Bart Simpson’s Real Father : Recalling the Fear and Absurdity of Childhood, Matt Groening Has Created a Cartoon Sitcom More Human Than Most Live-Action Shows

<i> Joe Morgenstern is a journalist and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles. </i>

UPSTAIRS, in the toy-filled nursery of a house perched on bluff’s edge in Pacific Palisades, a chubby toddler named Homer started howling a few Sundays ago as his mother hoisted him into his crib for a midday nap. Downstairs, in the kitchen, Homer’s chubby, bearded father listened calmly to the din. “I can relate to that,” he said with feeling. “ ‘I’m not tired, I don’t want to take a nap, you can’t do this to me!’ ”

Little Homer surely was not alone in his outrage and grief. Other 1-year-olds must have been crying, with equal cause, at that very moment throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Just as surely, though, none of their fathers had the same take on their plight. For Homer’s dad is Matt Groening (pronounced GRAY-ning ) , creator of the hit television series “The Simpsons,” as well as the syndicated cartoonist who draws “Life in Hell.” And Groening relates, with deadly accuracy and delicious wit, to what kids and all the rest of us must endure in this vale of toys and tears.

“The Simpsons” is a prodigy of pop culture if ever there was one, a prime-time cartoon series that’s livelier and more vividly human than most live-action shows. Since its debut on Fox Television only four months ago, this 30-minute family comedy has dumbfounded the industry’s demographers by grabbing off a huge and still-expanding audience of little kids, trend-wise teens and hip adults; has won its Sunday time slot against the three other networks; has come within a whisker of cracking TV’s 10 top shows, and, as Fox’s highest-rated series, has not merely added luster to an already interesting lineup but also turned out to be the 3-year-old network’s Hope diamond.

When “The Simpsons” first went on the air, viewers and critics alike were surprised that the show had exhumed one of television’s hoariest formulas: a sitcom, albeit animated, about a blue-collar family living in a standard-brand American suburb, and not just any old suburb but a town called Springfield, just like the locale of “Father Knows Best,” the blithely Utopian sitcom of the 1950s. Ours is not, after all, an age enthralled with the joys of home and hearth.


But “The Simpsons” is hardly a hymn of praise to outdated values. It’s a startlingly bold, often outrageous, depiction of contemporary life as a comic chaos where values are garbled, feelings are ignored and loved ones keep colliding like bumper cars at an amusement park. Yet the show is also remarkable for its subtlety. While other blue-collar series, such as “Roseanne” or “Married . . . With Children,” draw their live-action families in broad, cartoon-like strokes, “The Simpsons” develops most of its laughs, and sometimes its darkness or tenderness, from specific character traits and emotional truths. “I think of the Simpsons as real, individual people,” Groening says. “If others want to relate to them as symbols of American life, that’s fine, but they’re not my idea of what the family is--they’re a family. What drives the Simpsons in general, which I find particularly funny, is their urgent struggle to be normal, whatever that is, and then failing at it every step of the way.”

Father knows worst in the Simpson clan. Heading the family is Homer, a flabby oaf with perpetual 5 o’clock shadow who works, incompetently, at a nuclear power plant. (Groening’s father’s name is Homer, too, but Groening named his animated paterfamilias after Homer Simpson, a character in the Nathanael West novel “Day of the Locust.”)

Mother knows better, but it rarely helps. Her name is Marge. She’s a wrenchingly good-willed, gravel-voiced saint in polyester clothing, and her blue hair is done up in a giant beehive, or maybe a small termite nest. Then there’s Maggie, the baby who must have been epoxied to a pacifier; Lisa, the daughter with a predilection for bop chords and melancholia, and Bart, endearing Bart, the Peck’s bad boy of a son, with his unquenchable life spirit and his yellow, spiky head that suggests a crown roast.

