There's a little bit of Matt Groening in Bart Simpson. The man who created the diminutive provocateur for "The Simpsons" says he grew up watching too much television and fantasized what he would do if he got his own TV show.
"Well this is what I would have done, and I did it," he says, adding wryly, "At an early age I was most strongly affected by 'Leave It to Beaver' and 'Ozzie and Harriet.' ['The Simpsons'] is my skewed reaction to those shows."
Mr. Groening's baby is the longest-running prime-time animated series in television history. It has won a Peabody Award, 12 Emmys, and a shelf-load of assorted others. About to hatch its 200th episode, "Trash of the Titans" (Fox, April 26, 8-8:30 p.m.), the "plausible impossible" family long ago achieved pop-icon status.
In the best tradition of TV families, the Simpsons love one another, no matter what. The show has all the elements of its live-action family-oriented prototypes, with a twist: an involved community; assorted villains; a sweet, annoying next-door neighbor; and the family itself - a goofy dad whose frailties get him into trouble; a loving, sensible mom who usually gets him out again; two adorable little girls; and one 10-year-old trickster.
Bart is Dennis the Menace with self-awareness - a kid so abused by the public school system that when he was labeled a failure in kindergarten, he found his self-esteem as the class stand-up comic. But Bart's pranks can be obnoxious, and he has worried many parents and teachers who fret publicly about his bad influence - his cheeky back talk, his enthusiastic naughtiness, and his inattention at school. He's no role model.
"Bart isn't a good example," agrees Groening. "He isn't a good role model. But I used to get letters saying, 'Homer isn't wearing a seat belt; he's a bad example.' But you can laugh at him because you don't want to be like him."
The nature of Bart's abrasive commentary is satirical. And the nature of the best satire is, of course, to poke fun at human foibles. When it's good, satire makes you think, and "The Simpsons" skewers everything from nuclear waste to alien abductions, the movies, TV, and official hypocrisy.
"For me, it's hard to approach satire directly. I don't think we sit down and say, 'How do we satirize this subject?' We are trying to make a solid half-hour of entertainment - cram as many jokes in there as we can. But everybody [on the writing staff], Republicans and Democrats, has a strong point of view. And we share a vision that our leaders aren't always telling us the truth, that our institutions sometimes fail us, and that people in media don't necessarily have any corner on wisdom - because we're in media ourselves and we know what idiots we are," he laughs.
"So we just have fun with it." Satire, says Groening, is about "not taking ourselves too seriously. Solemnity is always used by authority to stop critical thinking. 'You can't make a joke about that' is a way of shutting people up. It's a cartoon: [Making jokes] is what we're supposed to do."
Mining his own experience, Groening based his characters on people he knew and named many of them after people he loves. "Homer is not like my father, also named Homer, except that my father did get mad sometimes. But he wasn't stupid, fat, or bald.... My father was a cartoonist and filmmaker, so he's not like Homer....
"There is a little bit of my mother in Marge. My mom is long-suffering like Marge, and she did have tall hair when I was a kid. She always denied it, but we have photos. My sisters, Lisa and Maggie, aren't really like Lisa and Maggie [in the show] - although Lisa claims she always was the unrecognized talent, and [she thinks] it's great the way I captured that."
But, he emphasizes, the characters aren't designed to inflict vengeance on people in real life. "Over the course of the show, some of them have taken on doltish characteristics, and now I'm afraid to call up some of these people," he laughs.
"Overall," says Groening, "I've always said it is a celebration of the American family at its wildest."