Your new show, “Futurama,” is now on line to air on Fox in March. Tell me about it.
I hope it’s not going to be just another spiffy TV show, although it will be that. It’s basically a spiffy, epic future history that’s going to honor and satirize the conventions of science fiction in the guise of a little prime-time cartoon show.
From the World’s Fair of 1939 to the cyberpunk visions of the ’80s and ’90s, science-fiction images of the future usually tell us more about the time they were created in then the time they ostensibly represent. What does “Futurama” tell us about 1999?
Traditionally, you have either the overly optimistic world’s fair/chamber of commerce/”The Jetsons” point of view or you have dark, drippy, cyberpunk, creepy future á la Blade Runner or Brazil or The Fifth Element. I’m trying to offer an alternative that’s more like the way things are right now, which is a mix of the wonderful and horrible. Basically, everything I try to do is to present an alternative to what somebody else is doing. If some of the other stuff didn’t exist, I’d do stuff more like what they are doing. I’m reacting in part to the liberal optimism of “Star Trek” and Star Wars, which seem to be the dominant science-fiction fantasies of our time
In what ways does “Futurama” work against that vision?
Let me think… I mean, again, it’s like right now: There’s going to be some pretty great entertainment and a lot of very compelling advertising in the future and in “Futurama.” But the No. 1 TV show will be “The Mass Hypnosis Hour.” It’s just like right now, but with a few more death rays, annoying robots, and hideous mutants. So, it’s actually pretty much like right now.
I don’t know if we have room for any more hideous mutants. So, is “The Mass Hypnosis Hour” on Fox?
Oh yeah. Of course.
How long have you been working on the idea for “Futurama”?
I’ve loved science fiction ever since I was a little kid, mainly from looking at the covers of science-fiction magazines and books, and I’ve read quite extensively as an adult. About three or four years ago, I decided to reacquaint myself with literary science-fiction and I went back and read everything from H.G. Wells to the new guys, Neil Stephenson and Rudy Rucker and those guys, and what I was surprised to find was that I’d read so much of it. I’d be reading a novel and think, “Wait a minute, I read this in fourth grade,” but I didn’t remember cause I’d plowed through so much. But a lot of my old favorites I thought really held up, I liked [Robert] Heinlein and [Philip K.] Dick and Cordwainer Smith and Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Sheckley — the funny guys, the guys who have a sense of humor.
Fifties science fiction especially, in magazines like Galaxy and the writings of Fred Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth and Sheckley, were way ahead of the curve in mocking the depradations of advertising and what it might mean for the future.
The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth is one of my favorites. You are so used to having to put on mental filters as you walk through life because we are bombarded with advertising everywhere these days. Notice there’s ad stickers on bananas and in grocery stores; those little bars you use to divide groceries on the conveyor belt, there’s ads for movies on those. I would say if you see an ad for a movie on a grocery-store bar, you can be pretty sure it’s not a good movie.
Is the dominance of advertising in our culture just something absurd to mock, or something to get indignant or angry over?
I guess my take on it is to laugh at it. Is it worth getting angry over a war that’s been lost? I don’t know. All I try to do is provide another way of looking at stuff. To me, rather than being overwhelmed by it or retreating to cabin in the woods and subscribing to Mother Jones and the New Yorker, I figure, Well, I’m going to be immersed in this, but try to deal with it, at the same time, dealing with all these external things we’re being bombarded with. As I get older, I’m less interested in fantasy stuff, though this show is heavily into fantasy; I’m more and more interested in how to handle being aware of your own impending death, how to act with meaning in life — how do you handle your own freedom? — trying to see if I can get some of the ideas which keep me lying awake at night into an entertaining TV show full of way too many commercials.
You did a recent sequence in your comic strip “Life in Hell” mocking some of the horrors of doing business in Hollywood. Were those inspired by your experience getting “Futurama” on the air?
Yes. It has been by far the worst experience of my grown-up life. Just as far as business, and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised because this is how everyone is treated. But I thought I would have a little bit more leeway since I made Fox so much money with “The Simpsons.”
