Everyone and no one knows Matt Groening.
As the very wealthy man behind The Simpsons and Futurama, he has long been considered one of the most successful and influential men in animation, regularly appearing at comic conventions and fan events even as his day-to-day involvement in the series that made his name has long been called into question.
An elusive presence who nonetheless marks his territory with a reportedly contractually-obligated signature that appears on every piece of Simpsons artwork or merchandise, Groening has overseen a behind-the-scenes culture that has long appeared to operate as a well-oiled if relatively secretive machine, but one with moments of darkness that only die-hard fans will have been aware of.
Groening is this month debuting his third animated project for television, jumping to Netflix with the fantasy satire Disenchantment, his first series anchored by a female lead, and his first series to launch with a diverse writing staff that includes women.
But Groening is also having to adjust to a TV climate very different to the one he stumbled into 30 years ago, where production clashes, institutional misogyny and fiery power plays were able to be kept well-hidden, and public backlash wasn't as powerful in its consequences as it is today.
Groening learnt this first-hand just last month, when he appeared to shrug off the growing controversy over the Simpsons' resident Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, one spearheaded by a documentary that addressed the character's stereotypical accent, the white actor who has always voiced him, and the negative side effects the character has had on a generation of Indian-Americans.
Speaking to the New York Times, Groening claimed there was no longer any "nuance" to the debate over the character, adding that his previous comments that "people love to pretend they're offended" remained true of both the Apu controversy and culture at large: "There is the outrage of the week and it comes and goes… I think particularly right now, people feel so aggrieved and crazed and powerless that they're picking the wrong battles."
It was a tone-deaf response to a matter that The Simpsons had already confronted unsuccessfully on the series itself, with Lisa Simpson echoing Groening's stance with her own (very uncharacteristic for the vegetarian, liberal and socially-minded youngster) non-answer as to whether Apu's continued existence on the show was a problem.
Groening's interview appeared to be the official last word on the matter, following three decades of assuming the role of the show's de facto spokesperson. But that in itself has often proven conscientious, with individuals who have worked on the show arguing that it is a bending of the truth to describe Groening as the master behind its success.
Instead many have described the show's original producer Sam Simon, who died in 2015 from cancer, as the man who truly shaped The Simpsons into what we recognise today.
Jay Kogen, a former producer on the show, told the New York Times in 2001 that "Sam had this amazing conception of Springfield. He kept expanding the idea. He knew the freedom that animation provides and utilised it to the full extent. The big story at the time was 'Cartoonist breaks through into TV'. It could also have been, just as easily, 'Old-time TV producer breaks through into TV'".
It was admittedly a strong backstory for The Simpsons to rest much of its early press on. Groening was a largely unknown cartoonist and underground comic book writer when he was approached by filmmaker James L Brooks to pitch his idea for potential animated work – work that would eventually become short animated skits broadcast during episodes of The Tracey Ullman Show.
Those skits, which revolved around a nuclear family with yellow skin that were named and inspired by Groening's own family, would end up making Groening one of the wealthiest figures in US television. Not bad for a man who spent much of the Eighties working in a record store.
Simon was brought on board to shape The Simpsons into its own half-hour television show, his experience working on sitcoms including Taxi and Cheers making him a strong choice for developing the show's rich mythology, its comic voice and its vast supporting cast. But he and Groening reportedly clashed repeatedly during Simon's four-season run on the series.
"In this business, being a nice guy is perceived as a character defect," Groening told the Los Angeles Times in reference to the feud. Simon, speaking to the same newspaper in 1990, expressed minor unhappiness with being largely left out of the show's legacy. "It bothers me a little bit," he said. "But I knew going in that Matt, the underground cartoonist who gets a series, was a compelling story. He did create the characters… He's the show's ambassador."
It was a characterisation Groening rejected, adding: "That's a little bit condescending. There's definitely a power struggle here. There's a scramble to claim credit for the show now that it's become successful."
