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"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening poses with a pillow showing the cartoon family at Comic Con

'The Simpsons' Creator Matt Groening

Rock, pop, jazz and Bart Simpson. We talk with writer and cartoonist Matt Groening. Before The Simpsons, Futurama and Life in Hell, he was a rock critic. Now he's edited an anthology collecting 2003's best music writing.

42:47

Other segments from the episode on December 18, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 18, 2003: Interview with Matt Groening; Review of Jazz CDs “America’s #1 Band," “MJQ, The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings,” and…

Transcript

DATE December 18, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Matt Groening discusses music and "The Simpsons"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Mr. HANK AZARIA: (As Moe) What's the matter, Homer? You're not your normal
effervescent self.

Mr. DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh, I've got my problems, Moe. Give
me another one.

Mr. AZARIA: (As Moe) Homer, hey. You should not drink to forget your
problems.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Barney) Yeah, you should only drink to enhance your
social skills. (Burps)

GROSS: "The Simpsons" may be just the funniest show on TV. In October we
featured an excerpt of the interview I had just recorded with Matt Groening,
the creator of "The Simpsons." Today we bring you the full interview.

As Jordan Raphael wrote in the LA Times, "The Simpsons" not only paved the way
for a rich collection of prime-time animation shows, it raised the bar for all
TV sitcoms. Matt Groening also created the animated series "Futurama" and he
draws the syndicated comic strip Life in Hell. Before he started cartooning,
Groening was a rock critic. Now he's the guest editor of the new book "Best
Music Writing of 2003." It's part of an annual series collecting the finest
writing on rock, pop, jazz writing and more published by Da Capo. This year
Groening curated the second annual All Tomorrow's Parties rock festival, which
was held last month in Long Beach, California. One of the groups that
performed was The Magic Band, which used to be Captain Beefheart's band.
Inviting them to perform meant a lot to Groening.

Mr. MATT GROENING (Creator, "The Simpsons"): The band that meant the most to
me when I was in high school was Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. The
album "Trout Mask Replica," which came out in 1969, was a double album and at
the time I was on quite a limited budget. I was basically only able to buy
records by saving up my lunch money. And this is a two-record set so it
cost--What?--4 bucks, so that took me a while to save up for that. And--but I
bought the record because it was produced by Frank Zappa, another one of my
heroes. And the first time I heard this album, I thought, `They're not even
trying. This is just a bunch of meaningless, psychedelic nonsense and sloppy
music.' And then I realized about the third time I listened to it--'cause,
you know, back then, if you bought a record, even if you hated it, you had to
keep on playing it because I had so few records in my collection. I realized
it was horrible but they meant what they were doing. And then, about the
fifth or sixth time, I went, `Wait a minute. This is great. This is the
greatest album I've ever heard.'

And my friend, Richard Gare(ph), who went on to be a rock critic himself, for
the Village Voice, he and I used to run around. We'd run punishment laps
during gym class and we would sing the lyrics to "Trout Mask Replica" and say,
`This is the greatest album of 1984.' This is back in 1969. And we thought,
`If this is how great pop music is in 1969, just think how great it's going to
be in the future. And I don't think this album has ever been beaten.

So, anyway, the backing band, The Magic Band, the band that is responsible for
the sound, they're back together in a unique configuration, with John French
on drums. He's a--back then, his name was Drumbo. He's leading this band and
they've recorded an album of their rehearsals, which is fantastic. I was
there to hear it. And it's mind-blowing and it's great and I'd love to play
one of their songs, if we could.

GROSS: Oh, that's be great. What do you want to play?

Mr. GROENING: Let's see. I've got the new album here. It's called "Back to
the Front," and it's basically just re-creations of their classic songs. I
think we should try a song called "Steal Softly Through Snow."

(Soundbite of "Steal Softly Through Snow")

GROSS: That's The Magic Band, which my guest Matt Groening has brought with
him. And by the way, what's Captain Beefheart himself up to?

Mr. GROENING: Don van Vliet is painting full time and doesn't do interviews
very much. He's had some health problems. And he--from what I understand, is
he's painting. If you look on the Internet, you find out about various art
shows that he has. But he seems to be completely withdrawn from the music
scene. But you know what? This band--the love of the musicians and the
intensity of enthusiasm on the part of the fans for this music is just
amazing.

