They are two of the most famous creators in the universe. Their work is quoted almost as often as Scripture. They have turned their pens into ATMs, making them richer than the creator of the universe. They have given rise to — and remain the symbolic deities of — two sides of a great pop culture debate that is being fervidly argued out on some message board as you read this. But on this toasty summer afternoon in L.A., dressed in white shirts, jeans, and sneakers, these two men — Matt Groening, the 60-year-old creator/exec producer of The Simpsons (and Futurama), and Seth MacFarlane, the 40-year-old creator/exec producer/vocal star of Family Guy (and American Dad) — are just two dudes in a room, talking ‘toons.
Kicking back in Groening’s Simpsons office on the Fox lot, the pair shoot the breeze about all things animation; the rivalrous relationship between their big shows, both built around a slothful, sophomoric patriarch; and that ultra-anticipated hour-long Family Guy season premiere that will combine the franchises in a true display of animation domination. Yes, on Sept. 28, ”The Simpsons Guy” aims to do something that fans thought unpossible: Take two shows with 37 combined seasons of comedy — the revered elder statesman/pioneer of modern prime-time animated humor and its edgier, so-cultishly-beloved-that-Fox-uncanceled-it, bratty-fratty descendant — and create a giant episode that is more ”Holy crap!” than ”D’oh!”
The extravaganza is as self-deprecating as it is self-aware, winking at criticism that Family Guy ripped off The Simpsons, nodding at crossover cynicism, toying with both shows’ signature gags (Stewie saying, ”Eat my shorts”), and sneaking in cameos (Bob from Bob’s Burgers!). The plot? The road-tripping Griffins accidentally wind up in Springfield, where they are befriended by the Simpsons. Stewie is in awe of Bart, and Lisa tries to build Meg’s self-confidence, while Homer and Peter bond over doughnuts before throwing down in a nuclear chicken fight.
But the real meeting of the minds is taking place right here, as Groening and MacFarlane squeeze onto the same couch for the very first time.
Seth, is there anything you were hoping to find in Matt’s office? Anything you’d like to steal?
Seth MacFarlane [Looking around] Holy s—. Actually, that’s a really awesome dual-cassette player. I need one of those.
Matt Groening Journey to the past! [Walks over to cassette player behind his desk] I want to see what cassettes are in there. [Checks] There are no cassettes.
MacFarlane If I need to make a tape of one of my CDs, will that do it for me?
[Noticing jar with floating embryonic Bart] Hey, Matt, is that a Bart fetus in a jar?
Groening Yeah, I guess it is. Somebody sent us that.
MacFarlane Are those awards? Can I touch one? I’ve never…
Groening You must have all this crap, right?
MacFarlane You’re much better at saving stuff than I am. Most of it is in the backseat of my car.
Groening You’ve never been in this office before?
MacFarlane No, I haven’t. I think Dads was over here during the episode and a half it was on the air…. Is that a dual-VHS player?
Groening Nothing changes.
We have Duff beer right over there. Are we allowed to crack that open?
Groening That is unauthorized beer. The real beer is coming out. Real Duff beer.
Is Pawtucket Patriot Ale coming?
MacFarlane I had heard something about it, but I don’t know if it’s happening.
Groening What? You don’t have your own beer?
MacFarlane They don’t trust me around alcohol.
Groening The show has got to have its own beer, man! That’s when you know you’ve made it!
MacFarlane I know. We have to follow in the footsteps of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Ale.
What do you remember thinking the first time you saw each other’s shows?
MacFarlane [Pointing at Groening] His show redirected the course of where I wanted my professional life to go. I wanted to be a Disney animator, and then The Simpsons came out, and in every way — writing-wise, production-wise, timing-wise, animation-wise — it just rewrote the rulebook. Suddenly I was laughing out loud at cartoons. We all love the Bugs Bunny cartoons and the Road Runner cartoons, and you acknowledge how great they are and how hilarious they are, but how often are you really laughing? The Simpsons made me laugh. I was doing stand-up at the time and I loved it, and I thought, ”It’s too bad there isn’t a way to do adult humor in cartoons.” And they just opened that door for everybody. That show came out and I remember thinking, ”Oh my God, this is what I want to do.” It’s like All in the Family. It’s that degree of altering the landscape.
