Last week my actors and I had a great time in Evansville, Indiana with Bill Baer, creative writing professor at the University of Evansville and founder of The Southwell Institute (Bill is third from left in the photo below.)
I told Bill about my latest post re. HBO and The Sopranos and he told me the story of how his brother helped create and develop The Sopranos, but was never paid for it, and eventually sued the producer of the series.
This made me tell the story of how I'm pretty sure I helped create The Simpsons, TV's longest running cartoon situation comedy.
This is all true and I am not making any of it up.
The story begins in the late 1970's, when I began writing and drawing a comic strip about a real-life St. Louis family that I knew as acquaintances. I turned them, in my strip, into a horrifically dysfunctional group of people, giving them bizarre and vulgar adventures in the rich St. Louis suburbs. The family consisted of a father named Homer, whom I made bald and stupid, a mother with a tall bee-hive hairdo, a spoiled brat son, an unahppy daughter, and later a baby girl.
I only showed these cartoons to my closest friends, as I knew that, since the characters were all called by the same names as their real-life counterparts, it would not be fair to the actual family to parody them publicly.
Then, in the mid-1980's, The Riverfront Times, St. Louis' atlernative weekly newspaper, ran a feature article by Matt Groening, who at the time was drawing a syndicated cartoon called Life in Hell about a rabbit with one ear.
Groening's article said, "If you're a cartoonist and you think you have no talent, don't despair! Look at me. I'm drawing a comic about a stupid rabbit with one ear and I'm syndicated all over the country!" He encouraged folks to keep drawing, and the Riverfront Times followed up by announcing a Comic Strip Contest, the winner of which would have his work published in the paper.
I therefore wrote an introduction to my comic strip about Homer's dysfunctional family. In the introduction I claimed that I had begun drawing this strip in the 1930's, and that the real-life St. Louis family of the same name had been an attempt by some buffoon to copy my work by living it out in real life! Copyright infringement, you see. Life imitating art.
I submitted the typed intro and a copy of my cartoons under the pseudonym "Freeman Ring" and waited to find out if I would win the contest - of which Matt Groening himself might very well have been a judge (I honestly don't recall, as it's been so long ago).
You see here my drawing (from the mid-1980's) of my character Homer and his wife in bed. Their baby has just been abducted, and the mother sits awake in fear, while Homer sleeps soundly.
At any rate, a few weeks went by and the phone rang.
"Is Freeman Ring there?"
"This is so-and-so from the Riverfront Times. I just wanted to tell you that there's no way your strip can win the contest. It's way too vulgar and the characters are a real-life prominent family in St. Louis. But everyone at the office has read it and we think it's the funniest thing we've ever seen in our lives."
I did not celebrate, as Homer's wife is doing in this drawing of mine from c. 1985. I simply thanked him for the call and went on with my life.
Within a few years, guess what? The Simpsons began appearing on TV. Now although Matt Groening claims his characters are named after his own family members, including his father, whose name is actually Homer, it did seem odd that a cartoonist who was doing a strip about a one-eared rabbit suddenly began drawing a cartoon about a dysfunctional family whose father was a bald stupid guy named Homer, whose mother had a bee-hive hairdo, whose son was a trouble-maker, and which was rounded out by an unappreciated daughter and a baby girl. Oh, and a crabby cat - like the one in my cartoon family.
It's also rather odd how the early sketches of The Simpsons bear a true resemblance to my own drawings.
Now of course it's possible that Groening came up with The Simpsons entirely on his own, that he never saw my comics, and that the Homer and bee-hive issues are just coincidences. Perhaps he was not in fact a judge for the contest and the staff at the Riverfront Times never passed my drawings on to him.
It's also possible that I invented the Simpsons.
Our friend Bill Baer said, "It's almost certain that you did." Perhaps this is what Homer would be thinking in my portrait of him (left), had I not drawn it c. 1981.
The problem is, my characters are based on real people, a rich St. Louis family that's probably even more disturbed than I made them out to be in my stories. Thus, if I sued Groening, the money could very well end up going to the real-life "Simpsons", and probably not to me.
In the meantime, I continue to work in relative obscurity - the unsung host of The Theater of the Word on EWTN, unrecognized as the only man to play every part in a Shakespeare play (on an Ignatius Press audio book), and ignored as the true creator of The Simpsons.
By the way, I'm taking donations to make my next mortgage payment.
And that, my friends, is show-biz!