Futurama, which started showing earlier this month (and will be screened in this country by Sky One from September), is his latest effort and, like its predecessor, it proves that the only way that American television today can be provocative, funny and original is through cartoons. The humour that Groening extracts from human venality, fascistic businessmen and nasty little personal habits would never be permitted in the dreary, formulaic sitcoms that US network television churns out on a production line.
But it is also just the latest in a series of cartoons targeted at an adult audience, all of them owing something to Homer and his family. Futurama has its debut, ironically, just as the bandwagon started by Groening a decade ago is looking a little top heavy.
Futurama is set in the year 3000, when a pizza delivery man called Fry emerges from a time capsule to find a world that is... quite like the present one, but better drawn. There are futuristic Irish bars called "O'Zorgnax's". Fry refuses to take a four-dimensional apartment because "we are not going to pay for a dimension we don't use". The most fashionable part of Manhattan to live in is the Upper-Upper West Side, a mile above West 86th Street. The world is run by a fascistic giant corporation. (Motto: "you gotta do what you gotta do.") And poor Fry, who initially sees his thousand-year journey as a chance to change his life, is instructed by a "fate assignment officer" that his job has been determined by a machine: he is to be a delivery boy. "Have a nice future," he is told cheerily. It is a close relative of Red Dwarf, the BBC series which turned science fiction inside out and introduced the word "smeg" to the everyday vocabulary of pre-teenagers.
This is a long way from Springfield, the small town where life is nasty, brutish and funny-coloured. We are in the future; we are in space; and the characters include a mendacious and vulgar robot called Bender. All the same, "there was a lot in Futurama to keep a Simpsons fan happy", as fan Jordan Hoffman wrote in LeisureNet, an Internet magazine. "The cynicism, the hackneyed jokes, the minutiae filling every frame, and yes, it does seem that Bender the robot... looks like a silver Homer." Bender, as well as being a heavy drinker and smoker, has a deep interest in pornography - circuit diagrams count as one-handed reading. In space, no one can see you... well, you get the idea.
A decade ago Groening took a medium that was out of fashion and used it to create one of the greatest television series ever, with characters who defined the Nineties. It started out in 1987 as 30-second spots set in the Tracey Ullman show, then graduated to its own slot on Rupert Murdoch's Fox channel. Since then it has been massively successful for him and for Fox, earning hundreds of millions of dollars in product sales and syndication around the world. Bart Simpson, who was once regarded as a kind of juvenile Johnny Rotten, a threat to the morals of the nation, is now one of the best-known faces in the world. According to Groening, after the Gulf War a Mid-Western town wanted to erect a statue of Bart stomping on Saddam Hussein. He is an icon, which is to say you can buy T-shirts with his face on them.
Groening is philosophical about the success of The Simpsons, and its side effects. (He is philosophical about most things. He is, as he is the first to admit, a rotten old hippy.) "As much as I love The Simpsons show, I love those Simpsons figurines," he told Wired magazine. "To me the figurines are part of the creative product. OK, I'm not that proud of the Simpsons asthma inhalers, but that comes with the territory."
His vision for the new series draws once again a dyspeptic view of America, a twisted recycling of all the old cliches turned back upon themselves. The broken mould for The Simpsons was The Flintstones, the first ever prime-time cartoon, launched in 1960. Instead of the friendly boss at the rock-breaking plant, there was a homicidal maniac who ran the nuclear power plant. Homer's stubble is not, like Fred's, just enough to be manly: it is gross. Fred is cuddly and Homer is fat.
Just as The Simpsons draws on The Flintstones, so Futurama draws on Star Trek, Star Wars and (especially) Lost in Space. But whereas they have a reassuring faith in the ability of the future to deliver, Futurama does not. "Enough of these TV shows in which the problems of the universe are solved by militarism guided by New-Age spirituality," Groening told the Boston Herald recently. "I'm reacting in part to the liberal optimism of Star Trek and Star Wars, which seem to be the dominant science-fiction fantasies of our time," he told Mother Jones Magazine.
He is also, it is clear, reacting against Fox and what he went through to get Futurama on the air. "It has been by far the worst experience of my grown-up life," he told Mother Jones. "I guess I shouldn't have been surprised because this is how everyone is treated. But I thought I would have a little bit more leeway since I made Fox so much money with The Simpsons." He was wrong, of course. "The Simpsons obviously is a huge success and Fox has nothing to do with its success, with its creative success, and as a result they don't really like the show. They don't like The Simpsons at Fox.
"The second they ordered it, they completely freaked out and were afraid the show was too dark and mean-spirited, and thought they had made a huge mistake and that the only way they could address their anxieties was to try to make me as crazy as possible with their frustrations." They were particularly upset, apparently, with the Suicide Box in the pilot episode.
The network executives at Fox moved it this week from its prime Sunday- evening slot to Tuesday. It sits after King of the Hill, a cartoon that brings us the adventures of a propane sales representative from Texas, and is slightly on the wane. (It is much funnier than it sounds. Really. Much funnier.) Fox is putting its money instead on Family Guy, a cartoon that was previewed after the Super Bowl and which seemed distinctly less innovative. It already has PJs, a "foamation" series by Eddy Murphy which proves that American television will give prime-time attention to black people, as long as they are little foam models.
If all this sounds like a lot of cartoons, then hold your breath. Every network except CBS has a cartoon under development. Meg Ryan is at work on "a female South Park" called Quints. David Spade is doing Sammy for NBC. Fox and UPN, another cable channel, will have seven cartoons between them by the end of May.
Network executives are a famously stupid bunch, and the slightest hint of originality or innovation has them retching in terror. But what they can do with verve and polish is copy, and so they have spent the last two years trying to recreate the success of cartoons like Ren and Stimpy from Nickelodeon, South Park from Comedy Central, and MTV's Beavis and Butthead, all mutant children of Homer and Marge. Now the fruits of their labours are all appearing at the same time. Once again, it would seem a historic triumph is within reach for the industry: something that was supposed to be different, original and new could, through the Herculean labours of very highly paid executives, be made tired and repetitive.
Futurama still looks different. It is not, by the common consent of critics, as good as The Simpsons. Yet. Most would accept that it is only on its third programme, and that The Simpsons wasn't as good as The Simpsons for some time. There are some weaknesses - Groening has some sort of a problem with women, and his female characters are weaker than his males (or his robots). It will take time to populate the world of Fry with all the characters, side references and textures of a series that has taken 10 years to build. None the less, it has already embarrassed Fox with audience ratings that make it one of the network's strongest offerings. All of which, it would seem, just goes to prove Groening's favourite aphorism: "The authorities don't have your best interests at heart."