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Comedy | Weekend Chat

'Simpsons' and Beyond

Matt Groening, creator of the animated series, is busier than ever with projects including 'Futurama.' Tonight he brings his humor to Royce Hall.

November 30, 2000|JORDAN RAPHAEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When television historians look back on the last decade of the 20th century, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening certainly will emerge as one of the key figures. His cartoon series, currently in its 12th season, not only paved the way for a rich collection of prime-time animation shows, including "King of the Hill" and "The PJs," it also raised the bar for all TV sitcoms.

That's quite an accomplishment for Groening, once described in a "Simpsons" retrospective episode as a drunk who "made humans out of his rabbit characters to pay off his gambling debts."

These days, Groening, 46, is busier than ever. Deep into production on the third season of "Futurama," his newest animated series, he also oversees the licensing and merchandising of "The Simpsons," and serves as publisher of a comic book company. As a solo artist, Groening continues to produce "Life in Hell," the weekly comic strip he created in 1977 to vent his frustrations about life in Los Angeles.

Tonight, Groening will speak at UCLA's Royce Hall about his TV projects, accompanied by clips and outtakes from past seasons.

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Question: Have you accomplished anything creatively with "Futurama" that you couldn't do with "The Simpsons"?

Answer: I've always been a fan of science fiction, and I thought doing an animated show set in the future was an idea that had not been fully explored by "The Jetsons." It seems to me that there are two kinds of futures posited in most science fiction--the dark and drippy future of movies like "Blade Runner," and the bland and boring future as shown by shows like "The Jetsons." ["Futurama" executive producer] David X. Cohen and I wanted to combine the dark and drippy with the bland and boring, and see if we could come up with something drippy but spicy.

Q: Do you think prime-time animation has lived up to the standard set by "The Simpsons"?

A: Well, I'm an animation fan and having grown up on the dismal Saturday morning animation of the 1960s, I did not expect things to get any better. So, the fact that there are all these shows in prime time and on cable networks that are products of such strong visions is great. I like "Powerpuff Girls," "King of the Hill," "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," "Hey, Arnold!" What's great about animation right now is that all these shows don't look like anything else.

Q: After 20 years, given how busy your life is, what keeps you motivated to continue drawing "Life in Hell"?

A: One of the gratifying things about "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" is that I get to work with a large number of really talented people. But because these enterprises have gotten so big, a lot of the fun stuff gets taken away from me, and I end up sitting in really boring meetings about budgets and scheduling. It's fun to go home or to my studio, sit down with a blank sheet of paper and draw a cartoon all by myself.

Also, if you look at "Life in Hell," it's very therapeutic for me. It's all stuff I'm worried about that I don't think would lend itself to prime-time animation.

Q: Do you still love music, and what are you listening to these days?

A: Music is my great solace, because I have no musical talent so I just get to enjoy it. I like everything from Balinese gamelan music to a Dutch jazz band called the Willem Breuker Kollektief. It's an intricate mix of conservative big band and avant-garde squealing. I like music that doesn't cause people to run from the room as well. I listen to everything, but most popular music from the time I was a kid has not engaged me. Since the days of disco, music has gotten quite boring rhythmically.

Q: Do you spend much time online?

A: Oh, yeah. Surfing the Net is what I do now instead of watching television. I have my laptop hooked up when I'm in bed.

Q: What are some of your favorite Web sites?

A: I have a folder called "Current Obsessions," which include lots of Hong Kong cinema Web sites. I also like Redhotjazz.com, as well as the usual sites--Salon, Slate, the Washington Post for politics. And I love a site called Chowhound, which is an enthusiastic gourmand Web site that has discussions of great food all around the country. It's the anti-Zagat's, for people who like food a little spicier. It's not completely reliable, by the way. Of course, nothing on the Internet is reliable, I've learned. There have been a number of untruths written about me on the Internet. One rumor is that I'm [No Doubt singer] Gwen Stefani's brother, because her brother is an animator. Another one is that I'm dead, which is probably not true. I felt quite complimented by that one. It puts me in the same class as Paul McCartney.

Q: Do you get nervous before public appearances?

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