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The Simpsons Folder

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Future Perfect
1998-09-05 © The Guardian Guide

As creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening has made TV history. With his new series he’s about to change the future too. John Patterson shares his vision in an exclusive interview Matt Groening has plenty of reasons to look backwards and beam with pride. His show The Simpsons has not only beaten out The Flintstones as the longest running animated programme in American television history; it’s also, at 11 years of age, become the longest continually running series that’s still unveiling new episodes in prime time. It’s won countless Emmys and other awards and still manages to feel fresh. Its youngest viewers are the children of parents who have been watching the show since early adolescence themselves. However unlikely it must have seemed to Groening when he first pencilled that skittery family for The Tracey Ullman Show back in the mid-eighties, The Simpsons has for several years now been nothing less than an American cultural institution. But Matt Groening, feather-bedded with more cash than he could spend in 30 lifetimes, and still the witty and genial geek cartoonist he always was, is looking to the future. More specifically, to Futurama, a new sci-fi series he’s been developing for Fox for the last three years and which makes its debut in January (Sky One is hoping to acquire UK rights).

The Simpsons’ universe has always been extremely sci-fi literate. You may remember Homer’s toaster time-machine, which took him back to the dawn of life. He stepped on the first fish to crawl out of the primordial ooze and returned to a Springfield where it rained donuts and his family ate with yard-long lizard tongues. Or the dim-bulb aliens – squid-like snobs in belljars – once seen hitchhiking with a sign begging a ride to “Earth Capital”. Or guest visits from X Files stars Mulder and Scully, or Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Or when Bart dresses up as an alien – “The Thing From Uranus” – and asked Homer, who had recently seen an alien, “Hey Dad, what’s the word from Planet Crackpot?”

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, Futurama is the word from Planet Crackpot. “It comes from having grown up reading science fiction,” says its creator. “My older brother had a huge collection of sci-fi books and magazines. I loved the covers and their great visuals even before I read science fiction. Remember the end of Planet Of The Apes, with the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand? That was done as a science fiction cover about 15 times. I loved that. And I wanted to do that kind of thing on a TV show. I thought it would be really neat to take some of those sci-fi conventions and have fun with them in a Simpsons-style way.”

Groening’s childhood reading included all the classic sci-fi writers of the Cold War fifties, like Issac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Alfred Bester and Clifford Simak, but he was especially drawn, perhaps not surprisingly, to the lysergic visionaries of the 1960s, “particularly Philip K Dick, and I really thought Robert Sheckley’s stuff was really funny.

“A lot of them don’t hold up now – you know, a lot of them took place in the early eighties or something. Things turned out a little differently than most of them depict, but they’re still fun. But as I grew up, I found a lot of sci-fi concepts really annoying. I love Star Wars and Star Trek and all of the variations on them. However, I wanted to do a TV show in which the problems of the universe aren’t solved by militarism guided by New Age spirituality.” Hastily he adds, “It’s not a knock on the optimism of those shows. I just have a slightly – oh, I’m gonna get fired – a slightly more subversive take, I think.”

Which is exactly as we would wish it, of course. Futurama, which is still under heavy wraps, will be a million light-years away from suburban sci-fi satires like The Jetsons, which was basically The Flintstones in a cheesy sixties version of the future, and rather more like the animated, self-satirising superheroics of The Tick. It’s the story of Fry, who in the first episode actually gets himself cast into cryonic suspension on New Year’s Eve, 1999, then wakes up at the end of the next millennium, New Year’s Eve, AD 2999. There he hooks up with a cyclopic futuristic superbabe. “She’s an alien woman called Leela, with one eye. She wears her hair down a little. Sort of to disguise it. I just thought it would be really cool if we could design a sexy woman with one eye.”

Obviously the show also needs its idiot character, its Homer. The Simpsons’ great stroke of genius was to take the TV sitcom’s conventionally moronic spineless and amoral third-string character role – like Frank Burns on M*A*S*H or Ted Knight on The Mary Tyler Moore Show – the one who usually got the biggest laughs, and make that figure the main character, and better yet, the hero. In Futurama, this role belongs to Bender. “Bender’s the standout character right now. He’s just totally corrupt – lovably corrupt – like Homer. Loves his vices. I think he’s the first robot in sci-fi history who shoplifts. He’s got a little door in his abdomen to put things in – and also for taking out any props we need.”

But the future is a world unto itself, he says. “With The Simpsons, it’s just Springfield. It’s this fictional town with its equivalent of Dairy Queen and Denny’s and normal beers. On Futurama. it’s just the same, except we’re doing the whole universe, so it requires a little more planning.”