Describe the process of getting from the idea for a TV show to getting it on the air.
I spent way too much time — a few years — researching science fiction and making long lists of things I wanted to do and characters and ideas that I wanted to explore. After I assembled a few hundred pages of ideas, I got together with David Cohen, one of the writers and executive producers on “The Simpsons,” who is also a lover of science fiction and has a great knowledge of science and mathematics. He was excited and he had a lot to do with the thrust of the show and the direction, so he and I developed this thing together, and took it to Fox. They’d been begging me for years for another show, and in the meeting — which lasted about three hours because we had so much to talk about, we just knew the show inside and out — they jumped up and down and ordered 13 episodes on the spot. And then, that’s when the honeymoon was over, after that. The second they ordered it, they completely freaked out and were afraid the show was too dark and mean-spirited, and thought they had made a huge mistake and that the only way they could address their anxieties was to try to make me as crazy as possible with their frustrations.
They made lots of demands about changing things?
They tried to. I resisted every step of the way. In one respect, I will take full blame for the show if it tanks, because I resisted every single bit of interference.
So you got the show you wanted?
Yes. I just had to spend way, way too much time in pointless battles with the network.
Is Hollywood really a cesspool?
You can’t believe what babies people are. It’s really like being in junior high school. [With] the bullies, and every step of the way, any time I’ve been gracious, that has been — it’s seen as a sign of weakness. And every time I’ve yelled back, I’ve been treated with respect. That’s just not very good psychology. The other thing is, it’s just astonishing to have this lesson repeated over and over again: You can’t expect people to behave in their own best interest. It’s in Fox’s best interest for this show to be a success, but they’d rather mess with the show and have them fail, than allow creators independence and let them succeed. “The Simpsons” obviously is a huge success and Fox has nothing to do with its success, with its creative success, and as a result they don’t really like the show. They don’t like “The Simpsons” at Fox.
How does this manifest itself?
A complete lack of support for any of the extraneous aspects of show business. I mean, it’s no big deal, but an utter lack of enthusiasm for the show when we are nominated for Emmys, or when we win — and it’s amusing. It’s not everybody at Fox; I’m treating Fox as a monolithic entity and obviously there are some very nice people there. There are some, you know, people whose — well, anyway…
No, please go on. Is it a situation where there are lines of executives whose purpose in the company is to just prevent things from happening?
Well, I’m pretty well beyond that, but there are in Hollywood, film, and TV, whole battalions of junior execs whose job seems to be saying, “Hmmm…no.”
In the context of your programs, you are both creator and executive. As an excutive, what’s the most important thing an artist needs to know about dealing with executives?
Hmm…I don’t know how to answer that question.
Approaching it in a more general way, is there a mental split between your approaches as artist and as executive?
Yeah, every meeting that I’m at to do budgeting and schedule means I can’t be at a meeting talking about the creative content of the show. So that’s no fun. Even on the creative level, it’s hard working with huge, huge groups of people, when creativity becomes a matter of giving notes to other people rather than doing actual drawing and writing myself — that’s not as much fun. It’s part of the job, but I enjoy it a lot more when I actually have hands-on time.
“The Simpsons” have been on now for 10 years, right?
It depends on how you look at it. It has been on since ’87 on the “Tracy Ullman Show,” since ’89 as its own series.
To what extent is “The Simpsons” still an expression of your own creative impulses? How much do you still have to do with it?
I have less to do with “The Simpsons” every season, but I stick my nose in here and there. Basically, it’s just trying to keep the characters consistent and making sure the show has a soul. But I’m really happy with the way the show has gone and Mike Scully, the show runner now, the executive producer has a fantastic team of writers, a few have been around for years and just write some of the best stuff I’ve ever read. This guy George Mayer and another guy John Schwartzwelder have written more than 40 episodes of “The Simpsons.” It’s astonishing what they’ve done.
In “Futurama,” I understand one of the gags is that “The Simpsons” are still on the air.
“The Simpsons” are still on the air, and in one episode our characters go to a garbage ball that was ejected out of Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit several hundred years ago, and they land on it and find lots of old “Simpsons” merchandise.
