Groening, Matt (1954—)

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Groening, Matt (1954—)

Matt Groening graduated from Evergreen State University in 1977 expecting to become a writer, but cartooning became his claim to fame. By 1991, the creator of the animated television series The Simpsons and the nationally syndicated comic strip Life in Hell had received his first two Emmys and was listed as one of the Forbes Top 40 earners in the entertainment industry.

Groening's struggles as a writer in Los Angeles after college led to the creation of Life in Hell, a comic strip about Binky, a hostile, frustrated rabbit (the only recognizable animal Groening could draw). Instead of sending correspondence to his relatives and friends, Groening sent his first comics because they communicated his feelings. He also tried to sell booklets of his comic strips in the "punk" section of the record store where he worked. In 1978, Wet, a magazine which showcased unconventional graphics, ran a few installments of the strip. In 1980, the Los Angeles Reader, a weekly alternative paper, hired Groening as circulation manager and began to run Life in Hell regularly. Groening transformed Binky from a grouchy pessimist to a hapless victim. He added several characters, Binky's son, Bongo; his girlfriend, Sheba; and Akbar and Jeff, the identical fez-wearing entrepreneurs. By 1983, the strip was being published in twenty papers and its success led to Groening's first book, Love Is Hell, published in 1984. By 1997, Groening had published twelve Life in Hell books, and that year the comic appeared in more than two hundred newspapers.

In 1985, Groening resigned from the Reader along with Deborah Caplan (who worked in the paper's advertising department). Together they established Life in Hell, Inc., with Caplan as the company's business manager. They married on October 29, 1986, and later had two children—Homer and Abraham. In 1987, James L. Brooks (creator of the television shows Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and director of Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets) approached Groening to create short animated segments of Life in Hell for the Fox network's The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening agreed to do segments for the show but, unwilling to relinquish the rights to Life in Hell, created an entirely new set of characters—the Simpsons, a blue-collar family including parents Homer and Marge, son Bart, and daughters Lisa and baby Maggie.

By 1989, the Simpsons had become so popular on The Tracey Ullman Show that Fox commissioned thirteen episodes for the 1989 fall season. After a delay, the first episode of The Simpsons aired in January 1990, and, within two months, the show was ranked in the Nielson's top fifteen most watched shows on American television. The creator, developer, animator, director, and executive producer of The Simpsons, Groening was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding animated program every year the Simpsons appeared on The Tracey Ullman Show and won Emmy awards in that category for each of The Simpsons ' first two seasons. He won again in 1994, 1996, and 1998. In 1997, Groening was awarded the George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting for The Simpsons.

Groening further broadened the appeal of The Simpsons in 1993 when he started the Bongo Comics Group (for which he received the Diamond Distribution Gem Award for new publication of the year), which included four monthly comic books—Simpsons Comics, BartMan, Itchy & Scratchy, and Radioactive Man (Bart Simpson's favorite comic book hero). In 1995, Groening founded and published Zongo Comics, established to publish the work of alternative independent artists, which includes the titles Jimbo, Fleener, and Hopster's Tracks. He added Krusty Comics and Lisa Comics to the Bongo Comics Group, and Roswell in 1996.

Groening's philosophies are deeply integrated into The Simpsons. As he indicated in a 1993 interview with the Washington Post, the Simpsons are a blue-collar family similar to cartoon greats like the Flintstones and the Jetsons, but The Simpsons tries to go for "real emotions." Although the characters encounter exaggerated events, the writers have tried to make them react as people would. Episodes of The Simpsons are replete with cultural references, from "Dr. Zaius," the song referring to the 1968 film Planet of the Apes sung to the tune of Falco's 1985 hit "Rock Me Amadeus," to Mayor Quimby's Kennedy-esque Boston accent.

The Simpsons have become one of the most recognizable television families in the world. Bart Simpson even made Time magazine's list of the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century as one of the top twenty Artists and Entertainers. Groening's show has not only captured the television market, but has overwhelmed the commercial market with the Simpsons appearing as toys, in their own video game, on T-shirts, as product endorsers, on compact disks, and on their own Internet web page.

Groening has a second project in production with Fox: an animated series called Futurama. Beginning mid-season 1999, Futurama is an animated story about a twentieth-century man dealing with life in the year 3000.

—Adam Wathen

Further Reading:

Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 8. Detroit, Gale Research, 1992.

"The Groening of America: Once a Doodler on the Fringe, Bart's Bad Boy Is Now a Millionaire Slob." Washington Post. May 13, 1993, C1.

Hile, Kevin S., ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 81. Detroit, Gale Research, 1995.

"Matt Groening." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Vol. 17. Detroit, Gale Research, 1997.

Newsmakers: The People Behind Today's Headlines. Detroit, Gale Research, 1990.

Olendorf, Donna, ed. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 138. Detroit, Gale Research, 1993.

Riley, Sam G., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Newspaper Columnists. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1995.