Is Matt Groening Messing With Us?

The other day, I posted here about a reader’s complaint that the San Francisco Chronicle turned into a podcast. It was a voicemail message from a man who objected, very strenuously, to some redundant language in a Chronicle article.

It was the first installment of a new audio feature the Chronicle is calling “Correct Me if I’m Wrong,” and as first installments go, it was pretty great. The caller was so over-the-top obnoxious that I was compelled to write, “I will give a prize to the first person who listens to the whole thing and doesn’t either a) laugh out loud or b) want to hit the man in the throat with a flounder.”

It was so funny, in fact, that I briefly wondered if it was a stunt.

I was not the only one, it turns out, who thought it’s a stunt. A blog reader named Brian Lehman, an attorney (U. Chicago, ’00) in Washington, D.C., is not only convinced that the voicemail is a stunt, but he’s also pretty sure that the faux-irate caller was none other than … Matt Groening, best known as creator of The Simpsons.

FWIW, I called Groening’s office after Lehman first e-mailed me and subsequently sent him an e-mail through his assistant. Have not yet received a response. I am not persuaded that Lehman is right, but I do very much admire his energetic analysis. In retrospect, it also struck me as odd the podcast was introduced by Phil Bronstein, executive vice president and editor of the Chronicle (it’s a bit like George Bush recording the White House voicemail greeting). It’s also interesting that when tagging its podcast webpage, the Chronicle listed just two categories: “Correct Me if I’m Wrong” and … “Comedy.” Hmm.

Here is Lehman’s complete argument:

The best evidence that the phone call is a stunt comes from running searches on www.sfgate.com to find the article that the caller is upset about. The caller begins his message with the following:

Mr. Howe [clears throat],

I’m looking at, uh, the Monday issue, August 29th, page E6, the article on civilian spy planes. [clears throat] The cut-line under the photograph is redundant. It says “unmanned aerial vehicle” . . . not redundant but it’s prolix. It says “unmanned aerial vehicle.” The word “drone” is what you should have had in there. And then the subhead is a tautology. It says, “begins testing”. . . “for a service begins testing pilotless drone.”

Mr. Howe! Is there any other kind of drone? You, you tell me right now. Is there any other kind of drone, drone, other than a pilotless drone? Isn’t that what a drone is….[continues the rant]

I can’t find the article when I use an advanced search from 1995-present on the website. For example, no article uses the phrase “testing pilotless drone.” In fact, only 32 articles use the word “pilotless” and only 7 use the phrase “pilotless drone.”

Moreover, none of those articles match up with “the Monday issue, August 29th.” The last time that August 29th fell on a Monday was August 29, 2005.

Finally, the sound recording is also very good for a recording that is a year and a half old and presumably recorded on voice mail. [SJD note: I disagree with Lehman on this one; I have heard voicemails from 10 years ago that sound fine.]

I think that based on the above, one can conclude that the call is a prank. This leaves the question of who made the recording. The first time I heard this, I thought I recognized the voice almost instantly as Matt Groening’s voice. I had the pleasure of eating dinner with him earlier this month and talked with him for a few hours. Within two seconds of listening to the recording (and prior to the real shenanigans), I said to myself “Hey, that’s Matt.”

The best argument against it being Matt Groening is the phone call seems much meaner than Matt Groening would be willing to be. And certainly I can say that Matt was, in fact, a very nice guy when I met him. But if I’m correct that the call is a fake, then Matt is not really being mean to anyone because surely someone at the S.F. Chronicle knew that this was not real.

There may be other evidence that this is Matt Groening. First, according to this article on Salon.com, Matt worked for the Los Angeles Reader for six years and probably heard phone calls or complaints from readers. As one commenter wrote on the blog at the Chronicle , “I spent some time as a reporter for a newspaper in the south a while back, and this didn’t even come close to some of the abusive reader feedback that I’ve seen/read/heard.” Matt may be parodying those over-the-top phone calls he used to receive.

Second, Matt has also had run-ins with editors and thus might think this is particularly funny because he is not criticizing the writer but the editor. He was fired from the L.A. Reader when he wrote an angry letter to the editor. “Groening found out the way everybody else did, by picking up the paper.” Moreover, he had to face “the narrow mentality of newspaper editors (even ‘alternative’ newspaper editors ‘hated’ his approach to obscure rock criticism). . . .” Surely, Matt must have had editors talk to him this way before about things that are equally small.

Third, at the end the caller uses the phrase “Is it sinking into your thick skull…” Although I’ve been insulted many times, I’ve never been told I have a “thick skull.” But I do know that Homer Simpson has one ? in the eighth season of the Simpson’s Dr. Hibbert discovers that Homer has an abnormally thick skull and Moe decides that Homer should become a boxer.

In any event, even if it is not Matt Groening, this phone call demonstrates the type of genius I associate with him. As Homer said when watching “Man Getting Hit By Football”:

Homer: [laughing hysterically] This contest is over! Give that man the $10,000.