Speaking to the New York Times a decade later, Groening's stance on Simon hadn't changed. "It was a pleasant experience for a few months, but then became very contentious. His motto was '13 and out' – the network's initial order was for 13 episodes – and he thought the whole thing was going to be a failure. It wouldn't affect him, but my career would be ruined! Which is why nobody talks about him anymore." He added, "Make sure you put in that I think Sam Simon is brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced."
Simon disputed Groening's recollections, stating: "I didn't think the show was going to be successful, but I knew it would be good, and fun to work on. So what I used to say was, 'Hey, come on, we're 13 and out, so let's have fun and do what we like.'"
It has often been stated that Groening maintains a level of control over the show's output, occasionally exercising veto power over jokes or scenes that he feels go against the show's ethos. But he has also been more willing over the years to discuss the slightly exaggerated level of respect he gets.
Speaking to LA Weekly in 2007, he said: "Of course there's guilt. But on the other hand, I think to myself, 'Look. The world is full of talented people who don't get the credit they deserve. And then there's me: I'm one of those people who gets more credit than I deserve.' So I go, 'Well . . . very few people have that experience! It's very nice!' So do I feel guilty? Yes. Do I admit it? Yes. And then I move on."
To be fair to Groening, Simon was often open about his prickliness in his lifetime, expressing during a 2007 podcast interview that, "There's some perception that I'm difficult, and I think that's fair." He was also allegedly responsible for some of the show's more outrageous behind-the-scenes failings in its early years. In 2017, cartoonist and illustrator Mimi Pond told Jezebel that she was deliberately barred from the writers room of The Simpsons because of her gender. Pond, who co-wrote the show's very first episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, recalled that Simon had a very peculiar reason for not inviting her to come on board full-time.
"[He] didn't want any women around because he was going through a divorce," she said.
"It had remained a boys' club for a good long time. I feel like I was just as qualified as anyone else who came along and got hired on the show, and it was just because I was a woman that I was, you know, not allowed entry into that club. I always wind up being the turd in the punchbowl because the show is so beloved and everything, and I'm sorry to burst bubbles but… It wasn't a pleasant experience for me."
It was poor treatment of a female voice that was replicated elsewhere. Of the 133 writers to have worked full-time on the series, only 13 were women, and the show only hired its first female staff writer in 1994 – six seasons into the show's run. Futurama, which ran for seven seasons in total, was also written by a nearly exclusively male collection of writers.
In addition, Maude Flanders, the timid, God-fearing wife of Simpsons neighbour Ned, was killed off the series after 20th Century Fox, the show's production studio, declined to pay voice actress Maggie Roswell the bump in salary that she requested. Prior to her request, the show's six leading voice actors, Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria all secured multi-million dollar raises.
Requesting a bump from $1,500 to $6,000 per episode after complaining of having to commute from her home in Denver to Los Angeles for recording, Roswell was turned down.
"I was part of the backbone of The Simpsons," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. "I didn't think it was exorbitant. I wasn't asking for what the other cast members make. I was just trying to recoup all the costs I had in travel." Roswell and her Simpsons bosses eventually came to a new financial agreement, and the actress returned to the show in 2001.
Such conflicts would raise more eyebrows today, in an entertainment culture in which behind-the-scenes feuds, gender equality and fair pay are more widely discussed, but were often brushed under the rug during Groening's prime. Disenchantment, to its credit, has already made strides to improve upon its Groening lineage, recruiting at least two female staff writers and Groening revealing this month that its female star Abbi Jacobson regularly "kicked up the lines we wrote for her an extra notch and made them even better."
But the show itself has received mixed early reviews, with critics complimenting its jaunty score and occasional laughs, but arguing that it pales in comparison to much modern animation, including its animated Netflix brethren BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth. The Vergewent one further, calling it "safe, dated and bland."
Based on Groening's history and his past conflicts, however, it shouldn't come as a surprise. Very much a man of a different era, and often dependent on others to bring his ideas to life, Groening has proven this year that not every revered pop culture genius of yesteryear can slip so easily into modern entertainment without any bumps along the way.
As The Simpsons lurches into its historic 30th season amid a cloud of controversy about its necessity in today's TV landscape, it's worth asking whether Groening has much of a place in it either.