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Matt Groening’s Animated Life

30 years ago, ‘The Simpsons’ arrived on ‘The Tracey Ullman Show.’ Television would never be the same.

On April 5th, 1987, The Tracey Ullman Show premiered on Fox, featuring a mix of sketch comedy starring Ullman and musical numbers choreographed by Paula Abdul. As they mapped out the sketches and segments, producer James L. Brooks – already well known for TV hits like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi and a multiple Oscar winner for the movie Terms of Endearment—was looking for one more element to fill out the show, and remembered a comic anthology called “Life in Hell.” He contacted its creator, Matt Groening, and asked him to come in and pitch some ideas. They set up a meeting.

While Groening was waiting to meet with Brooks, he started worrying that he’d be handing over ownership of his beloved “Life in Hell” characters to someone else. On the spot, he came up with another idea: a series of animated shorts about The Simpson family. That decision would change his life. 

The Simpsons shorts first aired on The Tracey Ullman Show on April 19, 1987. To celebrate the launch of a worldwide phenomenon, here are five fun facts about the man from whose brain this spark sprung, who happens to be as quirky and fascinating as the charaters he created.  

Groening Started Out His Writing Career as a Very Bad Music Journalist 

Groening’s first newspaper job was as the L.A. Reader, where he delivered papers, typeset, and answered phones. Eventually they started publishing his comic, and also gave him a weekly music column to write. 

Groening often invented fictional bands for his interviews, then revealed in the next week’s column that they didn’t exist, hoping (as so many writers often do) that being funny would get him past his music reporting deficiencies. One fan of his column was Harry Shearer, who would go on to become a successful musician, comedian, writer, director and actor, and voice multiple Simpsons characters over the years, including Mr. Burns, Smithers, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders, Kent Brockman, and Scratchy, among others. 

Groening’s interviews were no more successful than his fake reviews; he once interviewed David Byrne and didn’t even realize that his tape recorder had broken right when they’d first started talking. “I hope you have a good memory,” Byrne told him.

Fortunately, for him, his comic was more successful than his journalism. With the help of Deborah Caplan, who would become his first wife, he published an anthology and experienced his first taste of real success, along with the realization that there might be a career in the endeavor. 

Disney and ‘Peanuts’ Were His Big Inspirations When He Started Drawing

Although he was mostly a counterculture guy, Matt Groening had two massively successful, mainstream animation idols when he started out: Walt Disney and Charles M. Schulz.

Walt Disney Photo

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse

He learned some great tricks from Disney, the first being to make his characters, like Mickey Mouse, unmistakable in silhouette. This started with his one-eared bunny Binky in his “Life in Hell” comic strip, but clearly extended to both The Simpsons and Futurama; almost all of the characters are instantly recognizable from their outlines. He also took some specific inspiration from 101 Dalmations; he was struck by the scene where the puppies watch a dog on television. The Simpsons were often parked in front of the TV, and we often got to see what they were watching, from McBain movies to Itchy & Scratchy cartoons to the dish soap commercial featuring Homer-lookalike Mr. Sparkle. 

Charles M. Schulz’s sensibility appealed to him more personally, and his “Life in Hell” characters Akbar and Jeff sprung from his repeated and failed attempt to draw Charlie Brown and his companions—Akbar and Jeff’s squiggle-stripe shirts remained as a tribute. He had the pleasure, in 2015, of writing an introduction to a Peanuts anthology – an honor also given to writer Jonathan Franzen, tennis star Billie Jean King, and former President Barack Obama.  

Groening met Schulz, briefly, in 1998. He was on the Fox lot when he heard Schulz was at a nearby restaurant, so he rushed over. Groening thanked him for his favorite Peanuts strip, which featured Lucy stomping on snowmen she’d just created, explaining, “I’m torn between the desire to create and the desire to destroy.” 

His reaction? A polite smile. It made Groening’s day. 

The Simpsons Themselves Are Reality-Based 

As outrageous as the Simpson family has been over their 30+ years on television, their existence springs from the reality of Matt Groening’s life. His mother’s name was Margaret—nee Wiggum!—and his father was Homer. His sisters are Lisa and Maggie, and the Bart character was actually a combination of himself and his brother Mark. His other sister Patty became Marge’s sister, and his grandfather, yes, was Abraham. The treehouse where Bart and Milhouse retreat to read comics and avoid the world is based directly on a treehouse his brother used to have. 

Although the real Homer was not much like his fictional counterpart, he only once took issue with his cartoon portrayal. He objected to the scene when the Simpsons’ car gets stuck in the desert and Homer makes Marge carry the deflated tire back to town; he felt strongly that (fictional) Homer should’ve done it for her. But all the Bart-throttling? Never an issue.  

The Simpsons Holds a World Record for the TV Show with the Highest Number of Guest Stars

The Simpsons has the distinction, officially – as in “Guinness Book of World Records” officially – of having the most celebrity guests stars of any series in television history. The very first celebrity to play himself was Tony Bennett, but since then, legions of famous folks have popped up as themselves or as characters, both one-offs and recurring.

Three Simpsons guest stars have scored Emmys for their appearances: Anne Hathaway (Princess Penelope), Jackie Mason (as Rabbi Krustofski, Krusty’s father), and Kelsey Grammer (Sideshow Bob). They’ve even managed to score three Beatles, nabbing Paul McCartney for “Lisa The Vegetarian” with his stipulation that Lisa remain a vegetarian for the rest of the series. 

The first celebrity to turn them down was William Shatner, who later did a memorable, hilarious guest appearance on Futurama with several of his fellow Star Trek cast members. Prince had a whole episode written for him, but someone on his team re-wrote the script, and it wasn’t at all what the Simpsons team had in mind, so it was scrapped. (There are excerpts of the original Conan O’Brien-penned version out there, made available after Prince’s death.) 

Phil Hartman’s first appearance in “Bart Gets Hit by a Car” was supposed to be a one-off, but he ended up returning 51 more times as several different characters. Hartman was a favorite of the writers, and was supposed to provide the voice of Zapp Branigan in Futurama, but died in 1998. Both Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure were retired, as no other actor could step in for the irreplaceable Hartman.

He Used to Be in a Band with Stephen King

It wasn’t just Stephen King! The band, called The Rock Bottom Remainders, had one requirement: you have to be an author to join. Primarily used to fundraise for needy causes, its members have included, at various points, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Mitch Alborn, and Barbara Kingsolver, among others. Before their retirement as a group, they performed on talk shows and did live appearances, even playing at a gala to celebrating the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. No one was more surprised by the choice than the band themselves.

Quickies 

Since Groening’s creations always include a constant parade of sight gags, references, and one-liners, here is a short stack of one-off fun facts to wrap up with: 

  • The Simpsons are yellow so that channel surfers would immediately notice the difference between them and everything else on TV. 
  • For years, Groening collected bootleg Simpsons merchandise, until he ran out of room to store it all.
  • In 2012, Groening established the Groening Chair in Animation at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television with a $500,000 donation, and a pledge for a yearly contribution of $50,000 to help students produce socially conscious short films.
  • In the 1970s, Groening’s odd jobs included busing tables, washing dishes at a nursing home, working at a pizza place, landscaping in a sewage treatment plant, and working for a retired director of movie westerns as a chauffeur-slash-ghostwriter. (Good combo!) He was also an extra in the 1978 tv-movie When Every Day Was The Fourth of July
  • The sucking sounds Maggie makes with her pacifier are provided by none other than Groening himself.