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Bart Simpson's Real Father : Recalling the Fear and Absurdity of Childhood, Matt Groening Has Created a Cartoon Sitcom More Human Than Most Live-Action Shows

April 29, 1990|Joe Morgenstern | Joe Morgenstern is a journalist and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.

UPSTAIRS, in the toy-filled nursery of a house perched on bluff's edge in Pacific Palisades, a chubby toddler named Homer started howling a few Sundays ago as his mother hoisted him into his crib for a midday nap. Downstairs, in the kitchen, Homer's chubby, bearded father listened calmly to the din. "I can relate to that," he said with feeling. " 'I'm not tired, I don't want to take a nap, you can't do this to me!' "

Little Homer surely was not alone in his outrage and grief. Other 1-year-olds must have been crying, with equal cause, at that very moment throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Just as surely, though, none of their fathers had the same take on their plight. For Homer's dad is Matt Groening (pronounced GRAY-ning ) , creator of the hit television series "The Simpsons," as well as the syndicated cartoonist who draws "Life in Hell." And Groening relates, with deadly accuracy and delicious wit, to what kids and all the rest of us must endure in this vale of toys and tears.

"The Simpsons" is a prodigy of pop culture if ever there was one, a prime-time cartoon series that's livelier and more vividly human than most live-action shows. Since its debut on Fox Television only four months ago, this 30-minute family comedy has dumbfounded the industry's demographers by grabbing off a huge and still-expanding audience of little kids, trend-wise teens and hip adults; has won its Sunday time slot against the three other networks; has come within a whisker of cracking TV's 10 top shows, and, as Fox's highest-rated series, has not merely added luster to an already interesting lineup but also turned out to be the 3-year-old network's Hope diamond.

When "The Simpsons" first went on the air, viewers and critics alike were surprised that the show had exhumed one of television's hoariest formulas: a sitcom, albeit animated, about a blue-collar family living in a standard-brand American suburb, and not just any old suburb but a town called Springfield, just like the locale of "Father Knows Best," the blithely Utopian sitcom of the 1950s. Ours is not, after all, an age enthralled with the joys of home and hearth.

But "The Simpsons" is hardly a hymn of praise to outdated values. It's a startlingly bold, often outrageous, depiction of contemporary life as a comic chaos where values are garbled, feelings are ignored and loved ones keep colliding like bumper cars at an amusement park. Yet the show is also remarkable for its subtlety. While other blue-collar series, such as "Roseanne" or "Married . . . With Children," draw their live-action families in broad, cartoon-like strokes, "The Simpsons" develops most of its laughs, and sometimes its darkness or tenderness, from specific character traits and emotional truths. "I think of the Simpsons as real, individual people," Groening says. "If others want to relate to them as symbols of American life, that's fine, but they're not my idea of what the family is--they're a family. What drives the Simpsons in general, which I find particularly funny, is their urgent struggle to be normal, whatever that is, and then failing at it every step of the way."

Father knows worst in the Simpson clan. Heading the family is Homer, a flabby oaf with perpetual 5 o'clock shadow who works, incompetently, at a nuclear power plant. (Groening's father's name is Homer, too, but Groening named his animated paterfamilias after Homer Simpson, a character in the Nathanael West novel "Day of the Locust.")

Mother knows better, but it rarely helps. Her name is Marge. She's a wrenchingly good-willed, gravel-voiced saint in polyester clothing, and her blue hair is done up in a giant beehive, or maybe a small termite nest. Then there's Maggie, the baby who must have been epoxied to a pacifier; Lisa, the daughter with a predilection for bop chords and melancholia, and Bart, endearing Bart, the Peck's bad boy of a son, with his unquenchable life spirit and his yellow, spiky head that suggests a crown roast.

Most episodes turn on the family's misadventures. Homer disgraces himself in front of his son, a la "The Bicycle Thief," by nearly causing a meltdown while Bart's class is visiting the power station. Bart gets beaten up by the school bully, then retaliates in all-out war with the help of a local gun freak. Lisa loses track of the purpose of life but learns the meaning of the blues. ("The blues," a saxophone player tells her, "isn't about feeling better; it's about making other people feel worse.") Marge almost has an affair with a suave French bowler, who invites her to brunch. ("What's brunch?" she asks in her inviolable innocence.)

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