The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History [NOOK Book]


The Simpsons is one of the most successful shows to ever run on television. From its first moment on air, the series's rich characters, subversive themes, and layered humor resounded deeply with audiences both young and old who wanted more from their entertainment than what was being meted out at the time by the likes of Full House, Growing Pains, and Family Matters. Spawned as an animated short on The Tracy Ullman Show--mere filler on the way to commercial breaks--the series grew from a controversial cult ...

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The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

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The Simpsons is one of the most successful shows to ever run on television. From its first moment on air, the series's rich characters, subversive themes, and layered humor resounded deeply with audiences both young and old who wanted more from their entertainment than what was being meted out at the time by the likes of Full House, Growing Pains, and Family Matters. Spawned as an animated short on The Tracy Ullman Show--mere filler on the way to commercial breaks--the series grew from a controversial cult favorite to a mainstream powerhouse, and after nineteen years the residents of Springfield no longer simply hold up a mirror to our way of life: they have ingrained themselves into it.

John Ortved's oral history will be the first-ever look behind the scenes at the creation and day-to-day running of The Simpsons, as told by many of the people who made it: among them writers, animators, producers, and network executives. It's an intriguing yet hilarious tale, full of betrayal, ambition, and love. Like the family it depicts, the show's creative forces have been riven by dysfunction from the get-go--outsize egos clashing with studio executives and one another over credit for and control of a pop-culture institution. Contrary to popular belief, The Simpsons did not spring out of one man's brain, fully formed, like a hilarious Athena. Its inception was a process, with many parents, and this book tells the story.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
With The Simpsons having celebrated its 20th anniversary, it's high time that the most successful series in TV annals be given its full due. John Ortved's rambunctious oral history of the show captures both the genius and the free spirits of its creators. The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History approaches its constantly fermenting subject from almost every conceivable direction, interviewing writers, animators, producers, and even (brace yourselves) network executives. An invigorating look at a pop culture institution.
Louis Bayard
How did such a curious artifact become "the most powerful, lasting, and resonant entertainment force television has ever seen"? That is the task taken up by Ortved's "uncensored, unauthorized" history, which is as tasty as a pink-glazed donut with sprinkles, as refreshing as a Duff beer and as piquant as a curry slushy from Kwik-E Mart. And doubly delightful because, for once, the heroes are writers.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This behind-the-scenes look at perhaps the most successful television series of all time is a memorable and highly entertaining romp that offers listeners never before heard stories and anecdotes from such figures as Conan O'Brien and James L. Brooks. John Allen Nelson does a splendid job at relating the text with an ear for Ortved's wry wit—though his Homer impression could use a little work. Nelson takes listeners to places they've never been, tells them stories they thought they'd never hear, and does it all in such a cool and collected tone, that it seems almost second nature. It's endlessly informative and a fine complement to Ortved's superb study of the pop culture phenom. A Faber & Faber hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 5). (Nov.)
Publishers Weekly
This behind-the-scenes look at perhaps the most successful television series of all time is a memorable and highly entertaining romp that offers listeners never before heard stories and anecdotes from such figures as Conan O'Brien and James L. Brooks. John Allen Nelson does a splendid job at relating the text with an ear for Ortved's wry wit—though his Homer impression could use a little work. Nelson takes listeners to places they've never been, tells them stories they thought they'd never hear, and does it all in such a cool and collected tone, that it seems almost second nature. It's endlessly informative and a fine complement to Ortved's superb study of the pop culture phenom. A Faber & Faber hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 5). (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"You have to admire all the work that went into this unauthorized history. It's the labor of a disenchanted fan, but a smart, loving fan nonetheless." B+ —-Entertainment Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429931519
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,294,815
  • File size: 405 KB

Meet the Author

John Ortved's writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Interview, The New York Observer, and Vice. He lives in New York City.

