GRAPHIC 2016: 'Secrets of the Simpsons' with Matt Groening
Like every other child raised on a steady diet of television, I love The Simpsons. I watched it as kid, devoured it as a teenager and continually reference it as an ‘adult’ (a term I use very loosely). At times it's questionable as to whether I am a person at all or just a countless mess of Simpsons quotes which has been granted sentience.
What started out as 15 second animated shorts on the Tracy Ullman show has become a cultural touchstone, with over 600 episodes in the can, hundreds of millions of fans and countless Simpsons tattoos on bodies all around the globe. Lines like ‘That’s a paddlin’, ‘My cat’s breath smells like cat food’ or ‘Everything's coming up Milhouse’ have burned themselves into the cultural consciousness, never to be erased. This, in my opinion, is the true genius of The Simpsons: its ability to make anyone laugh whilst simultaneously feeling like the jokes were written just for you. It’s niche humour for the mass market.
Not surprisingly, the show's creator, Matt Groening, emits the same sort of energy. His personable and unassuming demeanour makes you almost forgot he is the closest thing television has to royalty. This easygoing aura may be why a rowdy fan felt comfortable shouting ‘Thank you for the first ten seasons!’ when Groening walked onto the stage of the Sydney Opera house for his solo appearance at the Graphic festival. Well versed in receiving backhanded compliments from unrestrained fans, Groening simply chuckled before commencing to announce that the evening's ‘Secrets of The Simpsons’ talk would consist exclusively of content from season eleven onward. And we were off.
Not surprisingly Groening's retort was a lie, as revealed by the preceding video package of some of his favourite clips from the show’s huge catalogue of episodes which included the gay steel mill scene, a cameo from the white stripes, Homer trying to steal free cable, and of course footage from the infamous Bart vs. Australia. Sure, I had seen all these scenes before but there was something special about laughing at a steel mill worker in denim cut-offs exclaim ‘hot stuff coming through’ with hundreds of like minded fans.
And that’s what the night was really about; celebrating Simpsons fandom with the biggest fan of them all, Groening himself. The creator's glee at sharing clips of the show and his admission that just like everybody else he tunes into The Simpsons every week made it clear that he takes great delight in his yellow creations. This was made even more evident when he sketched some of the more notorious residents of Springfield while quoting some of his favourite lines. Say what you want about the show selling out, or the more recent episodes being inferior to the old ones, but at the end of the night it was clear Groening still gets a real kick out of making The Simpsons.
Underneath all the money and success that surrounds Groening beats the heart of an artist and cartoonist. He’s been drawing everyday since he was in primary school and seemed most comfortable on stage when he was putting pen to paper, effortlessly recreating some of the small screen's most memorable characters and offering to sell them to the crowd for the affordable price of 13 dollarydoos. For a few moments he wasn’t 'Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons', he was just a guy with a sharpie having fun.
As for divulging any actual secrets, although there were no shocking revelations, Groening did have many insights to offer. Some were about cartooning (such as his philosophy that great cartoon characters should be recognisable by silhouette), some about his family (accompanied by home movies) and some about his career (such as the fact he came up with the original designs for The Simpsons 15 minutes before the pitch meeting).
What stood out through all these anecdotes however, was the man himself. Unlike his profitable brand of cynical satire, Groening came across as someone who has made a conscious effort not to be jaded. Lets be honest, his yellow empire is so well established that at this point he doesn’t need to be nice to his fans. He could kick me in the nethers and I would still get ‘D’oh’ carved into my tombstone. But he (obviously) didn’t do that. Instead, he was charming and kind, the sort of guy who would compliment your terrible Mr Burn’s impression if you ever encountered him on the street. He even ended the evening by handing out a swathe of sketches to grasping fans, many of which he had taken time to draw before the talk specifically to give out.
For a festival about animation, comics, film and music, Groening wasn’t just a get, he was the get. I was spellbound as I witnessed the man who shaped (or arguably warped) my sense of humour, make me laugh all over again. But more importantly I was relieved to see that he still loves what he does, and although you may have stopped watching after season ten, he certainly hasn’t.