Animator Mike Judge turns up in odd places–as the voice of Kenny in the South Park feature film, in a recurring cameo in the Spy Kids movies, as a guest on Frasier. But first and foremost, he's known for his multiple roles on two animated sitcoms he created and produced: Beavis And Butt-Head and King Of The Hill. Judge started out as a solo animator, independently creating a handful of shorts about creepy, mentally disabled individuals like "Inbred Jed" and Milton of "Office Space" fame. MTV offered him an animated series based on the chuckling nitwits from his "Frog Baseball" short, and Beavis And Butt-Head was born.
Judge's first series was popular but divisive, a common touchstone for parents, educators, and politicians bemoaning television's growing stupidity; following complaints from animal-rights groups and a controversy over a 5-year-old child who supposedly watched the show before setting the fire that killed his 2-year-old sister, MTV began editing old episodes, censoring new ones, and running disclaimers before every installment. Nevertheless, Beavis And Butt-Head ran for four years, becoming MTV's most popular program and spawning a feature-film spin-off.
In 1997, Beavis And Butt-Head ended and Judge launched his new project, King Of The Hill, which was as appealingly smart as Beavis And Butt-Head was appealingly stupid. Seven years later, the show about a conservative Texas patriarch and his friends and family still airs on Fox, with Judge voicing the lead role and several others. In the interim, Judge has written and directed the 1999 feature film Office Space, launched the touring anthology The Animation Show, and begun work on a new movie. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Judge about his origins in animation, his enduring love of Beavis And Butt-Head, and why Futurama fans are mad about his next project.
The Onion: Is it true that you were a physics major in college?
Mike Judge: Yeah, I got my degree in physics.
O: How did you get from there to animation?
MJ: I'd always wanted to try animation, and as a separate pipe dream, I wanted to go into comedy somehow, but I knew stand-up wasn't for me. Engineering didn't last very long for me, so I was a musician for, I guess, six years. I thought of animation as something I wanted to try if I was ever rich or retired. I went to an animation festival, and there were some cels from a local animator there. I'd always assumed that you had to buy an expensive camera, and it seemed like something I couldn't afford. I never thought about it long enough until I saw this guy's cels. Then I thought, "Okay, you can probably rent a camera to do all the work." So that's what I did. Actually, I bought a Bolex camera for $200 and started messing around with it. I just nerded out on this stuff, and the first thing I finished was the first "Office Space" short.
O: You've said you're kind of embarrassed about the quality of the early Beavis And Butt-Head stuff. How do you feel about your early shorts these days?
MJ: For the most part, I feel pretty good about that stuff, even though I'm not a great animator. It looks funny in the way I want it to. What I don't like is what happened when Beavis And Butt-Head became a show. A lot of stuff was taken out of my control, and it took a while to get it back. The first season is really hit-or-miss. Some of it I love, some of it I hate. It took until about the third season to get it to a place where I liked how most of it looked. Same goes for the writing. It took me a while to realize that I could be in control of it. After it was a hit, I had more power, really, to get it done the way I wanted.
O: What about animation appealed to you back in the early days?
MJ: I've always loved the way cel animation looks, especially in a theater. And it seems like people my age—I'm 41—when we were in high school, you just assumed that good animation was gone. It seemed like it had all gone to hell. Saturday-morning stuff was pretty bad, especially for people like me who'd always loved all the old Warner and Disney stuff. So when I first saw an animation festival in college—this was 1985—I was blown away, because there was still cool-looking stuff, but it was all being done independently. I wanted to be a part of it, but I thought, "Well, I have no idea how to do that. Even though it's being done independently, it's being done by people with commercial studios." Also, I had to get a job and support myself. I didn't have the luxury to goof around with animation.
O: What was the process of getting King Of The Hill started like?
MJ: I'd done this deal with Fox, because I thought that everything was about to go downhill for me. Like, "Beavis And Butt-Head is going to die off, and I don't want to be 50 and broke." So I kind of sold out. It was the best way to become un-owned by MTV. Fox wanted an animated show to follow The Simpsons. At first I was thinking, "Oh, God, what am I going to come up with to follow that?" Then I thought, "I'm going to do what I really want to do, and if they say no, then I don't have to do the show. If they say yes, then I get to do something I want to do." I kind of generally pitched stories about my neighbors and people I knew, and I'd done the drawing of the four guys with their beers in front of the fence. That's where it started.
O: How much of your time goes into the show these days?
MJ: It's more of a part-time job, I guess, but the last couple of years, I've been a little more involved. I don't have to be there—I live in Austin—but we go out there every summer, when the peak time is. We talk about what all the stories are going to be, and I give my notes, but I'm not sitting there writing or anything. We have a writing staff. It's a pretty nice gig right now.
