Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The time I met Matt Groening

On this, the 25th anniversary of the debut of The Simpsons, I offer this true tale.
Last month my wife and I got to sit in on the table read for an upcoming episode of The Simpsons. I was sitting literally five feet away from Matt Groening (well, five feet away from the back of his head, but still). On the other side of the table from him was Dan Castellaneta and Yeardley Smith. As a fan of the show from its beginning this was beyond cool.

But first let's back up and talk about how it came about.

Our son ended up in a daycare infant class with another little boy and the two of them became buddies. Through that pairing we met the other boy's parents (with whom we get along well). As it turns out, the boy's father had years ago befriended someone who is now a producer on the show. And last week he contacted us about getting us seats in the room for the table read.

So, having kids is worthwhile after all.

The table read happens in a long conference room, with a table running down the middle and bench couches along the walls on both sides and folding chairs at the far end. The scripts with notes identifying who sits where are set out beforehand, and coincidentally we were positioned (as noted) just behind the creator (which actually ended up blocking my view of Dan, but I wasn't going to complain). There are conference phones on the table, and that's from where Julie Kavner and Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer remotely read their lines. Showrunner Al Jean read all the stage directions and once they started they really flew through the pages (it's just getting a feel for the script; the actors record their lines in the studio later). It was over in around half an hour.

We heard that sometimes the talent signed the scripts after the read. We were playing it cool beforehand; even through a couple people did go up to Groening to get theirs signed then, we tried to act like it was no big deal.

At some point my wife asked me what I would say to him. I didn't know, and I didn't think about it; I was just taking in the moment. And for the rest of the read I just enjoyed it as they went through without a thought about anything else. That part was marvelous.

After they finished the read and the applause finished Dan and Yeardley were already getting up to leave, and Groening was still in his chair, speaking to executive producer James L. Brooks on his left. No one rushed up to him. After what must have been a couple minutes my wife told me to go up and get him to sign my script. I got up and stood to his right, with him still facing toward Brooks. After what must have been only a minute but what felt like longer I tried to get his attention—I actually reached toward his should to tap him and at the last second thought better of that, and my finger just sort of barely brushed his shirt; he didn't give any indication of noticing. I waited another twenty seconds or so and when there seemed a pause then leaned down and said, "Excuse me, Mr. Groening" (and I'm reasonably certain I pronounced it correctly), setting down my copy of the script on the table.

He then said, neither with exasperation nor with enthusiasm, something like, "Oh, you're starting that" (suggesting a line of signing the scripts). Oblivious, I didn't do the obvious and introduce myself but I said, "I won't pretend I'm going to come up with something clever, but I will say that I have enjoyed the show since the beginning, and have stuck with it ever since…" and at that he uttered something that was probably the start of "That's great" but I then—for reasons that defy any explanation in retrospect—continued with the line: "… even through the lean years."

I imagine I meant to suggest that there was a general impression that the show dipped in quality that caused many to discontinue watching—and I'm not disagreeing the show was better in the early seasons, as I've written about before—but I'd steadfastly found something worthwhile to keep me tuning in every week for a quarter century. But is that really the one thing I wanted to say to this man?!?

As to whether that was how he interpreted it is another story; I can only hope he wasn't really paying that much attention (and my poor enunciation) as he drew a quick Bart on the cover page of the script (as you saw at the top of the post). By that point he just asked if I wanted my name on it—you know, that personalizing aspect of the whole thing that proved I actually interacted with the man, which he'd know had I conducted myself like a human being and introduced myself up front rather than as a colossal dork trying to compensate for a lack of wit by trying to be a pseudo-witty—and I finally told him my name so he could draw it in a dialog balloon over Bart's head. He handed me the signed script and I made a specific effort to shake his hand as I thanked him (which probably would have been better done at the onset of our interaction, but at least suggested I had regained a modest grasp on decorum) and then I got out of his proximity and walked toward the door.

It wasn't merely to make room for the others who were starting to gather around but even at that moment the idiocy of how I'd handled the past minute or two was coming to my cognition. I didn't even stay within earshot to hear my wife as she talked to him immediately after I left; I didn't want to taint her time with him with my residue.

So here was this great opportunity to be around these creative people whose work I've admired for over half my life that only a small number of people get to have, and sitting through the table read itself was very enjoyable. But now every time I glance at that doodle of Bart I won't think about how fun the preceding half hour had been but I'll dwell on how I flubbed that moment when I ill-advisedly crossed over from observer in the background to interloper at the table.

The fact that Groening undoubtedly has dealt with far worse and that he wouldn't remember me five minutes later is irrelevant. This is not his story; it's mine.

Of course, had I just walked away and not even attempted to get the autograph likely I would regret not seizing the opportunity. So really, I was screwed either way, but at least this way I have this story rather than the story of the time I didn't embarrass myself in front of Matt Groening.

This is why it's best not to try to talk to celebrities until you have been around them multiple times, as was the case with Rhett Miller.

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