Whether it’s poking fun at office culture (Office Space) or animating long segments where Hank Hill dicks around with his friends (King Of The Hill), Mike Judge has always celebrated slacker culture. Beavis And Butt-Head best captures that spirit: Two lazy teens lounge around their crummy house, watch TV, mock whatever’s on, and barely muster up the energy to attend high school. The only thing that riles them up at all is their halfhearted pursuit of girls—or at the very least, a good (or not) double-entendre. The show ran from 1993-1997 and was followed by the feature film Beavis And Butt-Head Do America, but then was shelved so Judge could work on other things, including the feature films Extract and Idiocracy. But mouth-breathing chuckles and “the great Cornholio” will have their day in the sun once more: On October 27, MTV is bringing back Beavis And Butt-Head for another go, and little seems to have changed from the mid-’90s, other than the notable lack of music videos for the two to riff on. During Judge’s appearance at the New York Comic-Con to promote the show’s return, The A.V. Club sat down with him to discuss how the characters will never change, the longevity of animation, and MTV’s self-awareness.
The A.V. Club: Why bring back Beavis And Butt-Head now? What about the timing worked for you?
Mike Judge: Partly, it was just because MTV brought it up again, but it was more of a full-court press this time. More than just, “Hey, what would you think about doin’ the show again?” But also, King Of The Hill was done; I’d done a live-action movie [Extract] that came out a couple years ago, and I didn’t have any plans to do that again anytime real soon, to direct again. Something about this just seemed really appealing to me now, and I still—as many times as I’ve been asked the question—haven’t figured out exactly why. I mean, just personal reasons, like King Of The Hill being done. I went back and looked at stuff that I’d written [for Beavis And Butt-Head], and just thought, “Wow, this would actually be pretty fun to do.” Another timing thing is that I think my voice still sounds the same. I listened to the old episodes and new ones back-to-back, and it sounds right. That may not be true in 10 years. [Laughs.] Your voice does start to sound different when you get into your sixties, probably, at least. Sometimes earlier.
AVC: The show feels like it captures a specific period in the ’90s, though. Was there trepidation in bringing it back without updating it?
MJ: I’ve been hearing that, but when the show started, I remember people saying, “You should have different shirts on ’em.” AC/DC and Metallica were already old references at that point in ’92, and I was pushing 30. This was kinda like an unhip, weird thing when it came out. I guess if it feels specific to that time period, probably to someone your age, that was a show that was a hit back then, so… [Laughs.] But in my mind, they were already—I was thinking of kids I knew when I was 15. I was 29 when it first played on Liquid Television, so it was already not of its time. The show that had just been a hit on MTV at that time was—not even a show, he was a VJ, Pauly Shore. And his whole thing was all this hip lingo from California that was kind of funny, but I was thinking, “I can’t compete with that. I’m gonna make this very non-hip.” In fact, I was trying so hard to not have catchphrases. How could “This sucks” be a catchphrase? [Laughs.] I kept it very simple and primal on purpose. To me, it was already surreal, so when I have these guys watching Jersey Shore or whatever, it feels just as surreal now as it did then.
AVC: Maybe it’s also something about their interaction with people in high school; how they’re treated, and their social status. Something about high school seems to have changed since then.
MJ: Oh, really? [Laughs.]
AVC: It feels like the outcast kids have been brought into the fold a bit more now.
MJ: That might be true, although my daughters are in high school—well, my older one’s in college, but there’s a little bit more… It depends on what high school, I guess. I think maybe it’s school policy; there’s all this “no bullying” and stuff. But I think teenagers still treat outcasts badly. [Laughs.] At some point, maybe the outcasts become cool, and they’re hipsters, and they treat the people who aren’t like that badly. I think those principles have just kind of been around as long as there’ve been teenagers.
AVC: So, you could still see these guys being who they are?
MJ: Yeah, and in a way, with cartoons, like with The Simpsons, they’re just kind of surreal and Zen, anyway. I’m bad at describing characters, I just know what they’re like. There’s not much of it that’s in the high school, anyway. They’re just in the world a lot, and on the couch. But yeah, high schools have changed, and that’s why I avoided a lot of stories at the school. But I think their interactions with teachers have kinda… Again, when I did the show originally, and I had that hippie teacher character, Van Driessen, I remember thinking, “Is this really relevant now? Are there really hippies like this?” And I’d look around and go, “Yeah, there’s still hippie teachers with the tie-dyed shirt.” And then, same thing this time, I asked myself the same question. I have daughters in high school, and I see the same thing. “Yeah, there’s still hippie teachers.”