Not everybody gets it. I--you know, I don't expect to have any instant
converts, but give it a chance, because I think it's some of the most amazing
music ever done for a rock band. I mean, it's a combination of some of the
heartfelt depth of feeling that you get from delta blues combined with the
rhythms of Igor Stravinsky. And I know it sounds--that might sound
pretentious, but it's there. And I think you should give it a chance.

GROSS: My guest is Matt Groening and he's the creator of "The Simpsons" and
now he's edited a new book called the Da Capo "Best Music Writing Anthology of
2003." It's a series that comes out annually and this is the new edition.

Why did you agree to do this slightly out of character book on the best music
writing of 2003?

Mr. GROENING: Well, I have a guilty secret. I used to be a rock critic back
in prehistory. I moved to Los Angeles and fell in love with the burgeoning
punk scene and started writing about bands that no one ever heard of--even at
the time they had not heard of them. And they're lost to the sands of history
right now. Grandpa Becomes a Fungus, ever heard of them?

GROSS: No.

Mr. GROENING: You don't have their records? They're great.

GROSS: Do you still have yours?

Mr. GROENING: No. You know, I don't think they ever even put one out. But I
would review bands that--you know, I'd have one little 45 and then I'd go in
the record store the following week after my review of them published and I'd
go, `Did you sell any?' `No. No. They didn't sell any.' So I wasn't that
good as a rock critic.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to ask you to choose one piece--one of the pieces that
you've decided to include in the best music writing of 2003 and just tell us
what you liked about the piece.

Mr. GROENING: Well, I really liked a piece from The Onion. It seems like
this Da Capo Best Music Writing Anthology, every year they have a piece from
The Onion. And this piece--let me find it here.

GROSS: In fact, why don't you read the first paragraph of it. And before you
read it I'm going to say for any listeners who aren't familiar with it, that
The Onion is a satirical magazine.

Mr. GROENING: Yes, the headline is 37 Record Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo
La Tengo Concert Disaster. Dateline: Athens, Georgia. Thirty-seven record
store clerks are missing and feared dead in the aftermath of a partial roof
collapse during a Yo La Tengo concert Monday. Quote, "We're trying to do our
best to rescue these clerks but realistically there's not a lot of hope," said
emergency worker Len Guzman, standing outside the 40 Watt Club where the
tragedy occurred. "These people are simply not in the physical condition to
survive this sort of trauma. It's just a twisted mass of black-framed glasses
and ironic Girl Scouts T-shirts in there," unquote.

GROSS: Is it...

Mr. GROENING: And I can relate. I can relate...

GROSS: Right. You would have been...

Mr. GROENING: Because I wear glasses and, you know, I had the hip stubble and
the bad haircut and the bleary eyes and the hearing loss and that vague
sensation that my career choice was ridiculous and, of course, the empty
wallet, of course, being--you know, writing for alternative newsweeklies.

GROSS: And you went to concerts that only people who worked at record stores
would go to.

Mr. GROENING: Yeah, exactly. And I used to work at a record store, too, and
it was miserable. This is, again, during the punk years, which was
simultaneous with the disco years, so I got to sell a lot of records up on
Sunset Strip at a store called Licorice Pizza to punks and then drug
paraphernalia, because they actually sold drug paraphernalia in this record
store to the rock stars of the day. Little amber vials, and I said, `What do
you do with these vials, anyway?' And they didn't answer.

GROSS: Now you said that as a kid you used to tape record your own imaginary
program called "The Matt Groening Show," which had the Matt Groening Orchestra
performing the Matt Groening theme song. What was the theme song?

Mr. GROENING: (Singing) `First you hear a mighty cheer, then you know that
Groening's here. Then a streak of color flashes on the ground. You know it's
not a train or a comet or a plane. You know it must be Matt Groening, cool
guy.'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. GROENING: `Matt Groening.' There's more. Come on. Don't laugh.

GROSS: Keep going.

Mr. GROENING: Oh, God, I can't believe I'm doing this. (Singing) Matt
Groening.

OK. I just have to say before I do this, I did sing this for my fellow
classmates in 1966 and so to do it again, after the humiliation that followed
my singing, is--this is quite remarkable. This is like another bad dream.
Here we go.

(Singing) Matt Groening. Matt Groening. Matt Groening. Now a coward,
superpowered Matt Groening, coolest guy there is in town, coolest guy around.

