Don’t have an organic, grass-fed, hormone-free cow, man, but Thursday’s episode of Portlandia (IFC, 10 p.m.) features a famous native son of Portland: Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. The bespectacled cartoon king will make an extremely rare guest appearance in prime time as he assumes the role of Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who is suing Spyke (Fred Armisen) for making unlicensed “Bart Ska-mpson” T-shirts. With no lawyers present, we spoke to Groening about gig on the sketch comedy series (which received a two-season renewal on Tuesday) and his favorite bootleg Simpsons merchandise. After you read the Q&A, you can witness Groening taking legal action by watching an excluisve clip from the episode below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, how big a fan of Portlandia are you?
MATT GROENING: I basically dreamed Portlandia, without there being a TV show, as a homegrown Portland boy. The rain and the ferns and the greenery are definitely under my skin, and as somebody who grew up in Portland, the rest of the world feels like a desert. So I love it. I dream about Portland and my boyhood was pretty idyllic. And then this TV show came along and it’s fantastic, because in addition to Portland being this great paradise for the young and the hip, it’s got a little bit of an underdog feeling. It’s always lived in the shadow of Seattle. Forget California. But there definitely is a competition with Seattle, so it is very nice to see Portlandia on the map.
As someone with deep knowledge of Portland, can you confirm that Portlandia is in fact nailing it?
Well, yes. (laughs) I mean, it is part Portland. There are definitely some people who are not quite as eccentric. But in general it’s definitely got that whole Pacific Northwest funky granola, which I still have under my skin too…. Although it is called Portlandia, it basically describes a kind of a hipster community that exists everywhere from Austin to—it would seem like every state has its own little hipster enclave. I grew up in Portland, and then I went to school at Evergreen State College, which is the college equivalent of Portlandia. And Carrie Brownstein went there too…. I love the Feminist Bookstore. That kills me every time. And I love Spyke, the guy that I got to play across from.
You don’t do a lot of acting or cameos.
I do not. I’m in a lot of obscure documentaries. I’ve raved about Daniel Johnston, the Residents, Brave Combo, Steel Pulse. People call me up and I go “Okay.” In fact, I’ve been in too many. But this was an opportunity to act, and I have not acted since I had a walk-on cameo in The Tracey Ullman Show in 1988. And it’s a thrill to be asked. I didn’t have to whimper and beg.
Did Fred and Carrie (Brownstein) contact you directly?
They contacted me through Matt Selman, a Simpsons writer who they know, and he said, “There’s something about you suing them.” And I said, “Yep, I’m in. Sign me up.” They said I was playing myself and I thought, “I’ll be a good sport—that’ll be good.” Basically whatever they wrote I was going to do… And being in the presence of Fred and Carrie is the easiest thing in the world.
How were the nerves?
I hadn’t done it before. Nor did I get any direction. I’m wearing a suit and tie, which is unusual. It’s in a courtroom and I’m suing Spike, who has made Bart Ska-mpson t-shirts, and I played a disgruntled version of myself.
What was the toughest part of playing Matt Groening?
I would be delighted by a real-life Bart Ska-mpson t-shirt. (laughs) But in this case I had to complain about it. What was great is that there was a script and immediately Fred Armisen started improvising and he was fantastic, so I threw in a few things and they let the cameras roll for a long time…. Even though I’m playing a fictional version of myself, it makes me very nervous to be under oath in a court. I once had to testify at a trial, just as a witness, and they had a carafe of water next to me in the witness box. I tried to pour myself a glass of water and the top of the carafe came open and water poured all over me and the jury burst out laughing and I thought, “You know, this is a good move if you are trying to get sympathy.”
In real life, you’re somewhat obsessed with bootleg Simpsons merchandise, but not in a Mr. Burns-y kind of way, where you’re worried about lost money that could be yours. You like it. You collect it.
Well, yeah. When I was growing up, I read that the Walt Disney Company did not have everything that they had even done. And I said, “If I ever get the chance to make my own toys, I’m going to keep one of everything!” And then it just got to be too much. But the great thing is that the Internet documents everything. And if I want to feel truly weird, I look up unfortunate Simpsons tattoos, which are all of them basically. (laughs)
What is that you love about bootleg Simpsons merchandise?
Just the badness of it makes me laugh. The best awful bootleg ever was a coloring book from Russia that came out early on in the Simpsons success. I’m convinced that they showed the guy or whoever drew the coloring book a picture of the Simpsons for five seconds and said, “Okay… now draw!” And he or she drew a whole coloring book, and it’s so wrong. Spike’s Bart Ska-mpson t-shirt, by comparison, is a masterpiece.
Do the lawyers at Fox ever get annoyed that you talk about how you are amused by it and collect it?
Let me be careful here. I like it. I’m not endorsing it. I find it hilarious.
Can you walk us through the range of bootleg merchandise in your collection?
Well, unfortunately in the Northridge earthquake [in 1994], I lost almost all of my Tijuana Bart Sanchez figurines. You gotta glue your plaster figurines down when you put them on a high shelf. I have Russian nesting dolls. It’s the whole family, and you would think the smallest one would be Maggie but inside Maggie is Santa’s Little Helper. [I have] little Italian glass Barts. A Bart peeing. People sent me a lot of these. Sometimes I go, “Oh, this is a gift?” and they go, “No—sign it, please.” Let’s see, what have I gotten lately? I’m looking around my office. I’ve gotten some crazy stuff. Hang on, I’m going to walk over to my shelf. I’ve got this Bart Simpson figurine of Bart—I think it’s an Easter theme—Bart is sitting on a bunch of eggs, but they’ve painted him not the Simpsons yellow, but a pink Caucasian color, and the eggs are also pink. So it looks like he has multiple testicles.
Oh yes! I have no idea where that came from. Oh, and somebody last week in downtown L.A. handed me a button that said, “Ebola Comes to Springfield,” with a picture of Wendell, a very obscure character on the show. It was packaged in a little bag like they were going to sell it but they recognized me and I got that. So… I don’t know quite what I’m going to do with that. (laughs)
What advice would you give someone making bootleg merchandise?
Well, generally the window to the soul is the eyes, so make sure that they are almost circular and that the pupils are not as big as Elmo’s or any of the Sesame Street characters’ and that they’re not cross-eyed. There you go.
We see a Bart Ska-mpson t-shirt in this episode. What’s your favorite bad Simpsons knock off shirt ?
It would be the classic one, “Crack Kills,” where Bart is lodged in the buttocks of an enormous woman. You can look it up. It’s there. There are a million of them.
Now that you’ve done Portlandia, what is the one other TV show that you’d most want to guest star on?
And who would you want to play?
Me? But all I would do is tell Louie what a genius he is…. Oh, I want to be on Scandal!
Who would you play on Scandal?
I don’t care. I want to get shot. (laughs) I’ll be a body. That is the funniest show. Scandal makes me so happy.
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