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Television

Understanding Matt Groening

He's just announced a new show on Netflix, but does the creator of everyone's favorite jaundice-yellow family have anything to offer popular culture in 2017?

by Peter White
Aug 1 2017, 5:20pm

The Simpsons/20th Century Fox

Matt Groening has always known that creating The Simpsons—the longest-running comedy in America, and the only television show to feature cameos from both Barry White and Ed Sheeran—would open the door for pretty much anything else he wanted to make in the future. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the show in Cannes, France, Groening admitted that he could "walk into any network, offer them another Simpsons, and I think they would probably drool a little."

Eight years later, and Groening has proved his point. Netflix staff has emerged from their boardroom, wiping their drool-slathered chins with their shirt sleeves, having recently ordered 20 episodes of Disenchantment, a Groening creation that follows the adventures of a drunken princess, an elf, and a demon, as well as a supporting cast of ogres, harpies, and walruses.

The streaming service hopes the show—which has been described in industry circles as Bojack Horseman meets a filthier Shrek—is closer in quality to The Simpsons in its prime. "Peak Simpsons," of course, being those glory seasons three through seven, which die-hard fans of the show always get misty-eyed remembering. There have been occasional glimpses of the old spark in recent years, such as season 26's Judd Apatow–penned "Bart's New Friends" and season 23's Christmas flash-forward "Holidays of Future Passed," as well as a number of stand-alone Halloween treats, but it's safe to say few episodes have come close to the greatness of "Marge vs. the Monorail," "Homer at Bat," "Lisa the Vegetarian," or "Homer the Great."

The idea that Springfield has lost much of its charm is pretty much unanimously agreed upon. Where early episodes often revolved around the entire family and had heart, the latter seaons have relied on over-the-top adventures and topical one-liners. That said, the question of who is responsible for the show's varying creative successes and misfortunes is a complicated one.

The original seasons were largely written by a small group of writers including Sam Simon, Al Jean (who still oversees the program), Mike Reiss, Jace Richdale, Jon Vitti, George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, and Jeff Martin. In John Ortved's book The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, it is Simon who is widely regarded as the lead writer and driving force behind the show, alongside Groening and James L Brooks.

Brian Roberts, who worked on the show between 1989 and 1991, told Ortved: "The concept of Groening as the creative driving force behind The Simpsons is just plain bullshit. Groening was around, but he was isolated and not really part of the inside gang." Jay Kogen felt similarly, adding, "Groening wasn't always in the room. So it's hard to fight with everybody and have a real say if you're not there." There was obvious tension between Simon and Groening, and the pair continued to take shots at each other publicly after Simon left following the fourth season. He called Groening the show's "ambassador," claiming the creator was now more involved with commercial elements such as merchandise than he was with the creative aspects of the show.

Groening didn't take this lightly. After referring to Simon as "one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced," he hit back. "My contribution to the writing of the show should not be minimized. I'm involved in every creative aspect, from the conception of ideas to writing scripts, to directing voices, to designing characters," he added.

How involved Groening actually is in the show, which has run for 618 episodes across 28 series, is still somewhat unclear. He is understood to have veto power over scripts—for instance, changing the ending of series 12's "Homer vs. Dignity" from a bit about pig's blood to fish guts—yet how often he still cracks out his felt-tips and colors the red in on Groundskeeper Willie's beard is up for debate. Groening remains visible to an extent, promoting the show around the world, yet the Frank Zappa–loving punk rocker, who studied at Olympia's Evergreen State College, remains to this day a mysterious figure in the industry.

Groening in 2011. Courtesy of Wikicommons

His involvement in Futurama has proven more consistent. He is believed to have spent around five years researching science fiction before pitching the show with Simpsons writer David Cohen and was heavily involved in the return of Fry and the gang when it was resuscitated by Comedy Central in 2010 after being canceled by FOX in 2003. He told the Metro in 2012 that he could fill up his entire life working on Futurama. "The really great thing about having two TV shows going on at the same time is that I can go to one and say that I have to go and visit the other, and then I can just go home and they don't know," he joked.

If anything offers a window back into the idiosyncratic and deeply cynical world of Groening's creations in the early 1990s, it might be his work away from the television. Away from the limelight of his flagship shows, Groening has continued to work on his long-standing comic books; his pre-Simpsons creation Life in Hell ran until 2012, and he established both Bongo Comics (which publishes Simpsons Comics) and Zongo Comics (an adult-focused publisher that has since folded) during The Simpsons' run.

There's hope that his latest venture might provide a similar space for a return to form away from the overweight, yellow albatross that hangs around his neck. Disenchantment has also been in the works for some time with Groening's relationship with Netflix established over 18 months ago. Groening won't be working on Disenchantment alone. The show he describes as being about "life and death, love, and sex, and how to keep laughing in a world full of suffering and idiots," will be written alongside Josh Weinstein—himself one of the first writers to join the original Simpsons writing room.

Adding to the promise of this stripped back, early-Simpsonian writing team, the voice cast is similarly exciting. The current cast list basically reads like a who's who of oddball comedians, including Toast of London's Matt Berry, Star Stories, Lucy Montgomery, and Mighty Boosh pair Noel Fielding and Rich Fulcher. They join US stars including Broad City's Abbi Jacobson, who stars as Princess Bean, Friends From College's Nat Faxon and Eric Andre, who has an eponymous show on Adult Swim.

Time will tell if Netflix has found a show to rival Seth Macfarlane's Family Guy or Dan Harmon's Rick and Morty or if they have simply added another A-list name to their trophy cabinet, alongside the likes of David Fincher, Mitch Hurwitz, Aziz Ansari, and Spike Lee. More revealingly, Disenchantment might offer more evidence for what Matt Groening's continuing creative value is in the mega-industry of adult-humor he in part created. The judgment is still out on whether he has something to offer popular culture in 2017, or if he's only as good as his past.

Not that Groening seems like the type of person to care what the world thinks of him. He admitted to the LA Weekly in 2007: "I'm one of those people who gets more credit than I deserve. So do I feel guilty? Yes. Do I admit it? Yes, and then I move on."