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[whitespace] 'Life' Before Homer

Richard von Busack celebrates the 11th season premiere of 'The Simpsons' with a--d'oh!--previously unpublished 1986 interview with Matt Groening

By Richard von Busack

AN INTERVIEW WITH MATT GROENING, conducted over lunch at Mommy Fortuna's Restaurant on Haight Street, noon, April 24, 1986. It was a hippie diner, named after a Peter Beagle book about unicorns; their baby-spinach omelets with sour cream were superb and I've never had the like since they closed. Groening was in town for a signing of his collection Work Is Hell, across the street at the Booksmith, which is still there. It was enough of an event that the management had commissioned a large window display drawing of the haunted Binky the Bunny.

This interview was never published, for a number of reasons, including: 1. Failure to make deadline--that temporal hook an article ought to have. 2. The demands of the part-time jobs I was surviving on in those days, 3. Misplacing the tape while moving (six times in the last 10 years) and--most important of all--4. The Failure & Futility­prone punk rock attitude I labored under then. I'm much more life-affirming now, yeah.

November 5 is the premiere of the 11th year of The Simpsons, as good a time as any to get this interview typed up and sent out. The Simpsons was still in Groening's future, so this interview is mostly about his continuing strip, Life in Hell. Groening continues with the strip for a number of reasons: self-expression, street cred and a certain commitment to the underground newspaper.

In a movie, this detail would be too on the nose, but when transcribing this tape I could hear in the background, clearly audible, the music playing at Mommy Fortuna's, which included that hit '80s song about how everybody wants to rule the world. Well, Groening rules the world now. My satisfaction at having had a chance to meet the man is only surpassed by my gratitude for The Simpsons and what the show has meant to me and everyone else. Springfield and its denizens are more than just a cartoon show. The various writers and directors over the years have created a vast mirror of America. Decades ago, cigarette companies used to give away cards portraying the characters of Dickens; now, TV Guide promoted this show with cover of the peripheral characters, each with their own lives and careers--which proves the peculiarly loaded quality of the cartoon. The family members themselves-Homer, a sort of genius for destruction, the American Sancho Panza; Bart, a creation equal to Tom Sawyer; Marge, tension stricken mother; Lisa, the outnumbered intellectual.

Think of them--you can hear their voices: quack doctor Nick Riviera, the sibilant "Excellent" of the vicious plutocrat C. Mongtomery Burns, "Diamond Joe" Quimby, Lionel Hutz, corrupt entertainer Krusty the Clown--KRUSTY: (singing) "Send in the clowns, The laffy, daffy clowns, The soulful and doleful, schmalz by the bowlful clowns . . ."--archtoady Waylon Smithers, born-again Christian Ned Flanders, bitter teacher Edna Krabappel, decaying senior citizen Hans Moleman, Gil, the impotent salesman--a wicked parody of Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross. These indelible figures, and the rest of them, aren't all Groening, but the man began it all.

METRO: Hectic day today?

GROENING: I got into town yesterday evening about 9, and Random House put me up at the Stanford Court Hotel. Random House arranged this one-city promotional tour, we're starting out small . . .

METRO: Did you see the window display?

GROENING: Yeah, that looks great! It's so much fun to draw these little characters, because I've been drawing them for years and years . . . and then to see someone else do the work, it's like wow! Because that would have taken me hours.

METRO: When did you first start drawing that poor, suffering rabbit?

GROENING: I always drew little creatures when I was in school, but no one could tell what they were, and then I started to give some of these creatures long ears, and they said, "Oh! Yeah! A rabbit!" And that's what I stuck with, because they're the only animals I can draw that people can tell what they are. I can draw dog-like creatures, but some people think they're just rabbits with short ears. And I've been drawing ever since. In fact drawing this comic strip is like playing to me. I can't believe I can pay my rent and sleep in, with rabbits. Is that thing on? (indicating the tape recorder) It doesn't look like it's on. Just for your information, I used to be an interviewer, I used to interview rock stars. One time I interviewed David Byrne, and I looked down and saw that the tape had broke. It was still spinning around. I'd never seen a tape break. It had broken at the very beginning! Byrne said, "I hope you have a good memory."

METRO: Nightmare!