Groening And I had gotten into animation because of Family Guy. It’s the exact same story! [Laughs]…. My first take was: Oh my God, we got competition. And they’re outflanking us. This show is wilder and harsher and nastier. We used to get in trouble. We used to be the cause of the downfall of the United States.
MacFarlane I remember what used to make people mad when The Simpsons first came out was that Bart is talking disrespectfully to his parents. Remember the outrage?
Groening We got in trouble for Bart wearing an ”Underachiever and Proud of It, Man” T-shirt. That’s because cartoons up until The Simpsons had been aimed at children. One of the smartest things that we did was insist that it’s for adults, with the idea that there are a lot of smart kids out there who will get jokes that grown-ups get. Anyway, so for a little while, we were like: We gotta chase your tail! Then you got canceled. Phew!
MacFarlane [Laughs] So everything worked out.
Groening You guys have completely your own style. At the very beginning you were accused of copying us, and we were accused of copying you. So I stopped watching your show just because I didn’t want it to be in my head.
MacFarlane I’m the first person to say, stylistically, absolutely, we took 100 cues from The Simpsons. Look at when All in the Family came out. Suddenly it created a whole new style of doing things. The timing style of Family Guy was directly influenced by The Simpsons because it worked. They cracked that nut.
Matt, are your kids Team Simpson or Team Griffin?
Groening When my son Abe was 14, he came home from school and said, ”You know, everybody at school loves Family Guy. And they say Simpsons is over.” He was taunting me. I said, ”We were here before Family Guy!” I got really defensive, and he’s like, ”Yeah, well, Family Guy is what everybody likes.” I said, ”Yeah, tell Family Guy to buy you an Xbox.” He said, ”I wish Seth MacFarlane was my dad!” That was a joke, and I thought, ”That was good for a 14-year-old.”
MacFarlane At the time I was probably, what, maybe 28? That would’ve just been weird.
Your shows have taken jabs at each other over the years. Peter was wanted for plagiarism in a Simpsons episode. And Family Guy had a DVD joke in which Stewie sings about ”the guy who watched The Simpsons back in 1994 and won’t admit the damn thing isn’t funny anymore.” But it seems like the rivalry has grown friendlier. Last season Dan Castellaneta and Hank Azaria did cameos on Family Guy, and Seth, you guest-starred on The Simpsons. How competitive did it get between the staffs? Has this all been blown out of proportion?
MacFarlane I think that was you guys [in the media]. You guys loved that s—. I don’t ever remember being anything but a fan of The Simpsons. I continue to have such regard for that Simpsons writing staff.
Groening I never felt any [animosity]. I have more in common with Seth than I do with everybody I work with. [Laughs] We both created a show, you know? I like cartoons. I want there to be more cartoons. Both shows make fun of stuff, so we have to make fun of the guy next door. If you can make the person who disagrees with the joke laugh, then it’s good. If it’s just preaching to the choir, then I don’t like it as much. That’s my measure for doing political jokes on the show: Can we make a Republican laugh?
MacFarlane We abide by the same rules. We would never want to upset Sarah Palin.
Let’s talk about the crossover. People are joking that hell is freezing over.
Groening That’s the title, isn’t it?
Was that one of the many reasons to do it? Did you just want to make fanboys’ dreams come true?
MacFarlane I think it’s a more practical thing. It’s: Who was going to be the person to initiate it? Because both shows are busy and it’s a big undertaking. Rich Appel, who wrote for The Simpsons, ran King of the Hill, and is now corunning Family Guy — he was the one guy who had lived in both worlds and really spearheaded this.
