Since being asked by James Brooks to adapt his Life in Hell comic strip as a filler for the Tracy Ullman Show way back in 1988, Matt Groening has emerged as one of the most influential writers and animators working today. The animated shorts that he created were The Simpsons and they quickly became embraced by viewers around the world. Now, as the show reaches its 20th year and 400th episode, fans are being treated to a movie featuring their favourite characters. Groening tells BBC Movies a little about what that means to him...
The idea of The Simpsons Movie has been around since series two or three. What was the tipping point?
Well, we've been talking about doing a movie since 1992 but we've always been working on the show. We work on it all year round and we do 24 episodes a year. We didn't have a team waiting in the wings ready to do a movie. But finally we said we were coming up to our 20th year of existence and our 400th episode, so we should get a movie out.
What's the best thing about having finally made The Simpsons into a movie?
The movie is obviously a thrill for all of us because we get to listen to an audience in a theatre laughing at it. That doesn't happen at home with our families. The other thing is that it's also a way of honouring the people that work on the show. The great actors - Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer and all the rest. They're all fantastic and this basically features all these characters and in the credits you actually get to see which characters they play. The other thing is that it's a way of honouring the animators. This really is a tribute to the art of hand-drawn animation, which is basically disappearing. All the animated movies these days are computer generated and this is the old-fashioned, hand-drawn approach.
There are two very big themes running through the movie - the environment and family. Did you decide to take two fairly big themes as a way of projecting the story over 90 minutes as opposed to 25?
The environment has been a part of the show from the beginning, as well as great theological questions. Bart goes to church in one of the very early episodes and asks: "Do robots go to heaven?" The Sunday school teacher says: "Of course not!" And then Bart asks what about a robot with a human brain? So that's the kind of deep theological quandary we deal with.
What was never going to be in The Simpsons Movie? Did you set yourself any limits?
No. We thought about what we wanted to put in the movie that we couldn't show on television, like Bart naked. And we also argued over jokes. Every single scene in the movie received an incredible amount of attention and because we didn't have a strict deadline to begin with, it took a long time to write the script. For instance, the scene with Homer on the roof with Bart, it was always my contention that if you put Homer on the roof by the end of the scene he must fall off the roof. He just had to do that. It's the kind of stupid sight gag we're very proud of.
Do you have trouble coming up with new ideas for storylines? Do you ever have an idea and then realise you'd done it 13 years ago?
After 400 episodes - or as Homer would say, one for every day of the year - it is harder to come up with new ideas, but we have a staff of writers, some of whom are so young they grew up watching the show. We also have Al Jean, who is some kind of weird mystical genius. Al has a really good memory but these younger writers really have memorised every episode and will tell us if we did that in season five.
Green Day guest star in this movie, but you've had some equally big rock guests on the show. Given your deep love of rock music do you ever just pull strings for the hell of it and write an irrelevant part in an episode just to get to meet someone?
Definitely having Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr - not at the same time but over the years - was a dream come true for all of us.
The Simpsons has been such a big part of your life for so long. Do you ever get tired of it?
You know it's true The Simpsons has been so much a part of my life that at times I just want to take a drink... No I don't get tired of it. First of all, it's a collaborative effort. Al writes some of the best jokes we've ever done, in addition to running the show. And I get to experience the show both as a participant and as a fan. It's really, really fun just to go there and be a part of the process. We think the scripts are really good and then the actors take it to a different level with their adlibs and in the way they interpret the scripts. In fact, some of the best jokes get deleted.
How much work do you actually do on The Simpsons? Are you very hands on?
Here's the deal. I created the thing so I can do whatever I want. The truth is, and this is serious, I have actually two shows I work on. I work on The Simpsons and I work on Futurama. What I do is I can tell the people at Futurama I'm working at The Simpsons and the people at The Simpsons that I'm working on Futurama and then I just go home.
Now he's on the big screen, what happens to Hollywood if Homer J Simpson wins an Oscar?
It would just be an honour to be nominated [smiles, knowingly].
The Simpsons Movie opens in UK cinemas on Wednesday, 25th July 2007.