“Futurama” has a hero from our own time…
It’s a guy named Fry who is a pizza-delivery boy in 1999. His life’s going nowhere, his girlfriend has just broken up with him and he doesn’t realize it, he inadvertently gets frozen in a cryogenic slab on New Years’ Eve 1999 and wakes up a thousand years later. He gets involved with a bunch of misfits who work for a delivery service, delivering packages throughout the universe. I was trying to get away from the idea that everything — most science fiction these days is all military. The future it posits is, “If you just had a benevolent captain, and you follow orders, those spandex uniforms will be just fine.” [Laughs.]
Does “Futurama” delve into the political realities of 2999?
There is an interplanetary democracy called the Democratic Order Of Planets, or DOOP. And there’s a rampaging alien race that wants to take us over commercially. It’s not quite the same. There are aliens that want to invade and destroy us, there’s a lot of competitors out there in space and many alien races. One of our characters is Dr. Zoidberg, who is a lobster/mollusk hybrid in humanoid form. He has big lobster-claws and octopus-like tendrils on his face. And he’s red.
Does “Futurama” have the traditional Groening look?
I think any fan of “The Simpsons” is going to recognize the overbites. Even the spaceship has an overbite.
Do you already have multiple episodes done?
We have them all in the works, all being animated right now. We’re going for a slightly more sophisticated look than “The Simpsons,” and the animators have really been ambitious. It’s a studio called Rough Draft, owned and run by former “Simpsons” animators. This is their first series.
Why have a 20th-century protagonist?
It didn’t matter. It’s just a device. As a storytelling device, it’s a way of being able to explain anything we need to explain. As we quickly got into it, we realized that explanations slowed things way down so we pretty much dispensed with that. Now we’re just plowing through.
Most satire has political or social roots, coming from some kind of indignation. What is the source of your brand of satire?
I grew up completely overwhelmed by TV, and part of the reason why I have gone into television is as a way to justify to myself all those wasted hours of watching TV as a kid. I can now look back and say, Oh, that was research. Look, for me, it’s not enough to be aware that most of television is bad and stupid and pernicious. I think, “What can I do about it?” Is it the nature of the medium, the structure of networks these days, or some failure by TV’s creators that keeps television so lousy? For me, I feel a little bit like a fish trying to analyze its own aquarium water, but what I want to do is point out the way TV is unconsciously structured in a way to keep us all distracted. I may be biting off more than I can chew, but with “The Simpsons” and with “Futurama,” what I’m trying to do in the guise of light entertainment, if this is possible — is nudge people, jostle them a little, wake them up to some of the ways in which we’re being manipulated and exploited. And in my amusing little way I try to hit on some of the unspoken rules of our culture, and by setting the show in the future, maybe we can get away with pretending the comments on the injustices and contradictions of our times are just the fantasy elements of a place far away. Anyway, that’s the dream.
You began your cartooning career with the still-running alternative-weekly cartoon “Life in Hell.” Did you start in a marginal field because you wanted to be there, or did you always aspire to becoming a media magnate?
There was nobody who put their hands on my shoulder and said, “Boy, you got what it takes.” I felt very discouraged from the time I was a kid to the time I became successful. There’s nobody out there that was really encouraging except for a few of my friends. It really wasn’t until I got to college and hooked up with Lynda Barry that I realized that, first of all — let me amend that — I thought I was going to make crazy cartoons for the rest of my life. I didn’t think I’d ever get paid for it, didn’t think I drew well enough, but I knew it made me happy. It felt like I was going to be playing for the rest of my life, I was going to be goofing off. Now I was able to turn it into a career that sustained me, but I didn’t know. But when I met Lynda Barry, she, by work she was doing, showed me that you could do anything, that you could really play with convention and with structure, and at the time I was very much influenced by underground comics, by Robert Crumb and all those guys, and what Lynda did I thought was more personal and funnier and not quite as — it didn’t fight the same battles the underground cartoonists were fighting, and she was probably my biggest inspiration.