O: What's been the biggest change in the show for you since it was first launched?
MJ: Well, a lot has changed. Getting it off the ground was so much work. I think the second season was really good, and then it drifted a little bit. We had some people running it for a while that I definitely had some differences of opinion with. If you leave a sitcom to its own devices, there are all these traps that it falls into. It becomes easier to make everyone a smart-aleck—that's an easier way to write. It's easy to make the joke that the kid is saying something very adult-like. There are all these traps that we've fallen into, and that I can't stand. But I think now we've kind of hit our stride, especially in the last couple years.
O: Do you have any long-term plans for it? Do you think year-to-year, or do you just assume it's going to be on the air forever and work from there?
MJ: I try to think year-to-year. With Beavis And Butt-Head, they had me for around 35 shows. I mean, when I think about that many, it makes me sick to my stomach. It's like a prison sentence or something. I'm not complaining, but you go into stuff like this because you don't want a day job. So I try to think of it one season at a time. I actually think with Beavis And Butt-Head, some of the best stuff came at the end, or near the end. So with King Of The Hill, maybe that means the end is coming up soon. [Laughs.]
O: You often come across as having low-key problems with the way the industry works, but you're still willing to accept those as the way things are. Is that accurate?
MJ: Yeah. Before I figured out I could make an animated film by myself, I never thought I would have broken into Hollywood, just because I'm not good at going and knocking on doors, and being the wild and crazy guy at a party or anything. But I can work within the system. I'm lucky that I've never had to beg for things to be greenlit, because I came into the business with a hit. When I'm floundering at a pitch, they think, "He must be some kind of genius or something." It's easy to fool people.
O: Is there any particular change in the industry you'd like to see?
MJ: It would be nice—and some directors have this—if you could go out and cast whoever you want with no arguments from the studio. That was one of the toughest things on Office Space, having to battle and fight and convince the people who were paying for the movie that the people I wanted in it would be funny. Because they didn't think they were funny.
O: Did you win all of those battles for Office Space, or did you have to compromise in places?
MJ: I actually won all of them, but it wasn't easy. I'm starting to shoot a movie pretty soon here, and I haven't done it in six years, and that's part of the reason why. Someone will come in and read for a part, and you're thinking, "Okay, this is perfect. This is exactly how I imagined it." Then you get all this: [Whines.] "Oh, I don't think he's funny," and "Can't you get someone better-looking?" It's been better this time, but the whole thing's starting again. But I think if I do another Beavis And Butt-Head movie, I'd get final cut on it.
O: Is that project still a possibility?
MJ: It was for a while. I had renewed interest in it a couple of years ago, and then MTV released a DVD that was completely unauthorized, that they didn't tell me about, and basically broke a contract with me by releasing it, so I said no Beavis And Butt-Head movie. We're just starting to work it out now.
O: Did you not want that material out there, or was the problem just that they didn't consult you before doing it?
MJ: There are a couple things. There's a DVD they put out called The History Of Beavis And Butt-Head, and it was all the episodes that I didn't pick for the home-video series. So it was basically all the worst episodes, with some exceptions. With that title, it appeared to be a definitive collection. And I'm thinking about my kids and their friends, if they ever ask, "What did your dad do?" I had absolute approval rights, and they just blatantly did this without telling me. I still don't understand why it happened. It wasn't like somebody had been fired and somebody new was there: These were the people I'd been working with since '93. But I got them to recall a lot of them.
O: What has your relationship with Fox been like? Have you been happy with the King Of The Hill DVD sets?
MJ: Yeah. I mean, I still cringe at a lot of those episodes, but it's been pretty good, I think. With these, I know which episodes they're putting on there, but with Beavis And Butt-Head—you know, they cut the videos, and they cut the word "fire" out of all of them. They cut stuff I didn't even know was in there. So I'm looking at this episode that makes no sense, that's like 90 seconds long, and it says "Written by Mike Judge." It drives me crazy.
O: Speaking of the "fire" controversy, you've taken criticism for some of the messages in your work, and obviously you've been censored. Do you think there's such a thing as unsafe comedy? Are there things that kids need to be protected from?
MJ: It's up to the parents, I think. My daughter chewed me out a few years ago, because her friends were watching Office Space and we wouldn't let her watch it. She was 10 at the time. We ended up letting her watch the Comedy Central version, which has stuff bleeped out. I don't think the government should come in and say that all books, movies, and so on should be kid-friendly. You've got to have stuff for adults—you can't have the whole country watching Barney. Once you make that distinction, you can't go blame the person who made this stuff that's for grown-ups, because "My kid saw it and it's your fault." That's kind of ridiculous.