Now you have to understand--whew--that everybody in my class, after this,
although they made fun of me, also made up their own theme songs, although
every single song had the lyrics, `the coolest guy in town, the coolest guy
around.' The girls didn't do it, by the way; just the boys, because we're too
cool.

GROSS: Right. Now should I think that the coolest guy part was said with
some degree of irony?

Mr. GROENING: I think I didn't know the word irony but, yes, unconsciously we
were making fun of the idea of thinking highly of one's self, although we did
think highly of ourselves.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. GROENING: You know. Yeah, you know, it was preadolescent narcissism.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Marge, what's my blood type?

Ms. JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) A positive.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh, nuts, extremely rare blood and I
don't have it.

Ms. YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) You know blood types? How romantic.

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) A mother knows everything about her family.

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Oh, yeah. What's my shoe size?

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Four B.

Ms. NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) How many teeth do I have?

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Sixteen permanent, eight baby.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) How many hairs on my head without
looking?

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Oh, Homie, you have lots of hair. Why did you
want to know your blood type?

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh, old man Burns is going to kick off
if he doesn't get some OO negative blood, but nobody at the plant has it.

Ms. KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Bart does.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh! Yes! All right! Whoo!
Congratulations, boy. You've got a date with a needle.

Ms. CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Hey, wait a minute.

GROSS: Matt Groening, I'd like to talk with you about "The Simpsons." And,
you know, we spoke just as "The Simpsons" was becoming--was coming into
existence, starting first as a Tracy Ullman series. And I think we spoke
just as it was about to be broadcast on its own. And a lot has happened since
then.

Mr. GROENING: Yeah.

GROSS: "The Simpsons" have taken over the world since then. I'm wondering
how your vision of the characters as they are now compare with the vision you
had when you were creating them.

Mr. GROENING: Well, here's the problem with doing a sitcom which has lasted
more than 300 episodes, is you're trying not to repeat yourself, you're trying
to surprise the audience and you're trying to keep everybody who works on the
show surprised. As a result, the show has gone off in some very peculiar
directions. Sometimes I was alarmed. I was thinking, `Oh, my God, we can't
do this. We can't do this,' and then it turned out to be OK. It's funny,
it's crazy, and the show is so fast-paced. We learned as we went along that
we can cram a lot of jokes in there. So if there's a joke you don't like,
just wait a fraction of a second and there'll be another one to come along to
replace it.

It's--really it's still a lot of fun. The writers love doing the show. The
animators are still around. We've got one of the directors, Mark Kirkland,
who's done 51 episodes himself. He holds the record for animation directors.
A lot of our writers have been around for years. And then we've got these
young guys--mostly guys--who have grown up on this show. That's really
demoralizing for me. We've got some little kids working on the show now.

GROSS: Well, you know, you said that there things to which you said, `We
can't do this.' What's an example of that? Because, let's face it, "The
Simpsons" does a lot of satire about homosexuality, the church, you know,
violence on television.

Mr. GROENING: Yeah. You know, at the beginning, virtually anything we did
would get somebody upset. And now it seems like the people who are eager to
be offended--and this country is full of people who are eager to be
offended--they've given up on our show. So if you're bothered by "The
Simpsons," by now you know to tune out. And so we don't get that much problem
anymore. We do sometimes with advertisers. We'd gotten in trouble a few
years ago for--Homer's watching an anti-drinking commercial and it said,
`Warning, beer causes rectal cancer.' And Homer responds by saying, `Mm,
beer.' Fox didn't want us to do that because beer advertisers are part of the
Fox empire, and it turns out that the writer was able to track down the actual
fact, where some study shows that indeed it does, or did, or has a tendency
to, so we were able to keep that in. But that's the kind of thing we put up
with.

GROSS: One of my favorite episodes is where Homer goes to Rock 'n' Roll
Fantasy Camp. It's kind of like Baseball Fantasy Camp but instead of being on
a baseball fantasy team, you're in a rock 'n' roll band. And you know, he's
taught, you know, how to be a guitar hero. And like Keith Richards and--Oh,
who else was in the...

Mr. GROENING: Mick Jagger.

GROSS: Mick Jagger, yeah. Elvis Costello, their voices.