Are you still living in hell? Why do you keep up with the weekly strip with all your other tasks?
I love doing “Life in Hell” every week because it’s just me. Just me by myself and that’s fun — to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and see if I can write about another one of my anxieties. And I love doing the collaborative work as well. “Futurama,” let me stress this, is a collaborative effort. It is not my show; it’s very much a shared vision with David Cohen and the animators and actors and writers on the show. To really get the full take on “Futurama,” other than watching it, is to talk to David and the animators and all the writers, because this thing is big.
Who are some of the voice actors on “Futurama”?
Katey Sagal, who was Peg Bundy of “Married With Children,” plays Leela; she’s our kick-ass heroine, who is the sexiest woman in the universe despite having a single Cyclops eye. All these science-fiction stories have the hot babe, and I wanted to do that except drive the horny boys crazy by giving her one eye. And Billy West, who had been the voice of Ren and Stimpy — he started just being the voice of Stimpy, along with lots and lots of other cartoon characters — he’s the voice of Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and lots of other characters. Then a guy named John Dimaggio is the voice of Bender the Robot. Bender is Fry’s sidekick and is probably the most corrupt robot in contemporary science- fiction. He drinks, smokes, gambles, shoplifts. He’s our bad example. And what’s great about it is parents can’t say, “This robot is a bad role-model.” ‘Cause he’s a robot! [Laughs.]
There’s been a good deal of shakeups and consolidation in the alternative- weekly field in the past few years, including at the Village Voice. How has this affected you?
The Village Voice fired me. Along with Jules Feiffer and Linda Barry and Stan Mack and virtually everyone else who worked for the paper for the last 20 years. The weekly papers are getting more and more like daily papers every year, they’re getting more touchy about space. In particular, they always want to shrink the cartoons, which I find dumbfounding I think of the cartoons in the papers as being… they help make the columns of type more tolerable to look at and just easier to read. Daily comics are printed so small these days that you can hardly look at them. There’s a few papers which print comics at a size that’s readable — Chicago Reader‘s really good — but most of the other papers don’t give the comics the respect they deserve. That’s partly, I think, because you can’t edit a comic, can’t edit hand-lettering. There’s a sneaking suspicion on the part of editors that cartoonists are getting away with murder. But I still like doing it. That’s one of the great things about doing a weekly strip — no one sees it until it hits print. They either print it or they don’t.
Have you ever tried to move the strip beyond the alternative-weekly ghetto?
I’ve been printed by a few daily papers, but I feel like if I pursued that, it would start dictating the content of the strips. As a result of being in just a few daily papers, I’m quite aware that if I use certain words, they’re not going to print the strip. So basically, profanity, which I used to use when appropriate, I excised from the strip, but nothing else. I try not to let it influence the content of what I do in any other way.
“Life in Hell” began as an exploration of your anxieties in the form of bunny characters. Do you find you still have enough anxieties to keep the strip lively?
I every so often do a political strip. And about relationships, you know human fears don’t go away just because my biggest problem is the barnacles on my yacht. [Laughs.] No, I don’t have a yacht — but if I did, that would be my biggest problem.
Some struggling artists like to imagine that the top is just its own brand of problems. Is it better at the top?
I always wondered what it would be like when I was living in my crummy cockroach-ridden apartment in Hollywood: Do people who don’t have cockroaches and can afford their rent, are they happier? I wake up every morning thinking how lucky I am. It’s much, much better. I highly recommend it. Highly recommend making enough money to be able to pay your rent every month. It’s just the best.
Would you characterize your political beliefs as roughly progressive?
Yeah. But you know, I look back on political strips, when I’m really hot under the collar about some subject, and I look back on the old ones and I generally don’t like those strips very much. I agree with them, because I wrote them, but it doesn’t seem to be my strongest work. There’s other people who do political work that’s so much better than mine that I just don’t think I’m very good at overt stuff.
Who is good at political stuff?
I love Ted Rall. He makes me laugh every time. He’s my favorite.
How about Tom Tomorrow?
