On the other end of the line, a phone rings. It's easy for a geeky fan of "The Simpsons" to get carried away, imagining a bulky animated...
On the other end of the line, a phone rings.
It’s easy for a geeky fan of “The Simpsons” to get carried away, imagining a bulky animated handset jangling on a table next to an orange living-room couch. Is it crazy to expect Marge Simpson to answer?
“Hello?” The woman’s voice is warm, melodious and confident, not at all like the stress-worn, gravel timbre that evokes visions of gravity-defying blue hair.
“Is this Margaret Groening?”
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“Yes,” she says, still sounding nothing like the mother of America’s beloved dysfunctional cartoon clan. “This is.”
After 18 TV seasons and a chart-topping $74 million debut last weekend for “The Simpsons Movie,” any fan worth his weight in Krusty Burgers knows that creator Matt Groening named the Simpsons after members of his own Portland family.
As the voice on the phone suggests, the real-life Marge, Homer, Lisa, Maggie and Patty hardly resemble their yellow, bobble-eyed alter egos. But the Simpsons-loving public doesn’t always get what Ned Flanders might call “reality-iddly.” With their names planted deep in pop culture, the Groenings have found themselves living with a sort of bizarro celebrity status.
“Some people, when they make the connection, act star struck,” says Lisa Groening, a 49-year-old English teacher at a private middle school in Pasadena, Calif. “Yes, it’s strange. I have to explain that I had nothing to do with creating the show … and I’m not Lisa Simpson.”
Every year, there’s a student who asks whether Lisa plays saxophone (no). Older sister Patty, 64, an artist who lives in Portland and shares a name with Marge Simpson’s chain-smoking spinster sister, once declined an autograph request from a department-store cashier. Youngest sister Maggie, a 46-year-old writer and children’s television consultant who lives in New York, preferred to stay mum about her experiences — much like her binky-sucking namesake on the show.
And Marge (“Actually, it’s Margaret,” Mrs. Groening says) has had to deal with pranksters calling for “Bart” and countless questions about her hair. “It was never blue,” she says.
Matt Groening, now 53, pitched the show to a Fox Network producer in 1987. Sketching out the now-iconic cartoon family on the spot, he hastily used his family’s names. For the boy, he went with Bart — an anagram of brat. Still, from the beginning, he has insisted that his siblings and parents were nothing like their namesakes.
Even Homer? Especially Homer.
Blown up on the big screen, Homer Simpson is no different from on the small screen: a bald, dimwitted, slothful, yet somehow lovable buffoon who waxes philosophical about doughnuts and Duff Beer. Dragging his feet into church, he groans, “Marge, why can’t I worship God in my own way: by praying like hell on my deathbed?”
Meanwhile, Homer Groening, who died in 1996, was a jock with a quiet disposition and an English degree from Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. He was a decorated World War II pilot who became a renowned ad man, cartoonist and writer. He perfected a backward basketball shot. He was an acclaimed documentary filmmaker with a passion for surfing. And as Margaret points out, her Homer had a full head of hair.
Adds Byron Ferris, a retired graphic artist who worked on a number of projects for Groening’s Portland advertising firm: “Not once did Homer Groening ever say ‘D’oh!’ “
Early in “The Simpsons Movie,” Homer uses his trademark throttle hold on Bart, shouting, “I’ll teach you to laugh at something that’s funny!” But as Lisa Groening recalls, “We didn’t have a whole lot of choking going on in our house.”
Still, Patty says there were a few similarities at the Groenings’ two-story house in Portland’s West Hills. For one, Homer Groening loved doughnuts. And just as Homer adores Marge, Patty says, “Homer really adored Margaret.”
Also, TV was important. Homer Groening was fond of nature shows and sports. Lisa recalls her father racing to the family home from a camping trip to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Together, the Groenings liked to watch “All in the Family.”
“My dad had great appreciation for well-written shows,” Lisa says. “But he didn’t have a loud, boisterous laugh — you knew he was laughing at something if his stomach moved up and down.”
Lisa and Patty say family members turn to one another to sort through the surrealism. (Flashback to the early ’90s, when the “Simpsons” franchise snowballed into an avalanche of merchandise, ranging from Lisa dolls to breakfast cereals to a talking Homer beer opener.)
But everyone is proud of Matt, they say. No one minds what he did. It’s still funny. With a giggle, Margaret Groening, who at 88 still swims regularly at the Multnomah Athletic Club, points out: “My maiden name is Wiggum. Like Chief Wiggum.”
If the “Simpsons” characters resemble anyone, Lisa says, it’s Matt, who, by the way, named one of his sons Homer. “He has all the goofy dumbness and weird rage of Homer,” she says of Matt. “He’s bratty and semi-rebellious like Bart. He can definitely be a know-it-all like Lisa. A lot of times, he chooses to be quiet, like Maggie.”
“But he also has the sweetness of Marge,” Lisa says. “I’ll give him that.”