John Ortved's writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Interview, The New York Observer, and Vice. He is the author of The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

  Simpsons, The
ONEThe Matt Groening ShowIn 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.1 Playing in the grizzly bear ghetto and the abandoned zoo’s caves and swimming pools,2 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.3
 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?”4In 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.5 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.”6 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.7
 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.8 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.9 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!”10 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.”11In 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.”12These 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.13 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.14At 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.15 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.”16Life 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
 Known as the “father of punk comics,” Gary Panter went on to be a seminal figure in the new-wave comics movement, with his drawings published in The New Yorker, Time, and Rolling Stone. He designed the set for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, for which he won three Emmys. His work has been displayed, alongside that of Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, in the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition. Steve Erickson went on to be a hugely successful surrealist author. His novels, like Rubicon Beach, have won him acclaim from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Richard Meltzer is a seminal rock critic and the author of fifteen books, including a collection of his writing, A Whore Just Like the Rest. Gehr was an editor and columnist at Spin and has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The Village Voice. He also wrote The Phish Book, in collaboration with the jam band.
 JANE LEVINE: It was also this totally fun time in LA. The late seventies, early eighties. Punk rock. X. The band X. And it was just like all those romanticized stories about how this little group of us did this thing and hung out together. You know, worked a million hours a week, and the hours that we weren’t working, we hung out together.
 It was this little tiny office. The circulation director and the publisher were in the same office. I told him I felt like I’d found another member of my family. Another sibling. Just the ease of talking to each other.
 Levine and Groening began a relationship that would last several years. She would leave the Reader in 1983 but continue to work with alternative weeklies until 2004, when she stepped down as publisher of the Chicago Reader. “I think got out of alternative newspapers when the getting was good. It’s so hard now,” she says.
 JANE LEVINE: He made me insane, just generally fomented dissent. He saw the world with malicious frivolity. And I was earnest. You know, I was the evil boss in the Work in Hell strips. He was the guy who brought his copy not after deadline but like nine seconds before the thing was going to the printer.
 JAMES VOWELL: [Matt was] just a great guy. Hardworking. Give him anything to do and he’d work on it. Ask him to do a certain story and within a few hours, or a day, he’d do a bunch of interviewing; he’d pull it together. Very careful. Very conscientious. He was so much fun to be around—turn around and there’s a joke. In fact, what I learned fromMatt is how to tell jokes. He even explained to me what a joke is: a joke is what somebody doesn’t expect.On Tuesday night we’d go up to Hollywood where the typesetter had his operation and pick up stuff to proof. Often we got hungry and went off and had supper and proofread. Matt was always trying to sell Life in Hell as an idea to me for a weekly cartoon in the paper. And he’d draw these little pictures on paper napkins, just ballpoint pen stuff, and occasionally I’d say, “Matt, why don’t you make that chin a little smaller.” I was trying to edit his cartoons, but he didn’t need me to edit his cartoons, I guarantee you.In April 1980, we published the first weekly newspaper version of Life in Hell.
 GARY PANTER: Matt’s earliest comics were about language. That was the major theme of his early minicomics, and I think it went into Life in Hell. He did a whole series of Life in Hell called “Forbidden Words.” Before I met him, I thought, Oh, this guy seems very critical and tough, because he would just name all these words that were overused in culture and forbid them from being used again [these included “ambience,” “bummer,” and “boogie”].
 Groening’s cartoon was popular at the Reader, but the strip really caught on once Matt hooked up with Deborah Kaplan, the tiny paper’s ad sales representative and his future wife (and ex-wife).
 MATT GROENING (to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 29, 1990): Everyone I know goes, “Well, if I had a Deborah, I could be a success too.” And they’re right.
 DEBORAH GROENING, Matt Groening’s ex-wife: I came to the Reader in 1981 and I got a job as a sales rep. One of the things I discovered was that Matt’s cartoon was a major selling point when I was going around town. My beat was Melrose, which at the time was where all the fashion, music, sort of the hip street.I would look through the archives and bring the coolest issues, [including] one that Matt wrote, a cover story called “Hipness and Stupidity.”When I met [Matt], he was on Valentino Place, formerly Mary Pickford’s apartment building, next to Paramount Studios, in a really seedy part of Hollywood. [Matt’s neighborhood was so bad, Deborah would not visit after dark.]17 I mean, he was hunting for quarters in his ugly orange shag carpeting. He had checks, $10, $15 checks that were, like, three years old, from some paper somewhere. So we made an amazing team. You know? Because I really appreciated the artistic aesthetic, but I had a natural instinct for business so—it was really kind of an amazing ride for around ten years.
