'The Simpsons': Matt Groening and Dan Castellaneta on EW's Greatest Character, Homer Simpson
Image Credit: FoxHomer is where our heart is: Yes, Mr. Simpson has topped our list of the 100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years. Of course, the endearing, goofy, impetuous quarter-wit at the center of The Simpsons didn’t win over America all by himself. EW.com caught up with Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, and Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer, to talk about our No. 1 D’oh! boy.
Q&A with Matt Groening
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Who or what was your inspiration for Homer Simpson?
Homer originated with my goal to both amuse my real father, Homer, and just annoy him a little bit. My father was an athletic, creative, intelligent filmmaker and writer, and the only thing he had in common with Homer was a love of donuts. And he never strangled me, but he got so mad sometimes, it felt like that could be the next move.
The show’s focus shifted from Bart to Homer around season 4. How did that come about? Were you responding to the audience’s love for Homer?
With Homer, there’s just a wider range of jokes you can do. And there are far more drastic consequences to Homer’s stupidity. There’s only so far you can go with a juvenile delinquent. We wanted Bart to do anything up to the point of him being tried in court as an adult. But Homer is an adult, and his boneheaded-ness is funnier. The things that come out of Homer’s mouth and the decisions Dan makes are unbelievable…. Homer is launching himself headfirst into every single impulsive thought that occurs to him. He is truly American in his love of food and idiotic pop culture. We can all relate to it, we just feel guilt about it. Homer feels guilt, but not until hours later. [Laughs] And only momentarily. Homer really is living in the moment.
He’s all Id.
He has the Ego too. It’s just that he’s mostly ruled by Id. But his redemption is his love of Marge and I think equally important, Marge’s love of Homer. I think if Marge didn’t love Homer, and weren’t bizarrely attracted to him, maybe the audience wouldn’t be on board so much. But we feel if Marge can forgive Homer, so can we.
What are some of the guiding principles that the writers use for Homer?
To me, there’s very little funnier than misplaced anger, and Homer’s rage makes me laugh. And one of the rules is that his hostility and rage are impulsive and not thought out, which then seems sadistic. If we keep it that he’s ruled by his impulses, then he can easily switch impulses. So, even though he impulsively wants to strangle Bart, he also gives up fairly easily. And it’s the one area of Homer that I feel a little regret about. Not regret, but… the idea of that particular action is supposed to be taken as a reminder that this is just a cartoon. There are other moments of emotional reality, but we’re not advocating child abuse. And in fact, Homer may strangle Bart, but he would never spank him. Because it’s too close to what people do.
The show has expressed Homer’s stupidity in so many creative ways. How dumb can you write the guy and still make it work?
You think Homer’s stupid on the show? You haven’t heard the things that have been pitched in the writers’ room. [Laughs] Somebody once said, “We will never make him forget his own name,” but we have written many lines in which he has forgotten his own name. They just haven’t made it into the show yet… The thing is, you do like him. You may not want to be a fellow employee or related to him, but he’s fun to watch from a distance.
We probably shouldn’t use the word matured, so let’s ask: How has Homer evolved over the years, even in subtle ways?
I think the only thing we’ve really talked about is how bad a father he can be — not so much to Bart, but to Lisa. There’s a tragic undercurrent to his relationship with his kids. Bart is so in his own world that it’s easier to not feel sorry for him, but you really feel sorry for Lisa, and we try to have Homer be a good father to Lisa from time to time. That is a conscious decision, is that Lisa not be disappointed by her father every step of the way.
What’s the strangest place you’ve seen fan love for Homer?
I’ve seen Homer Simpson graffiti in Buenos Aires on a wall. Somebody bothered not only to paint Homer on the side of a wall, but they actually colored in his skin yellow…. I was driving down Pico Boulevard [in Los Angeles] a couple years ago, and I saw there was something painted on the back of this VW bug. It was a desert scene, and then I saw this little yellow spec. And I got really close to the car at the red light, and I looked really closely and I could barely make it out, and somebody had drawn this whole desert scene, and there was Homer naked in the desert. They painted it on the back of their VW! That was a true honor.