Most episodes turn on the family’s misadventures. Homer disgraces himself in front of his son, a la “The Bicycle Thief,” by nearly causing a meltdown while Bart’s class is visiting the power station. Bart gets beaten up by the school bully, then retaliates in all-out war with the help of a local gun freak. Lisa loses track of the purpose of life but learns the meaning of the blues. (“The blues,” a saxophone player tells her, “isn’t about feeling better; it’s about making other people feel worse.”) Marge almost has an affair with a suave French bowler, who invites her to brunch. (“What’s brunch?” she asks in her inviolable innocence.)

Young viewers love the show’s exuberant humor, its aggressively crude drawings, its false-to-life colors that defy corrective fiddlings with the tint knob. Grown-ups relish its broad gags, just as the kids do, but also respond to its emotional complexity and its wickedly deadpan social comments--”The Simpsons” has some of the most incisive writing on TV. And the series has mesmerized the critics, who, in their efforts to make the Simpsons some sort of symbols of contemporary blue-collar life, keep recalling the blanded-out Springfield of an earlier time. But one era’s blandness is another’s alienation. Although the Simpsons are too alienated to know what alienation feels like, the man who created them--a Godlike phrase, but true, after all--can show what it looks like in the twinkling of an eye.

“You see a lot of round eyeballs on TV,” Groening says over the squeak of his Magic Marker in his modest office at 20th Century Fox. “That’s nothing special because a lot of characters have round eyes. Garfield has round eyes. Sesame Street characters have round eyes. But OK, look, here’s three sets of eyes. Here’s Sesame Street . . . Here’s Garfield . . . And here are the Simpsons. Cute. Cute. Alienated.


“The alienation comes from two things. First of all, the pupils aren’t big and soulful. The second thing is the eyes are either looking in the same direction or they’re slightly wall-eyed. That’s what we do. There’s a rule in drawing the Simpsons that they can never go cross-eyed, like all those cartoon characters on Saturday morning. It’s a real subtle stylistic rule, but it gives them a unique look.”

NO WONDER, GIVEN THE energy and unflagging inventiveness of this series, that “The Simpsons” has flashed through the culture at warp speed; four months on the tube, and American kids are trading Bartisms in their classrooms on Monday mornings, while American parents are seeing, sometimes uneas ily, their own families reflected in the show’s fun house mirror. “It’s life,” says one fan, Santa Monica mail carrier Bob Eisenhart. “It’s the truth. Plenty of times I’ll call my own son Bart for doing some bonehead thing.” Another fan, a checker named Donna at Trader Joe’s in West Los Angeles, says she was “absolutely shocked” by Marge’s flirtation with infidelity. “And my boyfriend was shocked, too. He said, ‘If Marge can do it, anyone can.’ After that, I won’t let my 6-year-old watch the show, even though it’s her favorite.”

Groening, at the age of 36, has become a certifiable cultural icon; waiters recognize him in restaurants and give him free appetizers. Yet the more you get to know him, the more you suspect this bearish, immensely likable man of being essentially the same cheerfully shrewd subversive he was in the 1960s, as a kid in Portland, Ore. Or in the 1970s, as a young writer and cartoonist on the alternative newspaper scene in Los Angeles. Or in the 1980s, as a fledgling TV talent introducing his fractious Simpsons, as bit players in 20-second segments called bumpers, to “The Tracey Ullman Show.” (Altogether, Groening wrote about 50 bumpers before the Simpsons graduated to a show of their own; now that they’ve outstripped Tracey Ullman in the ratings, she has been joking in interviews that maybe the Simpsons could give her a 60-second segment on their show.)

When Groening’s wife, Deborah, thinks back to the man she first met in 1980 at the Los Angeles Reader, where she was selling ads for nightclubs and struggling rock bands, among other things, and he was a music critic reviewing bands no one had ever heard of, she grins and says: “He was just a sort of unsuccessful version of what he is today--just a struggling artist. Now he’s a successful struggling artist.” And just how successful is successful? Groening thinks for a moment, as if adding up astronomical sums: “I now can buy all the comic books and records I want.”