I like Tom Tomorrow too. There’s a guy who is hot under the collar. [Laughs.] He amuses me. I think he creates a lot of…he draws a lot of lines in the sand. For instance, he has a problem with “Dilbert” and I think “Dilbert” is great. “Dilbert”‘s Dilbert. Scott Adams is not going to call for revolution the way Tom Tomorrow does.
What other alternative cartoonists do you like?
Lynda Barry, Heather McAdams, Bill Griffith’s “Zippy” still amuses me. I love Lloyd Dangle, Michael Dougan’s great, I know him from way back, know Carol Lay from way back. Who else? “Troubletown” by Lloyd Dangle is terrific. I like the drawing too.
You and your work on “The Simpsons” could be seen as largely responsible for creating another power base for Rupert Murdoch by making the Fox TV network thrive. How do you feel about that? How’s Rupert as a boss?
He’s always been very congenial when I talk to him. I think his politics are a little more complicated — I think he likes power. If lefties were in power, he’d be schmoozing with them. I saw him having lunch with Dan Quayle in the commissary a few years ago. That made my jaw drop.
Does his being perhaps a mere power-lusting opportunist rather than a right- wing ideologue make him better or worse?
What’s the alternative? You tell me where else I could go and still reach the audience. I’ve always tried to not worry about the behind-the-scenes stuff. If you look at the way every one of these alternative newsweeklies are run, there’s generally some horrible office politics going on; people feel terrible, everybody hates the managing editor, who in turn hates the operations manager. There’s all this bitter recriminations. I always try to keep in mind, from the time when I was working at the L.A. Reader till now, is that my most important relationship is with the audience. So if there were a wonderful, angelic studio to go work for, I’d be happy to, but it just doesn’t exist. That’s one of the frustrating things about Hollywood — you can’t go, “Fuck you, I’m going to the good guys.”
Have other networks tried to lure you away from Fox?
Some of the smaller ones, but I think “The Simpsons” is too weird for any of the big three networks. I just can’t imagine it airing on any other network than Fox.
But have they tried?
No. I’ve been approached from time to time, but I know it’s not going to go anywhere, because people who have worked on “The Simpsons” went on to work for other places, and they tell me that those networks would never put “The Simpsons” on the air, and I believe them.
So you think even trying with other networks would just waste your time?
I only have so much time.
Are you a big fan of the general run of Fox programing — the extreme stuff, the cop stuff?
I watch those sometimes. I don’t watch them when they are on, I watch tapes in the office. You know, that’s a little fad that’s going to run its course. I don’t like the giant tumors. [Laughs.] I like those police-chase ones; those are funny. Part of what I like that TV does is [that] it’s so desperate to hold your attention — I think it’s funny the lengths people will go to. One of my favorite shows is a Japanese show called “Iron Chef.” I love that show. It’s great. Julia Child meets “American Gladiators.”
Do you think your effectiveness as an outside critic is vitiated by the enormously wealthy cultural monolith “The Simpsons” has become?
One of the things I like that “The Simpsons” does is that we sneak in these — let me amend that. “The Simpsons” message over and over again is that your moral authorities don’t always have your best interests in mind. Teachers, principals, clergymen, politicians — for the Simpsons, they’re all goofballs, and I think that’s a great message for kids. [Laughs.] I don’t understand why William Bennett has such a problem with us.
What I think is funny about the antagonism that “The Simpsons” seems to inspire in some critics is that the storytelling is good, and to me that’s what’s good for kids, not moral exhortations to straighten your posture. But you know that there are all these little unspoken rules on TV: Characters can’t smoke; everyone has to wear their seatbelt; drinking is frowned upon. And on “The Simpsons,” of course, our characters drink and smoke, don’t wear seatbelts, and litter. On the other hand, right-wingers complain there’s no God and religion on TV. Not only do the Simpsons go to church every Sunday and pray, they actually speak to God from time to time. We show him, and God has five fingers. Unlike the Simpsons, who only have four.
You get away with all this because it’s just drawings.