O: Do you still get people doing the "huh huh, huh huh" Beavis And Butt-Head laugh at you?
MJ: Yeah, once in a while. I don't get recognized very often, but someone did ask me to do it recently, on a radio interview. A lot of times, people will ask me to do Beavis or Butt-Head in a bar, and I do Butt-Head pretty quietly, and then they go, "Ah, you're not the guy."
O: Is there anything you wish you'd instilled in the American consciousness rather than that laugh?
MJ: I'm actually pretty proud of that laugh. I was watching a lot of Beavis And Butt-Head recently, and I'm sitting there thinking, "This is pretty funny." I'm probably not going to do anything that funny ever again. I mean, the stuff that's good, the third of it that's really good, I'm proud of that. I'm okay with that laugh being the catchphrase.
O: What did you think about Daria?
MJ: I never saw much of it. A couple of the producers told me they were going to possibly spin off Daria, and I thought it might be a good idea. Next thing I knew, they were just doing it, and I wasn't crazy about some of the people they hired. I think they were trying to show that they could do something without me. A normal network would never do that kind of stuff, unless you were a real asshole to them. I feel like Beavis And Butt-Head helped a lot of these people's careers, then they do this series without even consulting me on it. But I heard the show is pretty good. I think Glenn Eichler was a good choice to write on it. I've honestly never seen more than two or three minutes of it.
O: In a recent episode of King Of The Hill, Hank dealt with a Beavis-like character that everyone was afraid of. Some critics took that as a kind of repudiation of your Beavis And Butt-Head days, like your outlook on life had changed.
MJ: No, it's almost the same point of view. To me, what was funny about Beavis And Butt-Head was just how much entertainment they could get out of nothing, or something so stupid. It was the same joke with the King Of The Hill character. In fact, part of the inspiration for both Beavis And Butt-Head and this other guy was from my first engineering job. There was this guy who was a draftsman who thought that any time he worked the number 69 into something, it was automatically funny. He talked like Cheech Marin. He'd say stuff like, "Well, 69 percent of the time" or "Six to nine times out of 10," and he thought it was funny every single time. To me, that's funny, not because I think 69 is funny, but because that guy thinks that every time he says "69," it constitutes a joke.
O: How much of Hank Hill's philosophy on life do you think you share?
MJ: He's probably the most like me of all my characters. On one hand, I never played football or anything; I don't even follow it. I'm more like him as I get older. Him and Beavis.
O: You mentioned that you're working on a movie now. Is that 3001?
MJ: Yeah, although I'm not going to call it that. It's set more like 400 years in the future. There have been so many movies about people being frozen and waking up in the future. This is mine. Apparently, a bunch of Futurama nerds are pissed off, because that's the year in which that show is set. You know, neither of us invented guys getting frozen and waking up in the future. But I didn't mean to set it in 3001 anyway—that was just a placeholder title.
O: What's the movie's current status?
MJ: We started shooting right in the beginning of May, in Austin. The basic premise is that most science fiction shows the future as being more civilized or more intelligent, and that's just not the way we're headed. Like, if someone made a movie in the late '50s about the year 2004, it probably wouldn't have had The Maury Povich Show, and gangs, and whatever. So this starts out as a documentary about how the people who are reproducing the fastest are guys who are too lazy to put on a rubber, and lots of highly educated people are waiting until they're 40 to have a kid, and then having one or none. It's kind of a sleeper movie about how, 400 or 500 years from now, a guy who's your average dumbass today is the smartest person in the world.
O: Did you learn anything from doing Office Space that's going to affect how you work on this movie?
MJ: I should have learned not to write so many characters, because this one has 65 characters, and that makes the casting process really tough. I learned a lot on Office Space, though some of the things are hard to describe. You can get a feel for watching someone read during auditions and knowing how they're going to act in front of the camera. Mostly, it's just production-design stuff. It sounds corny, but I feel like I'm learning stuff all the time.
O: Given infinite money and no restrictions, what would you be working on right now?
MJ: It's interesting. I don't have infinite money, but after Office Space came out, even though it didn't do very well, by not doing anything all these years since, I think there are a lot of things I could do. I could probably make just about any comedy under $20 million that I wanted to, the way my career is. I just haven't written them. It's not like there's a whole lot of stuff that I want to do that they're not letting me do, but making a movie is such a lot of work that I didn't want to do it again unless things were right. It's been five years since Office Space came out, so I've been able to go to my kids' ball games and violin recitals and all that stuff. It's been nice to not have to work long hours.
O: How close are you to your ideal life?
MJ: Actually pretty close, if I had more hair on my head and if I didn't have to fly to L.A. as much. I'm pretty damn lucky. I never thought I'd have it this good.