 JAMES VOWELL: The thing about Life in Hell was people really related to it. People don’t know what Life in Hell means, in terms of the title. The real meaning of Hell is LA. It was really life in LA Hell. So it connected with the people.
 ART SPIEGELMAN, Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist, Maus: Life in Hell was neither mainstream nor underground, and at that point, that was unusual. There was the stuff that was totally unpublishable, outside the margins, and there was stuff like Cathy. There wasn’t yet a zone that wasn’t either of those things, that had its own voice and personality, that was interesting. It always struck me that he was a good writer; it didn’t feel like it was necessarily meant for Raw [Spiegelman’s magazine], because it wasn’t that visual, finally.
 GARY PANTER: He drove around in his car, in his Volkswagen Squareback or whatever it was, with it piled full of Readers. And people kept breaking into it all the time, because they thought there must be something valuable in there. And he would lie on the floor [of his apartment] and pennies would fall out of his pockets. So when I went over to his apartment, I always felt like he had a lot of extra money because there was this change on the ground. And then I realized, from looking at his environment, mainly what he was doing there was lying in bed and reading everything under the sun. Also, he was writing novels—that was a main project.And we were both interested in Frank Zappa. I think that idea that Frank Zappa [had], of giving reading lists to young people—if you give a young person the right reading list, a lot happens—I think you see that really built into Matt’s work. [Life in Hell, for all its dark humor, gave its readers something philosophical to chew on.]
 DEBORAH GROENING: Jane Levine, she was my mentor. We were sort of all young and beautiful, and we were kind of aware that we were at the hub of the scene in the eighties in Los Angeles. And so, for example, Jeff Spurrier, who did the listings, and his girlfriend, Ann Summa, who did the photography for the Reader—we would all go to the same events. You know there was Raymond Pettibon, a punk artist, and he would have a show and people would go there. There was Steve Samniock, who was like one of the hipster organizers, and he would have something called “Steve’s House of Fine Art.” Now I realize it was like a renaissance, a burgeoning scene in LA that compared to New York in its sophistication.The young, urban professionals—which we were, you know, highly educated, disposable income, all that stuff—turned to us and trusted our Reader. But also it was sort of a reaction to the hippies, so we were more cynical. Matt’s strip really represented that sort of “We’re wise. We’re not gullible. We don’t think the world’s going to change so easily.”And so we wanted to become part of the establishment to make the changes happen. So it was sort of this thing, plus of course there was the extreme like punk and new wave music and all this stuff. And then of course it was the same way in fashion, restaurants, so my clients were like l.a. Eyeworks, Vertigo, Industrial Revolution, Grow-Design, all these really fabulous stores on Melrose. Melrose was it.
 JANE LEVINE: Everybody was working so hard. And Matt was working really hard alongside of us. But did Matt work harder than James or, you know, ten other people? No. But he worked really hard. You know the way I mentioned him coming in with a column nine seconds before it had to go the printer? It wasn’t like he was screwing off. He was busy.
 RANDY MICHAEL SIGNOR, editor, the LA Reader (to The Seattle Times, August 19, 1990): Matt didn’t particularly have a reputation for discipline. We’d have to call his answering machine and yell into it, “Can you hear! Wake up! Call in!”
 DEBORAH GROENING: One day, Matt wrote a strip called “Isn’t It About Time You Quit Your Lousy Job?” By that time it was 1984 or ’83. And I was like, “Yeah!” You know? Because I realized I always wanted to sort of start my own business, and I realized I actually could do it because I’ve got a lot of confidence, and also I had learned I was the best salesperson there. I became sales manager, and I made the Reader kind of survive. Then I decided I would be an artist’s rep.And Matt was going to be one of my artists.
 Matt would defer to Deborah in all matters of business, telling Playboy that if it hadn’t been for her, he never would have made it big. They put out the book Love Is Hell for the Christmas rush of 1984. It sold twenty thousand copies.
 JAMES VOWELL: Deborah Kaplan was a major driver in Matt’s early history, mainly because they were married, and they wanted to get things going, and she was more business-oriented. In terms of getting it syndicated originally, that was Matt; Life in Hell was already well on the way when they [got together].
 JANE LEVINE: I don’t think Deborah gets the credit she deserves for Matt’s success. I mean, Matt’s talent is undeniable. Are there other people that talented? I don’t know. But Deborah was really the one who got other papers to run Life in Hell and started making calendars and greeting cards and all that sort of stuff. I don’t know what role she played in getting him on Tracey Ullman. But I really think she was the push to make him successful. Obviously she wasn’t the push to make him creative. He just was. But I’m not sure he would have ever made himself the popular success he was without Deborah.
