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Matt Groening

Matthew Abram Groening (born February 15, 1954)[1] is an American cartoonist, television producer and writer from Portland, Oregon, best known as the creator of The Simpsons. He is also the creator of Futurama and the author of the weekly comic strip Life in Hell. Groening distributed Life in Hell in the book corner of Licorice Pizza, a record store in which he worked. He made his first professional cartoon sale to the avant-garde Wet magazine in 1978. The cartoon is still carried in 250 weekly newspapers.


Life in Hell caught the attention of James L. Brooks. In 1985, Brooks contacted Groening with the proposition of working in animation for the FOX variety show The Tracey Ullman Show. Originally, Brooks wanted Groening to adapt his Life in Hell characters for the show. Fearing the loss of ownership rights, Groening decided to create something new and came up with a cartoon family, the Simpsons and named the members after his own parents and sisters — while Bart was an anagram of the word brat. The shorts would be spun off into their own series: The Simpsons, which has since aired over 400 episodes in 19 seasons. In 1997, Groening got together with David X. Cohen and developed Futurama, an animated series about life in the year 3000, which premiered in 1999. After four years on the air, the show was cancelled by Fox in 2003, but Comedy Central commissioned 16 new episodes from 4 Direct-to-DVD Movies to be aired in 2008.

Groening has won 10 Primetime Emmy Awards, nine for The Simpsons and one for Futurama as well as a British Comedy Award for "outstanding contribution to comedy" in 2004. In 2002, he won the National Cartoonist Society Reuben Award for his work on Life in Hell.

Early life

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Groening was born on February 15, 1954[2] in Portland, Oregon USA.[3] He grew up in Portland,[4] the middle child of five children. His mother, Margaret Wiggum,[5] was once a teacher, and his father, Homer Philip Groening, was a filmmaker, advertiser, writer and cartoonist.[6] Homer, born in Main Centre, Saskatchewan, Canada, grew up in a Mennonite, Plautdietsch-speaking family.[7] Matt's grandfather Abram Groening was a professor at Tabor College, a Mennonite Brethren liberal arts college in Hillsboro, Kansas before moving to Albany College (now known as Lewis and Clark College) in Oregon in 1930.[8]

From 1972[9] to 1977, Groening attended The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington,[10] a liberal school which he described as "a hippie college, with no grades or required classes, that drew every weirdo in the Northwest."[11] He served as the editor of the campus newspaper, The Cooper Point Journal, for which he also wrote articles and drew cartoons.[9] He befriended fellow cartoonist Lynda Barry after discovering that she had written a fan letter to Joseph Heller, one of Groening's favourite authors, and had gotten a reply back.[12] Groening has credited Barry with being "probably [his] biggest inspiration."[13] He has also cited the Disney animated film One Hundred and One Dalmatians as what got him into cartoons.[14]


In 1977, at the age of 23, Groening moved to Los Angeles to become a writer. He went through what he described as "a series of lousy jobs," including being an extra in the film When Everyday Was The Fourth of July,[15] bussing tables,[16] washing dishes at a nursing home, landscaping in a sewage treatment plant,[17] and chauffeuring and ghost-writing for a retired Western director.[18][19]

Groening described life in Los Angeles to his friends in the form of a self-published comic book entitled Life in Hell, which was loosely inspired by a chapter entitled "How to Go to Hell" in Walter Kaufmann's book Critique of Religion and Philosophy.[20] Groening distributed the comic book in the book corner of Licorice Pizza, a record store in which he worked. He made his first professional cartoon sale to the avant-garde Wet magazine in 1978.[20] The strip, entitled "Forbidden Words," appeared in the September/October issue of that year.[16][21]

Groening gained employment at the Los Angeles Reader, a newly formed alternative newspaper, delivering papers,[9] typesetting, editing and answering phones.[17] He showed his cartoons to the editor, James Vowell, who was impressed and eventually gave him a spot in the paper.[9] Life in Hell made its official debut as a comic strip in the Reader on April 25, 1980.[16][22]

