Matt Groening, Grabbing for Laughs in the Darkness Simpsons creator is bringing America's favorite dysfunctional family to the multiplex. Why does the show still work? "People really, really resonate to the idea of darker emotions in something that is considered a very light medium."
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Matt Groening, Grabbing for Laughs in the Darkness

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Matt Groening, Grabbing for Laughs in the Darkness

Matt Groening, Grabbing for Laughs in the Darkness

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The cartoonist Matt Groening likes to say that he always knew how he'd spend his career.

MATT GROENING: I was a hopeless cartoonist who couldn't quite draw well enough. But I knew I was doomed, that I was going to be drawing for the rest of my life no matter what it was that I was doing to pay the rent.

INSKEEP: He may have known he would always draw. He could not have realized that it would pay so much rent with his characters, "The Simpsons." That dysfunctional family has been on television in one way or another since the 1980s. They appear this weekend in a movie that plays like a long episode of the TV show - crude, fast-moving and topical. It is entirely within normal Simpsons behavior that Homer, the family patriarch, pollutes a local lake with pig manure, causes an environmental catastrophe and finds a lynch mob at his door.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SIMPSONS MOVIE")

JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) You have to go out there. Face that mob and apologize for what you did.

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) I would. But I'm afraid if I open the door, they'll take all of you.

HARRY SHEARER: No, we won't. We just want Homer.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Well, maybe not you. But they'll kill grampa.

CASTELLANETA: (As Grampa) I'm part of the mob.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD NOISE)

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Stay back. I got a chainsaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMITATING CHAINSAW NOISE)

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Uh-oh.

INSKEEP: How do you stay interested in these same characters? How do you stay interested in a balding, overweight father with a crayon stuck up his nose who wants the number for 911?

GROENING: Homer is so much fun to write for because he's this dumb guy, and the writers take great pride in writing the dumbest jokes for him ever. And I don't even remember if this is a Homer line, or maybe his friend Barney, but there is one line that sticks in my mind: I don't know if you're up there, but if you are, Superman, please save me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROENING: I even said the line wrong, but whatever. Whatever. You know, Homer is great.

INSKEEP: You've said in interviews plenty of times before that your early family life was, in some way, a twisted way, an inspiration for The Simpsons. Not that your family was that stupid, but that just the terror of being a kid and the weirdness of being a kid came through. I'm curious if your experiences in later years as a parent have, in some way, influenced what you write on "The Simpsons"?

GROENING: Yeah, of course. Well, the conundrum that I face on a daily basis is that I have two sons who have grown up watching "The Simpsons," so they know exactly what buttons to push. They know how Bart irritates Homer, and they use these lines against me to tell me that I'm not funny anymore. That's the best way. Oh, dad, don't even try. Don't say it. Dad, do not joke. Do not joke. For instance, last week in Hollywood, we went to a place called Roscoe's House of Chicken' n Waffles.

INSKEEP: Okay.

GROENING: And my son Homer said, dad, which came first, the chicken or the waffle? And I said, hey, that's a good joke. And he said, no, it's a bad joke. That's the kind of joke you would laugh at. That's why I told it. You're an idiot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: That's subtle.

GROENING: When - then my younger son, he's telling me that "Family Guy" is the hot show and that "Simpsons" is over. It was...

INSKEEP: Oh, the other animated - one of the other animated...

GROENING: Yeah. Family - yeah. And Seth MacFarlane is his - he created "Family Guy." And my son Abe likes to say he wishes Seth MacFarlane - this is how he put it, he goes, I wish Seth MacFarlane was my dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Oh, oh. Which reflects something that actually does show up in this movie that is now out...

GROENING: Partly...

INSKEEP: ...which is Bart wishes he had a different dad.

GROENING: He wishes he had a different dad. He wishes Flanders were his dad, which is highly unlikely when you think about it. But for the purposes of our movie that's the story.

INSKEEP: And we should mention for those who don't watch the show, this is the Simpsons' neighbor who is a devout Christian and about as straightforward a human being as you could ever meet.

GROENING: Ned Flanders was just the next-door neighbor - old-fashioned sitcoms always have the next-door neighbor. We wanted to give Homer a next-door neighbor who annoyed him but for whom Homer had no real good reason to be annoyed, that this was actually a really decent neighbor. And he wasn't originally a devout Christian. That gradually became part of his character. And then it was fun to not go for cheap shots with this character.

INSKEEP: Do you think it's important to do that?

GROENING: I think there are so many cheap shots you can take. There are certain kinds of jokes that we don't do on the show because we could but they're easy. And the idea of making fun of the uptight Christian neighbor would be too easy.

INSKEEP: But building a joke around a giant silo of pig crap, that was hard?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROENING: I'm not - look...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROENING: I am not particularly proud of - well, I'm proud. I'm proud of everything.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about other cartoon characters or comic characters that have lasted for decades. When you think about Charles Schultz's drawing Charlie Brown, and he's the same simple kid with the same round head and he's constantly having the football pulled away from him. And you wonder what subtle thing it is that Charles Schultz kept getting, that kept him interested in that kid for decade after decade after decade. I mean, I don't know if you have any insight into that or any insight into what it is about Bart, say, that keeps you interested year after year after year.

GROENING: I would think that - I'm not comparing "The Simpsons" to "Peanuts" in any other way except to say that we are also very simply drawn and we deal with some darker emotions. With Charlie Brown it was about loneliness and isolation. I always thought that the thing about Charlie Brown and those characters was the absence of the parents. Half the strip was about who wasn't there. The parents were never in the picture. "The Simpsons" is about alienation and the ambivalence of living with a family who you love but who drive you completely crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Well, good night, son.

NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Um, Dad?

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Yeah?

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) What is the mind? Is it just a system of impulses, or is it something tangible?

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Relax. What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Thanks, Dad.

CASTELLANETA: Unidentified Group: (Singing) The Simpsons...

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SIMPSONS" THEME)

INSKEEP: That's an early version of "The Simpsons" who are in theaters tomorrow. They were created by Matt Groening, who explains the research he did to create them at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SIMPSONS" THEME)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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