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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Smart, Vulgar, Subversive, Quirky, Hilarious--and a Hit

February 23, 1990|HOWARD ROSENBERG

So taken was Brooks with a "Life in Hell" blowup on his office wall that he encouraged Groening to try animation for the Ullman show. Fearing that transfering "Life in Hell" to Fox would mean also relinquishing its rights, Groening instead decided to create new characters, all of them except Bart named after his own family.

Thus "The Simpsons" began appearing on the Ullman show as brief "bumpers" separating sketches, with the distinctive voices and grunts of Ullman regulars Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner as Homer and Marge, in addition to Nancy Cartwright as Bart and Yeardley Smith as Lisa (Harry Shearer would join the cast as infinite other characters when it became a series).

Like the "The Tracey Ullman Show," "The Simpsons" got a series commitment from Fox primarily through Brooks' clout. Not only was Fox skeptical about "The Simpsons," so also was Simon, who was then, and still is, executive producer of the Ullman series.

"I thought it was a bad idea," he said about expanding "The Simpsons" to a half hour. "As much as I liked the bumpers, I thought 20 seconds to a minute was the right dose."

And? "What really elevated 'The Simpsons' is that a lot of really talented people have come in from the Tracey show. Matt's (creative) voice is certainly in 'The Simpsons,' but initially he was talking about a show where there'd be Martians and a lot of fantasy," said Simon, grimacing. "I'm glad we rejected that."

Hmmmmm.

One senses from talking separately to Simon and Groening in their Fox offices that the two are as incompatible and out of tune with each other as the Simpsons.

Simon projects sleekness. The bearded, banged, shaggy-haired Groening usually wears Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian-style shirts to work and is shaped not unlike the barrel in which Bart rolled down a hill on a recent episode.

Simon is largely ignored by the media; Groening--averaging 20 interviews a week--is adored by the media.

"It bothers me a little bit," Simon acknowledged. "But I knew going in that Matt, the underground cartoonist who gets a series, was a compelling story. He did create the characters."

"Although I get the lion's share of the glory, it's a collaborative effort," said Groening before quickly adding: "But my contribution to the writing of the show should not be minimized. I'm involved in every creative aspect, from conception of ideas to writing scripts to directing voices to designing characters."

Said Simon: "Matt is really torn. He's doing a lot of other stuff for the show, merchandising and things like that. He's the show's ambassador."

Informed that Simon had characterized him as the show's ambassador, Groening paused before replying. "That's a little bit condescending," he said, later adding: "There's definitely a power struggle here. There's a scramble to claim credit for the show now that it's become successful."

Simon and Groening are also opposites in other ways.

Simon is a TV insider whose short but flashy pedigree includes "Taxi," "Cheers" and "It's Garry Shandling's Show." None of those offered quite what "The Simpsons" does, he says. "The most liberating thing about animation is that you can have as many characters and as many sets as you want. In three-camera (comedies), you can't go to the opera for three minutes (as the Simpsons did recently)."

Meanwhile, Groening is an outsider immersed in his first TV venture. "My first problem in making the show was my fear that it would not turn out to be something different," he said, "that it would be watered down and be full of compromises. That didn't happen.

"The other thing is that there is a sourness and mean-spiritedness to a lot of TV comedy that leaves me cold. That may sound strange coming from the author of 'Life in Hell,' but I did fear getting locked in a room with overpaid and bitter TV writers."

And? "Luckily, I'm working with other people who think the same things are funny that I do," said Groening, who nevertheless remains uneasy about the collaborative process. "That's why I won't give up my strip," he said. "I'm used to working by myself and getting full credit and full blame."

Now, the full story. Will the characters in "The Simpsons" ever achieve true happiness? Groening himself once posed that question in "Life in Hell" about his comic strip characters, and the answer he gave in the strip also applies here:

"What a silly question! At this very moment, they are as happy as you are."

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