IT all started with some scratchy interludes on The Tracey Ullman show back in 1987.

Asked if he'd be interested in providing a short animation for the programme, cartoonist Matt Groening quickly sketched out a few cartoon characters prior to a pitch meeting with the Fox network.

Named after his own family, there was mum Marge, dad Homer, sisters Lisa and Maggie and Bart, an anagram of 'brat'.

After two years on Ullman, The Simpsons show as we know it took off and became a success in its own right, the first adult cartoon of its kind. Now, in 2009, it is celebrating its 20th anniversary with millions of fans in more than 50 countries all over the world glued to the antics of America's most famous family.

"It's amazing - 20 years of this," says Matt cheerfully, leaning forward across the table, glasses perched on his nose, hair slightly unkempt.

"That means Bart is 30 now, by the way, and Maggie will be speaking any day," he adds, before changing subject slightly.

"When I was walking in here today, I was thinking about how happy I was. And it's kind of annoying how happy I am. Because this is really fun and I'm completely entertained by the show. Even though I worked on it, I love watching it broadcast. I'm still a huge fan."

Matt has good reason to be happy. The Simpsons has made him a wealthy man, with stars ranging from Tony Blair to Mick Jagger and Reese Witherspoon lining up to appear on the show. Homer's catchphrase D'oh has been added to the Oxford English dictionary, and last year's Simpsons movie was a smash hit.

"We are still working on some people," he says when asked about future star guest appearances.

"There are plenty of cranky, older stars who say no. But sometimes they find out their grandkids or kids are fans of the show and they do it for them."

Matt started his career as an artist and writer - he still produces his cartoon strip Life in Hell for the LA Weekly newspaper and has done for the last 28 years. He says he was pretty confident that the dysfunctional Simpsons would be a hit, even in the early days.

"I always thought if we could get it on the air that kids would like it," he says. "I didn't know if adults would give it a chance just because there were no adult cartoons on at the time. I didn't think what success meant. I didn't think it through. So the fact that it's a worldwide phenomenon is staggering to me."

Where The Simpsons led, others followed. Futurama, another Matt creation, was soon on the air, along with the edgy South Park, Ren & Stimpy and Seth McFarland's Family Guy.

"There were a number of cartoonists and animators out there doing things that didn't look like everything else," recalls Matt. "If The Simpsons hadn't come along, I'm sure South Park would have. But we beat them slightly. What I love now is that all over television, there's animation that doesn't look like anything else.

"I remember growing up and watching TV animation, and most of it looked like other cartoons, and it was a very narrow range because everything was watered down for kids. Now I turn on the TV late at night, and I can't believe what I see. There's some amazing stuff out there."

Speaking of South Park, isn't Matt tempted to turn The Simpsons into something a bit riskier, and push the boundaries even further?

"We try to avoid doing anything that reflects on the other shows," he says. "We're working in the same areas of animated slapstick that we can't even watch Family Guy because we don't want to be accused of stealing from it. They have the same problem. We glance at it out of the corner of our eye."

The Simpsons family, who turned out yellow because "there was nothing else like it" and Caucasian pink "looked weird", wouldn't be the same cartoon without its patriarch, Homer Simpson. The donut loving, beer swilling, nuclear power station worker is what Matt calls "the secret to The Simpsons".

"There's something about Homer that's just amazing," he says, grinning. "He's such a buffoon that you can either relate to his love of beer, donuts, ice cream and laziness or you can feel superior to him. For me it goes back and forth. Sometimes I feel superior to Homer and sometimes I go, yeah, that's exactly like me.

"What I love about Homer, and I think this is universal and a reason why The Simpsons may be so successful around the world, is that we can all relate to a guy who is completely ruled by his impulses.

"He doesn't have feelings of guilt. He has some remorse, but he really wants what he wants in the moment. And for the rest of us who do feel guilt, there's something to envy about that. To be able to just do what you want in the moment. I look at YouTube videos all the time of buffoonish Americans, and I see Homer in a lot of them."

Although the character was named after Matt's dad, he says that in fact the real Homer, a filmmaker and cartoonist, is nothing like his cartoon namesake.

"He was centred and balanced enough in his own life that he wasn't completely insulted when I named this idiotic cartoon character after him," chuckles Matt, who has two teenage sons, Homer and Abe, with ex-wife Deborah.

"The only thing he didn't like was if Homer was ever mean to Marge. That's one of the main reasons why from the very beginning Homer isn't. Homer strangles Bart from time to time, but never Marge. The only thing that Homer the cartoon character did that my father didn't like was one time the Simpsons' car broke down out in the desert, and while the kids and Homer sat in the shade under a rock, Marge carried the tire back to town.

"My father called me up and said, 'I've never complained about the Simpsons, but Homer should not have done that.' That was the only time he got mad."

The Simpsons has certainly proved a tough act to follow for Matt. His cartoon creation Futurama, which premiered in 1999, was cancelled by its network Fox after four years, before it found a new home on the US Comedy Central network. With no sign of The Simpsons bandwagon slowing down, would Matt try another animation series?

Don't bet against it.

"I would consider it," he says. "Animation is very difficult. It can't run itself. It needs sustained scrutiny. There's nothing definite. But I'm always doodling.

"I have it really, really good," he adds smiling. "I have two TV shows. I work on The Simpsons and Futurama, and I lie to each of them. I can say to the people at Futurama I'm working on The Simpsons and vice versa, so I can go home.

"I have a good life."