 DEBORAH GROENING: The first thing I did was I started to organize Matt and syndicate his strip, and we created a company called Acme Features Syndicate (a reference to the Warner Bros. cartoons, where all the cartoons are branded Acme).And it was a blast. I did all the business, and Matt just got to be the artist, the struggling artist. And it was a very romantic time for everybody at the Reader, and, you know, it was just a really amazing time.So what we did was, we made deals every time we got [Matt’s strip syndicated in] a new paper. I went to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention and I created a publicity package. I created a product line [there were Life in Hell mugs, calendars, greeting cards, T-shirts, and books], but these papers that were only giving him $15 for his weekly strip, so I negotiated free ads [for the merchandise]. And then I used those ads to capitalize on this audience that loved him.And I got them in all these papers, I got quarter-page ads, which I otherwise never could have afforded. Eventually I quit the Reader, I went on unemployment, and I ran the business in my kitchen. And every time I’d get a new paper syndicated, I would negotiate ads, which started this feedback loop. The more papers I got the strip in, the more we did this mail-order business. And then I thought, Why not retail?There were places like the Soap Plant and Oz—it was like a precursor to Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. There were a lot of concept stores starting, so I got this idea that these products could be distributed there. George DiCaprio, who is the father of Leonardo DiCaprio, was at the time a cartoonist, but mostly a promoter of underground cartoonists. He became our distributor. And then I did a calendar, a 1986 calendar. We had these events [at Oz, Book Soup, l.a. Eyeworks] that were technically book signings but they were really just happenings. [In Polaroids from these book signings, one can see a young Matt Groening looking svelte and handsome—more alternative artist than Comic Book Guy—before he began to cultivate his signature, paunchier look of Hawaiian shirts and baggy pants.]Matt was an amazing creative talent, and I got to—I wouldn’t say “exploit” it, but I got to make him famous, really.
 JAMES VOWELL: I actually helped Matt publish some of his Life in Hell books. I probably helped publish the first three, four, or five of them
 DEBORAH GROENING: We were cooking. That year Playboy called the book “Coffee Table Book of the Month.” We were starting to get incredible press. And then what happened is Pantheon came along. They found an article in Saturday Review about the Love Is Hell book, and they were intrigued.
 ART SPIEGELMAN: It was around the time Françoise and I were hanging with Matt and his wife, Deborah. It was well into the time where I’d been signed up for a book with Pantheon, which was eventually Maus, but it seemed to be churning along forever. And at that point Matt had already put out some self-published “Life Is Hell” kind of books, and was wondering if this would be a good idea, to work with a publisher. He was kind of skittish about it, I think. And I said, “Well, these people have been great. Every other publisher in America seems to have turned down Maus, and although Pantheon turned it down as well, they did take it on a back-door, secondary submission from the art director. And the people up in the office seem swell.” So they were interested, and I kind of showed it around at Pantheon, which had a very minimal relationship with visual books at the time. So it was really a matter of “Hey, did you see this?” There really wasn’t any reason for them to leap on it at that point, except they liked it. Matt wasn’t a household name.
 DEBORAH GROENING: Meanwhile, things were happening right and left. Finally, in 1986, Matt got into The Village Voice, which was a huge goal of his. And we got in more and more papers. We ended up being in 200 newspapers (now it’s more than 250) that all had from 50,000 to 500,000 readership. So there were like literally millions of fans.And we had these rep networks, and we negotiated to retain the nonbook rights, so we had gift stores, novelty stores, comic book stores. And it was amazing when I got the call from Pantheon. Then he was asked to do a computer drawing, a poster, for Apple Computers and it was just really exciting.
 Maneuvering to ensure that they retained the rights to Life in Hell merchandise was a smart and practical move, but more important, it was a decision that would foreshadow the Groenings’ insistence, when The Simpsons came along, that they do the same thing.
 DEBORAH GROENING: We started getting requests to license on other things, like calendars and so forth. And then we did a line of greeting cards for Paper & Graphics, which was the groovy card company at the time, so we were really diversifying.
 Between Groening’s creativity and Kaplan’s industriousness, they had managed to create a Life in Hell cottage industry. They moved to Venice Beach and there was no more digging in the carpets for spare change. Matt and Deborah would marry in 1987, handing over the management of their business to Pantheon (a part of Random House) in 1989 when Deborah became pregnant with their first child. Their union would last until 1999, when Deborah would file for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. She retained custody of their two children, Homer and Abe. She has become a licensed therapist and is using her considerable means to build a foundation for troubled families.
 JAMES VOWELL: I actually wrote the original business plan for Matt’s publishing operation, probably in 1987 or ’88—I still have a copy of it on my bookshelf at home. He was just trying to raise a little money to expand his operations. And on the last page on the business plan it talks about how “This may not go forward because Matt is talking with people at Fox Television about doing some cartoons for The Tracey Ullman Show”Copyright © 2009 by John Ortved
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Table of Contents