Mr. GROENING: Elvis Costello, Lenny Kravitz. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GROENING: That was a lot of fun. You know it's great on this show is
because we basically can get pretty much whoever we want to. And for a while
we weren't able to get older Hollywood stars but then their grandchildren
started telling them to do the show, so we've gotten some of them, too. And
that's how we got Ernest Borgnine and Sting. No, no. Kidding about Sting.
But Sting said his kids liked it. That's why he did the show.

GROSS: Were you in on the writing of the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp episode?

Mr. GROENING: You know, I think I stuck my nose in the door, but the writers
definitely deserve credit for the show. The show has so many things that need
to be taken care of, the writing is the least of our problems, and so I run
around. I work on the editing for a little bit and sometimes the writing and
designs and--but not on that particular episode. I don't think I had anything
in there.

GROSS: Tell me more about what your job is now.

Mr. GROENING: I'm the spokesmodel for the show. I do FRESH AIR interviews
and, you know. No, you know what? What I do is, like I said, I stick my nose
in where I think it's needed. I'm there at the beginning of the process and
I'm there at the end of the process and it's most fun on Thursday mornings
when the actors all got together around a big table on the Fox lot and read
and perform the script for the first time while the writers furiously scribble
notes and mark little checkmarks on what gets laughs and what doesn't. And
then we rewrite the script and then six months goes by with story boards and
animatics and character designs and re-records and rewrites and all this
stuff. And then at the very end of the process there's a final edit and a
final sound mix of the show and it's amazing how many times the show really
doesn't come together until that last part of the process, which is the final
sound mix, which is one of my favorite parts of the whole thing.

GROSS: Why do you love that part?

Mr. GROENING: Because you can take something that, if you watch silently,
would not get a laugh. And if you--with the right sound effects and the right
music and the right pauses, actually you can pull comedy out of something that
didn't seem to be there. We had once--a few years ago we had a vicious
fist fight between Homer and Smithers. I know it's hard to believe that Homer
and Smithers would fight, but they did. They got into a fist fight and were
hitting each other over the head with blunt instruments like telephones and
things. And in listening to it back and watching animation, it wasn't funny.
It just didn't get a laugh. It was horrifying. And what--we tried all sorts
of experiments to try and make it funny--you know, crazier sound effects and
this and that. And finally what we did is we pulled out all the sounds of
exertion, so when Homer clonks Smithers on the head with a phone, he goes,
`Uh,' and instead of--we took that out and we left in the Smithers sound of
pain. And for some reason, the sound of pain, the sound of outrage, the sound
of injury is funny and the sound of anger and aggression is creepy and scary.
And it's really funny.

GROSS: You said that, you know, you go over the script and make checkmarks
next to everything that gets a laugh. Who is it getting a laugh from? Is it
the other writers or do you do this in front of a test audience?

Mr. GROENING: Well, there are people who come to these table reads who are
not writers. The writers all sit around one end of the table and just, you
know, are listening, have their heads tilted and see what gets a laugh from
the room. And there's a lot of people who work on the Fox lot who sneak in
and they generally sit along one wall and we call it the sour wall because
they're often sitting there with their arms crossed, disapproving, and, you
know, shaking their heads at certain jokes. But if we can get the sour wall
to laugh, then it's good, it's a good script.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Mr. HARRY SHEARER (As Announcer): Live from Springfield Penitentiary's
fabulous big open area in Cell Block D, it's the Krusty the Klown prison
special.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Klown) I slugged some jerk in Tahoe. They
gave me one to three. My high-priced lawyer sprung me on a technicality. I'm
just visiting Springfield prison. I get to sleep at home tonight.

(Soundbite of grumbles)

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Klown) Hey, hey, I kid. I kid 'cause I
love. I tell you, the best folk in the world are prison folk.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Ms. CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Wait a minute. These cons love Krusty.
Inside every hardened criminal beats the heart of a 10-year-old boy.

GROSS: Let's hear a scene from "The Simpsons." Krusty the Klown has been
invited to the Simpsons house for dinner.

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Ms. CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Krusty, would you do the honors?

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Klown) Well, all right. I'm a little rusty.
But I'll try. (Hebrew spoken)

(As Homer Simpson) (Laughing) Oh, he's talking funny talk.

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) No, Dad, that's Hebrew. Krusty must be Jewish.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) A Jewish entertainer? Get out of here.