GROENING: What I did was try to recreate it, like a teenager recreating a conversation: "and then he went, and then I went . . . so then he said, and then he goes, 'so I'm in the Talking Heads.' And I go, 'So, are they a good group?' And he goes, 'Yeah!' "

METRO: Who did you write for?

GROENING: The Los Angeles Reader newspaper, which I got fired from yesterday.

METRO: Why did they fire you?

GROENING: It's a mystery, I think it has something to do with money, and the fact that I wrote a disgruntled letter to the editor about them firing another writer. I picked up the paper yesterday on the way to the airport, and my comic strip was gone and they replaced it with another. I can understand being fired, but I'm baffled by the method.

I drew my 300th strip for them, 300 weeks in a row . . . and I've been working for them for 7 years. I guess I'll have to go to another paper in L.A.

METRO: The San Francisco Examiner just picked you up, too. Good for them.

GROENING: Yeah the only family paper who has the nerve to print a strip called Life in Hell.

METRO: They print Bill Griffith too, Zippy the Pinhead.

GROENING: Yeah, I can't believe Griffith does that every day. It would knock me out! I'd dry up.

METRO: I was going to ask you how difficult it was meeting deadline

GROENING: I'm bad, I procrastinate, I put things off. I sweat, I turn on the TV, I go for a walk, I think about something else I have to do . . .I think of a record I have to play--and then, I do my comic strip, the night before it's due. One night, I did two strips. I thought, great--if I'm ever sick, I'm still ahead. Two weeks later I got sick. I've never caught up since. I've got lots of ideas, though, notebooks full of ideas.

METRO: I thought that among contemporary artists and writer, you got farther than anyone in portraying the horror of working for In Search of Excellence type outfits.

GROENING: Do you work for a place like that?

METRO: I used to, I used to copy-edit medical pamphlets. Where I worked was just like your comics in Work Is Hell

GROENING: I can imagine. Most people's jobs are a source of incredible ill will and sour feelings. I try to subvert people, if they hate their jobs, to quit. I don't know what they'll do after that, starve or what . . . I try to write about what keeps people lying awake in bed. There's lots of comic strips about the foibles of work, the cute li'l day-to-day stuff. Foibles to me aren't funny--they're merely irksome.

METRO: Where did you work ?

GROENING: I had a series of lousy jobs. I washed dishes in an old folks' home last summer. I was landscaping in a sewage treatment plant. I moved to L.A. in 1977 from Portland. Oregon. I was born in 1954, and went to school in the Northwest, after I graduated from Evergreen College in Washington. I moved to Los Angeles, because it was the city in which writers were the most overpaid in the world. Finally I saw an ad in the L.A. Times: "writer/chauffeur." I answered that ad and I got the job. I drove an 88-year-old movie director around during the day, and at night my job was to sit at his desk and ghost-write his autobiography. During the day, while I drove him around, he would point out the sights and explain to me about his life. Unfortunately, he was going senile. So one day he would tell me, "That is where Cary Grant used to live," and the next day, "Yes, John Wayne and I spent many an evening there." And so on. [Was this mysterious figure the progenitor of Abe Simpson?] His manuscript was already over a thousand pages; previous writer/chauffeurs had already been working on this magnificent tome. Unfortunately, the book was totally obsessed with the director's mother; he'd lived with her until she was 105 years old. And every single part of the book was about her. "To-day I met Cecil B. DeMille. I ran home immediately to tell mother."

After that, I worked at a Licorice Pizza record store on Sunset, directly across the street from the Whisky A Go-Go. Their gimmick was that they gave away free licorice to their customers. Unfortunately, there were enough people who lived along the street for whom that licorice was their main meal of the day. And after the fifteenth handful of licorice to the same lurching weirdo . . . Also punk was beginning to happen right then. I began to do a self-published comic book called Life in Hell, starring Binky the Rabbit. It was a xeroxed magazine. We had a little punk corner in the store, where we'd sell records by X, and the Deadbeats, and the Germs, and also little punk fanzines like Slash, Flipside and one called Starting Fires. . . Life in Hell actually sold copies..Sometimes the punks would tear up copies, but sometimes I sold them. I showed it to the editor of the Reader, and he hired me immediately--to deliver newspapers. So I worked my way up, I did everything you could do at a newspaper, except sell advertisements, I could never do that. I typeset, I pasted up, I edited, I answered phones, and finally I got my own cartoon strip in 1980. And I did it for 6 years. And, hey, I got fired yesterday.