Foreword Douglas Coupland Coupland, Douglas

Introduction "Hi, Everybody!" 3

1 The Matt Groening Show 11

2 The King of Comedy 27

3 When Bart Met Tracey 45

4 Sam "Sayonara" Simon 57

5 Welcome to Springfield 69

6 The Room 87

7 The First Episodes 101

8 Bigger Than Jesus 117

9 Fallout Boys 131

10 Buddies, Sibs, Dweebs, and an Odd Man Out 145

11 Conan 159

12 Institutionalized 169

13 The Godfathers 189

14 Who's the Boss? 207

15 Foxy Boxing 229

16 The Guest Stars 243

17 On and On 261

18 Under the Influence of Duff 275

Notes 291

Dramatis Personae 299

Acknowledgments 311

Index 313

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 5, 2010

    Interesting Read for Simpsons Fanatics

    This unauthorized look at the creation and behind-the-scenes workings of the Fox television staple "The Simpsons" is an interesting look at how the creative and business sides of television production work and will likely appeal most to serious fans of the show.

    It's mostly a tsunami of interviews strung together with minimal narrative by the author. The book covers the origin of the show and focuses largely on the early years where the show really developed its character and shines a light on some of the key figures in the evolution of the program.

    I enjoyed being taken behind the scenes to see how important clout is in the business and just how many creative minds it takes to get a show like this off the ground. There is plenty of focus on the large egos needed to create the show and plenty of drama to keep the reader moving forward.

    There were times that the book seemed to be spinning its wheels in place a bit - I think it would have benefitted from more aggressive editing. The sheer amount of interviews and quotes was impressive but could have been cut back while still getting its point across.

    Being an unauthorized history, the author did not land direct interviews with key figures in the book, relying on previously published quotes from Matt Groening and others. Since the book raises issues involving Groening, as well as James Brooks and Sam Simon, it would have been great to have their reactions to some of the opinions given about them and their actions.

    The author also is fairly clear in his opinion about recent seasons and the quality of other related programs in the book. His opinions do not really take away from core stories related.

    I found this book interesting and would recommend it for anyone who would like a glance into the back rooms of a TV program. Simpsons fans should certainly consider reading this.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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