Twenty-five years after The Simpsons made their TV debut, the show's creator talks about Homer's odyssey—and his own.
–By Claudia De La Roca, Smithsonian magazine, May 2012, Arts & Culture.
UPDATE: According to Entertainment Weekly, "The Simpsons" will make a reference to Springfield's origins in the opening credits of this Sunday's episode. Stay tuned.
Claudia De La Roca: So take us back to the Simpsons’ foundational moment. In 1987 you were waiting for a meeting with James Brooks and you started sketching. What were you thinking?
Matt Groening: I had been drawing my weekly comic strip, “Life in Hell,” for about five years when I got a call from Jim Brooks, who was developing “The Tracey Ullman Show” for the brand-new Fox network. He wanted me to come in and pitch an idea for doing little cartoons on that show. I soon realized that whatever I pitched would not be owned by me, but would be owned by Fox, so I decided to keep my rabbits in “Life in Hell” and come up with something new.
While I was waiting—I believe they kept me waiting for over an hour—I very quickly drew the Simpsons family. I basically drew my own family. My father’s name is Homer. My mother’s name is Margaret. I have a sister Lisa and another sister Maggie, so I drew all of them. I was going to name the main character Matt, but I didn’t think it would go over well in a pitch meeting, so I changed the name to Bart.
Back in high school I wrote a novel about a character named Bart Simpson. I thought it was a very unusual name for a kid at the time. I had this idea of an angry father yelling “Bart,” and Bart sounds kind of like bark—like a barking dog. I thought it would sound funny. In my novel, Bart was the son of Homer Simpson. I took that name from a minor character in the novel The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West. Since Homer was my father’s name, and I thought Simpson was a funny name in that it had the word “simp” in it, which is short for “simpleton”—I just went with it.
Did your father contribute anything besides his first name?
My father was a really sharp cartoonist and filmmaker. He used to tape-record the family surreptitiously, either while we were driving around or at dinner, and in 1963 he and I made up a story about a brother and a sister, Lisa and Matt, having an adventure out in the woods with animals. I told it to my sister Lisa, and she in turn told it to my sister Maggie. My father recorded the telling of the story by Lisa to Maggie, and then he used it as the soundtrack to a movie. So the idea of dramatizing the family—Lisa, Maggie, Matt—I think was the inspiration for doing something kind of autobiographical with “The Simpsons.” There is an aspect of the psychodynamics of my family in which it makes sense that one of us grew up and made a cartoon out of the family and had it shown all over the world.
Any other commonalities between your father and Homer Simpson?
Only the love of ice cream. My dad didn’t even like doughnuts that much.
The name Homer has been wall-to-wall around you—your father, your son, Homer Simpson. What does the name mean to you?
My father was named after the poet Homer. My grandmother, his mother, was a voracious reader. She named one son Homer and another son Victor Hugo. It is this basic name, but I can’t separate the name Homer from The Iliad and The Odyssey and from Odysseus, even though Homer is the teller of the tale. I think of it as a very heroic name in that Homer, even though he is getting kicked in the butt by life, he is his own small hero.
OK, why do the Simpsons live in a town called Springfield? Isn’t that a little generic?
Springfield was named after Springfield, Oregon. The only reason is that when I was a kid, the TV show “Father Knows Best” took place in the town of Springfield, and I was thrilled because I imagined that it was the town next to Portland, my hometown. When I grew up, I realized it was just a fictitious name. I also figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, “This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.” And they do.
You’ve never said it was named after Springfield, Oregon, before, have you?
I don’t want to ruin it for people, you know? Whenever people say it’s Springfield, Ohio, or Springfield, Massachusetts, or Springfield, wherever, I always go, “Yup, that’s right.”
You’re on record as loving your hometown. Is it all love or is there a little love-hate?
I loved growing up in Portland, but I also took it for granted. Now, I look back and realize how idyllic a place it was. My family lived on a long, windy road on a little dead-end street called Evergreen Terrace—also the name of the street the Simpsons live on—and in order to visit any friends I had to walk at least a mile through the woods to get to their house.
But when I say idyllic, I mean the external circumstances of my childhood were pretty pleasant. That does not take into account that I was bored out of mind from the first day of first grade. Also, I was bullied. If you use certain words that can only be gotten by reading a book or two, that somehow enrages a certain kind of lug. When I was in fourth grade, these older kids surrounded me one day, and they told me they were going to beat me up after school. Knowing I was going to get beat up, I smashed one kid in the face as hard as I could, and then I got beaten up. The next day, all the kids were brought in to the school office, and they all had to apologize to me, and I just hated their guts.
Would you like to call them out by name now?
No. But maybe they are characters named after themselves on “The Simpsons.”
What did “home” mean to you growing up?
Home growing up meant certain rituals that seem to be lost these days, which is about a family being in the same place at the same time. At dinner we all sat down for dinner together. Unless I committed some type of infraction, and then I had to eat at the top of the basement stairs.
What do you think of Portland then and Portland now?
One thing that hasn’t changed is that people in Portland are in complete denial about how much it rains there.
Do you plan on moving back someday?
Yes. The only reason to live in Los Angeles, where I’ve been since the late ’70s, is if you have something to do with the entertainment industry. Everything you can experience in Los Angeles, you can have a much better version of in Portland—including, very basically, the air you breathe.
Does your mom still live in your childhood home? If not, when was the last time you visited it?
I visited my childhood home about two years ago. I was snapping a picture of it, and the owner came out and invited me in. It was pretty much as I remember it, except what was incredibly spacious to a little toddler now seemed so much smaller. The guy let me go down to my favorite place of terror, which was the basement. My father had a place where he developed film called “the dark room,” but to me that was all it was—the dark room. It was the scariest place in the house, and it gave me a lot of nightmares. I had to go back down and look at the dark room, and I realized that it was just a dusty—dark—cobwebbed little room in the corner of the basement.
What did your father do before he became a filmmaker?
He grew up on a Mennonite farm in Kansas, speaking only German until he went to school. My father then ended up as a bomber pilot flying a B-17 during World War II. After the war, he was a surfer, filmmaker and ardent amateur basketball player. He perfected a basketball shot that he could shoot—without looking—over his head and consistently make from the top of the key. He made that shot for 30 years.