METRO: Bastards!

GROENING: It's not a very alternative thing for a so-called alternative paper to do. [Note from the year 2000: was it karma, then, when, years later, this paper was absorbed by the despotic New Times corporation?]

METRO: The L.A. Weekly's still there, isn't it?

GROENING: Competition's a good thing, I'm glad there's two papers down there; I'll be in one or the other, and guess which one I'm going to be in?

METRO: Was your childhood much like Bongo's childhood?

GROENING: I hope my childhood wasn't as quite as pathetic as Bongo's, though when I was a kid I had a strong sense of bitterness and self-pity and all that stuff. I got in trouble quite a lot when I was a kid, I guess I have that in common with Bongo. I mouthed off to the teachers quite a bit, and I got in trouble. Got sent to the corner quite a bit for everything. When I was at the corner, I learned a new little talent--I took a bit of string and learned how to make a hangman's noose, which got me into further trouble, and sent me to the corner again. Then I learned to blow bubbles off the end of my tongue, a skill which I tormented my sister with again and again. To this day I can get them to scream doing it..

METRO: Can you turn your eyelid inside out? My grandfather knew how to do that.

GROENING: No, but I could make high-pitched meowing noises, to drive the teacher out of his or her mind.

METRO: The Opportunity Room was where they used to send us to study in penitence at my junior high school. It had louvered windows. My friend Peter Tripodi used to loosen the slats from the frames when he'd been sent there to study. And he'd give the glass a tap. The teacher would whirl around, hearing the sound of breaking glass and he'd look back to see no emotion whatsoever on the part of his charges.

Where did you get the idea of Akbar and Jeff?

GROENING: I was figuring out how to draw Charlie Brown-you can see the striped shirt? Definitely Charles Schulz's influence. The characters didn't come out looking like Charlie Brown, so I increased the sizes of their noses and put both eyes on the side of their head, which struck me as the height of wit. Sort of a Picasso affect. I added the fezzes later. I could never figure out what their personalities were but I really liked them, so I just had them hang around. Gradually, they've come to have some personalities. I didn't have names for them until last year. They were just those two guys in fezzes-they may be lovers, they may be brothers, they may be both.

METRO: That was actually the first strip of yours that puzzled me, the one where they first slide close together to each other on the couch. I realize you're a liberal enlightened guy and it wasn't homophobia--I figured it was just incest to make it look more slimy and horrible.

GROENING: (Laughs) No, no I'm not homophobic! As a matter of fact there's no cartoon characters in general interest publications who are gay-there's one character in Doonesbury . . .

METRO: Captain America-he had some gay friend who the Nazi scum were menacing, queer-baiting him and such..

GROENING: Dennis the Menace-wait, no, not Dennis the Menace, I meant Batman and Robin, there's always been a question about them

METRO: Aw, that Seduction of the Innocent stuff! Some lawyer told me once that if Batman was a real person he could have sued Dr. Wertham for libel. Anyway, that Frank Miller comics (The Dark Knight) should nip all those rumors off...

GROENING: Oh, that's fantastic. That's so great. I love that. I was a superhero fan when I was a kid, I loved Spiderman, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, but I lost interest. And I haven't read a superhero comic that I've enjoyed until this Frank Miller The Dark Knight Returns. [Miller's got a sequel in the works for 2001, Batman fans.] Most superhero comics doesn't interest me at all because I find the ideas so weak and the drawing is so carefully done that it distracts me. Of course, my stuff is about as primitive as you can get. I like all the women who draw comics now. Linda Barry, she's my favorite cartoonist. We went to school together, and worked on the same college newspaper. I like Nicole Hollander, who does Sylvia, Mimi Pond. Of course, there's more famous people like Robert Crumb, Walt Kelly who did Pogo, and Al Capp who did Li'l Abner. I appreciated George Heriman's Krazy Kat quite a bit, not because I thought it was funny, but because I liked the art quite a lot.

METRO: Do you like Justin Green?

