Matt Groen­ing is Liv­ing in the Past

Exclaim! - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Josiah Hughes

AD­HER­ING TO A RICH TRA­DI­TION OF ADO­LES­CENT OUT­SIDERS, Matthew Abra­ham Groen­ing spent his for­ma­tive years de­vour­ing weirdo art and dream­ing of dis­rupt­ing the zeit­geist. “I’ve been think­ing about how to sneak into pop cul­ture since I was a teenager lay­ing on my bed, lis­ten­ing to Frank Zappa, the Bonzo Dog Band and the Fugs,” he says.

In a sense, the rest is his­tory — he’s since dom­i­nated com­edy via two wildly suc­cess­ful TV se­ries and a cult clas­sic comic strip (with some re­cent con­tro­versy along the way). But his third TV show (and first for Net­flix), Disen­chant­ment, brings his ca­reer full cir­cle, back to that Ore­gon bed­room. “The orig­i­nal idea ac­tu­ally started in high school,” Groen­ing says. “I used to draw a comic strip for my friends called Tales of the En­chanted For­est that had all sorts of talk­ing an­i­mals in it. It was ac­tu­ally more in­flu­enced by Walt Kelly’s daily comic strip Pogo.”

As he de­vel­oped his art style and comic sen­si­bil­ity, Groen­ing quickly demon­strated a knack for world-build­ing, and his cult comic strip, Life in Hell, caught the at­ten­tion of The Tracey Ull­man Show, who com­mis­sioned a se­ries of shorts. Hop­ing to re­tain own­er­ship of Hell bun­nies Binky and Bongo, Groen­ing made up The Simp­sons on the spot. Decades later, he still refers to the show as “a fluke.”

Groen­ing has since be­come syn­ony­mous with all the good parts of Gen X pop cul­ture (and some of the bad), from The Simp­sons’ acer­bic wit to Fu­tu­rama’s un­abashed geek­i­ness and Life in Hell’s scathing, pointed and down­right pre­scient de­con­struc­tion of Amer­i­can hypocrisy. Im­bued with irony, sar­casm and a gen­eral sense of malaise, Groen­ing de­fined ’90s com­edy writ large. “That’s one of the most amaz­ing com­pli­ments ever,” he says re­luc­tantly. “I don’t re­ally think about it that much, be­cause I’m just rac­ing to a dead­line.”

Yet Disen­chant­ment is de­cid­edly more earnest. “For this project, I sat down with Josh We­in­stein, who de­vel­oped the show with me, and we agreed that we were go­ing to lay out the se­ries dra­mat­i­cally — that is, to tell dra­matic sto­ries — and then add jokes, rather than just be goofy from the get go.” In other words, it’s as much a story-driven fan­tasy ad­ven­ture as it is an an­i­mated com­edy. “Which is not to say that, you know — we can’t help but throw in the sar­casm and the snide­ness,” Groen­ing con­tin­ues. “But we tried to stay as far as pos­si­ble away from par­ody.”

Set in the me­dieval fan­tasy world of Dream­land, Disen­chant­ment fol­lows the ram­bunc­tious Princess Bean (voiced by Broad City’s Abbi Ja­cob­son), who gets into a se­ries of mis­ad­ven­tures with her doe-eyed com­pan­ion Elfo (Nat Faxon) and her mis­chievous “per­sonal de­mon” Luci (Eric An­dre). As with Groen­ing’s pre­vi­ous projects, the show’s main char­ac­ters es­tab­lish a win­ning ca­ma­raderie, giv­ing the show plenty of per­sonal stakes to root for.

There are much larger stakes, too. Like Spring­field and New New York, Dream­land is the sort of mal­leable (and beau­ti­fully ren­dered) car­toon world that’s brim­ming with pos­si­bil- ity. “There’s an op­por­tu­nity to re­ally do an epic uni­verse with hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of char­ac­ters,” he says.

Un­like other con­tem­po­rary come­dies, Disen­chant­ment re­sists the temp­ta­tion to draw ob­vi­ous par­al­lels to present po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. ( Within the press screen­ers sent out, there’s no brutish orange em­peror de­mand­ing to make the for­est great again.) That said, Groen­ing says there’s still plenty of present-day rel­e­vance to Disen­chant­ment. “Ev­ery­thing is about to­day,” he says. “Fu­tur­is­tic science fic­tion is about right now. You can’t help it. I don’t think it’s quite as overt as we could be, and we re­sisted that temp­ta­tion. But I think you can find some po­lit­i­cal points in the show.”

Most no­tably, Disen­chant­ment fi­nally sees Groen­ing uti­lize a fe­male lead. “If there are any overt pol­i­tics, it’s that it’s got a def­i­nite fem­i­nist point of view,” Groen­ing says. “And hav­ing a woman at the cen­tre of the show is just, for me, a re­fresh­ing way to tell sto­ries.” Groen­ing cred­its Bean’s lov­able fierce­ness to the char­ac­ter’s voice ac­tor. “Abbi Ja­cob­son brings a re­ally strong point of view,” he ad­mits. “You try to write the fun­ni­est or most mov­ing lines you can, and then you have Abbi Ja­cob­sen come in and riff on it and take it to a dif­fer­ent place and you go, ‘Oh my God, it’s ten times bet­ter than any­thing we could have thought of…’ She ad-libbed some of the best lines, mak­ing the fem­i­nist bent to the show even more overt.”

Disen­chant­ment’s feminism is sadly a far cry from the cur­rent Simp­sons talk­ing point. For 28 years, the show’s di­vi­sive Kwik-EMart owner Apu Na­has­apeemapetilon has been voiced by Hank Azaria, a white man who has openly ad­mit­ted that the char­ac­ter was con­ceived to be as of­fen­sive as pos­si­ble. Though the “equal op­por­tu­nity of­fender” de­fence is a com­mon one among Gen X co­me­di­ans, Hari Kond­abolu ob­served that the char­ac­ter was a launch pad for bul­ly­ing mem­bers of the South Asian di­as­pora through­out the ’90s. Kond­abolu’s doc­u­men­tary The Prob­lem With Apu struck such a nerve that Azaria, decades later, fi­nally of­fered to step down from the role.

De­spite the leftie flag-wav­ing of Life in Hell and other pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics cham­pi­oned through his life and work, Groen­ing is the only Simp­sons hon­cho still hold­ing out for Apu, ei­ther stonewalling in­ter­view­ers or telling The New York Times that the de­bate is “clunky” and “tainted,” adding that Apu’s name was a sign­post in­tended to raise aware­ness about Satya­jit Ray’s Apu film tril­ogy.

Re­gard­less of in­ten­tions, how­ever, couldn’t the prob­lem with Apu have been solved if he was played by a South Asian ac­tor? Af­ter all, by Groen­ing’s own ad­mis­sion, cast­ing Ja­cob­son as a fem­i­nist princess was a win-win for the role and the show. Isn’t this all just a ques­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tion?

Rather than speak his piece, a pub­li­cist in­forms me that Groen­ing will not an­swer the ques­tion. “What she said,” he adds, and our in­ter­view is over. De­spite his seem­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble cre­ativ­ity, his knack for world-build­ing and his proven track record for ad­dress­ing so­ci­etal wrongs with wry sar­casm, there are lim­i­ta­tions to Groen­ing’s dis­course af­ter all.

Disen­chant­ment, in­deed.

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