His TV work began when James L. Brooks, who produces the “The Tracey Ullman Show” as well as “The Simpsons,” was looking for an artist to draw short animated segments. Brooks called Groening, whose work he knew from “Life in Hell.” When Brooks recalls the man behind the first bumpers, he grins affectionately, too: “During the early Tracey days, around 1986, Matt was this scruffy presence on the outskirts of our activities, this guy doing independent pieces for the show.”

Much of the scruffiness has disappeared, even though GQ would have to rethink its standards and practices if it wanted Groening on its cover; his dress code favors cutoffs and sandals, or, for more formal occasions, such as his son’s first birthday party last month, a black-and-flame-red shirt beneath a baggy gray suit (plus, over the shoulder, a basic black camcorder).


But the independence remains a constant in his life. Now it informs each weekly installment of “Life in Hell,” a strip populated mostly by epigrammatic rabbits that started 10 years ago and appears locally in the L.A. Weekly, plus more than 200 alternative and college papers around the country. Then, during the days that Brooks talks about, Groening’s singular spirit gave birth to Tracey Ullman bumpers such as one in which Marge sings “Rock-a-Bye Baby” to little Maggie.

At first, this segment shows us family life at its sweetest: the mother crooning, the lullaby lulling, the baby drifting off to dreamland. But suddenly, the scene switches to Maggie’s point of view, and we see her literal-minded vision of the lyrics--the cradle rocking in a treetop that’s nightmarishly high, the bough breaking with a sickening snap, the cradle falling through a dark sky, the baby plummeting to what looks like certain death.

Chillingly funny and wondrously compressed, the segment reveals the essence of Groening’s gift, which is his psychic pipeline to people’s wellsprings of joy and pain. When he said he could relate to his son’s helpless fury at being put down for a nap, he meant that literally, too.

“I really do remember being in my crib and being bathed in the sink. I remember being that small. At the time, I thought everything was dramatic. I was caught up in the drama of being a kid, and I vowed never to forget what it was like. Adults have forgotten how scary it is to be a kid.”

AS A MEASURE OF THE Simpsons’ sudden fame, TV Guide not only put the show on its cover but also, in some sort of first for American journalism, had Homer, Marge and the kids offer capsule reviews of other TV shows. (Since the Simpsons are imaginary, TV Guide’s arch gimmick notwithstanding, the magazine actually interviewed Groening, Simon and Brooks.) Television critics from coast to coast have taken to describing the show in such terms as “smart, vulgar, subversive and quirky” as well as “hilariously perceptive” and “impressively on target.”

If the praise continues, Groening could find himself afflicted, like icons before him, with a case of congestive sober-sidedness, or even terminal self-importance. For now, though, his sandals seem safely planted on the ground. What delights him most about his success is that it’s the result of doing all sorts of things that adults warned him not to do when he was a kid in school, like daydreaming, doodling and drawing.


“You are what you are basically despite school. I think there’s a lot of unnecessary misery in education. I certainly felt it. Just the idea of punishing a kid for drawing stacks of cartoons, of ripping them up and throwing them away. Some of the stuff was senseless and immature, but other stuff was really creative, and I was amazed that there was no differentiation between the good stuff and the bad stuff, or very little.”

One of the most popular episodes of “The Simpsons” thus far--13 shows either have been completed or are close to it, and 22 more have been ordered by Fox--is called “Bart the Genius.” Written by Jon Vitti but taken partly from Groening’s experiences, it’s the funny, strangely affecting story of how Bart fakes his way into a progressive school for Mensa-level kids, struggles to cope, bombs out, then finds himself loved all the same.

That’s entertainment, of course. In the less tidy story of Groening’s life, the progressive school was actually a college, and the happy fulfillment of years of frustration and free-form rebellion.