GROENING: Yeah-he's incredible. I was toying with the name "Binky" even before I read Binky Brown. His comic book Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary is one of the underground masterpieces. [This adult comic has been reprinted by Last Gasp in San Francisco.] Green wrote me a letter-"hey, you used my name, Binky!" and I wrote back and said, "I'm a fan!" Then he liked me after that.

Gary Panter, and Charles Burns, who write for Raw, me and Linda Barry all went to school together, and then we all went our separate ways. Burns always drew as well as he drew now. He lives in Italy now.

METRO: How many papers is Life and Hell running in?

GROENING: Between 45-50. They're all alternative newsweeklies like the Metro, and some college papers. Because they're alternative papers, I try to make them alternative comics, and I'll try to give people something different from the regular comics. Sometimes it works.

METRO: Did you ever get death threats from your ex-girlfriends because of your Love is Hell strips?

GROENING: A couple of ex girlfriends call me up to ask, "is that me?" Generally, I got a good response. I think you can do humor about relationships and love and somebody will find some element of humor and truth in it, no matter how off-base it gets, although I like to think my own stuff has some element of insight in it. My own problems about love are tragic, and everybody elses' are hilarious. I'm doing OK in love right now, I'm getting married in September.

METRO: My friend Jason answered the question, "Why do fools fall in love? Because they're fools, that's why."

Lynda Barry says people wasted energy by concentrating on relationships too much. Do you agree?

GROENING: Er, ah--let me think about that . . . well OK, I think people should read cartoons about them instead of thinking about them so much.

METRO: The most interesting response to Life in Hell so far?

GROENING: I once did a comic strip about Akbar and Jeff's Tofu Hut, and it was printed in 40 papers. In two of those papers, Santa Barbara and Hermosa Beach, the papers received a call, "I saw your ad for Tofu Hut and I've been looking for it, where is it?" I guess I can't understand someone wanting to try Earth Juice and a Tatershake and a tofustada, or to chew some chew some Tofooey--nature's taffy.

METRO: In Life in Hell, you do moving, sometimes frightening strips--do you sometimes get frightened by the things you do?

GROENING: I try not to flinch, try not to let it deter me because it's too heavy and weird and strange. Most of what I write about is stuff that keeps people laying awake at night, love, work, sex, death. That covers it . . .can't go wrong with those subjects. I do some strips that would scare me if I took them seriously, but mostly they help me as therapy.

So much of children's humor is sentimental, and it's a lie. What they ignore is how scared kids are, I tried to remember how kids felt, When I was a kid I vowed to myself that I'd never forget what it was like.

Linda Barry's autobiographical strips are amazing because they go against the whole idea of what cartoons are supposed to be, frivolous and peripheral and all that kind of stuff. I go along with that idea that they're shoved to the back of the paper and aren't meant to be taken seriously. It'll be a while before people catch on that you don't have to have a laugh at the end of every strip. Linda's stuff reads like little miniature short stories which, at their best, rank with some of the great short story writers, Raymond Carver and others. I can't go in that direction yet--I have to have a gag at the end of every strip. She'll get back to that, she'll get back to the jokes. We're good friends, we talk a lot. [In point of fact, she didn't get back to the jokes. Instead she wrote a grim realistic novel about serial killers, Cruddy, in 1998.]

On Music.

METRO: I was reading that you were the one who helped make an underground hit out of "A Blind Man's Penis." [Musician and dadaist John Trubee, late of Santa Rosa, made this infamous prank recording, c. 1985, by sending in insane gibberish to one of those ads in the National Enquirer that offer to set your lyrics to Nashville country music. Under this old scam, akin to the "Who's Who of Whomever" ruse, you pay $75 and get a four-track recording of some bored country-music lifer, singing a tuneless three-chord song with your awful lyrics. You are invited to promote this song yourself to radio stations, et cetera, and the best of luck to you. Trubee's original doggerel mentioned "Stevie Wonder's penis;" the anonymous Nashville tunesmith changed it to "A Blind Man's Penis" probably for legal reasons.]

GROENING: I used to write about rock music quite a bit, My problem was that I was not interested in anybody that had any kind of popular success. The isolated losers and totally uncompromising weirdos lurking out there in the sticks, doing their thing . . . that's what interested me. John Trubee being just about the weirdest of them all, his story just cracked me up.

