The Story (1969) is a cute short film about two kids, Matt and Lisa, telling their younger sister Maggie a bedtime story about meeting some animals, and an alien, in the woods. You can watch it above. The Matt in this film is none other than Matt Groening, who would go on to create The Simpsons. Their dad, Homer, made the movie. The Simpsons, as Groening admitted in an interview with Smithsonian magazine, is more than a little autobiographical.
I had been drawing my weekly comic strip, “Life in Hell,” for about five years when I got a call from Jim Brooks, who was developing “The Tracey Ullman Show” for the brand-new Fox network. He wanted me to come in and pitch an idea for doing little cartoons on that show. I soon realized that whatever I pitched would not be owned by me, but would be owned by Fox, so I decided to keep my rabbits in “Life in Hell” and come up with something new.
While I was waiting—I believe they kept me waiting for over an hour—I very quickly drew the Simpsons family. I basically drew my own family. My father’s name is Homer. My mother’s name is Margaret. I have a sister Lisa and another sister Maggie, so I drew all of them. I was going to name the main character Matt, but I didn’t think it would go over well in a pitch meeting, so I changed the name to Bart.
Groening incorporated other autobiographical elements into The Simpsons too. For instance, the Groening family, like Bart and company, lived on Evergreen Terrace. In that same interview with Smithsonian, he all but admitted that the show is set in his native Oregon. And he even hinted that the names of a couple despised schoolyard bullies made their way into the show.
The real Homer, however, was very different from the donut-obsessed rube in the cartoon. “My father was a real man’s man, you know. He was a B17 bomber pilot in the War, stationed in England. So I grew up with this very intimidating, tough act to follow,” Groening told the Telegraph. “The nice thing was that he would leave his pens out for me to play with. But then he was not particularly approving of what I came up with.”
And while the early episodes of the Simpsons, which show Homer being perpetually irritated by his smart aleck son, hints at the complicated relationship Groening had with his father, he also credits him – and the movie above in particular – for inspiring his hugely successful show.
He used to tape-record the family surreptitiously, either while we were driving around or at dinner, and, in 1963, he and I made up a story about a brother and a sister, Lisa and Matt, having an adventure out in the woods with animals. I told it to my sister Lisa, and she in turn told it to my sister Maggie. My father recorded the telling of the story by Lisa to Maggie, and then he used it as the soundtrack to a movie. So the idea of dramatizing the family—Lisa, Maggie, Matt—I think was the inspiration for doing something kind of autobiographical with “The Simpsons.” There is an aspect of the psychodynamics of my family in which it makes sense that one of us grew up and made a cartoon out of the family and had it shown all over the world.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.