Interesting piece on local alt-weekly lore in today's Pasadena Weekly. Nigey Lennon, who spent a decade writing for the old L.A. Reader along with her ex-husband Lionel Rolfe, writes that their paper and the LA Weekly began publishing the same week in 1978. From there, the paths diverged. The papers had distinct aspirations and cultures, with the Reader's cast of characters defined (at least in the rearview mirror) by Matt Groening, who drew his "Life in Hell" cartoons long before The Simpson's made anybody a millionaire.
Back then it seemed, at least at first, as though there might finally be a cultural scene developing in Los Angeles and hence, increasing opportunities for a couple of ink-stained polymaths to make public spectacles of themselves.
However, we soon came to understand that this fantasy of a burgeoning cultural Mecca in philistine LA was just that - a fantasy. In fact, it took Lionel and me exactly 10 minutes to learn that the Weekly - from the beginning, it was by far the more successful of the two papers - had no use for us. As its editor, a New York transplant who had previously worked at the New York Post, sternly admonished us, we lacked the all-important, if elusive, hipness quotient necessary to establish our credentials as contributors. Neither of us was particularly fascinated by Hollywood or by LA's music industry (the fact that I was an unsuccessful musician compounded the felony), and we weren't scenemakers by any stretch of the imagination. How could we be when our interests lay in recondite subjects like literature, architecture, history and politics?
But the thing that really rendered us non gratis in extremis was the fact that our appearance didn't pass muster: Lionel was portly and balding and favored ancient corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches, while my idea of "office casual" tended to be a T-shirt and old sweatpants.
In the Reader's original office on Spring Street, she says, Groening revealed the fetish for Winchell's that would foreshadow Homer's insatiable appetite for donuts.
Lennon also writes that "Life is Hell" never ran in the Reader, but other sources say it did before being syndicated.
It's a safe bet that not many folks visualize Matt the way I remember him - as the Reader's general factotum and sad sack, lurking in a dim cubicle where he attempted to evade censure by pretending to work.
Matt was the guy at the Reader whom everybody harassed because he gave the impression of abjectly wishing to be abused. He always seemed to be in the throes of catarrh and he often sported livid paper cuts which resulted from constantly redoing the boards that he was supposed to paste up, along with his other duties....
When he wasn't engaged in general editorial drudgery (he seemed, for instance, to spend an inordinate amount of time sharpening repro-blue markup pencils), Matt furtively squiggled comic drawings in his cubicle, usually one-eared rabbits or crude self-portraits. The thought that one day Matt might actually get his work published someplace never occurred to me.
The rest, of course, is television history. "The Simpsons" is one of, if not the, most successful shows ever to appear on television. It has generated billions of dollars' worth of revenue and made Matt Groening a millionaire many times over.
The rest of us, not so lucky, continued to toil. The Reader, despite periodic surges in circulation, continued its role as underdog of LA alternative weeklies. With little increase in its ad lineage, its page count never permitted more than two articles per issue. The main story often ran to 4,000 words or longer, and the pay for such an undertaking was a remarkable $150.
The Reader was purchased by New Times in 1996 and shut down.
Update: James Vowell and others respond that Lennon has some facts wrong.