I just ran into him last week, he's still doing the same old thing, still making those tapes, those crank calls. He should set his phone calls to music.

You know, music is my main passion even though I have no musical talent at all. Unfortunately, most of my tastes are so obnoxious that I can't play my records for anyone else, I just sit by myself and play them because they would drive everyone else away.

METRO: What kind of music?

GROENING: Balinese gamelan music. I like Zappa, Captain Beefheart, easy­listening music of the '50s--there's this guy named Esquivel that I like. [Groening was on that bandwagon first!] , Yma Sumac, Diamanda Galas, strange Indian music. I go the used International bins and pick out anything in a language that I can't understand. I am a former rock critic, but my taste got so eccentric that I was no longer able to sell any articles. And then I really went eccentric after I quit. What are you listening to?

METRO: Philip Glass's Songs for Liquid Days. It's not as wonderful as his Mishima soundtrack. [Philip Glass?! Who was I trying to impress?] I love some of the tracks on Dead Kennedy's Frankenchrist, especially "Soup is Good Food," but the rest of the album reminds me of why there's such a thing as EPs--a lot of the songs are disposable.

GROENING: What's the poster they're so upset about?

METRO: Some kind of cancerous-genital motif. It didn't come with the cassette, so I haven't seen it. [Saw Giger's poster at an art party in San Francisco years later--it was repulsive, I loved it!] I don't listen to much rock anymore, I'm still in mourning for the Minutemen. [Lead singer D. Boon had perished in a car accident not long before.]

GROENING: That's so awful! I'd just got a copy of "Three Way Tie for Last" when I found out he was dead. I saw them play a few times, and I wish I'd seen them more

METRO: I wish I hadn't been drunk every time I saw them, too. I'd try to talk to them, but I was so star-struck I couldn't say anything.

GROENING: If anyone would have been easy to talk to it would have been him. Anyway, I assume there's more stuff in the can. Though they put out an awful lot of their work;

METRO: I got that Politics of Time EP, with their obscure sides. "Party with me, punkers." That Minutemen song "Tune for the Wind God" tickles me because I had friends who used to do what they did there--they'd take the percussion instruments out to a field, drop acid in the wilderness

GROENING: D. Boon was great. I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks, lots of Nino Rota.

METRO: Are you much of a fan of Phil "Snakefinger" Lithman? He's on the same label as the Residents.

GROENING: I just bought Part Four of The Residents' "The Mole Triology"-I guess it's actually a quatrain, a quartet.

METRO: Snakefinger's greatest hits-there's a record for the ages. [It's titled Against the Grain...

GROENING: Do you write about music?

METRO: I'm not motivated. I'd rather listen to it.

GROENING: Have you heard that new David Thomas solo? It's got Alan Ravenstein, the original synthesizer player on Pere Ubu. He's a great guy. Very easy to talk to...

METRO: Members of the original Pere Ubu live up here. They play in a band called Tripod Jimmy. [Won't someone reissue "A Long Walk on A Short Pier" by these guys?] I like the new Cramps, too

GROENING: How about Shockabilly?

METRO: You got that new Eugene Chadbourne? That album The President He Is Insane?

GROENING: He's got a great attitude! I like all his records

[Enter The Publicist, tapping her watch.]

GROENING: As regards the future: we are gong to be republishing Work Is Hell in a "mini-jumbo" edition, just like Love Is Hell--the orignal edition was the size of Michael Jackson album, the new one is the size of a large waffle. [In the old days, music came in large cardboard covers and were called "albums" ] Followed by School Is Hell, Familes Are Hell, Therapy Is Hell..

METRO: One last thing, I want to make sure I get the pronunciation of your name right.

GROENING: Groening. It rhymes with complaining.

METRO: Oh, OK, I thought I'd heard "Groening, it rhymes with moaning."

[And that was that. Before he left, Groening made a sketch of Bongo the bunny for me. I still have it, and, after the cat, it's the first thing that comes out of the house if the place ever catches fire.][The end.]

The season premiere of The Simpsons, "A Tale of Two Springfields," airs on Sunday, Nov. 5, at 8pm on FOX. www.thesimpsons.com

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