The Simpsons Folder : Production : Matt Groening’s Portland
His native city lives in the heart and pen of The Simpsons creator.
Matt Groening shrieked one day on the playground at Ainsworth Elementary School. There was no particular reason; it was just one of those unpremeditated shrieks that come from the sheer exuberance of being in first grade.
Mrs. Hoover didn’t get it. All right, the teacher scolded. Who blew that whistle? To the great amusement of the kids, she went crazy searching each one of them for a whistle that didn’t exist.
The memory lingered for Groening, the Portland native who went on to create – The Simpsons – animated sitcom. He learned a lot that day about how authority figures stifle creative expression and how humor soothes the unfairness of the world.
The rest of my life, he reflected in 1993, has been blowing invisible whistles and making people wonder.
That was only one of many lessons Groening learned in Portland. He drew heavily on the people and places of his childhood to create the characters and sensibilities of The Simpsons. Portland’s impact stretches far beyond a few street names.
His wildly popular creation, now seen in 60 countries, will begin its 14th season this fall with its 292nd episode a mark that Groening never dreamed of. Planning is already in the works for the 2003-2004 season.
Portland’s role as the template for the show happened quickly, almost as an afterthought. In 1986, in his first meeting with Fox executives about doing animated TV shorts, Groening quickly realized that they wanted the rights to characters in Life in Hell, his comic strip. That wouldn’t do, so he stepped into the waiting room and in 15 minutes sketched out the Simpsons much as we know them today, complete with characters named after his own family.
There are subtle and not-so-subtle similarities to Matt Groening’s Portland and Bart Simpson’s Springfield. Like Springfield, the Portland of his childhood had a scenic gorge, a nuclear plant nearby and a polluted river. Like Springfield, there were woods and parks and mountains and surly teenaged bullies who might beat you up. And like Springfield, it was a world where a child could find great beauty and adventure alongside arrogance and hypocrisy.
All this became his fodder. I look at the situation and try to provide an alternative that would amuse me, Groening told the Tribune. Would this have entertained me when I was much younger? The Simpsons is the cartoon show I would have liked to see when I was a kid. It’s a more entertaining version of myself.
Rebel with a Cause
Groening may have been a rebel growing up, but he rebelled from the West Hills and Portland’s most mainstream institutions. He was a Boy Scout and student body president, and he swam for the Multnomah Athletic Club.
He went to the Methodist Church, summer camp at Spirit Lake and two of Portland’s finest public schools Ainsworth Elementary and Lincoln High, shunning the radical Adams High School. He later attended Evergreen State College, the rebellious outpost in Olympia.
And he’s still a rebel today: The Simpsons mercilessly satirizes its own network, Fox, part of one of the world’s largest media conglomerates.
He attacks the very power structure that nurtured him and brought him success. He targets pomposity, vanity and sanctimony but with humor and satire in ways that allow the subjects to laugh at themselves no matter how pointed the barb.
Matt knows how to get in a point of view without clobbering you over the head, said a high school friend, Portland photographer Lawrence Shlim.
Even as a teenager, he found a darkly humorous heart in the most mainstream cultural icons. Dan Heims, a high school friend, once saw a big smiley-face poster on the wall of Groening’s basement bedroom. But what’s that semicircle you drew between the eyes? Heims asked. Brain tumor, Groening said.
He’s more writer than cartoonist. After college he was turned down for a reporting job at The Oregonian. He once said his ambition was to write the great American novel, and Catch 22 was a favorite book.
Riding the Rails
Portland’s influence on the show is clear from the first seconds of its opening titles. The hills behind Springfield Elementary School look just like Portland’s West Hills, the center of Groening’s world while growing up.
The Groening family mom, dad and five kids lived in a barn-red, Cape Cod house on Northwest Evergreen Terrace, one of those dead-end streets that wind high through the West Hills. The Simpson family also lives on Evergreen Terrace.
The woods of Washington Park and Hoyt Arboretum were his route to school and the setting for childhood adventures.
We lived right between the new zoo and the old zoo, which is where the Japanese Gardens are now, he said. They closed the old zoo when I was 4 or 5, but they left the cages, and when I was little we’d sneak in behind the bars. I actually swam in the green water of the bear pool.
We used to hide in the bushes and sneak on the zoo train at the station and get on for free. When they were first building the tracks down to the station, I went with my brother and some buddies, and we pushed a flatcar up the hill and started riding it down. It picked up speed and didn’t make the loop at the station. Suddenly, everyone was yelling Jump! Jump! I jumped and rolled along the gravel. Then they were yelling “Cops!” and I found myself running from the police. I met up with my brother at the archery range.
He was smart and well-read, and he got good grades when inspired to do so, said his mother, Margaret Groening. His closest friends included Eric, Tim and Duncan Smith, the sons of Lendon Smith, renowned as the children’s doctor.
He had an idyllic childhood, his mother said. Every so often, Matt Groening said, we’d get it into our brains to hike over to the biggest shopping center in the world (at the time), Lloyd Center. We had ways of sneaking into the big downtown movie theaters; the Paramount and the Orpheum were the easy ones. We never could crack the Music Box. The Broadway was easy, too. We’d hide in the balcony of the Paramount and watch the ushers punch the curtains looking for kids sneaking in. It was quite dramatic.