Diary entry by Groening at age 12:

The Boy Scouts are alright if you don’t have much to do, or you like to pretend to be in the army, and you enjoy saluting the flag alot, but if all your in for is because you like camping or your parents make you go, then there’s not much to say for it . . .

The middle child of five siblings, Groening grew up in a fully animated home, to say the least. The other Simpsons are named after his family, too, including his sisters Lisa and Maggie. Bart, however, is just an anagram for brat. Groening is a Dutch name, as he recently discovered, but he’s also of German, Norwegian and Russian extraction, what he calls “three of the unfunniest ethnic groups.” His mother, Margaret, once taught school, and his father, Homer, is a retired cartoonist, film maker and advertising man who used to subscribe, during Matt’s childhood, to every general-interest magazine in the country. “I’d see cartoons from the New Yorker and Punch and was always being guided by my dad in what was good and bad animation.”

After grade school, which Matt imagined to be Stalag 17 and where he fantasized about making The Great Escape, high school in the late 1960s was Easier Rider. “The mythology about the ‘60s was that everybody was smoking dope and had long hair and was listening to the best rock ‘n’ roll of the day, but I remember kids having to have their hair cut and conform to a dress code. But there was a college nearby, Portland State University, where they had underground films, and great rock groups came to play, and where they hated the Vietnam War, so I got to be in two worlds; I played football and also marched in anti-war parades.”


He wasn’t very good as a football player. “I put Mad Dog as my nickname on my helmet, and they just laughed at me.” Nor did he take himself all that seriously as a student activist. “My friends and I formed our own political party called Teens for Decency because we were the weirdest kids in the school. Our motto was ‘If You’re Against Decency, What Are You For?’ ” Still, the group ran for student government and won, with Groening as president of the student body.

“I’d wanted to say, ‘OK, I can play your game and win,’ and I did. It was fun, except that those were very troubled times, and I lived in a de facto segregated neighborhood, and the kids I grew up with, rich white kids, were racist to varying degrees. There were incredible racial tensions in my high school that all exploded in a snowball fight when I was a senior, and my friends started it. It was the football players who were the instigators of this whole thing.”

As college beckoned, Groening applied to two preposterously disparate schools, Harvard and Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash. Harvard couldn’t discern any talent, but Evergreen did. “Evergreen was heaven for talent: brilliant teachers really talking about what they were enthusiastic about, no limits on the cameras and tape recorders and media tools you could check out.

At the progressively unstructured Evergreen State, Groening studied philosophy and literature but declared no major because none was required. “Some of it was silly. They refused to use the word ‘class.’ It was ‘seminars’ or ‘coordinated studies programs.’ But if you got past the jargon, it was really great. I also met Lynda Barry there. She was this crazy girl who did the wildest cartoons I’d ever seen and was very inspiring to me. She showed me you could do cartoons about anything.”

Barry, who’s not only a cartoonist but also a playwright, a novelist and still one of Groening’s close friends, remembers him at that time as a brilliant person with a “battery-acid tongue” who made people laugh. “Matt was like this guy who was a kind of straight guy at a hippie college, but so militantly straight that he was hipper than the hippies. He was the opposite of that song ‘The Poetry Man’; his sensibility was that life is not a haiku. Even though he’s not ‘The Poetry Man,’ he’s a guy with real strong feelings, and in his cartoons, and now “The Simpsons,” he’s found a way to make strong feelings and sad feelings about families work.”

AS A CARTOONIST, Groening has always been far more writerly than painterly, accompanying his primitive “Life in Hell” drawings with sophisticated, trenchant texts. His cast of characters includes rabbits named Binky and Bongo, and gay identical twins in fezzes named Akbar and Jeff; his sensibility, like Woody Allen’s, studies the pushes, pulls and torsions of modern relationships, indeed of the full sweep of modern life. In one bleakly amusing, multi-paneled cartoon that Groening drew in 1982, he chronicled, without a title or additional comment, what might be called The Sixteen Ages of Rabbit, from birth (“You’ll never make it,” says the caption. “Stop squirming.”) through marriage (“Stop right now. Don’t say you weren’t warned.”) to death (“Aha. Told you so.”). In panel five, where his floppy-eared surrogate sits at a typewriter looking crazed, the caption reads, “You idiot. Who do you think you’re fooling?”


