Matt Groening: How he took 15 minutes to create a hit show

He couldn’t write well. Or draw well. So he decided to become a cartoonist instead. Or that’s how Matt Groening introduces himself.

The reality was that he moved to Hollywood to become a writer. But he didn’t do well. While working at a music store, he started drawing and distributing cartoons depicting the life a struggling artist lives in LA. “Life in hell” did decently well as a comic strip and was syndicated in over 250 weekly newspapers!

That’s when James Brooks – who was producing the Fox variety show – came across the strip and thought it could become a good short animated skit for the show. He called Groening to his office to discuss the possibilities.

While sitting in the waiting room, Groening realised something: he would have to give up the ownership rights to his strip and all the characters in it. And if the Fox variety show failed, it would mean the end of his comic strip as well!

He had 15 minutes to think up of an alternative idea he could pitch! He hurriedly sketched out the characters of a dysfunctional family: Homer the overweight father, Marge the slim mother with blue hair, Bart the bratty elder child, Lisa the intelligent middle sister, and Maggie the baby.

Coincidentally, Groening’s father’s name is Homer, and mothers name is Marge, and two sisters’ names are Lisa and Maggie! He just changed the older child’s name from his own Matt to Bart. Bart being an anagram for brat.

He named the family “The Simpsons” – abbreviating it from the simpletons. 

15 minutes to create a hit!

Groening created magic because he was under a severe time limit. Giving a time limit for creative tasks improves output significantly. But why?

Because quick decisions prevent overthinking. You can’t have the luxury to be indecisive. And more than that, time limits get your creative juices flowing.

When you feel under the stress of a deadline, your brain secretes two hormones. Cortisol, which is a stress hormone and activates the flight or fight response of your brain. And adrenaline. Which means you feel more energized in the moment, and you’ll be more alert and focused!

Along with this, the activity in your prefrontal complex heightens – making you better at problem solving, and allocation of time and resources. You become a  prioritisation pro.

This energy + alertness + prioritisation creates a powerful force that awakens better ideas from within you. 

But isn’t stress bad for you?

Not always. There is a difference between acute or short term stress and chronic stress. Short term stress can actually be beneficial as it temporarily boosts the immune system and enhances cognitive performance. Just like how weight lifting will break down your muscles to rebuild and make them stronger, short term stress makes you mentally stronger. 

It’s when the short term stress doesn’t go away and becomes chronic is when your body begins to suffer negative consequences. 

For best performance: create time limits for your first drafts. But take your time with the second draft and polish your work without the stress. 

Groening’s first draft

If Groening had taken more time to come up with a new idea, he would have focused a lot more on the family members and names of characters that didn’t really matter to the pitch, and ultimately to the show. 

By being under a deadline, he created quick characters. And came up with a quick substitution of something that had already worked for him. He had experience creating funny and concise comic strips about the dysfunctionalities of a society. Creating a new family to depict the same dysfunctionalities in a funny way wasn’t that difficult. 

But after winning the pitch, Groening built a strong production team that distributed the tasks and worked on creating episodes without being under constant deadlines and stress.

The Simpsons animated skits did so well that after 3 years of it being part of the Fox variety: Tracey Ullman show, Fox asked them to develop it into a 30 minute prime time show! And it became the longest running American sitcom!

Action Summary:

  • Most people don’t like deadlines because of the stress it generates in you. But forcing yourself to work under time limits for creative tasks will almost always improve your performance.