AVC: Speaking of The Simpsons, recently they had contract negotiations with the cast, and there was danger of the show ending after a mere 23 seasons, which caused a lot of people to posit that maybe it’s time for the show to hang up its hat anyway. You’ve had a variety of experiences with the longevity of shows—King Of The Hill ran for more than a decade, while The Goode Family ran only for a season.
MJ: Yeah. Goode Family didn’t work, for whatever reason. I’ve been around a lot of animation development, and I think what a lot of people… I can put my finger on what it is, but it’s just hard to describe. It’s gotta look like the voice coming out of that character really works. When it doesn’t work, to me, you can just hear a guy in a sound booth and see a different drawing, and they don’t have anything to do with one another. That’s why I think these shows—South Park, Family Guy, Ren & Stimpy—work so well: It’s the guy who did the drawings doing the voice. They have the whole vision. And The Simpsons worked even though it’s not that. You see so many shows where it’s like, “Okay, we’re gonna get this great writer, and this guy’s great at drawing,” and it’s just a committee. After being around development and seeing when it doesn’t work, I feel like, Beavis And Butt-Head, I’m glad I stopped when I did. But I did feel like I wasn’t completely done with those guys yet, [and] it would be fun to revisit. Coming back to it, I didn’t see a lot of downside, and then as we started doing it, it just got really fun for me, having ’em watch all these shows. It’s just fun to do, either way. If it’s not a hit, it’s not a hit. That’s fine. I mean, I’d rather it be.
AVC: So was there any trepidation about bringing back the show, rather than leaving it for what it was?
MJ: I did think about that. At the beginning, I thought, “Do I really want to? Why not just leave it alone?” At the very beginning, I got a little worried about that. But then, once everything started to click, I’m just really glad I did it. Come what may, whether it’s a hit or not, it’s just been really fun to do. And also, it’s really satisfying, like at Comic Con or something, to just play it in front of a crowd, and see it go through the roof. That’s such a great feeling. Even if it’s just for that, it’s worth doing. Since I started doing animation, that’s what’s really satisfying, is just seeing the thing come to life, and then seeing people connect to it. So you start with that, and if it’s a hit, fine. A big downside would’ve been, I do it and then I look at it, and I don’t like it, and no one else likes it. [Laughs.] So far, it’s been worth it.
AVC: We spoke to you a couple of years ago about Extract, and you talked about how you didn’t feel like a great boss on Beavis And Butt-Head. What kind of boss are you now?
MJ: Probably better, because I’ve learned how to have producers do all the bad stuff. I don’t enjoy telling people to do something they don’t want to do, but I think the way to be a good boss is, you’ve got a specific goal in mind, you believe in what you’re doing, you want the show to be good, and that’s what drives everything. That’s what makes you tell somebody to not draw the arms that way, or do whatever. So it’s not like you’re just doing it for the sake of being a prick. It’s like, “We’re all in this together, we all want the show to be a hit.” But you also don’t want to be too nice, where it’s like, they think you have to give them a reason every time. You just have to earn their respect and be like, “Trust me, this is going to make the show good, I know what I’m doing. Listen to me, and that’s that.”
Part of the problem at the beginning was, I was making these animated films at home, and suddenly I had this staff of 40 people. I didn’t realize—they never made it clear to me that I was in charge. I sold the characters to them, so I didn’t own it. They were hiring me. Then they just gave me promo writers and said, “This guys are going to write the scripts.” And I’d just heard of John Kricfalusi getting fired off his own show on Nickelodeon, same network. This was my one shot at having a career, I didn’t want to blow it, so I was like, “Oh, you want me to do this script? Uh, okay.” And luckily, some of the promo writers were great. Some of them weren’t. Some of the scripts sucked. I tried to write as many of them as I could, and worked with the writers I liked. But I was very cautious about it, so some of the episodes in the first couple of seasons aren’t good. I’m really happy with the stuff, with some of it.
AVC: Was it just about you becoming more comfortable exerting your creative control?
MJ: Yeah. It took me a while to realize. And then when the show was a hit, I started to have more confidence that I wasn’t going to get fired. I think most people who work in TV, they go out, they work as a PA, they learn the ropes. I came from just making these animated films to suddenly I’m in the halls of MTV, I don’t know how it works. So that was part of it. It took me a while to realize what was going on.
AVC: Some of the newer writers on the show now probably grew up watching episodes of the show. What is that experience like for you? Do they bring any particular insights?
MJ: I actually try not to think about that sort of thing too much. There are a couple of writers, younger people who grew up watching it. It actually worked out really well, because in some ways, they know the characters better than people on the first couple of seasons, because they watched it. I’m sure it’s the same with The Simpsons. So it’s been a good thing.
AVC: You mentioned the portions where Beavis and Butt-Head riff, and how you enjoyed recording those on the first iteration of the show. Is that the part of the show you missed the most?