Groening lived in panel five for almost two years. He came to Los Angeles in 1977, at the age of 23, wanting to be a writer but not knowing how. He floundered around busing tables, working in a copy shop, living by himself, sometimes searching desperately for loose change that might have fallen into the unfathomable depths of the hideous orange shag carpet that covered his Hollywood apartment, on Valentino Place, in a building that he claims was haunted by Mary Pickford. Sometimes he didn’t work at all. “It was the most miserable time of my life. Heartbreak is light and lively compared to unemployment.”

Yet a light began to flicker at the end of the tunnel. With his access to copying machines at the shop, and with plenty of Magic Markers and personal misery to reprocess, he drew a little comic book that he cranked out on a copier and called “Life in Hell.” First he sent it to his friends in the Northwest in lieu of letters. Then, when he got a job as a record clerk at the Licorice Pizza across from the Whisky A Go Go on the Sunset Strip, he sold his comic books for $2 a copy out of the record store’s punk section. Soon afterward, he made his first professional cartoon sale to WET magazine, a determinedly frivolous art publication that pioneered New Wave graphics, and he was out of panel five for good.

IN ONE OF HIS COUNTLESS reprocessings (prose division) over the years, Groening wrote about his career in brief, how-to-do-it steps that include the following:

“Wait until a weekly newspaper or two begins publication. Take your cartoons to the editor of one of the papers and wait for his or her call. Take your cartoons to the editor of the other paper and also wait for his or her call.

“Go to work for the editor who calls.”

The one who called first was from the L.A. Weekly, which, like the L.A. Reader, had begun publication in the fall of 1978. Groening did some paste-up work for the pilot issue, but when he showed his cartoons, the editor only grunted. Early in 1979, then, he called the editor of the Reader, James Vowell, who was intrigued by the cartoons and gave Groening an assignment writing about billboard painters on the Sunset Strip. Soon after the piece ran under a misspelled byline--Matt Groenig--the Reader hired him as circulation manager, which involved delivering papers, from Glendale to Malibu, in his own car, a 1962 Dodge Dart with a coat-hanger radio antenna. But one thing quickly led to another, and on April 25, 1980, 10 years ago this past week, the Reader ran its first “Life in Hell.” Three years after that, 20 papers were running the strip, which then moved in 1986 to the larger and more prosperous L. A. Weekly.

Vowell, now the Los Angeles Reader’s editor and publisher, believed in Groening from the start. “I think he’s a better artist than James Thurber,” Vowell says, “and I thought he was in Thurber’s league back then. He would practice drawing those characters all the time, thinking carefully and meticulously about how to get the exact line stroke that looks casual but is completely repeatable. I actually think the drawings are exquisitely well done.”


Those were halcyon days for the alternative press in Los Angeles, when both papers were full of writing that ran the gamut from hollow narcissism to scintillating extensions of the still-new New Journalism. Groening had been warned by his father not to draw cartoons if he wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, but now that he was doing the one, he wanted to do the other, so he did: “Life in Hell” was joined in the Reader by “Sound Mix,” which began as a music column but grew to embrace the entire cosmos, with special emphasis on life as lived by its author.

“Matt’s work was always fun and lively,” says Randy Michael Signor, who edited his column at the time and now edits a crafts magazine in Seattle. “But he was always late, and I’d have to call him to see if he was going to show up. Sometimes, when our typesetting was still being done in the old Pantages building in Hollywood, he’d drop off his copy at 6 o’clock in the morning, and then we’d sit down on the curb on Hollywood Boulevard, both of us bleary-eyed, and talk about what we wanted to do. At that time, ‘Life in Hell’ was just starting to take off, and he was worried that he’d only be a cartoonist.”

