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Rhymes with raining

CraveOnline talks to Matt Groening about the Simpsons and Futurama.

Rhymes with raining

You’ll probably find no greater Simpsons fan than me. I have stood by the show in the darkest years, when many fair-weather fans just complain about the end of the Golden Age. I maintain there have been at least two renaissances. Frankly, I will go through serious withdrawals when the show finally ends. I told creator Matt Groening that and I think he thought I was being sarcastic. But he let me interview him anyway. There are 18 years of show to cover, plus the upcoming movie and the return of Futurama.

CraveOnline: I was forever disturbed by the episode where Lester and Eliza save the day instead of Bart and Lisa. I expected them to recur as rivals. Were they always intended as one joke?

Matt Groening: It was a one shot. They were partially based on the original drawings of Bart and Lisa and we’ve written them into the show, but have they come back? I don’t even remember. I think we put them in The Simpsons movie. They were in one draft. I’m not sure if they survive.

CraveOnline: Can you finally clear this up: That was Michael Jackson in the Lisa’s birthday episode, right?

Matt Groening: Oh, I think that was a contractual thing but I didn’t sign any contract. Yeah, that was Michael Jackson.

CraveOnline: Are there any other Simpsons urban legends?

Matt Groening: Oh, there were two rumors. One was that Madonna was going to be on the show, and then that the movie was going to be about Bart losing his virginity. That was 10 years ago. Bart losing his virginity was based on somebody asked one of the writers what’s the Simpsons movie about? He goes, "Bart losing his virginity." That was a joke and that’s not what the movie’s about.

CraveOnline: Will the movie focus on one character, like Homer?

Matt Groening: No, it’s about the family. It’s one of the nice things about having a full length feature is we don’t have to just tell one or two small stories.

CraveOnline: Who’s doing the movie while the show’s still running?

Matt Groening: Anybody who has been an animator on The Simpsons, generally we’ve called them up and said, "Come back."  And got a couple of studios working on the movie.  And David Silverman, one of the original directors back in The Tracey Ullman days, supervising director of The Simpsons for many years, is doing this with many veteran directors of the show.  And then it’s the home team.

CraveOnline: What took so long to do the movie?

Matt Groening: For me, part of the reason was, we’re coming up on the 20th year of the show, we’re coming up on the 400th episode, and if we’re ever going to do it, we should do it now.  I don’t want to do it [when] for some reason the show goes away and then do a movie. I thought it would really be neat to do a movie while the fans are still clamoring for it. 

CraveOnline: Will the movie finally reveal what state Springfield is in?

Matt Groening: Yes. We actually have a really good joke about that. Remember, I said joke.

CraveOnline: Since it’s a movie, can you do things you can’t do on TV?

Matt Groening: You’ll see more of The Simpsons than you really should see and probably things, people you don’t want to see. Whoever you don’t want to see naked on The Simpsons, you know that’s who you’re going to see. Sorry about Marge.

CraveOnline: Could the movie affect the TV show down the road?

Matt Groening: Every single episode we sort of paint ourselves into a corner and we jump out of the corner, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem.

CraveOnline: Remember when everyone was all freaked out about how bad Bart was?

Matt Groening: Well, the history of entertainment is full of bad examples. I remember being in college and watching classic John Ford westerns and a villain shooting somebody dead, and then the next moment saying, "Fetch me some coffee, woman" and there’d be hissing from the audience. So it depends. It was okay to kill people but you can’t be rude. So yeah, Bart’s a bad kid. He’s a bad example but there are real kids who are worse. He’s not really that bad. Homer’s a pretty bad father but Bart’s not that bad.

CraveOnline: And all the parents groups, where have they gone now that The Simpsons is on all day in syndication?

Matt Groening: I think when The Simpsons first came on, there was an uproar. People got used to it. They realized the show’s really funny, it’s got a heart so I think it’s pretty safe. But you know all those episodes that are running all during the day, those are cut. Those aren’t the full episodes. They’re not cut for content necessarily, but they’re cut so they can squeeze in more commercials. My guess is they cut out some of the juicier stuff.

CraveOnline: You could say it goes over kids’ heads, but kids have grown up 18 years while the Simpsons is on.

Matt Groening: I mean, what I like about the show is that there are references that are designed for people who have read a few books, seen a few movies. I know for a fact obviously, because my kids grew up watching the show, that there are some things they are introduced to from The Simpsons and then later in life they see the thing we’re parodying. My kids had not seen Casablanca and we’d done parodies of Casablanca. We’ve done multiple references to Citizen Kane and of course Hitchcock. When the kids finally see the movies, they go, "Wha!"

CraveOnline: How do you keep it fresh after all these years?

Matt Groening: The only problem is that we’ve done so many jokes that often when somebody says a joke, somebody else says, "We did that in Season Nine. We did that in season seven." "Oh yeah."

CraveOnline: Kevin Smith wants to do a guest voice. Why haven’t you asked him yet?

Matt Groening: We’ll get him. I can’t believe we haven’t done it yet.

CraveOnline: Have you ever rejected some guest voices just because you can?

Matt Groening: Well, that’s the glory of being in Hollywood.  No, we have a long list.  There are a few people we’ve tried to get on the show who we haven’t gotten yet, but we’ll get them eventually.

CraveOnline: What is your favorite episode?

Matt Groening: Let’s see. I like the Frank Grimes episode a lot. I love that one. It’s usually the one we’re working on because I have such high hopes for it.

CraveOnline: When they come up with a new character, like a Disco Stu, do you get a pass at drawing it?

Matt Groening: I approve every design but now we’ve got such good Simpsons artists that I generally either write OK or I add or remove a line but that’s it.

CraveOnline: Is there competition now between you and Family Guy?

