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Matt Groening, Grabbing for Laughs in the Darkness

The cartoonist Matt Groening likes to say he always knew how he'd spend his career.

"I was a hopeless cartoonist who couldn't quite draw well enough," he says. "But I knew I was doomed — that I was going to be drawing the rest of my life, no matter what I was doing to pay the rent."

Groening may have known he would always draw, but he couldn't have realized that he would pay so much rent with his most famous characters — The Simpsons. The members of that dysfunctional family have been on television since the 1980s, and they appear this weekend in a movie that plays like a long episode of the TV show — crude, fast-moving and topical.

It's entirely within normal Simpsons behavior that Homer, the family patriarch, pollutes the local lake with pig manure, causes an environmental catastrophe, and finds a lynch mob at his door. And somewhere in the absurdity is a long-running commentary on American family life.

If you look at the American family of Homer Simpson's creator, you discover this:

Matt Groening's father was named Homer.

The cartoonist named his own son Homer.

And though he says the Simpsons are not directly modeled on real people, maybe those common names begin to offer an answer to this question: "How do you stay interested in a balding, overweight father with a crayon stuck up his nose who wants the number for 911?"

It's no secret that early on, Groening drew inspiration from his childhood. But he has also learned a thing or two from his own kids.

"The conundrum that I face on a daily basis is that I have two sons who've grown up watching The Simpsons, so they know exactly what buttons to push," Groening says. "They know how Bart irritates Homer, and they use these lines against me."

And the blows can be pretty low. Groening's younger son, Abe, likes to tell him that The Simpsons is over, the cartoonist says — that Family Guy is the hot show now.

"This is how he puts it," Groening says, channeling Abe's voice: "'I wish Seth McFarlane was my dad.'"

The Simpsons certainly isn't put off by lowbrow humor — witness that pond full of pig poop — but "there are certain kinds of jokes that we don't do on the show," Groening says. "We could, but they're easy."

Which is why, for example, The Simpsons has fun with Ned Flanders, but not because of his religious beliefs.

"The idea of making fun of the uptight Christian neighbor would be too easy," Groening says.

Like the similarly iconic Peanuts comic, Groening believes, The Simpsons keeps audiences interested because while it's simple on the surface, it often grapples with genuinely complicated issues.

"I think people really, really resonate to the idea of darker emotions in something that is considered a very light medium," Groening says. "I'm not comparing The Simpsons to Peanuts in any other way, except to say that we are also very simply drawn, and we deal with darker emotions.

"With Charlie Brown it was about loneliness and isolation. ... Half the strip was about who wasn't there. The parents were never in the picture. The Simpsons is about alienation, and the ambivalence of living with a family who you love, but who drive you completely crazy."

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.