Jay: This isn’t “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Homer: But…the ball! His groin! Ah ha! It works on so many levels! [laughs more] Roll it again.

By the way, the number for the Chronicle is not the “complaint” line….it is the “Open Mic” line (I called it) …

Also, did you notice the comments section [on the Freakonomics blog]. Someone comments that the only person who is going to win your prize is the guy who makes the call. Two comments later (and perhaps after getting your message and checking out your blog), someone logs in as “Bart” and says “I did not laugh out loud (or even want to) nor did I want to hit the man in the throat with a flounder.”

Conspiracy theories are fun if only because of the white noise (or potential white noise)…

Based on the available evidence, what do you think?

It’s one thing if the call was a hoax and the Chronicle was fooled. If the paper actually helped perpetuate the hoax, that would make the people who worry about newspaper credibility most unhappy.


RandyfromCanada

this is very typical of American thinking , nothing can be simple everything must be a conspiracy and in the end Americans must look like they are winners .

{is clear l solved last speaker quizz gave almost exact answer comment 7 after 1st hint , but no one even noticed}

spending days wondering if this call is real or phoeny the newspaper wins , any publicity is good publicity .

Really though who cares ? As for the Homer Simpson quote , l have often felt he should speak for all Americans because than we would know most is a joke .

phoyd

Actually, it's a conspiracy started by Stephen J. Dubner, Matt Groening and the SF Chronicle to study the propagation of rumors on the Internet.

egretman

Where's Oliver Stone when we need him?

And why did RandyfromCanada get scr*wed out of his prize? I can believe that that Bart who logged in really is Groening and he is again taking a shot at Canada. We know that Groening hates Canada from that Simpson episode where Bart shows his butt and defiles the Canadian flag.

But why would Levitt go along with Groening's plan by not giving the prize to a Canadian?

But what does it all mean? The truth will out.

JRip

For what it is worth in this merry little tempest.
I have already seen the NY Times and WaPo change a few words in an online story after complaints.
Which version do they archive as their official record?

So...
Being unable to find the offending phrase does not mean it was not there.

meanwhile...
I checked a database of newspapers we have access to and found these:

From page D3 of the SF Chronicle Dec 14, 2003:

"It is counter-intuitive to suggest planes will be safer without human pilots. But the Pentagon has demonstrated the value of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles, shaped like bats and kites). Computers control these pilotless drones."

A description in a database of a cartoon appearing on page A32 of the SF Chronicle dated Nov 7, 2002. It is not clear what text was actually in the paper:

"A Tom Meyer editorial cartoon depicts the Democratic Party as a crashed pilotless drone aircraft."

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egretman

Why do people pick on Canadians?
Regularly, at a rhythm that's circadian
And why is it deemed to be wise
To refuse to give them the prize
And why would Groening record
Something the paper couldn't afford
These are the questions now open
I for one am hopin'
That the answer involves aliens
And not those pesky Episcopalians

DoorFrame

For what it's worth, the only news story that Lexis comes up with that includes the quote "Forest service begins testing pilotless drone" (or drones) is this one from the New York Times reporting on the voicemail.

w24x192

Quoting 'The Simpsons' is tantamount to quoting the Bible, in that one can find most anything one wants if one looks hard enough. As an avid fan myself, I know that this is certainly the case and that it can be used to great affect when working to annoy others. (For a while, I thought myself slightly psychic since I would be thinking about an episode of 'The Simpsons' and then it would come on that night - my friend shot this down by pointing out that since I think about 'The Simpsons' so much, the coincidence was bound to happen every now and then).

It seems that the Lehman, like me, has 'The Simpsons' on the brain. It's a tough affliction. Also, noting that a 'Bart' made a comment is a loose association at best.

All in all, the voice mail is probably a joke - we'll have to wait until the next message is posted to know for sure, I suppose.

GeologyRocks

Everyone picks on Canada

"Canada is just a loft apartment over a really great party."

- Robin Williams

rayunk

there's a very funny clip on youtube at the moment showing Ellen interviewing an old Texan woman via telephone on her show. After a brief google search, it turns out that this woman is a fake and the man who created her has gone so far as to create a myspace page for her (not really the type of thing an 80 yr old Texan would do, huh?)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-PN9iS8qMc

prosa

That "thick skull" comment likely has no Simpsons connection. It's a common expression, sometimes expressed as "thick head."

