Matt Groening to give grads Bart-like wisdom?

Bart Simpson would never be allowed inside a college.

But Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons" who has built an empire on ridiculing authority figures, will stand behind the lectern today as the commencement speaker at his alma mater, The Evergreen State College.

His speech in the outdoor Campus Plaza is open to the public, as is his question-and-answer session with fellow cartoonist Lynda Barry tomorrow in the gymnasium.

"I left in shame, and now I'm returning in triumph," he said in a phone call from his Los Angeles office. "Well, I don't know if I left in shame, but I was kind of ashamed. That's the guilt that comes from reading Kierkegaard all winter."

But Evergreen staffers are delighted with the former philosophy major and school-newspaper editor who went on to achieve cartoon greatness that also encompasses "Futurama" and the "Life in Hell" strip, as well as 15 Emmy Awards and a Peabody for "The Simpsons." He'll speak before about 1,300 students at the liberal-arts college where he graduated in 1977.

Two days before the event, Groening wondered how he'd make it memorable. "Does anyone remember any graduation speech? I mean, I've attended a few graduations, and I don't remember who spoke, and I don't remember anything that they've said."

He admitted he'd put off writing his speech "like it's the final term paper I never finished." But there were some pearls of wisdom he could have used at his own graduation: "It's always good to have a good enough friend whose couch you can sleep on when you get evicted. And wash the dishes at the house that you're crashing at, and they'll be less inclined to kick you out."

Now 46, Groening is divorced and lives in L.A. with two sons, one of whom is named Homer.

"Evergreen was a blast," Groening recalled. "Kids spend their late adolescence rebelling against authority, if they've got any gumption. But there's nothing to rebel against at Evergreen, so you thrash about a bit at first, and then you go, `Oh, wait, I'm here to learn and have a good time.'

"When I was there, coed dorms had just come in, so when you went back home you could just regale your friends with tales of wildness in the coed dorms."

Evergreen was also the center of political correctness. "You had to turn your collar up when you went in to see a Clint Eastwood movie down in Olympia, because you didn't want to be seen by the other hippies," he said.

After Evergreen, Groening went on to amass a well-known list of achievements longer than Marge Simpson's beehive. "Life in Hell" was syndicated in 1980 and now runs in more than 200 newspapers, including the Ticket section of The Seattle Times. "The Simpsons" began as a short on "The Tracey Ullman Show" in 1987 and is now TV's longest-running animated series.

But in the beginning, was Groening inspired by an Evergreen version of the professor in the movie "The Paper Chase?" (They don't call them professors at Evergreen.)

"I had a philosophy teacher named Mark Levensky who taught fiction writing. And at the end of my time studying with him, he drew a formula on the blackboard that described the plot of every one of my short stories. It was a pretty simple formula," Groening said, chuckling. "And then he said, `You do what you do fairly well. Now you have to ask yourself, is it worth doing?' And that's haunted me for the rest of my life. That is the question that I keep asking myself."

Some of it wasn't worth it. That is, according to some Seattle Times readers who complained about a "Simpsons" comic strip last December, and according to the editors who then decided to stop running the strip.

"Well, you know, on TV the wilder stuff just whizzes by," Groening said. "So if something does offend you, it's immediately replaced by something else. But with a comic strip, you can just stare at the decapitated cat and mouse for as long as you want, and then you call a newspaper editor, and the strip gets pulled. And these things happen."

If it's true that anything funny is bound to offend, Groening said, "People have pretty much given up on (complaining about) `The Simpsons,' but at the beginning of the series everything offended somebody. . . . At first, I tried to write to people and say, `Homer's a bad example; you're not supposed to be like Homer.' "

These days, Groening's life should resemble Homer's less than it does Homer's rich, tyrannical boss, Monty Burns.

"My friends and I used to muse idly about how we would live if we ever made it - you know, made it big. And we wondered whether or not we would live the way rich people live, in big mansions and drive fancy cars and have servants, or we would live the way we live now and have more piles of comic books and video tapes and CDs. For me, the latter is the way life turned out. I just have bigger piles of junk.

"I'm sitting here in my office, and I've got a stack of CDs that otherwise I wouldn't have been able to afford. Here's the other thing! The more money you get, the more free stuff people send you and give you. I can't believe that! It is the greatest scam ever. I highly recommend getting rich. I get free appetizers in restaurants."

There's got to be a moral here for Evergreen students today.

"I was told that I would never get a job in the Pacific Northwest in journalism after my disgraceful stewardship of the Cooper Point Journal," Groening says of the school newspaper. "Then I didn't. Hey, they were right!"


To see Matt Groening:

1:15 p.m. today, The Evergreen State College, 2700 Evergreen Parkway, Olympia. Groening will also speak at noon tomorrow in the school's gymnasium. For more information, call 360-867-6128.