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I had been drawing my weekly comic strip, “Life in Hell,” for about five years when I got a call from Jim Brooks, who was developing “The Tracey Ullman Show” for the brand-new Fox network. He wanted me to come in and pitch an idea for doing little cartoons on that show. I soon realized that whatever I pitched would not be owned by me, but would be owned by Fox, so I decided to keep my rabbits in “Life in Hell” and come up with something new.
While I was waiting—I believe they kept me waiting for over an hour—I very quickly drew the Simpsons family. I basically drew my own family. My father’s name is Homer. My mother’s name is Margaret. I have a sister Lisa and another sister Maggie, so I drew all of them. I was going to name the main character Matt, but I didn’t think it would go over well in a pitch meeting, so I changed the name to Bart.
Back in high school I wrote a novel about a character named Bart Simpson. I thought it was a very unusual name for a kid at the time. I had this idea of an angry father yelling “Bart,” and Bart sounds kind of like bark—like a barking dog. I thought it would sound funny. In my novel, Bart was the son of Homer Simpson. I took that name from a minor character in the novel The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West. Since Homer was my father’s name, and I thought Simpson was a funny name in that it had the word “simp” in it, which is short for “simpleton”—I just went with it.
Did your father contribute anything besides his first name?
My father was a really sharp cartoonist and filmmaker. He used to tape-record the family surreptitiously, either while we were driving around or at dinner, and in 1963 he and I made up a story about a brother and a sister, Lisa and Matt, having an adventure out in the woods with animals. I told it to my sister Lisa, and she in turn told it to my sister Maggie. My father recorded the telling of the story by Lisa to Maggie, and then he used it as the soundtrack to a movie. So the idea of dramatizing the family—Lisa, Maggie, Matt—I think was the inspiration for doing something kind of autobiographical with “The Simpsons.” There is an aspect of the psychodynamics of my family in which it makes sense that one of us grew up and made a cartoon out of the family and had it shown all over the world.