His late father, Homer, was an engaging, multitalented man. He was a filmmaker by trade but also a cartoonist, writer and ad man who brought pens and pads of paper home to his children to encourage their creativity. He taught Matt film-editing skills at a young age.
For better or worse, Portland institutions nurtured his strong sense of justice and injustice, providing a lifetime of targets teachers, principals, clergymen and other authority figures.
There were way too many petty rules & about clothes and hair, he said. He remembers teachers who threw things at students and a grade-school shop teacher who shocked kids with a generator.
Yeah, he was a smartass, he concedes, but he resisted the temptation to use the very public platform he gained later in life to settle old scores.
I had to let a lot of it go, he said.
A Creative Force
The creative atmosphere extended beyond his family. At Lincoln he was involved with a group of friends who wrote stories, drew cartoons and made films. Many went on to creative careers of their own, including: James K. Angell III, a writer and theater instructor at Occidental College in Southern California; Richard Gehr, a freelance arts writer in New York; Dan Avshalomov, a New York violist; Shlim; and Heims, the owner of Terra Nova Nurseries in Portland.
In high school, I was scared and self-conscious and gawky, he said. Then I realized everyone else felt like that, too, and I lost my social paralysis. I was not any different from anyone else.
At Lincoln, Groening and friends formed the Komix Appreciation Club, energized the Film Group and created Teens for Decency, a political faction with the slogan, “If you’re against decency, what are you for?”
They published an underground newspaper called Bilge Rat. With Angell, he created the cartoon character Ace Noodleman and devised a Lincoln High board game.
Comics were a big part of his childhood. When he was young, he’d sit at the Stadium Fred Meyer on West Burnside Street and read comics. He later frequented hippie record stores such as Longhair Music on Southwest Park Avenue for underground comics like Zap and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
At lunchtime at Lincoln, a half-dozen budding cartoonists would gather in the library to practice their cartoons, most of them working in the same style as Groening, Heims recalls, and Groening helped each of them. It was pretty generous of him to give me that kind of encouragement, Heims said.
Films they produced, alone and with one another, included Salmon Street Saga, Drugs: Killers or Dillers? and Lightning Tour of Lincoln, a 60-second race through the school halls.
Drugs: Killers or Dillers? included a crazed clown with an eggbeater, an image Groening includes in The Simpsons every so often, usually in mob scenes fashioned after old monster movies where villagers carry torches and pitchforks.
Matt throws things in there from time to time for the old gang, Heims said. It’s up to us to spot them.
The group’s members created their own social structures but went one step further by forming an entity that never existed. The Banana Gang was an imaginary group of greaser thugs they blamed for all sorts of goofy deeds around the school, such as smearing locker locks with bananas.
One night at a party at the home of the Smith brothers, Groening and friends dressed like greasers and posed as the Banana Gang. It was a promo picture, they said, for the Salmon Street Saga film. The photo wound up in Lincoln’s 1971 yearbook.
That was the humor of Lincoln High in the early 70s, said Bart DeLacy, a member of the class of 1971 who, Groening stresses, was a friend but not the source of Bart Simpson’s name. It wasn’t malicious at all but a complex mix of post-hippie urban angst. It absolutely penetrated any sense of self-importance created by so-called achievement.
Groening certainly experienced mainstream achievement, however, getting elected student body president and starring in a school production of Send Me No Flowers.
He wasn’t a slave to convention, and to his credit he never has been, said David Bailey, Lincoln’s journalism teacher now and then. He created his own convention and played the system to his own end.
Portlander at Heart
Groening settled in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. His Life in Hell comic strip became an underground success that led to Simpsons short films on Fox’s Tracey Ullman Show, which in turn led to The Simpsons.
For all of his assaults on cultural absurdities and hypocrisies, Groening is a wealthy and influential insider who parlayed outsider sensibilities into very mainstream success. He helps command a modest empire of books, records and DVDs. The Simpsons can be found selling candy bars, T-shirts, potato chips, toys and other products.
In 1999, his animated show Futurama made its debut. It was his chance to make a mark on TV away from producer James L. Brooks, whose support helped bring The Simpsons to life. Futurama survives after three years but has not seen the success of The Simpsons.
He continues to produce Life in Hell, which he started in 1980. And he keeps his hand in The Simpsons but from a distance, acting more as an overseer. His marriage to Deborah Caplan, with whom he worked on the LA Weekly newspaper from the mid-1980s, ended in 1999 after 13 years. They have two sons, Homer, 13, and Abe, 11.
Now 48, he remains in touch with many old high school friends and freely credits several of them with his artistic inspiration. Two or three times a year he flies to Portland, renting a car and stopping downtown at Reading Frenzy and CounterMedia to keep up on the alternative press. Then it’s on to Powell’s before heading to his mother’s house in time for dinner.
This summer he’s been letting his hair grow and not shaving every day. He threw a Fourth of July party at his Malibu home and showed guests his old high school films. He’s been listening lately to yodeling, 1920s Hawaiian music and Mel Torme.
Yes, he still considers himself an Oregonian. He’s been in California for more than two decades now, and he dwells in television, that most California of businesses. But he still sees himself as a visitor who will return once his Southern California adventures conclude. In his heart, he says, he’s still an Oregonian:
I’m just temporarily relocated. I’m moving back. I love Portland.
– The Portland Tribune, July 19, 2002
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