Q&A with Dan Castellaneta
How would you sum up the enduring appeal of Homer? His stupidity is endlessly amusing, but he also has this childlike joy for life.
He loves his life. He doesn’t care that much if he’s fat and bald and not the smartest guy. He loves food. He loves Marge. Even though he complains about his kids, he has a great time with his kids. He may not like his job, but he’s somehow managed to even make it enjoyable for him by learning the fine art of goofing off. Of course, he does put the rest of the city and the world in danger, but he seems to be fine with it…. He’s completely self-unaware. There’s a famous line where Homer says, “Well, forgive me for having flaws that I don’t work on!” That’s the extent of his sarcasm.
What are your favorite moments to play?
There’s so many. It’s fun when Homer and Marge get amorous in bed. There’s a lot of tickling and giggling. That’s always fun to play. One of my favorite moments that always cracks me up — which also has something to do with Marge and Homer’s amorous adventures — was when Homer and Marge wound up nude in a gas balloon [in “Natural Born Kissers”]. Homer fell out of the balloon and they dragged his ass across the Crystal Cathedral while there was a service going on. And he’s hurt. Of course, it’s really horrible for him and for the people in the church, but it’s one of the funniest moments I can remember… He’s always so goofy and dumb, it really does land when he does have his serious moments, when he is sorry or embarrassed or feels bad about what he did or expresses sincere love for Marge. That started from day one when [executive producer] Jim Brooks told us, “[You] really gotta believe that these are real people with real emotions.” That’s another reason why there’s such an appeal. People do believe that they do exist, that they’re real.
How has Homer’s voice changed?
Originally, on the one-minute interstitials on The Tracey Ullman Show [which debuted in 1987], he had a very big overbite, so I immediately thought of Walter Matthau. Then when we did the full half-hours, those were like nine-hour recording sessions. It was just hard to sustain…. Because each one-minute interstitial was making one little comic point whereas there were all different emotions and dramatic situations [on the series]. I couldn’t get the variety out of that voice, so then it started to drop down in the throat where I had more power. I was able to go up and down and “Oooh!” It pretty much locked in around the eighth or ninth episode of the first season — the Christmas episode — although it was the first one that was aired. He did this whole speech, “Oh my God! Christmas is canceled!” The writers kept quoting that. They just thought that was so funny. I think it was because that was where I found the voice. It was at that moment where his emotions were all up and down and all over the place.
You’ve talked about how Jimmy Finlayson from the Laurel and Hardy movies served as inspiration for “D’oh!” but how did “Mmmm…” and Homer’s drooling originate?
Homer was looking for chocolate ice cream, but they only had Neapolitan ice cream and the chocolate was out. He goes, “We’re out of chocolate in the chocolate Neapolitan ice cream.” It was a chocolate/strawberry/pistachio Neapolitan ice cream. Marge goes, “Try the other box.” And then he goes, “Mmmm, chocolate.” I think the drooling was in an episode where Marge came in in a teddy or something, and Homer did a sort of sexual shudder. Now we use it for both sex and food.
Are fans constantly asking you to record their voicemail greetings?
I generally don’t like doing voice messages, but I do understand people want to hear the voice. It’s not like they’re meeting a celebrity — I don’t look like Homer. I have to do the voice, so they can at least know that they’ve met him…. It’s fun to walk past people who have a Homer shirt on and go, “This guy doesn’t even know that Homer’s walking right by him.”
Has a famous person or head of state ever surprised you by asking you to do the voice?
I went to record with Jackson Browne at his recording studio when he guest starred on the show. I’m thinking, “Wow, this is cool. I’m recording with Jackson Browne.” And then Jackson Browne said, “Wow, this is cool. I’m recording with Homer Simpson.” I couldn’t believe that.
For more on Homer — including a short Q&A with the man himself — pick up the current issue of EW. And tell us below: What is your favorite Homer moment of all-time?