy Scouts are alright if you don't have much to do, or you like to pretend to be in the army, and you enjoy saluting the flag a lot," reads another one.
MATT GROENING (to The New York Times, October 7, 1990): When I was in fourth grade, I read a World War II prisoner-of-war book, I said, "Yeah, this is like my grade school. There's guards, and you can't do anything."
MARGARET GROENING, Matt's mother (to The Seattle Times, August 19, 1990): Actually, he did well in school — he was popular and got good grades ... although he doesn't particularly want anyone to know that.
MATT GROENING (to the Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1990): You are what you are basically despite school. I think there's a lot of unnecessary misery in education. I certainly felt it. Just the idea of punishing a kid for drawing stacks of cartoons, or ripping them up and throwing them away. Some of the stuff was senseless and immature, but other stuff was really creative, and I was amazed that there was no differentiation between the good stuff and the bad stuff, or very little.
Lincoln High School (class of '73) was less rigid, but Groening still felt the constraints of conservative suburban culture, especially when contrasted with the radical and antiestablishment sentiments of the sixties burgeoning all around him. Groening was a mix of the straitlaced and rebellious. He was elected student body president, but under the banner of a tongue-in-cheek group called Teens for Decency (a parody of a local Christian group). His campaign slogan: "If you're against decency, then what are you for?"
In high school, Groening would also discover his lifelong passion for alternative music and would continue drawing his cartoons. One story from Matt's teenage years involved Matt telling a girl with whom he was infatuated that it was his plan to have a career as a cartoonist. The girl rejected him because she believed she was going to have a very big life, saying something along the lines of, "Maybe if you were like Garry Trudeau or somebody." Never short on ego, even then, apparently Matt told her, "I'm going to be bigger than Garry Trudeau."
For college, Groening applied to only two schools: Harvard (which said no) and Evergreen College. The latter was a newly formed progressive state-funded college in Washington, where there are no grades or exams.
MATT GROENING (to The Seattle Times, September 28, 2003): [Evergreen] was condemned in the Legislature by conservative Republicans as being a haven for hippies, poets and revolutionaries ... The main square was made out of red bricks, and there was some suspicion as to why we had a red square.
While the school remains a progressive, liberal feel-goodery, it is also regularly ranked among the West's best liberal arts colleges. Its funding as a state school has been a topic of debate in Washington's state legislature, especially among Republicans. "We went into one dormitory and the smell of marijuana was everywhere. And there were a bunch of people watching The Simpsons, whatever that means," said Representative Gene Goldsmith, a youth and media expert, after visiting the school in 1995. "And there were two girls sitting in there necking, kissing — two lesbians." While it's unknown how rampant lesbianism was at Evergreen during Groening's time there, he did indeed attend a hippie college at the height of hippiedom.
Studying literature and philosophy, Groening decided he wanted to be a writer. That, combined with his studies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the gloom of rainy Olympia, Washington, was a recipe for moodiness.
LYNDA BARRY, cartoonist and friend (to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 29, 1990): Matt was like this guy who was a kind of straight guy at a hippie college, but so militantly straight that he was hipper than the hippies. He was the opposite of that song "The Poetry Man"; his sensibility was that life is not a haiku. Even though he's not "The Poetry Man," he's a guy with real strong feelings.
At one point, one of Matt Groening's writing teachers, Mark Levensky, drew a simple formula on the blackboard to show Groening what the basic plot structure was for all his short stories and asked him if he felt his writing was worthwhile. Groening has said that that question has "haunted" him ever since. The ghosts of his writing failures would return in The Simpsons writing room — where Matt's writing was ridiculed — and linger like Banquo.
A place like Evergreen, with all its liberal pretensions, was hardly safe from Groening's scorn — he delighted in sending up the school once he took the reins of Evergreen's student newspaper, the Cooper Point Journal. He sensationalized the paper, getting political with his attacks on the state legislature, as well as lampooning the school's countercultural piety.Groening added a cartoon page to the Journal, where he and his friend Lynda Barry (of Ernie Pook's Comeek fame) showed their work. Professors would post his cartoons, yet the school's most ardently liberal students were indignant. When Groening made fun of communes, a petition was circulated: "Dear Mr. Groening: Communal struggles are not funny!"While Groening enjoyed annoying people with his antics, he could also be affected by their reactions. Of his days at the paper, Groening's friend Steve Willis remembered how he would find Groening, his head cradled in his hands, repeating to himself, "I didn't mean for it to come out this way."
In 1977, a freshly graduated twenty-three-year-old Groening headed to Los Angeles. He lived with his girlfriend, Lynda Weinman, worked on his writing, and paid the rent with a series of dead-end jobs. Matt's initiation to LA was, in a word, hellish. As he later told Playboy, "Life in Hell was inspired by my move to Los Angeles in 1977. I got here on a Friday night in August; it was about a hundred and two degrees; my car broke down in the fast lane of the Hollywood Freeway while I was listening to a drunken deejay who was giving his last program on a local rock station and bitterly denouncing the station's management. And then I had a series of lousy jobs."
These included being a writer/chauffeur to an ancient director, writing slogans for horror movies at an ad agency, landscaping at a sewage treatment plant, and working at a copy shop. His interest in music drew him to the punk scene, and he got jobs at the Whisky a Go Go, where he got to wait on Elvis Costello, as well as at Licorice Pizza, the record shop across the street. In addition to selling records, Licorice Pizza also sold drug paraphernalia, including coke vials. Because the store sold the caps separately from the vials, Matt would have to count them out one by one. It was great fun for him to take his time counting out hundreds of coke vials while the customer, ramped up on cocaine, waited impatiently.
At this point, Groening was already drawing Life in Hell, which he photocopied and sent to his friends, or sold for $2 a pop at Licorice Pizza. Groening attacked the institutions the angsty twentysomethings found most repellent and conformist: school, work, and love.
