TCA Interview: Matt Groening on Disenchantment and the Apu Debate

Matt Groening came to the Television Critics Association summer press tour to present his new Netflix animated comedy Disenchantment. The characters of Groening’s fantasy kingdom bear more than a striking resemblance to The Simpsons. There’s the famous Groening overbite, plus an elf and a pig who have similarities to Simpsons counterparts.

Bean (Abbi Jacobson) is a princess being forced to marry for her father’s political alliances. She escapes and hooks up with Elfo (Nat Faxon) and Luci (Eric Andre), a demon who might also feel at home in Groening’s Life In Hell comic strips. Disenchantment premieres August 17 on Netflix.

Meanwhile, The Simpsons is about to enter its landmark 30th season, and I have never missed an episode. Despite this milestone (as well as the milestone of surpassing episode 636 last season), the main topic of Simpsons conversation this year has been its handling of Apu, and Groening’s response to it.

WLE: How much DNA does Elfo share with Maggie’s favorite cartoon, “The Happy Little Elves?”

Matt Groening: You know, I did have in mind that within The Simpsons there was going to be this “Happy Little Elves” cartoon show that they would continue to come back to, and I think we put it in the first episode and maybe glancingly referred to it a few times over the last 30 years. So, yes, there’s definitely a component I’ve always been interested in, in elves and dwarves and ogres, and other odd little creatures.

WLE: And does the pig share DNA with Harry Plopper?

Matt Groening: Oh, no. No, no! The pig on The Simpsons, that’s a real pig. This is a prince played by Matt Berry who gets turned into a pig. And, by the way, I don’t know if you know, his crown, check out his crown and compare it to Jughead’s whoopee cap. That’s what it’s called, a whoopee cap from Archie.

WLE: Hank Azaria went on Colbert and said he’d be willing to step aside as the voice of Apu. I know you don’t want to change the character but if Hank doesn’t want to do the voice anymore, would you have to recast or retire the character?

Matt Groening: Haven’t talked about it. I’m proud of everything we do on The Simpsons. I’m here to talk about Disenchantment.

WLE: So he said that on Colbert but hasn’t spoken to you about it?

Matt Groening: I don’t know. Everybody gets a say on our show, but like I said I’m proud of everything we do.

Q: Is there a difference creating a series for a streaming service than there was for a network?

Matt Groening: Oh yeah. First of all, you don’t have to break every seven minutes for a series of commercials so that’s fun to be able to just tell a sustained story. The fact that the show is being seen, theoretically, in one binge means that we can basically think of it as a very long movie.

Q: Talk about the tone of Disenchantment.

Matt Groening: The great thing about Netflix is they were positive about every single thing we said we were going to try to do, and then we would sometimes change our minds and they were just as enthusiastic. That’s a real treat.

Q: And the music?

Matt Groening: Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO, he’s fantastic. He’s done a lot of movie and TV scoring. We came to him and he said, “What do you have in mind?” I said, “Not what you might expect for fantasy. How about Balkan brass band as a direction?” I thought that was just a jumping off point and then he gave us Balkan brass band. It’s fantastic. I think it’s the first animated fantasy show to actually have jazzy horn solos in the score.

Q: Has the last 18 years of things like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones made it easier to send up this drama?

Matt Groening: We very quickly knew that we had to make some references to the things you just named, but we wanted to get them out of the way. We didn’t want people just to think oh, this is just a parody of something else that’s popular. So we hope that the show stands on its own and that the character are real and they’re emotionally resonant. My drawing style is fairly simple with big oval eyes with dots for pupils and overbites. But I think they have soul. That’s very much attributable to the great animators and these voice actors are absolutely incredible.

WLE: You famously drew The Simpsons on the spot before a meeting with The Tracy Ullman Show. Is it a luxury or pressure to have more time to conceive the characters?

Matt Groening: You know, deadlines make you get real. Josh [Weinstein] and I spent a long time putting the whole thing together. Once you start, it’s just as fast as you can go. It’s both gratifying to have something moving, but as you guys all know, a deadline is definitely real. You have to get the work done.

Q: What is it about the genre that mostly attracts white male men to do the voiceover work?

Matt Groening: Oh, I can’t speak for other shows. I would say in comedy, and this goes back to the silent days, in treating women more on a pedestal and the physical mayhem and slapstick happens to the men. That’s existed through today. I would like to think that with Futurama and with Disenchantment that we actually treat women equally in that we rough everybody up including Bean.

WLE: Is that prince going to stay impaled on the chair forever

Matt Groening: No, no.

Q: Of all the guest stars you’ve had on The Simpsons who was the most fun and memorable for you personally?

Matt Groening: We had Elizabeth Taylor play the voice of Maggie back in the day. It was not just that she was a great voice. It’s that she came in with one of those dogs that you can’t tell which end is the head and which end is the tail. It was just phenomenal. Johnny Carson came in after he’d retired and then after he finished recording his lines, regaled us with talk show anecdotes for another hour. That’s always fun. We’ve had Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Those are fan gratification for the people who work on the show. Most recently, I’d say the actor that we like most has been Anne Hathaway because she gets the show. She’s really funny and she can sing like an angel.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including About.com, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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