Yes. Of course. We always hide behind “It’s just a cartoon!” We have a show coming up this season where the Simpsons fall asleep one after the other in church and dream various Bible stories, including Homer and Marge as Adam and Eve, Bart as David with David and Goliath. We’ve got a Moses story. It’s great, it’s our Prince of Egypt. Mike Scully, the executive producer, says we’re just not getting enough letters these days.
Cartoons and comics have always been considered disreputable in our culture. Do you think your success has helped change that at all?
Cartoons are always going to be treated as not part of the mainstream. They will always be a sideshow, partially because it’s been so associated with kiddy entertainment for so many years. If you read histories of cinema, they leave out animated films. I always think it’s a mistake for cartoonists to demand cartoons be treated as art. Cartoons are cartoons. I don’t care if you call them art, literature — they’re cartoons. They’re the most fun thing out there. So what if you don’t get respect?
The Fox Network went public recently, leaving “The Simpsons” somewhat at the whim of the market. Is that something that concerns you?
No, that means really nothing.
Did you buy a lot of stock?
Some guy called me up offering me stock at a discount because I’m an employee of Fox, but he had nothing to do with Fox. He was just trying to scam me. [Laughs.] “Really, a discount, huh?” It was very funny.
I’ve seen you in Los Angeles on occasion at zine festivals. What attracts you to that scene?
I love the zine thing. Again, because it’s personal. The writing hasn’t gone through the deflavorizer. For good or ill, it’s personal, direct expressions of what’s on these people’s minds. I wanted to start a magazine that did nothing but chronicle writers’s enthusiasms. I don’t care what the subject is, just as long as the writer is totally obsessed by the subject. I think that makes for really exciting stuff, and that’s best stuff about zines. I like that in music as well. In all forms of self-expression, when you get somebody really passionately devoted to the stuff, even if they’re lunatics, it’s interesting. I like a lot of underground stuff, though there’s no innate superiority in just being ornery. But there’s a lot of fun in it.
Have you ever thought of using some of your extra money to fund some of these noncommercial propositions? Why don’t you put out that magazine?
Listen, I knock myself out, and have knocked myself out for years and years and years, as a commercial artist, and people come to me all the time with proposals for money-losing endeavors, and I say, I like endeavors that don’t have to make money, but don’t come to me with the intention of losing money. I like the idea of trying to be successful on some level, at least reaching an audience enough so that you can sustain it and keep on going. I’ve printed my share of money-losing underground comic books, and I’m sure I’ll do more stuff like that in the future, but it’s one thing to be pure and noble in your pursuit of your art and another thing to be willfully unsuccessful. Which is what a lot of that stuff seems to me.
You’ve always tried to sell your art.
To me that’s part of the fun. That’s part of it. I like getting my stuff out there. I don’t think everybody should operate the way I do, but that’s my idea of a good time.
You have somewhat elitist, obscure cultural tastes, but your sensibilities, when broadcast on a TV network, appealed to lots of people. Do you think people will like whatever they are exposed to enough, or are there styles of expression that are inherently too sophisticated or obscure for mass taste?
I think it’s complicated. A lot of people take comfort in going with the top 10, the best-sellers, the number-one-grossing movie. The fact that people are interested in that stuff, that people are interested in movie grosses, I’m amazed that they care. But to me, I like stuff no matter how few people like it. I actually find there are times when rock groups get so popular, they’re only playing in basketball stadiums and I just don’t — it’s too big for me, it sounds crappy, too many kids. I would rather see something that only a few people in a small club are aware of.
I think people put up with a lot of lousy entertainment because they look around and say, look, everybody else made the same choice. Nothing is harder than getting a comic strip off the ground, just sending it out and getting it into papers. These struggling cartoonists ask me how to get going. I say you have to get momentum, and it’s very hard to get momentum. The way you get a comic strip picked up is you get the comic strip in a bunch of other newspapers, so editors can look at those newspapers and say, if I pick it, I’m making a safe choice, because other people like it as well. And they like that.
Is that attitude prevalent among cultural gatekeepers: an unwillingness to stick your neck out?