A typical strip asked, "Is there a Life in Hell philosophy?" The answers were as follows: "Your days are numbered." "It's later than you think." "We're all doomed." "Have a nice day."
Originally, Binky the bunny (Groening's mouthpiece) was condescending and preachy, but Groening altered him to be more of a victim with forces working against him, like Reaganite social values, the religious right, commercialism, teachers, and bosses. The cartoons reeked of depression, death, and fear, but there was fun to be had, ironies and insights in the commentary that people related to. A classic strip has Binky bound and gagged in an empty room. Two eyes peer in through a slit in the room's only door and a menacing voice intones, "Are you ready to embrace family values yet?"
MATT GROENING (to the Portland Oregonian, March 25, 1990): The more horrible things I did to that rabbit, the more people liked it.
"Today 'hell' is such an ingrained part of the American lexicon that it's hard to remember a time when it was considered unprintable on a par with the 'f' word," wrote Paul Andrews in The Seattle Times. But Groening's comic reconstituted the meaning of "Hell," taking a word from the Bible and throwing it in the face of the Me Decade and all its emptiness, with the word's new countercultural undertones. "'Life in Hell' was every ex-campus protester's, every Boomer idealist's, conception of what adult existence in the '80s had turned out to be."
Life in Hell was first published in 1978 by Leonard Koren's Wet magazine, an alternative, artsy periodical centered on the concept of "gourmet bathing."
GARY PANTER, cartoonist, friend of Matt Groening: Leonard Koren showed me Life in Hell for the first time. He was really impressed with it and I was too. And I'm under the impression that Matt was working at a copy shop because he made really fancy minicomics, with lots of pages and color changes and foldins and all kinds of stuff. His drawings were really ambitious, but also very simple and beautifully designed. It has clarity, which is what you need to communicate visually with comics. He's a great writer, and he understands human psychology, so he can be very effective in whatever medium he's using.
One thing Matt was always mentioning was to make the drawing funny to start with. If the drawing is funny, then the ball's already rolling. There has to be some way to invite people into your comic. He also said he was surrounded by really good drawers in high school, and he felt he didn't want to compete with them, so he made his work simple.
But simplicity in comics is a really powerful thing. If you pick up certain comics like Dick Tracy or Krazy Kat, they may be the greatest comics ever made, but it takes you a minute to adjust to their vocabulary. Comics these days are really much more simple.
In high school, the animals Matt had drawn for his friends had been unrecognizable, except for his rabbits. Groening also liked it that there is a distinguished history of rabbits in pop culture — "Peter Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, Rabbit Redux — the John Updike stuff — Crusader Rabbit," he told Playboy.
JAMES VOWELL, editor in chief, LA Reader: I was the founding editor of the LA Reader back in 1978. Very shortly after we got the first issue out, maybe in the next week or two, Matt called me, probably in November of 1978. He was looking for writing and editing jobs in LA. And we just got to talking.
JANE LEVINE, former publisher, LA Reader: Matt came in with these silly cartoons with the rabbits with one ear. And showed them to James. I was the publisher; I was the money person. James was the editor. Matt leaves. James comes out of his office and says, "That guy is gonna be famous someday." And I look at these flipping rabbits, you know, and go, "Whatever, James." But I've since learned that James was right about a lot of people, not only Matt.
JAMES VOWELL: The first story of his that got published was in something like February 9th or 10th, 1979. It was a very interesting story about how people put the signs up on Sunset Boulevard and how they painted them; he covered the whole scene.
He kept doing minor assignments over the next few months and then the publisher hired Matt as our distribution manager. Free newspapers, you have to go out to find places to put the racks; you have to make deals with merchants. So he went all around LA, he did some of the delivery himself.
He was a full-time employee, writing more features. Very shortly after that, maybe within six months or so, I was able to convince Jane Levine to let him be my assistant editor. He was my assistant editor at the LA Reader for two or three years.
The Reader, which was even smaller (and more alternative) than its competitor, the LA Weekly, gave Groening an income, a forum for his writing, and an official entrée into the underground music and arts scenes.
GARY PANTER: Punk rock was happening, so there were shows all the time. And Matt and me and everybody went to these shows. And a lot of the same bands would play, they became very famous, and it was really creative. Punk rock in LA was a lot of people out of art school, doing creative things, making publications and clothing and music and so on. We were part of that. And the idea that we could get things into the LA Reader and then have them be blowing down the street, weeks later, seemed like some sort of interesting accomplishment, to impact the landscape somehow. And I think Matt and I were both interested in doing that. We were both interested in entering into culture somehow. It's interesting if the individual can have an effect in culture, that's an interesting problem.
Matt fell in love with the punk scene that was blooming in LA. He reviewed unknown bands in the Reader, then a week after the review had been published would check in with the record store, only to find that they hadn't sold a single copy. "So," Matt told NPR, "I wasn't that good as a rock critic."
JANE LEVINE: Oh, God, it [LA Reader] was so cool. It was an alternative weekly, as if the Village Voice had a baby. It was very small, but it always had incredibly high standards of literary journalism and, these are such difficult words, hipness and alternativeness. In '78, the calendar section of the LA Times was an amazing fat arts and entertainment section, but the line hadn't blurred between mainstream and alternative journalism to the extent that it has now.
So when we wrote about punk rock in Chinatown it wasn't something that everybody was writing about. And we wrote about the city as a city, as a place to live, and not about the industry. And James Vowell collected this amazing group of writers and illustrators like Matt, but also like Gary Panter, Steve Erikson, the crazy Richard Meltzer, Richard Gehr — these really, really great writers (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Simpsons by John Ortved. Copyright © 2009 John Ortved. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
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