When Matt Groening and Lynda Barry stepped onto the stage of the Arlington Theatre on Friday, Oct. 10, it was in a style only two cartoonists could pull off: wearing knit hats shaped like “Futurama” characters Nibbler and Bender and introducing themselves as each other. Such casual humor should be expected of any 40-year friendship, especially when it involves Barry, creator of the comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek and author of several novels, and Groening, best known for his comic strip Life in Hell and cartoon sitcoms “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.”
The event, arranged by UCSB Arts & Lectures, attracted a crowd of several hundred. Audience members ranged from young children to elderly couples, most in semi-formal attire. The huge theater walls were bedecked with balconies and lanterns to resemble the exterior of Spanish Mediterranean buildings. Depthless black covered the ceiling, and one could easily picture themself in a tranquil nighttime courtyard — at least, until the show began.
First came iconic clips of the Simpsons and their antics: Bart showing Lisa his (accurate) illustrated prediction of their father being crushed by a garage door, Homer hurtling down a hill on skis as mounds of snow striked his groin and the entire family suffering epileptic seizures induced by a Japanese cartoon. The audience was roaring with laughter before Groening and Barry even took their seats in a corner of the stage.
The friends began their talk by recounting details of childhood. Barry described her Filipino grandmother, who sang in the kitchen and told far-fetched tales of monsters that attacked misbehaving children. Groening discussed how his family members influenced his most renowned characters. While cycling through a wealth of family pictures — taken by his father, a professional photographer — Groening revealed that Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and Abe Simpson were named after his real life father, mother, sisters and grandfather, respectively.
The discussion shifted to Evergreen State College, which the cartoonists both attended in the ’70s. Barry described the Oregon school as a liberal place where “everyone thought hippies would be around forever.” Groening first met Barry in college, upon learning that Barry had received a reply after writing to Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, one of Groening’s favorite writers. The cartoonists recalled a number of their college exploits, from Barry’s temporary work as a nude model to Groening’s position as editor of the school paper, where he announced he would print “anything anyone wanted.”
From there, Groening and Barry started talking about their artistic work. Barry, an experienced art teacher, encouraged artists and writers to work by hand rather than computer, because hands don’t have delete buttons. She played a video, showing lines drawn by a child juxtaposed with those drawn by Picasso in an abstract sketch and those drawn by a “physics dude” in a diagram. Barry insisted that such lines were alike in that they were all created by people getting ideas.
Barry then showed the hilarious (but not entirely unrecognizable) results of her adult students sketching Marge Simpson for a minute with their eyes closed, to prove that adults who’d stopped drawing for years could still find joy in creating art. Not to be exempted, Groening and Barry made their own blind drawings on stage. Groening joked that he would sell his fairly accurate representation of Marge for five dollars, as Barry cackled at her own flawed attempt.
While Barry leaned back in her chair feigning boredom when it was Groening’s turn to talk, and Groening laughed loudly at Barry’s humiliating stories, it was easy to see that this was a lasting friendship. The cartoonists ended their effortless exchange with an emotional hug, which might have lasted longer if they hadn’t reserved time to answer questions from the audience.
The first question came from dedicated fan Matt Wallace, who asked if he could buy Groening’s drawing. Wallace, proudly displaying the sketch after the Q&A session, stated, “I met Matt probably 20, 25 years ago … He was doing a book signing pre-‘Simpsons.’”
Lucky, who at age 10 was the youngest audience member to ask questions, said one of her teachers “claimed” to have dated Groening’s father. Though a stunned Groening couldn’t confirm the statement, Lucky said of the event, “It’s really cool because I always watch ‘The Simpsons,’ and [once I] was Lisa for Halloween.”
Fans old and new left the Arlington Theatre laughing. That night Groening and Barry were living proof of the agelessness of friendship and humor.