Matt Groening has been in the animation business for three decades and he still draws every day. In the middle of a roundtable interview with journalists at San Diego Comic-Con, The Simpsons and Futurama creator took out his personal notebook as a visual aid to help describe the characters in his new fantasy animated series Disenchantment.
“Here are our characters. I drew this at breakfast. This is Princess Bean. Now you would say, is she a princess? Yes, you can tell by the crown, right?” Groening said, making sure everyone at the table was in view of his signature illustration style.
Bean, voiced by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, is far from a Cinderella. The daughter of a grumpy, controlling King, Bean refuses to revert to the traditional type. She’s a drinker with a mischievous streak. She’s the kind of princess who is left home alone with the kingdom for a day and gets it taken over by partying vikings. “This is not Sleeping Beauty,” Groening added. “This is not even Waking Beauty. She’s an unusual type, and we did that on purpose. We’re just like, we’re going to do the opposite of what you expect.”
The princess has some unusual partners in crime. Groening’s whole concept for Disenchantment came from him sketching mythical creatures. Elfo, voiced by Nat Faxon, is Bean’s gullible, innocuous elf buddy.
“Elfo is based on the very first character I ever drew in this style in the fifth grade, and he looked almost exactly like that without the elf hat,” Groening said. “When we drew him first, and we wanted him to have romantic feelings towards Bean and towards other characters in the show, but he looked like a little kid. And so that’s why we gave him sideburns so you could tell that.”
And then there’s Luci, an easy lock to be a fan favorite character. Voiced to sinfully good perfection by Eric Andre, Luci is a demon sidekick to Bean. “This is a character that I designed independently of the show. Obviously it’s in a completely different style,” Groening said of Luci, who is a flat, cat-looking creature. “I think this is going to be a breakout tattoo.”
After meeting the characters on paper, Groening and executive producer Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons) went into detail about working with Netflix, maintaining their audience, and forming this fantasy world.
How has it been working with Netflix and how did you approach the show for a streaming audience?
Matt Groening: Well, working with Netflix has been a dream in part because they’ve been enthusiastic about every single thing we’ve mentioned. And they’re equally enthusiastic when we change our minds and go the other way. It’s incredible: Both the idea of telling stories in a new way, having 10 episodes in which to tell a story and having more time and no commercials. It’s just a dream.
Josh Weinstein: We could never tell this type of story on Fox or any regular network. You just couldn’t. And it’s also the wonderful thing, too, because we don’t have commercials, you’re following the story. You’re not interrupted by a razor blade or a Chevy commercial. Yeah, and that’s true of the storytelling, too. In the sitcom format you reset at the end of every episode, and we don’t do that, because we’re telling one long story. There’s lots of individual stories. As a writer, it’s really annoying that you have to reset at the end and reset at the beginning. And instead, we keep going and our characters keep going and growing, and that’s a lot more fun for us to write.
Matt Groening: And also we have this amazing staff of writers and animators who are younger than us. They like some of the stuff we like, but our references are generally a little older.
Josh Weinstein: This is very intentional, because we’re old farts, and half the writing staff is people like me who are 50 or older, and the other half is 30 or under.
I have this theory about young comedy writers. I worked on the show Gravity Falls, and it was amazing. I was the old guy on it. Everyone else was in their 20s, and they’re so much funnier than I am and so much better with storytelling and embracing emotions. There is a younger set of writers and animators who grew up on The Simpsons and shows like South Park. They’re already more evolved than us. They had a base. I grew up on Scooby Doo.
What is the secret to impress your fans that have followed you for many years in different projects with different stories? How do you find the right stories to keep impressing your audience?
Matt Groening: The secret is, honestly, we try to make each other laugh. And the fun thing is the writers are trying to make each other laugh when we’re writing the show. We try to do designs that have some kind of wit and fun to them. And then our favorite thing is when we have our table reading, when we bring the script for the first time and sit down with the actors, and they perform it. And when you can make John DiMaggio laugh at somebody else’s joke, it’s heaven.
Do you have more freedom without any censorship on Netflix?
Matt Groening: Yeah, there’s certainly no censorship at all. In fact, though, when we originally talked about this, we thought maybe we’ll go a little more risque, a little dirtier, and we wrote a few jokes that way, and we said, ‘No, this doesn’t feel right.’
Josh Weinstein: There was actually an early, early draft of the script where a character said shit, and it didn’t feel right. And so I think there’s a thing of us being allowed so we can talk about more adult topics and things like that, but there’s a smart way to do it as opposed to a crass way, and that’s something we’ve learned along the way.
How long was the concept in your mind before putting it down on paper?
Matt Groening: I started a sketch book a long time ago, five, eight years ago, something like that. I just wrote down every fantasy, cliché, and trope, and reference. There are 25 different kinds of short stature, mythical creatures from dwarves, elves, ogres, trolls, nymphs, imps, leprechauns, munchkins… on and on and on and on.
Can you talk a little bit about creating Bean as a character and how Abbi played with that creation?
Matt Groening: Josh and I sat down, and we laid out the world. And we worked on this for a really long time and it became quite clear that Bean was the center of the show, and that Elfo, her elf companion, and Luci, her personal demon, basically completed her. And she’s the most interesting character that we came up with for along time, because she had so many flaws, and she’s still lovable.
Josh Weinstein: It’s also an idea based a lot on history where women princesses would grow up in a patriarchal kingdom and never be allowed to rule. Even though she’s clearly much more together and smarter than her younger brother, half brother, Terry, she will never be able to rule. And so it’s a much more interesting conundrum for us. But what it also did was that transposed into being her age 19 and 20, because a lot of this is about going into the world for the first time. There are a lot of friends that I had when I was 19, 20, female and male, who drank too much. We didn’t know what we were going to do in life, but we knew we were sick of adults telling us what we’re going to do. So a lot of it is finding your way in the world. And especially as a woman in this world, we think there’s so many more interesting stories to tell that way.
Matt Groening: And Abbi took what we considered a very feminist line and made us realize how mild we were. She kicked it to another level. Fantastic. And I would say that’s true of all of our actors in this case, because we have more time to play with in telling the story than a regular network animated show that everybody had.
Disenchantment releases on August 17th on Netflix.
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