Groening Let’s be honest, we both wanted to do King of the Hill crossovers.
MacFarlane You need somebody who can be in that room and say with experience, ”No, no, I wrote for this show — that’s not something Homer would say.”
So what is the key to a good crossover episode?
MacFarlane It’s really about the character interaction. People want to see Peter interact with Homer. They want to see Bart interact with Stewie. In a way, the story in a crossover episode, while it has to be there, is never quite as important as how the characters interact with each other.
Groening In this case, it’s two really vivid shows and seeing what they can do together. You want to see them having a good time and you want to see Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson duke it out.
What was it like for you to see these characters interact, especially when they start saying each other’s punchlines and borrowing each other’s bits?
MacFarlane The extreme to me of that is Stewie calling up Moe, which I’m sure the Huffington Post and even your magazine will attack us for. But in context, it’s pretty funny. [After watching Bart make a prank call to Moe, Stewie asks Bart if he can try it, calling back and saying, ”Hello, Moe? Your sister’s being raped!” before hanging up and asking a speechless Bart, ”Is that…is that one?”]
What did you think of that joke, Matt?
Groening First of all, we’ve run out of prank phone calls, so the fact that you can visit that well, that’s something we haven’t done in a long time. That’s pretty good.
Seth, was there one thing where you said to the writers, ”I want to see this happen in the episode”?
MacFarlane The only thing that I remember saying is ”You gotta have Stewie go after Nelson.” Because Stewie idolizes Bart in the episode. It’s a way for Nelson to get his comeuppance undeniably. [There’s] this kind of Taken scene where he’s got him bound and gagged and he’s going to exact vengeance for Bart. My thing was: Get each character interacting with their counterpart.
The episode pokes fun at the idea that Family Guy is derivative of The Simpsons and The Simpsons is old and not funny anymore.
Groening Wait a second, they say we’re not funny anymore? I’m sorry — this crossover is canceled!
Do those opinions and message-board comments from fans that both shows aren’t what they used to be get under your skin at all?
Groening I think we can both say without fear of contradiction that we live by comments and our mood is completely dictated by strangers.
MacFarlane I don’t know any show that I’ve ever seen that had its best years after season 7. If you’re being honest with yourself, a show that is in season 12 or season 20, you start to confront that. You can either just kind of coast or you can continue to try to surprise your audience. Regardless of how they’re perceived, I do feel like both shows are continuously trying to surprise their audiences. That was why we killed Brian for three episodes.
Groening And could you believe that people fell for it?
MacFarlane There was a lot of anger. A lot of anger. The comments that I read were ”You caved to fans — that’s why you brought him back.” I realized, You don’t know how the shows are produced, do you? It takes a year to do each one.
Groening I like the idea that there are fans out there who are like, ”I will never watch another episode of The Simpsons.” And now they have to. [Laughs] Just so they can rail against it.
Matt, if you could steal one character from Family Guy and import him/her to the Simpsons universe, who would you take? Seth, I’ll ask you the same thing.
Groening Well, I’m really jealous of the chicken — the whole chicken-fight thing. But I guess Stewie. Just comedy gold.
MacFarlane Oh gosh, I would probably take Mr. Burns. That’s a character that just always amused me.
You can see him in Stewie.
MacFarlane Stewie comes from Rex Harrison first and foremost, but I would be lying [if I said] there wasn’t a shred of Mr. Burns’ influence. He was just always a character that got a nice big laugh out of me when he emerged and throughout his run. If I couldn’t have Mr. Burns, I’d take Leonard Nimoy.
Seth, you’re off directing movies like Ted 2. Which will come to theaters sooner, a second Simpsons movie or a first Family Guy movie?
MacFarlane [To Groening] Are you guys doing a second one?
Groening Maybe someday. We haven’t recovered from the first one yet.
MacFarlane You haven’t recovered from being injured by the piles of money that hit you in the head?