IN HIS OFFICE AT 20th Century Fox, Groening is eager to give credit where he believes it’s due. The first beneficiary is Brooks, who also created “Taxi” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and directed the films “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News.” “It’s a tribute to the clout of James L. Brooks,” Groening says, “and his ambitions and good taste that ‘The Simpsons’ got on the air without compromise.” Then he waves his hand dismissively and adds, “This is all a masquerade, me as an organized TV executive.” In truth, he doesn’t look all that organized, and he certainly doesn’t look like a TV executive. He looks like a big guy standing in the middle of a small, unexceptional office that no mail-room clerk with any taste would aspire to. But something important is on his mind, and it’s the next beneficiary, his wife. “I’m like a lot of disorganized creative types. It’s very hard for me to promote myself, and Deborah did it for me.”

“Selling is in my blood,” says Deborah Caplan Groening, the Los Angeles-born daughter of a car-dealer father and a real estate-agent mother. Her husband says that in the days when they worked on the Reader, she could sell a music ad to anyone, but Matt didn’t make it easy for her with his record column. “I used to beg him to review these bands, and he wouldn’t,” she recalls, laughing.

“That’s because,” he recalls, not laughing, “editorial and advertising should be separate.”

Editorial and advertising began to merge when Deborah published Matt’s first cartoon book, “Love is Hell,” in 1984. Knowing next to nothing about professional publishing, she didn’t realize the absurdity of deciding, in November of that year, to publish a cartoon book in time for Christmas. Yet she managed to do it with a first edition of 2,000 copies; then she went back to press and sold 20,000. Soon afterward, in the spirit of one of Matt’s cartoons captioned “Isn’t It About Time You Quit Your Lousy Job?” they left the Reader, put together a company to promote Matt’s work, then got together in marriage. Today, the Life in Hell Co., which Deborah runs, has seven employees and handles all of Matt’s ventures, including cartoon syndication and a thriving mail-order business in cartoon books, greeting cards, posters, T-shirts and mugs.


“Everyone I know,” he says, “goes, ‘Well, if I had a Deborah, I could be a success, too.’ And they’re right.”

IN A DARK MIXING studio in Hollywood one recent Friday afternoon, 10 people are toiling away at the final mix of an episode of “The Simpsons” called “Homer’s Night Out.” One of them is Groening, who stands next to the sound editor’s console, watching scene after scene on a TV monitor and munching a tuna sandwich on rye. Final mixes always involve a succession of small imperfections that must be fixed or, failing that, fudged: sound effects that don’t sound right, titles that don’t look right. In this case, the choices are especially limited and frustrating, since there’s barely more than 48 hours to air time. When one title--”Six Months Later”--comes on the screen, Groening says, with pained astonishment, “Wait a minute, is that the real title? It’s horrible! It should be in Simpsons type.” Everyone agrees, but time is fleeting; the title will go on the air unchanged. When a belly dancer makes her appearance at a stag party that Homer is attending, Groening shakes his head and says, “I didn’t want this dancer to look like horny animators having a good time, and, unfortunately, that’s what it is.” When the front door of the Simpsons’ house closes with a slap instead of a slam, the sound editor asks Groening: “What do you want to do about this door?”

“Big heavy wooden.”

“Not available.” The editor suggests adding a thunk to the existing effect, but Groening wants a real slamming door. He doesn’t get it.

On the other hand, he’s able to create his own punctuation for a scene in which Bart orders squid at a restaurant, then slides under the table in dismay at the sight of all the tentacles. What Groening does is rub his moist palm upward on a studio wall while a microphone picks up the odd, furtive squeak. This handmade effect is actually broadcast across the nation Sunday evening, though who’s to know if it’s noticed?

Late one morning the following week, Groening attends a voice recording session for another episode in a basement studio on the 20th Century Fox lot. Sometimes he directs these sessions; sometimes they’re directed by his co-producer, Sam Simon. This week it’s Simon’s turn. No matter who runs the sessions, they are crucial to the quality of the series because of the peculiar sequence of events in the production of an animated show.