Vowell also gave Groening his own weekly music column, "Sound Mix," in 1982. However, the column would rarely actually be about music, as he would often write about his "various enthusiasms, obsessions, pet peeves and problems" instead.[11] In an effort to add more music to the column, he "just made stuff up,"[15] concocting and reviewing fictional bands and non-existent records. In the following week's column, he would confess to fabricating everything in the previous column and swear that everything in the new column was true. Eventually, he was finally asked to give up the "music" column.[23]

Life in Hell became popular almost immediately.[24] In November 1984, Deborah Caplan, Groening's then-girlfriend and co-worker at the Reader, offered to publish "Love is Hell", a series of relationship-themed Life in Hell strips, in book form.[25] Released a month later, the book was an underground success, selling 22,000 copies in its first two printings. Work is Hell soon followed, also published by Caplan.[9]

Soon afterward, Caplan and Groening left and put together the Life in Hell Co., which handled merchandising for Life in Hell.[16] Groening also started a syndicate, Acme Features Syndicate, which syndicated Life in Hell, Lynda Barry and John Callahan, but now only syndicates Life in Hell.[9] Life in Hell is still carried in 250 weekly newspapers and has been anthologized in a series of books, including School is Hell, Childhood is Hell, The Big Book of Hell and The Huge Book of Hell.[4] Groening has stated that he will "never give up the comic strip. It's my foundation."[26]

The Simpsons

Life in Hell caught the attention of Hollywood writer-producer and Gracie Films founder James L. Brooks, who had been shown the strip by fellow producer Polly Platt.[24][27] In 1985, Brooks contacted Groening with the proposition of working in animation on an undefined future project,[6] which would turn out to be developing a series of short animated skits, called "bumpers," for the FOX variety show The Tracey Ullman Show. Originally, Brooks wanted Groening to adapt his Life in Hell characters for the show. Fearing the loss of ownership rights, Groening decided to create something new and came up with a cartoon family, the Simpsons.[28] He allegedly designed the five members of the family in only ten minutes.[29]

Groening storyboarded and scripted every short (now known as The Simpsons shorts), which were then animated by a team including David Silverman and Wes Archer, both of whom would later become directors on the series.[30] The shorts premiered on The Tracey Ullman show on April 19, 1987.

Although The Tracey Ullman Show was not a big hit,[24] the popularity of the shorts led to a half-hour spin-off in 1989. The series quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, to the surprise of many. Groening said: "Nobody thought The Simpsons was going to be a big hit. It sneaked up on everybody."[11]

The Simpsons was co-developed by Groening, Brooks, and Sam Simon, a writer-producer with whom Brooks had worked with on previous projects. Groening and Simon, however, did not get along[24] and were often in conflict over the show;[16] Groening once described their relationship as "very contentious."[28] Simon eventually left the show in 1993 over creative differences.[31]

Although Groening has pitched a number of spin-offs from The Simpsons, those attempts have been unsuccessful. In 1994, Groening and other Simpsons producers pitched a live-action spin-off about Krusty the Clown (with Dan Castellaneta playing the lead role), but were unsuccessful in getting it off the ground.[19][32] Groening has also pitched "Young Homer" and a spin-off about the non-Simpsons citizens of Springfield.[33]

In 1995, Groening got into a major disagreement with Brooks and other Simpsons producers over "A Star Is Burns", a crossover episode with The Critic, an animated show also produced by Brooks and staffed with many former Simpsons crew members. Groening claimed that he feared viewers would "see it as nothing but a pathetic attempt to advertise The Critic at the expense of The Simpsons," and was concerned about the possible implication that he had created or produced The Critic.[34] He requested his name be taken off the episode.[35]

Groening is credited with writing or co-writing the episodes "Some Enchanted Evening", "The Telltale Head", "Colonel Homer" and "22 Short Films About Springfield", as well as The Simpsons Movie, released in 2007.[36] He has had several cameo appearances in the show, with a speaking role in the episode "My Big Fat Geek Wedding". He currently serves at The Simpsons as an executive producer and creative consultant.

