From 'Simpsons' to sci-fi
One of the great pleasures of life is working with people who love what they do and are delighted to be doing it," says animation master Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons." Speaking of his relationship with the show's other writers, he says he can hardly wait to see what they come up with every week. Now with his new show, "Futurama," about to premire (Sunday, 9 p.m., Fox), it's crystal clear how much he loves what he does. "In a sense 'Futurama' has been in the works since I was a kid," Mr. Groening said in a phone interview. "I've always been a science-fiction fan. Now I have the opportunity to make a second cartoon show happen."
The story takes place 1,000 years from now in a dizzying future where machines don't always work the way they are supposed to. It's about Fry, a pizza delivery boy who inadvertently enters a cryogenics machine and wakes up in a brave new world.
"At its most simple, it is just another form for telling stories," Groening says. "But the older I get, the less I'm interested in the fantastic elements of storytelling and the more I'm interested in feelings - and feelings divided against themselves.
"But don't tell that to a TV executive," he says with a laugh. "A possible source of inspiration is to look out there and see what's not there.... Virtually all science fiction - even the wonderful liberal optimism of "Star Trek" - posits a world without nature. It depicts a world in which people live in artificial environments and the best political system is a benign military hierarchy. Now, it's all in defense of a democracy - but one that is far away."
That, he says, is the template almost all TV science fiction uses - and it is certainly the template of the two main science-fiction mythologies of our time, "Star Trek" and "Star Wars." "I think a closer-to-home way of looking at the world is about commercialism's influence," says Groening, "partly because I'm in Hollywood, and Hollywood is all about short attention spans and selling people products and keeping people envious and wanting the next thing. I think that's interesting, and I want to comment on it - and I can in science fiction."
Another reason for a sci-fi comedy is that Groening has always loved the artwork of sci-fi magazines and books. "Futurama" gave him the opportunity to explore the genre's look, while parodying it at the same time.
"In the same way that 'The Simpsons,' for all its dark satire, is a celebration of the family, "Futurama" is a celebration of the future," he says. "Usually when people imagine the future, they imagine a bland utopia like Disneyland or 'The Jetsons,' or they imagine a dark, drippy dystopia like 'Blade Runner.' But I like to picture the future pretty much like it is now ... a mixture of the wonderful and the horrible."
Even when science fiction claims to be about the future, he says, it's about the present - metaphorically or symbolically about what's happening right now. "But one of the great things science fiction can do is point to problems of the day that we can't face directly," he says.
As a writer, Groening finds animation enticing because it offers a control impossible in any other medium. "You are making characters move around and exist and behave as if they have free will - and they don't. They are lines on paper. You are also designing the backgrounds and props. There are no boundaries.... If you can think of it and draw it, you can do it. It doesn't take a huge budget to make two planets crash.... With animation, you can show the TV shows the characters watch, their dreams, their fantasies. If you want to make up a story where they fly off to Planet X, you can do that."
Speaking of humor, he says, "To me the best humor comes from having a very strong point of view. As long as there is clarity to it, I can laugh at people I completely disagree with if I understand and can see the world through their eyes. But the kind of humor I find most discouraging is the humor the underlying message of which is you're a fool for caring. That is the message most television comedy ultimately stands for."
Satire sometimes beckons him into the gloomier areas of human folly. But Groening keeps an even keel. And he never lets his work get too pessimistic. "There is still the delight in our own exuberance - the actors and writers - that undermines any negative message," he says.