Groening The problem was there’s no bench team waiting to run in and do the work. It was the same people doing the show as doing the movie…. Are you doing a Family Guy movie?
MacFarlane Eventually I gotta figure we will. I have an idea of what it would be, but I just never had the time. I spent so many years working on the show seven days a week that the urge to try other things was so strong. It’s not on my immediate list of things to do, but I would be shocked if it never happened.
How fleshed out is your idea?
MacFarlane Fairly fleshed out.
Can you give us one cryptic clue?
MacFarlane Something you couldn’t do on TV.
Groening That’s what you gotta do. Otherwise, why should they go? That’s why we showed Bart’s penis in The Simpsons Movie.
There are a lot of great animated shows on TV now. Which ones impress you most?
Groening I like Bob’s Burgers, because it’s just got a different pace to it and a different tone. And it does something where the characters actually have some of the rhythms of real speech. Your characters stammer sometimes. We hardly ever do that on The Simpsons…. My other favorite show, Adventure Time, has a very oddball look to it, as do Regular Show and Rick and Morty.
MacFarlane I would give the same answer, because [Bob’s Burgers] is the first animated show to come along in prime time in ages that gets what the flavor of a prime-time animated show is. I’ve seen a lot of shows come and go that just look really slick. It’s a problem. The Simpsons had this wonderful, underground look to it when it first came out. That stylistic choice was so revolutionary. Family Guy took a cue from that, and King of the Hill must have taken a cue from that. Look at South Park — these are all shows where their movement and the animation are very sophisticated, but the design style has this underground kind of feel to it.
What do you say to fans who’ve been waiting for this thing that they thought they’d maybe never see?
MacFarlane My fear is that nothing we do will be able to live up to the expectation that’s in everyone’s heads, but I hope we’ve at least come close. The directors, the board artists, the writers, producers — everyone has just busted their asses, so what you’re seeing is the result of a lot of time, a lot of sweat, and a lot of love. We hope that people will really enjoy it, because it is a gift to the fans.
Groening It’s a reward for paying attention if you followed both shows.
MacFarlane You try to put yourself back in the mindset that you were in when you started. If my college self knew that this was happening, I would probably never stop s—ting myself.
Groening That’s so sweet.
MacFarlane I do have to try and capture that emotion in my mind. It’s a pretty astonishing, special thing, to have characters that I created sharing our programming with The Simpsons. I can become a meth addict now, because things won’t get any better than this.
Groening Just make sure when you write this, you write, ”He said humbly,” not ”He gloated, ‘I can afford meth now!”’ I always thought in Hollywood the definition of sanity is if you can afford to pay for your craziness. If you can’t afford it, then you’re nuts. But if you can afford it, then you’re someone to be envied.
MacFarlane That’s the only thing separating us from Gary Busey.
Groening He’s done The Simpsons. Has he done Family Guy?
MacFarlane Possibly late at night when no one was there.
How Family Guy was able to borrow Bart — and the rest of Springfield — for its season premiere
The most eagerly awaited crossover episode of the decade started two years ago on a needy whiteboard. The writers of Family Guy were trying to map out this coming season, staring down a bunch of empty lines, each representing an episode. Someone suggested a mash-up of The Simpsons and Family Guy — two Fox shows linked by a long-running, mostly friendly rivalry — and the room began to percolate with possibility. ”We thought, ‘We don’t know exactly what the story is, but how can that not be an inspiring template to think that we’re putting these two worlds together?”’ says Family Guy executive producer Richard Appel. ”Right then we put up on the board with a question mark: Family Guy-Simpsons?”
After brainstorming ideas and getting creator Seth MacFarlane’s blessing and input, Appel tossed another question mark across the Fox lot at Simpsons creator Matt Groening and executive producers James L. Brooks and Al Jean: May we take your characters on a joyride? The trio knew at least that this driver was responsible, as Appel had worked for four seasons as a writer-producer on The Simpsons. ”From the start Al and Jim and Matt were on board with it being an episode of Family Guy…with the condition ‘Do us proud, please don’t kill Marge, and let us read the script,”’ says Appel. ”But there was a welcomed level of trust on both sides that they weren’t going to rip the script to shreds and we weren’t going to rip Springfield to shreds.”