Matt Groening: I think at the beginning, there was probably some competition going on but certainly not from me because I know how hard it is to do an animated TV show and I know Seth MacFarlane is a good friend and Family Guy is funny and it’s got its own style and the more the merrier. I want more cartoons on TV.

CraveOnline: So what did you think of the South Park goof on Family Guy?

Matt Groening: Well, I like Seth. He’s a good guy. It was a tribute both to South Park pulling no punches, really funny and feeling bad because I know how hard animators work. The manatees was very [funny] and manatees seem to be this big comedy icon now. In The Simpsons we have a manatee episode, of course South Park and then on Conan, the horny manatee. That’s unbelievable. It’s not a rip-off. Family Guy has its own style, its own jokes. I would agree that The Simpsons was an inspiration to his career but then I’d say if I were an animator, I’d say any show that came after The Simpsons was probably inspired at least conceptually for doing something on TV that we were able to get away with that nobody had been able to for a long time.

CraveOnline: With fans of all ages now, who are the hardest to please?

Matt Groening: I think the true fanatics who were so stunned by the show and were taken by it at the beginning; it’s harder to please them because they’re not surprised. They’ve memorized the show and every new episode, they’re measuring it against their favorite episode so it’s difficult to please the die hard fans but we try.

CraveOnline: What do you think of the band Fall Out Boy?

Matt Groening: What an honor. Fall Out Boy the rock band named itself after the sidekick of Radioactive Man played by Millhouse. I hope they don’t have too many regrets.

CraveOnline: Will you have them on the show?

Matt Groening: That’s a great idea. That’s a great idea. You know what? I will pass that along. That’s a really good idea. Are you a fan?

CraveOnline: The Simpsons is one of the last examples of traditional animation. What do you think of the new CGI?

Matt Groening: I think there is a certain charm to the hand drawn image that I like. My problem with CGI is that it’s so rich in texture that my eyes actually get tired. Everything is in focus down to the littlest leaf. For me personally, when they put things out of focus, a masterful version of that was Brad Bird’s, (former Simpsons director), The Incredibles. He knew exactly, I thought, where to limit the detail.

CraveOnline: Why did Hollywood go so crazy for CGI?

Matt Groening: I mean, it is amazing. I said personally my taste. It’s very hallucinatory. It’s very dream-like. I guess if it’s charming, the Pixar movies are great.

CraveOnline: Have your kids seen all the Simpsons episodes?

Matt Groening: Well, I can’t say they’ve seen them all but they’ve seen the main ones.

CraveOnline: Are you more involved now than you were in the past?

Matt Groening: The idea that I was not involved with the show or less involved with the show is simply not true. I’ve always been involved with the show. It’s true there’s only 24 hours in a day so then I have to work on Futurama. I can’t be two places at once but the best thing about having two TV shows is I can go to each show and say I have to go to the other show and then I can go do whatever I want. Talk about a day job and night job, my night job after The Simpsons is Futurama, which is coming back on Comedy Central in 2008, 16 new episodes, and we’re going to be running the old episodes, as well. Then, I a draw a weekly comic strip that locally appears in the LA Weekly and it appears in alternative news weeklies around the country.  That’s something I do just by myself.  I get to go and sit at a drawing board.  Generally, I put it off as long as possible. It’s due on Fridays at 5:30, I have to get it on the computer. So I start drawing it Friday afternoon. I can’t twist my ankle. I can’t get the flu.  I’ve got to do it. So far, 27 years I’ve been doing that. 

CraveOnline:  Why do you still want to do a comic strip?

Matt Groening:  It’s me working by myself. It keeps me honest and The Simpsons is the biggest collaborative project I could imagine and this is me by myself. They serve different needs. The great thing about hand lettering is there’s no editing. I don’t turn my stuff in and it gets changed around at all. It is what it is and I love it.

CraveOnline: Futurama on Comedy Central, are you frustrated that Fox didn’t pick it up like Family Guy?

Matt Groening: Well, I was frustrated when it got cancelled, but Fox, 20th Television is the one who came back and said, "Would you like to do a DVD movie?" and we said, "Let’s do two" and they said, "Well, why not three?" and we said, "Well, why not four?" and they said, "Okay, four" and then that’s it.

CraveOnline: Are they really full movies or just three episodes together?

Matt Groening: We’re writing them as movies and then we’re going to chop them up, reconfigure them, write new material and try to make them work as separate episodes.

CraveOnline: Can DVD versions be more extreme than the ones for air?

Matt Groening: Those are the marching orders we gave ourselves, yes, to really try to push it and do things we might not be able to do on TV. And then Comedy Central picked up the show and we went, "Okay, probably there’s nothing we can think of that Comedy Central won’t run" because I’m astonished at what I see on Comedy Central every day.

CraveOnline: How will you turn those into episodes then?

Matt Groening: We are reconfiguring them and writing new material and narration and this that and the other so that they’ll stand on their own as episodes.

CraveOnline: Could it go on beyond that?

Matt Groening: I hope so. My guess now is that this is basically a season that we’re in production on which is complicated because they’re also DVDs, so that they’ll probably wait and see how they do and then we’ll get the pickup.

CraveOnline: You never gave up on Futurama, did you?

Matt Groening: Well, I always felt like we were a little bit like the original Star Trek. I always thought that working with my partner, David X. Cohen, that we knew that the people who loved the show really, really loved it and they wrote petitions, they wrote letters and e-mails and it just seemed right. And also, everybody that worked on the show loved it. So when it came time when the show did come back, everybody without exception said, "I’m on board." At this point, I said, "We’re thinking of gearing up the show again." They said, "I’m on board." Everybody, Katy Sagal, all the actors, John Dimaggio, Billy West. The original animation team, the original animation house, the original writers. Everybody came back. It was great.

Check out the latest Simpsons movie trailer here.