Chasing TV

Move over, Y2K -- in Matt Groening's brave new world, it's the year 3000 we should be worried about.

Published January 28, 1999 5:15PM (EST)

As we stumble toward the millennium, there's a palpable sense that the world is leaderless. Can you imagine schoolmarmish Al Gore or George W. Bush (aka "the little bland one") rallying the troops? Fortunately for humanity, Matt Groening will soon step into the void, offering an animated blueprint of what's to come.

Groening's new series, "Futurama," which debuts on Fox this spring, is set in a new New York City (an alien attack previously destroyed much of Manhattan) in the year 3000. Unlike "The Simpsons" and "The Jetsons," "Futurama" doesn't revolve around a Space Age dysfunctional family. Instead it focuses on the mishaps of Fry, a Rip Van Winkle-like fellow who thaws out after a long deep-freeze; Leela, his cyclops gal pal; and Bender, a curmudgeonly robot with a flair for cooking. "'Futurama' is about people without a family who want a family," explained Groening during a recent telephone interview in which he chatted about his show, his kids, his "mostly male" anxieties and Rupert Murdoch.

What's your new show about?

What I told Fox was that it would be just like "The Simpsons," and they jumped up and down. And when I showed them what I came up with they said, "This isn't like 'The Simpsons.'" I said, "Yeah it is. It's new and original, just like 'The Simpsons.'"

In the future, is democracy the form of government or have the powers that be come up with something better?

We have a galaxy-wide conglomeration called DOPE: Democratic Order of Planets. It's very much like right now. We try to justify violent action based on New Age spirituality, just like "Star Wars."

Most Americans describe themselves as patriotic. Why do you think only about 20 percent of us would sign a petition to support a cause we believed in?

Because they know they are going to get inundated with magazine subscription offers. Someone tried to get me to sign a petition today against genetically altered food, and I agree with the cause, but I didn't feel like getting more Sharper Image catalogs.

Feeling overwhelmed by consumerism?

One of the most enjoyable things about "Futurama" is that we're able to have fun with the commercialism going on right now. If you look at most science fiction, there are utopias and dystopias. There is no description of the future which features thousands of blow-in subscription cards for instance. In our version of the future, there is a lot of advertising. The No. 1 TV show is "The Mass Hypnosis Hour," where consumers are sold products through dreams and subliminal advertising pillows. Your dreams will actually have sponsors in the future. It's very convenient, though. You wake up and you know exactly what you need to buy.

Why do you change the channel when "South Park" comes on in the Groening household?

There is a lot of mean-spirited stuff on TV, which I'm troubled by. I was watching "The Simpsons" with my kids, and during the commercial break they announced, "Coming up on the news at 10, a 3-year-old shot in his bed." My kids didn't need to see it. There is a lot that bugs me about TV.

Are you for the V-chip, which helps parents control what their kids are watching?

It's an anachronism already, like eight-track tapes or the Betamax or clean air -- a thing of the past. Remember a few years ago when President Clinton was talking about school uniforms, whatever happened to that? The V-chip is the same thing. It's a completely bogus, momentary fad, where a problem seems to be all-consuming for about a month and a half. I'm sure the cycle will repeat itself and people will jump up and down about the V-chip one more time before everybody forgets it. It will be another remote to lose behind the couch.

In your comic strip, "Life in Hell," you pose the question "Why is TV so cool?" Then answer: "It allows several people who hate each other's guts to sit peacefully together in the same room for years on end without murdering each other." Make the argument for the elimination of television.

People come up to me at parties and puff out their chests and say, "I don't watch television." I say, "You're missing nothing. Whatever you do, don't watch." And of course I go home that night and watch Jerry Springer. How do you criticize the aquarium water that you swim in? We're immersed in it.

The ultimate message of media today is that nothing matters whatsoever. If you think that it does it's only because the person ranting at you for the moment is trying to keep you from changing the channel so you'll stay tuned for the commercial in about two minutes. No matter how important something is, it's going to be interrupted by something else if you wait another few minutes. That has infected our national discourse and the way we think.

Do your children receive creative punishments?

I believe in justified exasperation. I've confined the kids to the VG room. My wife does not like video games, so my kids think they are putting one over on her by going to the "VG" room. When they get punished, that's where they go. I don't know why, but they seem pretty satisfied with that.

So how much Ritalin do you give your kids?

A few years ago my mother told me that she had a terrible confession to make: "When you were in the fifth grade I slipped some Ritalin in your orange juice one morning." I said "How did I do?" And she said, "You came home from school that day complaining that you had the worst day of your entire life." I'm almost sure I can remember that day. I couldn't think straight. I took a math test and got all the multiplication tables wrong. It was like being on a drug.

As a hell aficionado, design a Dantean version of the underworld. Describe the different circles, and where, if at all, would you put your boss, Rupert Murdoch?

Where would you put your boss? I was in the Fox commissary a couple of years ago, and I saw Rupert Murdoch having lunch with Dan Quayle, and I thought, "You know, that could go on for all eternity as far as I'm concerned."

The Simpsons never explained the Lewinsky scandal to their kids. Why?

There is no self-respecting comedy writer who feels like making a joke on the subject. There's nothing else to say. What I think is interesting is that this particular scandal happened at the right time in history. Because we've already seen it. Everybody knows about Hugh Grant, Rob Lowe, celebrity porno videos and Gary Hart, so it's just more of the same. But it was forbidden and taboo enough for the American public to go, "Yeah, I could fantasize about that."

Residents of the Springfield Retirement Castle seem to live a pretty miserable existence. Are you afraid of growing old in America?

"The Simpsons" is a catalog of the biggest anxieties of mostly male writers. There are jokes about getting fat, going bald and eating way too many doughnuts. Growing old is part of that. The older I get, the more I think we ought to treat the elderly better. When I was younger, it didn't bother me so much.

Despite a brief separation, Marge and Homer Simpson have a pretty loving relationship. Any tips on keeping the flame alive?

I don't have an answer, but it reminds me of something Marge once said to Homer: "You know, Homer, it's true what they say. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus." Homer says, "Great Marge, give me the one with all the monsters."

Say something kind about the Taliban.

The what?

The Taliban, the fundamentalists who now rule most of Afghanistan.

Oh c'mon. Yeah, do you have any jokes about Islam?

By David Wallis

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