When the Simpsons‘ main voice actors — Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright, and Hank Azaria (the Family Guy producers were told Harry Shearer was unavailable) — joined the Family Guy cast to read through the script for the episode (which was written by Family Guy coexecutive producer Pat Meighan), there was just one problem. ”After the table read, I did say to Seth, ‘We’re six minutes long,”’ says Appel. ”And he said, ‘Um, I would not worry about the length. Fox will be happy making this an hour long.”’ Supervising director Peter Shin, who had once worked as a Simpsons layout artist, spent time adjusting the Griffins to Springfield’s specs (”We had to dim our whites on the Griffins’ eyeballs so they didn’t jump out and [look] too bright compared to the Simpsons’,” notes Shin) and animating an eight-minute chicken fight between Peter and Homer.
When the rubble settles, fans will have one question: Sequel? The Simpsons and Family Guy currently have no plans for one. ”But by season 43 of The Simpsons and season 27 of Family Guy,” says Appel, chuckling, ”someone who’s looking at a blank board is going to say, ‘Well, the Griffins went to Springfield…what if the Simpsons went to Quahog?’ And more heads will explode at Fox.”
The Reject Pile
It took a lot of blood, sweat, and beers for Family Guy‘s writers to craft the perfect plot for the Simpsons crossover event. Below, the Quahog scribes reveal five rejeted pitches for the episode.
1. Chris gets himself in a jam by winding up with two dates for the ”Big Dance.” And the Simpsons are there.
2. It turns out that all of Family Guy has taken place inside a snow globe in Ralph Wiggum’s room.
3. What if, like, the babies do something together?
4. The Griffins visit Springfield, where they meet Lenny and Carl, spend the entire week with them, and then leave without meeting anyone else.
5. Another ”Mr. Plow” episode, but with Quagmire and Brazilian chicks. Could call it ”Señor Plow” if it feels too similar.
That Other Big Simpsons Animated Event
Futurama‘s Planet Express crew will time-travel its way to Springfield this fall
Good — no, great — news, everyone! Springfield will be the site of another crossover episode on Fox when the Simpsons encounter a familiar pack of now-homeless space adventurers. Futurama, the 31st-century animated comedy that was canceled (again) last year, will return to life — or at least Fry, Leela & Co. will — in a special episode of The Simpsons airing Nov. 9. ”That was a really tough one to negotiate, because I had to talk to myself,” says Matt Groening, creator of, well, both shows.
”Simpsorama” is taglined in the opening credits as ”a show out of ideas teams up with a show out of episodes,” and the second half of that joke is one reason for this installment. ”They were going off the air, so I thought people would really love it if we had one more chance to see those characters,” says Simpsons exec producer Al Jean, adding, ”We’re always looking for things that are compatible with us, and I thought, ‘Well, what’s more compatible?’ We do a joke, actually, about how similar Bender and Homer look. Like, they just erased Homer’s hair.”
The crossover — which features Futurama voice-cast members Billy West, John DiMaggio, Katey Sagal, Lauren Tom, Phil LaMarr, Tress MacNeille, and Maurice LaMarche — will unspool a complex, Terminator-esque story that involves Bart blowing his nose on a sandwich that he places in a time capsule. When that mixes with Milhouse’s rabbit’s foot and some radioactive ooze, it creates a global catastrophe in the future, prompting Bender to travel back in time to kill Bart and prevent this mega-mess.
And as you’d imagine, ”Simpsorama” teems with Futurama inside jokes and a Simpsonized tweak of its title sequence. Adds Jean: ”There’s a thing in Futurama code where if you solve it, it says, ‘Congratulations! You’re a nerd.”’