Matt Groening is about to get real.
“Everything is a learning experience,” he says. He’s answering a question related to the recent controversy over Simpsons character Apu, who some viewers complain is a derisive Indian caricature. “You know, I’m trying not to…” Silence. The call mysteriously disconnects.
Perhaps it was karmic justice — his publicist did stipulate that I ask only about Disenchantment, Groening’s new animated series on Netflix, and not about Apu. But, hey, you’ve gotta shoot your shot.
In any case, what sort of learning experience is Disenchantment? Well, the fantasy-comedy follows the exploits of a wino princess (Abbi Jacobson), her elf sidekick (Nat Faxon), and her personal demon (Eric Andre). It’s Groening’s first new show in 20 years, and in the same way that Futurama lampooned sci-fi, this one takes on fantasy tropes. “A lot of fantasy in movies is very simple-minded — good versus evil,” Groening said earlier in our conversation. “I like to think there are more complex and subtle ideas in this series.”
Subtle indeed — there’s nary an oversimplified stereotype to get outraged by on Disenchantment. Despite its medieval setting, the series feels very 2018 — right down to its strong female protagonist and millennial-friendly theme about rejecting prescribed roles. At times, it even feels too inoffensive, especially compared to the raunchier fare (Rick & Morty, BoJack Horseman) in the current cartoon climate. Still, Groening insists the show is very much for grownups. “The easy way to pull cartoons into the adult world is by making them gross and dirty — there’s a lot of that stuff out there,” he said. “I’m more interested in real emotion.”
But while there are some Simpsons-esque heartstring-tugging moments peppered throughout Disenchantment, the show primarily traffics in the jaded, cleverer-than-thou irony Groening helped popularize in the modern era. And that’s a(nother) thing he won’t apologize to naysayers for: “I think of parody and irony and sarcasm as forms of humour, and humour as a language that cannot be understood by the squares, the dopes, and the earnest types who purse their lips in disapproval.” That’ll learn ’em.
Thank you. Come again?
After our call got dropped, Groening kindly agreed to answer the rest of my questions — well, some of them, anyway — via email.
Throughout Disenchantment there’s this theme of wanting to reject your destiny and unshackle yourself from your prescribed path. Why is this a theme you wanted to explore?
Shouldn’t the goal of life be to reject your destiny? To progress beyond the worries of your parents, church leaders, and probation officers? My third-grade teacher said I was going to grow up to be a smartass. My high-school counselor said I should forget about college and enroll in vocational school. My girlfriend said my cartooning was a waste of time and this relationship is over. We all need to struggle against the discouraging predictions thrown at us. In my case, only my third-grade teacher turned out to be right.
They say millennials have the opposite problem — they’ve got anxiety from having too many choices. Is the show’s theme a play on that struggle?
As Lisa Simpson once said, “Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity?” And as Homer then replied: “Yes! Crisitunity!” What I’m trying to say is that if you can’t answer a question, then grab a quote from “The Simpsons” and hope it works.
Is there no dental care in your fictional multiverse? Why do all your characters have overbites?
The overbites in The Simpsons and Futurama and Disenchantment are not because of any medical malfeasance, but due to my limited drawing abilities. When I try to draw conventional lower jaws, my pencil just won’t go that way. It’s been like this for so long that my cartoons look normal to me and real humans look downright freakish.