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Dad, there are many prominent Jewish
entertainers, including Lauren Bacall, Dinah Shore, William Shatner and Mel
Brooks.

Mr. CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Mel Brooks is Jewish?

(As Krusty the Klown): (Sobbing)

GROSS: I want to ask you about some of the characters that didn't exist in
the very beginning stages of "The Simpsons," starting with Krusty the Klown,
who's this really funny character. I mean, he's basically like an old
vaudevillian type, and, you know, really bitter and, you know, Jewish, like a
lot of comics and, you know--but this is, like, an old-style Jewish
comic-clown. What did you think of Krusty when he was first created?

Mr. GROENING: Well, Krusty was based on a TV-show clown who I grew up with
in Portland, Oregon...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. GROENING: ...named Rusty Nails. Rusty Nails was a Christian clown. He
had his own show and he showed old "Three Stooges" shorts. And he was great.
And he wasn't like Krusty at all. He was very nice, a very nice guy and a
very sweet clown. But he had that name, Rusty Nails, which I found incredibly
disturbing as a child because, you know, you're supposed to avoid rusty nails.
So the idea of a clown named Rusty Nails...

GROSS: You were a sensitive little kid.

Mr. GROENING: Well, you know, clowns are scary to begin with, and even though
this was a nice clown, I was slightly perturbed by him.

Anyway, so Krusty the Klown--Krusty rhymes with Rusty--and I actually created
him as a little on-screen character on "The Tracey Ullman Show" for those
little shorts there. And...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. GROENING: ...the idea of the design of him is he actually is basically,
originally, Homer in clown garb. And the satirical conceit that I was going
for at the time was that "The Simpsons" was about a kid who had no respect for
his father but worshiped a clown who looked exactly like his father. But we
sort of lost that. And I didn't make Krusty Jewish. That was--Jay Kogen and
Wally Wolodarsky, I think, came up with that idea, two of the old "Simpsons"
writers. And then the rest is, you know--he's one of the richest characters
on the show. In fact, this year we have Krusty having his bar mitzvah
finally. Turns out he...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: And it's a pretty wild show.

GROSS: OK. Let's talk about Itchy and Scratchy, and this is the recurring
cartoon that Bart and Lisa watch on TV. And they're kind of like a
super-violent version of all the cat-and-mouse kind of cartoons. How'd you
come up with this?

Mr. GROENING: Well, it was from watching cat-and-mouse cartoons growing up,
Pixie & Dixie, the Hanna-Barbera mice, and Tom and Jerry in particular. Very,
very violent and very, very funny cartoons, MGM cartoons. And the fantasy was
seeing--you know, wanting these cartoons to extend their violence even more.
And so with Itchy and Scratchy it's probably as extreme as it can get for a
cat-and-mouse cartoon. And it's been really fun because it turns out the way
these shows come together that whatever the theme of that particular episode
is of "The Simpsons," there's some Itchy and Scratchy cartoon that obliquely
relates to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: They're very hard to write now. We've done so many of them
that they're harder and harder to write. And originally, of the actors, Harry
Shearer, a sophisticated guy, seemed to laugh the hardest at Itchy and
Scratchy during the table reads. I think he's--I don't know if he's the voice
of Itchy or Scratchy, (speaking in a very high voice) `but he's the voice of
one of them.' He talks like that, while Dan Castellaneta is the voice of the
other one, the cat or the mouse, I don't know. I sometimes have difficulty
remembering which is the cat, then I go, `Oh, it's Scratchy because he
scratches.' That's how I figure it out.

GROSS: So were you in on the writing of the Itchy and Scratchy theme song?

Mr. GROENING: Yeah. Well, yeah, that was obvious. By the way, it's
not--everybody thinks it's `They fight and fight and fight and fight and
fight.' It's not. It's `They fight and bite and fight and fight and bite.'

GROSS: Do you remember the theme for "Ruff & Reddy"?

Mr. GROENING: No, I don't. I loved "Ruff & Reddy," another great
Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but I don't remember it.

GROSS: 'Cause the bridge was, `Sometimes they have their little spats. They
even fight like dogs and cats,' etc., etc. I was wondering if this was an
homage to that at all, but I guess not.