TheGoodReverend

My biggest concern is that no one's been able to find the article the caller is talking about. I've done full-text searches of Lexis, Newsbank, and SFGate for drone, pilotless, unmanned, and forest service and come up with nothing. Granted, he seemed to be talking about a subheadline and photo caption, neither of would necessarily appear in online transcripts. I also looked at the articles in the Business section (Mr. Howe's section) for Aug. 29, 2005 and 2006, and Aug. 28, 2006, and none of them have anything to do with drones, pilotless or otherwise. A newswire search similarly turns up nothing. I'd like to get my hands on the actual newspaper from those dates to confirm.

campsteve

In the television animation industry (of which I used to belong working under Matt Groening's brother-in-law), shows are written, drawn and created by a whole crew of talented people. One cannot assume that everything that goes into 'The Simpsons' represents the personal feelings or values of Matt Groening. Commonly, several writers work on a single episode even if only one is credited on screen. This is to assure, for one thing, that all episodes have a sense of continuity with character development. Furthermore, Homer and the other characters are just that, characters. Homer is not Matt. Bart is not Matt.

'The Simpsons' have been in production for closing in on two decades now. With the amount of people who have had their hand in the creation of the show, there is no way that any single statement of humor or satire is reflective of a single person, even the show's creator.

Could the caller be Matt Groening? I suppose it's not out of the question but no evidence could be taken from 'The Simpsons' itself.

Read more...

Matthew Prins

Having listened to far too many "Simpsons" commentaries, it certainly sounds like Matt Groening's voice and, generally, his speaking style (until the intentional repetitiveness sets in). That said, Groening's voice isn't so distinctive as to be unmistakable, so I'm not convinced one way or the other.

Also, what campsteve said.

charlies_daughter

Now I forget what it was I wanted to say . . .

Endymion

You cannot seriously propose a conspiracy of half-measures. If Dubner (and Levitt, for that matter) are involved, that changes things. Both have developed/exhibited a fondness for presenting the readers of this weblog with puzzles, then doling out hints until we understand. This suggests that the authors do indeed have access to information about this that we do not, and are coordinating with others to control distribution of this information--a conspiracy. Quite simply, Levitt & Dubner are eternally conspiring to toy with us, that is what makes this blog fun.
But in light of this signature behavior, we must look at the above post in search of inconsistencies and other clues. Prominent mention is made of Lehman's University of Chicago connection, of contests, of the fact that Groening was once so vicious in his defense of journalistic excellence that it cost him his job, and of an archive search going back to 1995. Why is this last significant? Because 1994 was the second to last year in which August 29th was a Monday. And what was the only editorial comment inserted by Dubner into the body of Lehman's post? An assertion that he had heard recordings of identical quality that were more than ten years old! Dubner is in fact referring to this very recording!
And so we have what was once a piece of slightly embarrasing trivia from more than a decade ago resurected through the power of the Internet as a collossal SFCronicle in-joke and secret Freakonomics prize contest. Lehman is acting as a catspaw for Dubner, via Levitt, and Groening, who is certainly capable of instigating this himself, is 'writing his own lines,' deciding his level of involvement.

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gobunny

This reminds me of the fuss caused by the BBC Radio 4 program 'Down the Line' when it first aired last year. It's a spoof phone-in show (introduced as if it's real) and similarly hilarious.

Listening to the SFC voicemail I can't help but wonder if it's in the same vein. Although of course it might be real...

Stephen J. Dubner

A blog reader wishing to remain anonymous writes to say:

I don't know whether the person who called in about the "pilotless drone" story was only pretending to be upset, but he was certainly referring to a real story, an article distributed by the Associated Press and carried in many, many newspapers between Sunday, August 21, 2005, and Monday, August 29, 2005. Below is the story as reprinted in a Bay Area newspaper on Monday, August 22; the story was also carried in the NY Times, among other places. I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised to find that it was carried in the SF Chronicle (which of course would have written its own headlines and photo captions for the story); I also would not be the slightest bit surprised to find that it was not, and the person who called in was confused about what paper it was in.

[SJD note: given the proprietary of electronic databases, it's quite possible that the Chronicle wouldn't or couldn't archive an A.P. article in its own archive.]

8/22/05 Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA) F4
2005 WLNR 15732933

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek,CA)
Copyright 2005 Contra Costa Times

August 22, 2005

Officials look to spy planes to fight western forest fires

By Alicia Chang, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Firefighters across the west are getting a high-tech ally in their battle against wildland flames: A remote-controlled spy plane that doesn't mind smoke, can see in the dark and never sleeps.

Scientists have been testing whether flocks of the planes -- similar to the spy drones the U.S. military flies over Iraq and Afghanistan -- can help track the direction and behavior of fast-moving flames. ...

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bart

So, what is my prize?

egretman

It would be the height of irony and perverseness of the blogging gods if Bart got the prize and not that Canadian, RandyfromCanada.

snubgodtoh

I agree with Mr. Retman. M.G. operating under the pseudonym Bart should receive the prize any day over that godless Canadian propagandist, "Randy " (if that's even "his" real name) from Canada. Three things are for certain: Bart is American, average Canadians oppose spell check, and this very day, W told Juan Williams that he doesn't "pronunce too good". O'Doyle Rules. If you don't love it, leave it (and don't participate in our better blogs, what's your GDP beyatch?). True that.