Everybody wants to go with the safe thing. Fox wants “Futurama” to be just like “The Simpsons.” And they are freaked out that is not like “The Simpsons.” And I say, it’s exactly like “The Simpsons”: It’s new and original. “But it’s not like ‘The Simpsons’!!!”
Will “Futurama” have the same density of characters and situations as “The Simpsons”?
Yes. The idea is that we reward the viewer for paying attention, and the shows will definitely hold up in repeated viewing, because there’s no way you can get all the jokes and references and little hidden gags the first time around. We thought this through so meticulously, we’ve created not one, but two alien languages, which will be untranslated signs in the show. One will be relatively easy to decipher, if you care about that stuff; the other one, we think, will be a little harder. That’s for the fans. It’s pretty straightforward code-type stuff. With the Internet, we expect it to be solved pretty quickly. That’s one of the fun things about working right now is there’s so much instant reaction to everything you do.
Do you pay attention to Internet chatter about your work?
I peruse it. I wouldn’t say “pay attention” because I don’t take it seriously. You can find an opinion out there to agree with anything you want. But yeah, I look at it from time to time. I do what they call “ego surfing,” where you look up your name. I find out everything is so wrongheaded. That’s one of the interesting things about the Internet is it’s just such a mishmash of brilliance and total wrongheadedness. Is that kind of cultural surfeit all for the good? Do you sometimes find that you just can’t keep up, that things get lost in the shuffle?
I don’t know the answer. I like that people feel encouraged to go out and do it themselves. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t know. If you were just starting out and trying to get attention, it would be kind-of hard. On the other hand, god, if I were a teenager, I’d be doing my own Web site. You don’t have to pay for printing! That’s the best! I used to work in a Xerox place in order to be able to afford doing my own comic books. I used to self-publish my own comics, staple comics by stapling them into the carpet on the floor, and bending back the staples with my fingernails.
I’ve been in that situation with my zine. I’d use a flashlight to bend back the staples.
Finally, I invested for $35 bucks for a big saddlestitch stapler — big, big investment, man — so I wouldn’t have to do that anymore, because I ripped up my fingernails. Wow, a flashlight, that’s a good technique. I wanted it to look like a real magazine with that real center staple.
Now that whole construct will disappear; a younger generation won’t have any hang-ups about “looking like a real magazine.”
Though it’s nice to have something to hold in your hands.
That might just be a Luddite tendency, that desire to think that the way things were when you were 15 to 25 is the way they ought to be. I feel the same way about physical magazines, and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of what’s valuable on the Web.
Right, I am sure there’s a lot more on the Web. On the other hand, the only way I buy zines, it’s hard, I think I have sent away for zines maybe two or three times in my life. I mostly go to zine stores or little zine conventions and pick up a whole stack of them, just because I’m too lazy to do the mailing. When I buy “Factsheet Five” every issue, I circle every zine that sounds good, then never order them.
What was your stance on the recent “Simpsons” voice-actors’s negotiations, where they threatend to strike?
I have sympathy. They are incredibly talented, and they deserve a chance to be as rich and miserable as anyone else in Hollywood. It looked for a while there like we might not have a show, because everyone was holding firm on all sides. That’s still my attitude: Hold out for as much money as you can get, but do make the deal. We’re talking now about doing a “Simpsons” movie; if deals can be made, then maybe we’ll do a movie. I’ve got a few ideas for what to do. I said, see if you can make the deals first, then I’ll bother to pursue it. I don’t know if we’ll tie it into the show. We might tie it in to the end of the series. Every year, I think we’ve got two more years, then we win another Emmy, and I think we’ve got another year to coast before they cancel us.
For Emmy purposes, are you treated like other sitcoms?
We’re in animated-show category. We were eligible for best sitcom for a few years and then we never got nominated, so I think the people on the show who care about the Emmys said, “Let’s go back to animated-show category.”
Are your writers in competition with other sitcom writers for writing nominations?
I’m not sure. I honestly don’t pay close enough attention to know. It’s a cartoon. It doesn’t matter. I just like that we reach kids who can’t read yet. To me, that’s so much fun. We reach college kids, and kids who can’t even read.