Mr. GROENING: I do have a lot of cartoon themes running through my head. In
fact, over the years, I wake up out of a deep sleep with a specific theme
running through my head. It's the end of, again, a local Portland, Oregon,
kids show, "Heck Harper." He was a cowboy and he used to sing, (Singing)
`Sadly now we bid adieu to all our barnyard friends. Rocky and Bullwinkle and
Mr. Magoo, Felix and Popeye all say toodle-loo,' or something like that.
That's as far as I remember, but I wake up to that lots and lots of times.
It's really, really...

GROSS: Sad?

Mr. GROENING: ...a cause for concern.

GROSS: Well, I think it's time to hear the Itchy and Scratchy theme song.
Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of Itchy and Scratchy theme song)

ITCHY and SCRATCHY: (Singing) We fight and bite and fight and fight and bite,
fight, fight, fight, bite, bite, bite, the Itchy and Scratchy show.

GROSS: That's the Itchy and Scratchy theme song from "The Simpsons." My
guest, Matt Groening, created "The Simpsons." He also just edited the new
book, the "Da Capo Best Music Writing Anthology of 2003," a collection of the
best music writing of the year as selected by Matt Groening. Yeah.

Mr. GROENING: I'm sorry. The lyrics to that were written by Sam Simon, one
of the original producers who developed the show along with Jim Brooks and
basically set the tone of the show.

GROSS: OK, I have to ask you now about Troy McClure. I love the name. It's
just like Troy Donahue and Doug McClure, a sort of washed-up former handsome
actor, never been in important movies. Can you talk about the creation of
Troy McClure?

Mr. GROENING: Well, Troy McClure was--yeah, again, he's a stand in for a lot
of--exactly what you said, washed-up phony baloney Hollywood actors. And Phil
Hartman--the late, great Phil Hartman played Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz and
a few other characters on the show. And what's great about Phil Hartman was
that you could give him any line and he could figure out a way of pulling the
maximum amount of humor out of it. And not only that, he was just a great
person. It's easy to say that about people who have passed on, but I think
everybody on the show would agree that Phil Hartman was always a delight to
work with, and because he's gone, we've retired those characters. We don't
want to revoice them.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, sure.

Mr. GROENING: You know.

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. GROENING: So, yeah.

GROSS: Can I share my favorite Troy McClure moment? And I think this is a
lot of people's favorite Troy McClure moments. He is engaged to one of
Marge's sisters and the sister knows that there's some kind of sexual secret
that he's keeping from her and she thinks that the secret is he's gay. But he
says--Do you want to do the line?

Mr. GROENING: Oh, I don't remember.

GROSS: Oh, he says, `Gay, I wish.' It turns out he has a really weird sexual
fetish. That is an example of the type of thing that "The Simpsons" really
gets away with. You know, it's a kids' show on the one hand--or at least a
lot of kids watch it--a lot of adults watch it, too--but there's this really
funny sexual humor on it.

Mr. GROENING: What's the fetish? I don't remember. Was it fish or...

GROSS: Oh, I don't remember either. I think it was some kind of fish thing.
Yeah, it was some kind of weird thing, but...

Mr. GROENING: Yeah. Fish, that would make sense.

GROSS: Right, exactly. So--I mean, do you ever get any problems coming back
at you as a result of humor like that?

Mr. GROENING: Well, you know, stuff that's so farfetched like that, no, we
don't get much problem with that. We--you know, we deal with, you know,
various sexual aspects of contemporary culture and, you know, what I try to
hope that we do is that the stuff that's not appropriate for kids, they don't
get. And again, the idea of "The Simpsons" always has been that it's a show
for everybody; that is, you know, for all ages and not every joke is for every
person. In fact, I always said, well, the dumb jokes, the ones that you don't
think are funny, those are for the kids. And the sophisticated ones, you
know, the references to Dostoevsky and so on, those are for the grownups.
And so the idea is to basically redefine family entertainment and do stuff for
the entire family that you can all stand to sit there and watch. And how much
TV can you sit there and say that about? Most TV is--it's so fragmented in
the demographic that it's trying to get to that, you know, there are very few
things that I can watch that my kids dig. So but they do like "The Simpsons."

GROSS: One of the characters is Ned Flanders. He's the Simpsons' born-again
neighbor and, you know, so the kids in the Flanders household are being
brought up very differently then the kids in the Simpsons' household. Can you
talk about the creation of Ned Flanders?

