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 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, 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 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 at 9 p.m. on Fox, “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/marathon champ 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!” (For more information on the episode, click here.)
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 bickering over beer and 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 their first joint in-depth interview.
EW: Seth, is there anything you were hoping to find in Matt’s office? Anything you’d like to steal?
MACFARLANE: [Looking around] Holy s—. That’s a really awesome dual-cassette player. I need one of those.
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?
EW: [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.
EW: 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.
EW: 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.
EW: What do you remember thinking the first time you saw each other’s show?
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] In my mind, growing up, watching animation, I didn’t think there would ever be anything good, because it just seemed like in the history of TV animation, things got worse and worse. There were some good shows [when I was] growing up, but then in the ‘70s and ‘80s, animation just got so bad on TV, for the most part.
MACFARLANE: You guys literally single-handedly reversed that trend.
GROENING: I saw the pilot episode of Dennis the Menace, and I was so excited that there was a show about a menace that had an animated opening of him as a cyclone a la the Tasmanian Devil. I thought “Oh my god! A kid that I can relate to!” And then it was Jay North and he’s a nice guy… and he had a slingshot in his back pocket, but he never used it. The feeling I got from watching that cyclone in the opening title, that’s what I wanted to see on TV. So, when I got a chance in 1987 to do cartoons for The Tracey Ullman Show, I was originally going to do the Life In Hell rabbits—I’d been drawing this comic strip. Then I thought, “You know, bunnies… it’s not going to make it. It’s gotta be humans.”
MACFARLANE: He never once used the slingshot?
GROENING: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe he did.
MACFARLANE: I used to get pissed when I watched Silver Spoons that he never played the video games.
EW: That was such a cool home arcade.
MACFARLANE: He had, like, Dragon’s Lair, and he just never went near them. It didn’t occur to me, “Oh, that would not be a good episode of television just watching a kid play…”
GROENING: See, now, I think this is the major difference between us. My reference is to the 1960s and yours is… I don’t even know what Silver Spoons is. It’s ‘80s, right? I didn’t watch TV in the ‘80s. That’s why I never get your show. (They laugh.)
MACFARLANE: Believe me, you’re just fine. Don’t go looking for Silver Spoons. That way lies madness.
EW: So, Matt, you see Seth’s show for the first time. What are your thoughts?
GROENING: Here’s the thing: You understand that there are shows that come in your footsteps, right? But generally they’re on a competitive network.
MACFARLANE: That’s one thing we’ve always tried to do, is come in The Simpsons’ footsteps.
GROENING: No, no, wait! Let me back up. First of all, I thought if The Simpsons hit—and I thought it would be a hit—my worry was that adults wouldn’t watch because it’s a cartoon and there were no good cartoons on for adults. When that hit, I knew there would be new shows following, and ultimately there are all these shows out there now that are creator-driven—that is, they’re a vision of somebody who can draw. It’s amazing what’s happening in animation now… But getting to Seth, 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.
EW: Let’s talk about where your pop-culture influences intersect on a Venn diagram, whether it’s your love of a cartoon or classic comedy like All in the Family.
GROENING: (to MacFarlane) Well, I’ve heard you talk about All in the Family a lot. Of course, that was big for me.
MACFARLANE: I’m such a huge fan of Jackie Gleason. At least with Peter, I always catch myself from time to time slipping into those cadences. But I will say one of the other things—and we forget this—that The Simpsons made acceptable was using actual pop-culture references in their real form….In a way, it made those characters feel like they were more in the real world than anyone on TV. Why I remember this, I have no f—ing clue. I remember seeing an episode of Kate & Allie where Susan St. James made a reference to Punky Brewster. And I was like, “How do you know about other TV shows? You’re on a TV show!” It occurred to me that that’s strange. And yet it oddly makes the characters seem like they’re not in this fictionalized TV land; they’re in the same world that I’m in. That was something I noticed when The Simpsons came out.
EW: The Simpsons showed its characters watching TV.
GROENING: You know where that came from? As a kid, watching the movie 101 Dalmatians, the puppies were watching a Western on TV and they’re watching a commercial and I went, “Oh my god! The cartoon dogs are watching TV just like I do!” The idea of a cartoon within a cartoon, that’s something that always stuck with me. Itchy & Scratchy—we have to take it one step further. I want Itchy & Scratchy to watch a cartoon. But we haven’t done that…. As a kid, I said, “The Munsters and The Addams Family—they should get together! Pugsley Addams and Eddie Munster—(to MacFarlane) sort of our counterparts—should be pals!” So, in a way, the Family Guy–Simpsons crossover—that’s going to blow some minds.
SM: It’ll cause some problems. (They laugh.)