Saturday 4 February 2012

Bitesized Biographies #2 - Matt Groening

A113Animation's new focus on animated shorts and cartoons is dedicated to honouring and appreciating the paramount importance and influence of this magical and nostalgic medium that all of us grew up with - and there is no bigger or more influential cartoon show than The Simpsons. The Simpsons is possibly the greatest show ever made - certainly one of the most beloved - and is definitely the best animated show ever, and none of this could've existed if it weren't for the genius of Matt Groening.

Matt Groening, who not only created The Simpsons (which spawned a smash hit film, The Simpsons Movie, in 2007) but also co-created sci-fi, comedy Futurama, was born on February 15, 1954 in Portland, Oregon.

Never a particular fan of school (a motif that comes through in a lot of his characters, like Bart and Fry) Groening was prone to day dreaming and drawing - as most great cartoonists and animators are - and this provided the catalyst for the natural inspiration that surrounded his early life and set him on his great path. Matt Groening's father, Homer Groening, was a WWII veteran and a respected filmmaker and writer, who dabbled in cartoons. And his mother, Margaret (or Marge) Wiggum-Groening was a former teacher. Matt was the middle of 5 children, sandwiched between older sisters, Patty and Lisa and younger brother and sister, Mark and Maggie. If some of these names are ringing a bell, that's because Groening named a large portion of the characters in The Simpsons after his own family - although he claims they bear little similarities to the characters their names spawned. Bart, who is said to be based upon Matt himself and upon his older brother, Mark, has no inspiration for his name, it's merely an anagram for brat. There's an interesting story concerning the naming of Grampa Simpson, in that Groening didn't want to name him after his own grandfather, Abraham, so left the naming up to the writers, who, by coincidence, decided upon the name Abraham.

Now, to wind the clock back slightly: Matt Groening attended The Evergreen State College (another name Groening borrowed, for The Simpsons' address, 742 Evergreen Terrace), where he befriended fellow cartoonist and author, Lynda Barry, citing her, Walt Disney's 101 Dalmations and the Peanuts comic strips as his biggest inspirations.

Inspired to become some sort of cartoonist or animator, when he graduated college in the 70s, Groening moved to Los Angeles. However, it would be several years before LA would produce any fruitful work for Matt Groening, and he would bounce through a string of throwaway jobs, before finding success with his self published comic book series, Life in Hell. Life in Hell originally started as a means for Groening to complain about his life in LA to his friends and family, but soon caught immense popularity, following its being published in LA Weekly and its subsequent nationwide spread.

The ever growing popularity of Life in Hell garnered Groening attention from people in high places, namely, James L. Brooks. Brooks, a writer/producer and Gracie Films founder, approached Groening with a view to him creating a series of animated shorts to appear on The Tracey Ullman Show; originally wanting him to adapt Life in Hell. However, Groening, fearful that failure of the show would take his comic down with him, hurriedly thought up an idea in the lobby of Brooks' office: a dysfunctional family called The Simpsons.

Fresh from Groening's mind, The Simpsons premiered on The Tracey Ullman Show on April 19, 1987. Although the show it debuted on wasn't a huge hit, the 48 Simpsons Shorts were, and The Simpsons received its own half-hour, prime-time spin-off in 1989. Debuting with the Christmas episode, 'Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire', The Simpsons soon became a worldwide sensation.
From here, The Simpsons would grow to be one of the most popular shows of all time, winning 27 Primetime Emmys, and, at 498 episodes (as of writing), is the longest running American sitcom - as well as holding many more high profile records - and spawned its own movie, The Simpsons Movie, in 2007 - taking over half a billion dollars.

In terms of other pursuits, Groening, after several years working on The Simpsons, wanted to expand his television stable, and, following an interest in science-fiction, co-created Futurama with Simpsons producer/writer, David X. Cohen. Futurama ran from March 1999 to August 2003, when it was cancelled. However, immense popularity and a dedicated cult following meant that the show would be revived by Comedy Central in 2009. He also, staying true to his roots in comics, formed Bongo Comics Group (named after one of his earliest characters, from Life in Hell) in 1994.

Matt Groening has had an absolutely unparallelled effect and influence on the world of cartoons and animation, creating an animated and television ideal and style such that every such show since is accused of mimicking. Changing the landscape of TV and cinema forever, and for the better, and creating one of the best loved set of characters of all time.

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