The Simpsons character names

Groening famously named the main Simpson characters after members of his own family: his parents, Homer and Margaret (Marge or Marjorie in full), and his younger sisters, Lisa and Margaret (Maggie). Claiming that it was a bit too obvious to name a character after himself, he chose the name "Bart," an anagram of brat.[37][38] However, he stresses that aside from some of the sibling rivalry, his family is nothing like the Simpsons.[39] Groening also has an older brother and sister, Mark and Patty, Groening divulged that Mark "is the actual inspiration for Bart" in a 1995 interview.[34] When it came time to give Grampa Simpson a first name, Groening says he refused to name him after his own grandfather, Abraham Groening, leaving it to other writers to choose a name. By coincidence, the writers chose the name Abraham, unaware that it was also the name of Groening's grandfather.[40] Maggie Groening has co-written a few Simpsons books featuring her cartoon namesake.[41]

The name "Wiggum" for police chief Clancy Wiggum is Groening's mother's maiden name.[42] The names of a few other characters were taken from major street names in Groening's hometown of Portland, Oregon, including Flanders, Lovejoy, Powell, Quimby and Kearney.[43] Despite common fan belief that Sideshow Bob Terwilliger was named after SW Terwilliger Boulevard in Portland, he was actually named after the character Dr. Terwilliker from the film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.[44]


After spending a few years researching science fiction, Groening got together with Simpsons writer/producer David X. Cohen (still known as David S. Cohen at the time) in 1997 and developed Futurama, an animated series about life in the year 3000.[13][45] By the time they pitched the series to Fox in April 1998, Groening and Cohen had composed many characters and storylines; Groening claimed they had gone "overboard" in their discussions.[45] Groening described trying to get the show on the air as "by far the worst experience of [his] grown-up life."[13]

The show premiered on March 28, 1999. After four years on the air, the show was cancelled by Fox. In a similar situation as Family Guy, however, strong DVD sales and very stable ratings on Cartoon Network brought Futurama back to life, which is slated for four direct-to-DVD movies, as confirmed by Groening in an April 2006 interview.[19] Comedy Central commissioned 16 new episodes (edited from the four movies) to be aired in 2008.[46] Groening's sole writing credit for the show was the premiere episode, "Space Pilot 3000", co-written with Cohen.

Other pursuits

In 1994, Groening formed Bongo Comics Group (named after the character Bongo from Life in Hell[47]) with Steve Vance, Cindy Vance and Bill Morrison, which publishes comic books based on The Simpsons and Futurama (including Futurama Simpsons Infinitely Secret Crossover Crisis, a crossover between the two), as well as a few original titles. According to Groening, the goal with Bongo is to "[try] to bring humour into the fairly grim comic book market."[34] He also formed Zongo Comics in 1995, an imprint of Bongo that published comics for more mature readers,[34] which included three issues of Mary Fleener's Fleener[48] and seven issues of his close friend Gary Panter's Jimbo comics.[49]

He wrote the introduction for the third instalment of the Complete Peanuts.

Groening is known for his eclectic taste in music. His favourite band is Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.[50] He guest-edited Da Capo Press's Best Music Writing 2003[51] and curated the US All Tomorrow's Parties music festival in 2003.[50][52] He also plays the cowbell in the all-author rock and roll band The Rock Bottom Remainders, whose other members include Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, James McBride, Mitch Albom, Roy Blount Jr., Stephen King, Kathi Goldmark, and Greg Iles.[53]

Personal life

Groening and Deborah Caplan married in 1986[17] and had two sons together, Homer (who goes by Will) and Abe,[38] both of whom Groening occasionally portrays as rabbits in Life in Hell. The couple divorced in 1999 after thirteen years of marriage.[18] Following this, Groening was in a six-year relationship with dating expert Lauren Frances.[57] Groening identifies himself as Agnostic.[58] Groening says he is a liberal[59] and has often made campaign contributions to Democratic Party candidates.[60] His brother-in-law, by marriage to Matt's sister Lisa, is Craig Bartlett, creator of the animated series Hey Arnold!.[61]

References and Notes

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