First come the story conferences, then the finished script, then sessions such as this, in which the dialogue is performed and recorded in the characters’ voices. Only then do the animators get to work producing thousands of cels, or individual drawings, since the cels must conform to the rhythms and emotions of the voice track, rather than vice versa, as one might guess. In the case of “The Simpsons,” the important foreground drawings are done in Hollywood, but the bulk of the background work is done in South Korea. As a result, six months can go by before the producers see the final fruits of their collaboration.

These voice sessions for “The Simpsons” have an element of authentic magic, since the actors who do the cartoon characters’ voices are the best of breed in a business that’s brimming with talent: Dan Castellenata as Homer, Julie Kavner as Marge, Yeardley Smith as Lisa and Nancy Cartwright as Bart, with Harry Shearer contributing a whole gallery of incidental roles. (Shearer marvels at how “The Simpsons” got a chance to prove itself on the air. “Somehow this show slipped through the net, even though its characters are unpleasant, impulsive, stupid and selfish. In other words, they’re so human that people really like them.”)

Simon’s direction emphasizes elements of showmanship such as pacing, while Groening, in his comments and requests, concentrates more on emotional shadings and restraint. “Don’t go over the top the first time you say ‘virile,’ ” Groening tells Castellenata after Marge tries to assure a despondent Homer that some women find bald men virile, and Homer, dense as always, replies: “Virile?! What man wants to be virile?”


Rumors have been flying, and appearing in print, that Simon and Groening are often in conflict over the series; watching them together in the same room suggests that no love is lost between the two men. Groening doesn’t want to talk about these problems, apart from saying wryly, “In this business, being a nice guy is perceived as a character defect.”

Simon, a veteran of such exemplary shows as “Taxi” and “Cheers” (and a cartoonist himself in college), says later the same day that he thinks the difficulties between him and Groening have been exaggerated: “I’ve never worked on a good show where there isn’t a certain amount of creative friction. I’ve seen brother turn against brother in a rewrite room.” He also speaks admiringly of Groening’s ability to remember his childhood experiences. “If you bring up any subject in a story conference, if it’s a field trip, or what it’s like to go to the nurse’s office, or what it’s like to be called in by the principal, his recall is near-total and astonishing. I think that’s a real rare talent.”

There may be much more to this conflict than meets the eye, but in another sense there may be much less. Collaboration can be hell under the best of circumstances, and it’s bound to entail conflicts in a volatile medium such as TV, where even the creator of a hit show’s characters must share his once-absolute control.

That’s a reality Groening lives with on “The Simpsons” every day. He wants to protect those characters, born when he first sketched them in the privacy of a quiet room. But now they’re prime properties of an industrial empire that employs hundreds of other gifted people to write them, draw them and give them voice, while Groening is only one of three executive producers who supervise the show and guide its development. (Already, there’s serious talk of a Simpsons feature film.) “I’m sure it’s been overwhelming,” says Jim Brooks, “for Matt to be suddenly in a world where it’s not just what your hand alone does on a piece of paper that day.”

Yet a larger reality--so large it’s almost impossible to imagine--is that millions of families all over America are now welcoming Groening’s brainchildren into their homes every Sunday night, and taking them to their hearts. Groening knows this, and it makes him as glad as all outdoors. It also makes him think back, with bittersweet wonder, to the little kid he used to be.

“I would have been much happier if I’d known I was going to grow up to write a cartoon book called ‘School is Hell,’ and have a cartoon show on TV, if I’d known I was going to make up for all that wasted time sitting in the principal’s office, staring at the ceiling and counting the dots in the tiles. I think about that a lot. I think about being 10 years old now and watching ‘The Simpsons’ because I know if I’d seen ‘The Simpsons’ as a kid, it would’ve been my favorite show.”