Who, in some cases, might be the same kids.
Well, but then they won’t get all the jokes. That’s one great thing about the “The Simpsons” — if you have read a few books, you’ll get more of the jokes.
You were embroiled a couple of years back in a controversy in the zine community over a zine called Bunnyhop that featured an unauthorized image of your Binky the Rabbit on the cover; they were forced by your legal people to destroy the covers of all remaining copies.
It’s a little bit more complicated. I hate — I read Bunnyhop before they used my character on the cover, and I have a great deal of sympathy for the zine community and the First Amendment and I’m member of the ACLU and all that. However, they used my character Binky on the cover and it looked like I had done it. I hadn’t. It was Binky the Rabbit punching out the Trix cereal rabbit, so it implied I was violating the Trix rabbit copyright. There was no attribution, no indication it was satire, nothing in the magazine that explained anything. It just looked like something I had done. One of the things that happens in being successful is that stuff is out in my name that I didn’t do. There’s an essay floating all over the Internet on the difference between men and women. It’s supposed to be a humorous essay, attributed to me. I did not write it. My handwriting was turned into a font for “The Simpsons” and is now downloadable off the Internet, so all sorts of my handwriting is used to advertise radio stations and bands that I had nothing to do with.
With Bunnyhop, that guy, Noel Tolentino, he copyrighted his magazine. It’s not that copyright is not important to him, because he puts copyright on his own stuff. The problem, unfortunately, with the way things are set up — I have no problem with Bunnyhop, but if I don’t vigorously pursue my copyright then other people can steal it. I’m probably one of the most bootlegged cartoonists in the world. Unfortunately that’s the nature of the business — you have to vigorously pursue copyright infringement wherever you see it. I don’t personally, but there’s definitely legal machinery in place at Fox. My lawyer takes a look at that stuff.
Look, the ACLU has infringed on my copyright. I gave them permission to use some of my cartoons for some booklet about teenage rights, and they cut up my cartoons, duplicated my drawings and handwriting style and made the book so it looked like I wrote it. That wasn’t fair, that the ACLU, who is vigorously in favor of the rights of artists and everything — people think just because they’re on the side of angels, they can justify anything. I’m sure Bunnyhop and all those other magazines that do that kind of stuff think, “Oh man, we’re cool; we’re not making any money, therefore we can do whatever we want.” It doesn’t quite work that way. I’m still a big fan of Bunnyhop, by the way. I dig the new issue.
I was in the position to make the ACLU destroy all these booklets, and even though I thought it was just a half-assed job that made me look bad, I couldn’t force the ACLU to burn them. It just didn’t feel right. I just let it go. It’s really, really frustrating; just because your intent is noble doesn’t mean you get to mess with other artists’s rights. It’s not fair. Having said that, I didn’t put [Tolentino] out of business or anything like that. I made him aware; I talked to the guy, he came to the zine fest. But I’ve been denounced in the zine world and in one of those zine compilations. But no one ever called me and asked me. This is the first time I’ve been able to talk about it. Nobody’s ever asked me.
Were you aware of what your legal people asked him to do? Do you know if they ordered him to destroy the covers?
I don’t pay attention to that, honestly. I deal with gigantic T-shirt companies ripping off “The Simpsons.” You know, by going after people for copyright infringement I’m on solid ground. Bart Simpson has been appropriated by anti-war groups, by pro-vegetarian groups — “Don’t eat a cow, man.” [But] he’s also been appropriated by skinhead Nazi youth groups, and it’s a thrill to be able to kick their asses based on copyright infringement. But I couldn’t do it if I didn’t go after it consistently with the other stuff. Although I think we let vegetarian stuff fly by. [Laughs.]
You have to vigorously defend your copyright, that’s part of it. And you know, its not them. I obviously don’t care about people doing T-shirts for their fraternities or whatever. It’s the truckloads of bootleg stuff, being sold as if it’s real. The obviously bootleg stuff, I think is funny and I collect it myself. The stuff that’s counterfeit is what bugs me, you know what I mean?