Mr. GROENING: At first Ned Flanders was just the wacky neighbor. And then we
decided that wouldn't it be fun if he were actually a good person. Homer
hates him for no good reason. He was actually a good guy and Homer just
misunderstands him completely. And then we realized that he was an object of
mirth with his strong religious feelings. We thought, how do we create a
religious character who is not the usual stereotype? And we made him a truly
good guy. And his beliefs are sometimes a little annoying, but he's not a
hypocrite, he's real. And we get lots of fan mail for him and we get lots of
photos of people who look exactly like Ned Flanders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: Some people think Michael Medved is a Ned Flanders clone, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. GROENING: ...because he looks--and I love the character. Harry Shearer
does the voice and he does such a fantastic job with finding variations on
okilly-dokilly. And I think we treat the character with some dignity. On the
show, we have people from all political stripes and religions and everybody
sticks up for Flanders' dignity. And when Flanders tried to have the kids
baptized--he took it upon himself. Because one time the Simpsons were such
terrible parents that...

GROSS: Oh, they swapped children.

Mr. GROENING: Yeah. Well, they didn't--yeah, they got...

GROSS: They didn't swap children. The children got sent to Ned Flanders'
home...

Mr. GROENING: Right.

GROSS: ...for a better upbringing.

Mr. GROENING: And Flanders found out that they had never been baptized, so he
took them down to the river. And Homer and Marge found out and Homer was
extremely disturbed and said, `We've got to save them,' and so it was a big
race against time. And at the very end, Homer dives in the water and as the
holy water spills and drips on Homer, he's zapped and he writhes like a
Japanese movie monster like Godzilla and (growls) because the holy water
stings him so badly. And I don't know what our point was. But I guess--you
know, we've actually shown God on the show, too. In our version of God, we
never show his face but he's a big guy with yellow skin and five fingers.
That's the difference between him and the Simpsons is he actually has five
fingers. And I have to say, we have--we're the only sitcom on TV that has a
family that goes to church. They say grace. They believe in God. They pray.
We actually show God and yet some religious conservatives are unhappy with the
show.

GROSS: Now I'd love to hear what it's like in the writing room. One of my
fantasies is that each of the writers has this confile of like jokes and
satires that we're just saving for the right moment, 'cause each episode is so
rich with jokes and little parodies of TV shows and commercials and did you
save like a file of that stuff that you pull out for when it's appropriate?

Mr. GROENING: One of the reasons why I think so many comedy writers are from
Ivy League colleges--In "The Simpsons" case, Harvard--is because they're so
smart that they carry the files in their head. And the way TV's written,
there's no time for research or, you know, taking a walk around the block and
thinking about it. People are just racing through it and the writers have an
incredible amount of knowledge rolling around in their heads that they're able
to call forth. So--I mean, that's where that comes from, but the writing
process, in and of itself, is not very glamorous. I mean, sitting around in a
room with a bunch of writers looking as bored as possible, with their feet up
on the table, their arms folded or some people are lying on the couch, you
know, and it's many, many, many, many hours long. So you can really get to
know your co-workers. And there's lots of horrible snacks in the room next
door when people get nervous and--that's it. That's the writers room.

GROSS: The last time you were on FRESH AIR, David Bianculli was guest
hosting, our TV critic. And one of the things you said to him was that "The
Simpsons" is about the anxiety and consternation of living with people who
drive you out of your mind. How do you live with people you love and you want
to kill? Do you still see it that way?

Mr. GROENING: Wow! That sounds really smart.

GROSS: Doesn't it?

Mr. GROENING: Yeah, that sounds true. That sounds--I--that sounds like
you're in a court and you're--`Did you say the following?' Yeah, that's what
it's about. Yeah, that's at the core. It's about being in a family and
families drive you crazy. So nothing changes about that. We can all relate
to that, I'm sure.

GROSS: Does that statement I just read describe your family, too?

Mr. GROENING: Except for my family. Come on, what do you think? You know,
my family hears this--and, by the way, that interview that mentioned, that was
repeated a number of times and I actually heard it with my kids in the car
driving and...

GROSS: What was that like?

Mr. GROENING: ...it was really--it was a very odd sensation. And then, of
course, they take me to task for everything. And they're my most honest
critics and, you know, they give notes on the show and even more so on the
other cartoon show that I've been working on, "Futurama." They were there
from the beginning. "The Simpsons" came along before they were born but
"Futurama" came along when they were at the age where they felt like their
opinions needed to be noted. And they give me color notes and all sorts of
stuff.