Much like The Simpsons, Futurama will have its fair share of TV shows within the show. “On The Simpsons, we have Krusty, we have Kent Brockman, and Itchy and Scratchy, and we have all that on Futurama too. The number-one show in 2999 will be The Mass Hypnosis Hour. And no doubt it’ll play on Fox TV,” he chuckles.

Certain other features will survive from The Simpsons too. “At one point I was going to give all the characters five fingers instead of four, but the animators complained about a term they use called “pencil mileage”. Over the long life of a TV series, the pencil mileage of drawing that extra finger really adds up.” The animation will feature the oversized eyeballs and overbites characteristic of The Simpsons, but with one important difference, according to Groening: “Their skin’s not yellow.”

There will of course, be celebrity guest appearances. The first episode will feature a Rocking New Year’s Eve 3000 TV show hosted by a terminally youthful American Bandstand host Dick Clark, with Leonard Nimoy dropping in to lend the show some watertight sci-fi credentials.

And will there be merchandising?

“Let’s see now,” he drawls teasingly. “A show that has ray guns, robots and space ships? Yeah, I think there’ll be some merchandising…”

But Groening is also anxious to talk about the future of The Simpsons, who return with a new season, their 12th,[1] in the autumn. “I want it to go on, and there’s no end in sight. It’s surprised me that it’s gone on this long.” Groening puts the show’s success down mainly to the writers, but also to the fact that animation, despite – or perhaps because of – its cumbersome production process, allows them to do things no live-action show could dream of. “If you pay attention, there’s stuff hidden in the backgrounds, what we call freeze-frame gags, which you can’t get unless you videotape the show, go back, and freeze-frame it. I love the idea of jokes that kids can’t get, and later, when they grow up, read a few books and go to college, then watch the show again, they can get the show on a completely different level.”

Some of the kids who later grew up are now actually writing for the show. “We do have writers now who tell me they grew up watching The Simpsons. It’s bizarre, but they’re writing some really good stuff. They get it.”

As a taster for the next season – mainly because he’s told me everything he’s allowed to about Futurama – Groening rattles off some of the things we can expect of America’s most merrily dysfunctional family unit next season. Reading from his notes – “I know it’s not going to mean much,” he apologises – he quotes, “Keeping a secret proves difficult when he lands a personal assistant job working for Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.” Groening laughs. “Homer wants to be like Thomas Edison in one episode – a whole show about trying to beat Edison. Homer Raises A Lobster: it’s too expensive in the store so he buys a baby and raises it. Oh, and one I’m really happy with. You know Ned Flanders – ‘Hi-di-ho!’ He has a mid-life crisis. So Homer takes him to Las Vegas where they have a real walk on the wild side; waking up married to two cocktail waitresses from the night before.”

There will be other guest appearances besides Baldwin and Basinger, including Jerry Springer and, most surprisingly of all, Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch. “if he agrees to do it, then he’ll say the lines that have been written for him. It’ll be the smallest paycheck he’ll ever have received.”

One person who won’t return to the show is regular voiceman Phil Hartman, sadly murdered this summer by his wife, who then shot herself in a fit of drug-induced anguish. “My guess is that none of the writers will feel inspired to write for [Hartman’s regular characters, sleazy attorney Lionel Hutz and aging TV star Troy McClure] without Phil doing the voices. We were shocked and totally dismayed that he died.”

As Futurama and the new Simpsons season gear up for broadcast, Groening himself admits that his own favourite programme at the moment is a Japanese cooking show called Iron Chef. “It’s a cross between American Gladiators and Julia Childs [America’s plummy-accented, 70-something equivalent of Delia Smith]. They present chefs with a mystery ingredient. In one of my favourite episodes, it was a giant spider-crab with legs about 10 feet long. It’s a wild show.” He admits to keeping up with King Of The Hill, Ally McBeal and DR Katz. As for this year’s sensation, one of many shows toiling in the long shadow of the Simpsons’ success: “I haven’t seen South Park that much. I’ve got two little kids, so I have to switch the channel.” Groening once told me that his sons Abe and Will – who often appear in his syndicated comic strip Life In Hell – had recently started giving him no end of Bart-style backchat, so he understood how parents who complained about The Simpsons felt. With South Park, he’s saving himself no end of grief, one suspects.

And lastly, is there a chance any of the Simpsons will pay a visit to Futurama?

“Not a chance! No. Futurama is real, silly. The Simpsons are fictional.

“But,” he adds with a twinkle, “The Simpsons are still on TV a thousand years from now – with all-new episodes”