MJ: Yeah. When I went back and watched all the old episodes a few years ago, that was some of the stuff where I thought, “That was some of the best stuff, actually.” There was a time when, because I did something like 600 videos, I was so burnt out on it, I said, “If I’m going to do the movie, no more videos.” And I didn’t do videos for the last season of the show, or two seasons, on the original run of the show. But going back and looking at it, I started to think, “That’s some of the best stuff.” And it has been really fun to do again. Especially when we’re doing stuff now where we’re interrupting Jersey Shore episodes and having Butt-Head on the phone replacing Snooki’s boyfriend, and just running it.
AVC: MTV doesn’t show videos anymore, so it’s time to riff on crappy reality TV.
MJ: Yeah. It’s a little bit more different than I would have thought, having them watch a regular show. Once I got them rhythm of it and it all clicked, it’s been really fun to do. We’re doing 60 sixty percent that, and the rest music videos.
AVC: How standard is the animation process at this point? On the surface, the visual style seems to be exactly the same.
MJ: It’s the same model sheets, it’s the same. Anytime we tried to clean it up—second season, there were some episodes that were done in Canada, and they did cleaner versions of the model sheets, and it just doesn’t look as funny; it looks kind of Saturday-morning. So I just keep them the way they look. The animation got fuller as it went on. It’s pretty full now, it’s in HD, but they still look like them.
AVC: Consistency seems to be a big part of the animated shows that you’ve worked on, whether it’s a visual style or even the mentality of the characters. What does consistency mean to you?
MJ: I think of everything in terms of classic TV I grew up with. To me, what’s great about something like The Bob Newhart Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mary Tyler Moore, they didn’t—I mean, Mary Tyler Moore, that show maybe evolved a little bit, but The Bob Newhart Show, you can watch first season, last season, it’s pretty solid. I think the classic jump-the-shark thing will happen to a lot of shows, where what happens is… Well, with Fonzie, he was this stone-cold, badass dude in the beginning, and when he’d show a little soft side, everyone loved it, and pretty soon all he’s doing is showing his soft side, and then there’s no Fonzie left. That happens. Actually, on King Of The Hill, that happened a lot in the writing. I had to push back on that: “Let’s not turn Bobby into a full-on figure skater whose dad hates him.” They were always pushing in that direction, because you get a little bit of it, it’s funny, you get a little bit of Hank out of character, and it gets a laugh at the read-through, but then you’re eating your seed corn, as they say.
AVC: How do you approach TV and movies differently? Do you showcase different sides of yourself in each?
MJ: I’ve probably made my movies too much like TV. I think Office Space probably plays better on video. What I’d like to try someday is live-action television, which I haven’t done. Something like Idiocracy; that definitely seemed like a movie when I had the idea.
AVC: What drew you to animation in the first place?
MJ: Since I was a kid, I wanted to do claymation. I love the way it looks. I love the way cel animation looks, especially when it’s shot on film. When I first heard about how it’s done, shooting with stuff on a single frame… I loved watching Gumby when I was a kid. I just wanted to get a camera and give it a try, and I never could afford it, and never had one. I always figured it would be something I tried in my spare time, when I got enough money. And then at some point, it just clicked that I should try that as a way to get into comedy. I was thinking about Terry Gilliam, maybe I’d try to be a guy like that, who does animated stuff and does characters, and writes. But animation, when I decided I was going to try it, what just hit me like a ton of bricks was that I didn’t need anybody else to do it. I could do it all myself. Because growing up, I had some funny friends, and people would go, “Let’s try to make a film, let’s try to do something.” I could never get anybody to focus on an idea that was feasible. Someone would have an idea like, “We’re going to do a parody of Hill Street Blues.” “How are you going to do that? You need a set.” All my friends are insane. The thing about animation, I just thought, “I don’t need anybody.” My first film probably cost me about four or five hundred bucks, but that was something I could afford.
AVC: Do you still draw for fun?
MJ: You know what? It’s still like it always was for me. I never took a lot of pride in drawing. It was just something I would like to do. But it would come in waves. Every year and a half to two years, I’d get an urge to draw, and then I’d draw a bunch over a period of time, then not draw for a long time. I still do that. I like animating more than drawing, and I kind of miss that, because I haven’t done that in a long time. People will say to me, “Animation, isn’t that tedious? Doing hundreds of drawings?” To me, illustrating is more tedious, because drawing something that’s going to move is more interesting. This is going to sound lame, but it’s kind of exciting. You can go, “I’m going to draw this, and it’s actually going to be a cartoon that’s in motion.” The first time I got film back from a lab, and it’s like, “Holy crap, it looks just like a cartoon,” that’s an amazing feeling. And I still love doing that.