GROSS: How would you do "The Simpsons" differently if you had already had
children when you were creating it? Because "The Simpsons" is in some ways
like from the point of view of the kids.

Mr. GROENING: Well, you know, what I get from my kids is more the way kids
really talk and more what's on their mind and, in fact, I definitely exploit
my kids. I have a weekly comic strip called Life in Hell which runs in
alternative newsweeklies around the country. And I often quote my kids. I
just actually sit there and take notes of their conversations at the dinner
table and run them in my strip and, you know, hope that they don't sue me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROENING: No, they dig it, although now they're 12 and 14 and they're
much less cooperative about letting me write down what they say, so. But when
they were younger, I got lots of material out of them.

GROSS: Matt Groening, so great to talk to you. Thank you very, very much.

Mr. GROENING: Always a pleasure, Terry. Great show.

GROSS: Groening is the creator of "The Simpsons." He's the guest editor of
the new book "Best Music Writing 2003," an annual collection published by Da
Capo.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Holiday jazz gift suggestions
TERRY GROSS, host:

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says when you give someone records for Christmas,
they may put that music on right away just to be polite. So you might want to
avoid giving music that'll jangle the family's nerves. In hopes of lending a
calming presence to this holiday season, he recommends three sets that are
easy on the ears and, in one case, the eyes.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

Count Basie's peerless rhythm section and tenor saxophonist Lester Young on
"Oh, Lady Be Good," 1936. Fair to say Basie's band taught the swing era how
swing was swung, and their pulsing momentum is still a model for jazz rhythm.
Plus, the full-band's streamlined, revved-up blues all but handed us R&B and
rock 'n' roll.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Sweets Edison on 1945's "Avenue C." It's in the Count
Basie anthology "America's #1 Band!" a four-CD set on Columbia with more than
enough grade and good music to make a prudent gift, even if the selection is
kind of lopsided. On the plus side, it has everything the label owns by
Basie's smaller groups, including a little-heard 1950 octet, a miniaturized
version of the big band.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Basie's orchestra was his main focus, but this box is only a
quarter of its 150 Columbia studio size. There'd have been room for a couple
of dozen more, but instead, we get a full disc of less essential live stuff
rather than benchmarks like "Blow Top," "The World Is Mad" and "I'm Going to
Move to the Outskirts of Town" or either of bebop pioneer Kenny Clarke's guest
shots on drums. Clarke does turn up on another four-CD box, the Modern Jazz
Quartet's complete Prestige and Pablo recordings.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: The Modern Jazz Quartet learned a lot from Basie about keeping a
clean profile and swinging with a light stick, lighter than that after
colorist Connie Kay came in on drums. There's something genteel and
self-consciously arty about the MJQ, but much of the stuff sounds surprisingly
fresh and oddly Christmasy. Milt Jackson's vibes shimmer and flicker like a
decorated tree.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Like the Basie set, the MJQ box misses a lot. The first third was
recorded before 1956 and the rest is divided between live and studio dates
from the '80s. That leaves out their most popular years when they recorded
for Atlantic, but the early stuff really crackles, especially when Sonny
Rollins sits in for four tunes and they still sound crisp on the late studio
dates. Composer John Lewis had a playful way with form and knew how to make
even clunkers sound pretty. That's Lewis on piano and Percy Heath on bass.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Those notes in collision recall Thelonious Monk, who, like Basie,
knew how to say more with less, making a few odd piano notes swing like crazy.
There's plenty of live Monk out there and recent Monk re-issues, but his
quartet's especially hot on "Monk in Paris: Live at the Olympia," recorded in
1965 and out on the Monk family's Thelonious Records. Charlie Rouse has a
field day on tenor sax and Monk gives him plenty of room to run with bassist
Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Monk's "Live at the Olympia" is a two-disc set, the Paris CD plus
a DVD of the same quartet in Oslo a year later. That concert's less
brilliant, but you get to watch Monk at work at the keyboard and see the
complex crossed-hands fingerings he devised to get at the pretzel chords he
heard in his head. Pop that in on the big holiday and it's sure to happily
occupy those family members who enjoy arguing about what to watch on TV.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, Absolute Sound and
Down Beat.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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