Life in Hell's Matt Groening Goes Overboard to Make the Simpsons the First Family of TV 'toons

updated 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

For cartoonist Matt Groening, hell is not a place of high temperatures (to say nothing of the humidity) or a place with a red-suited guy running around with a pitchfork. For Groening, hell is the here and now—a proposition he hilariously demonstrates in his syndicated comic strip, Life in Hell, and in such paperback cartoon sagas as Work Is Hell, School Is Hell, Love Is Hell (just the tome for someone with an ex to grind) and Childhood Is Hell (whose Childhood Trauma Checklist includes grotesqueries like being forced to eat broccoli, being forced to perform for parents' friends and receiving underwear for a birthday present).

But all available evidence suggests that life, pardon the expression, is pretty heavenly for the 35-year-old scribbler. Last year his strip—an inventively angst-ridden lampooning of all authority figures, social, familial and universal—was seen in 105 papers. Today the number has jumped to 140. On Jan. 14, Groening's animated cartoon, The Simpsons, which appears in 15-to 20-second vignettes on The Tracey Ullman Show, will get its own 30-minute slot on the Fox lineup. Groening fans will get a preview of the series on Sunday, Dec. 17, when Fox airs The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.

"Lovable—in a mutant sort of way" is how Groening describes The Simpsons, a family of bickering creatures with bulging eyes and overbites. Together they represent "the normal American family in all its beauty and all its horror," says the series' executive producer, James L. Brooks, who first hooked up with Groening when he was looking for a cartoonist for The Tracey Ullman Show. "I had this great Life in Hell cartoon on my wall," he says, "so I thought of Matt."

Although Groening, who grew up in Portland, Ore., is close to his family, he was evidently thinking of them when he created The Simpsons. The father is named after his own father, Homer, a cartoonist and filmmaker. Sisters Lisa and Maggie are also featured under their own names, as is Groening's mother, Margaret. The only divergence from this pattern is the character Bart (an anagram for "brat"), the constantly rebelling son.

Groening began doodling cartoon figures in grade school, where his sketches greased his way to the principal's office on a regular basis. After high school, where he was elected student-body president and—he claims—attempted to rewrite the constitution to give himself absolute power, Groening attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., an institution of higher learning chosen for its no-grades, no-exams policy. He headed to Los Angeles upon graduation, eventually landing a job at the Los Angeles Reader, an alternative weekly, where Life in Hell debuted in 1980.

That same year, his wife-to-be, Deborah Caplan, joined the paper's advertising department and quickly developed an appreciation. "It didn't take many sales calls before I realized that Groening's comic strip was the major drawing card of the newspaper," says Caplan, who seized the opportunity to promote Life in Hell. By 1984, when the couple married, they had quit their jobs with the paper and were busy selling Life in Hell—the comic strip, the T-shirt and the coffee mug.

The two now live with their 8-month-old son, Homer, in a two-bedroom home on a canal in Venice, Calif., a move Groening was reluctant to make—he thought a mortgage was "too bourgeois," says the practical Deborah—until it was pointed out to him that he could canoe from his front door.

Not that he has much time for paddling, with Life in Hell, The Simpsons and a few disgruntled critics occupying his time. Annoyed by Life in Hell, occasional religious fanatics complain about Groening's casual use of the H-word and are hell-or heck-bent on a change. These people, says Groening, "see the word hell, and sirens go off in their brains." He enjoins such folk to look at the bigger picture, one beyond brimstone. "Real life," he insists, "is much worse."

—Joanne Kaufman, Cindy Yorks in Venice

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