Fanfare for the Common Man
In praise of Mike Judge.
Fanfare for the Common Man subhead:
BY ALL AVAILABLE EVIDENCE, writer, director, producer, and animator Mike Judge should presently be basking in triumph and adulation. Both his MTV series Beavis and Butt-head (1993–1997) and his big-screen comedy Office Space (1999) have come to be regarded as cult classics. In May his long-running sitcom King of the Hill reached a major milestone: the 200th episode (against widespread industry expectations, it was also renewed for an eleventh season). And his newest feature, Idiocracy, starring Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph, is finally set to hit theaters next month.
Except, well, you don’t hear many people making a fuss about Judge, do you? Fox promoted the 200th episode of King of the Hill with little more than a press release, which only a few television critics around the country bothered to take note of. After more than a year languishing on the shelf, Idiocracy will be released September 1—but as of mid-July, the studio still hadn’t put out a trailer for it (see “Judge for Yourself ”). And while Beavis and Butt-head and Office Space regularly go quoted and referenced, especially by those of us who grew up watching MTV in the eighties and then graduated to soul-sucking corporate jobs in the nineties, almost no one has bothered to consider these efforts as part of an original, deeply humane body of work. Simply put, Mike Judge might just be the greatest pop satirist working today. But because he refuses to shout his jokes out loud (and probably also because he lives in Austin, blissfully out of key with the New York/L.A. hipster set), his comedy tends to get taken for granted. A fuss is clearly overdue. A bit of hand-wringing too. Because how can such a tenderhearted and witty artist not also be widely regarded as a national treasure?
Born in Ecuador and raised in New Mexico, Judge earned a degree in physics and worked as an engineer before moving to Dallas to pursue music and animation. (He got his big break after a number of his short films aired on MTV and Saturday Night Live.) His connection to the “real” world was evident right from the first episodes of Beavis and Butt-head, starring those two pimply-faced adolescents rocking out to Metallica in their living room. But it was on King of the Hill that he fine-tuned his appreciation for ordinary life, in all its banal and often ridiculous splendor. Set in a flat, mid-sized Texas city called Arlen, where propane salesman Hank Hill (voiced by Judge) lives with his substitute-teacher wife, Peggy, his easily emasculated tweenage son, Bobby, and Peggy’s airhead niece, Luanne, the show (which Judge co-created with Greg Daniels) has little interest in being cool or clever. The tempo is relaxed, the colors are muted, and the jokes are wry and observational—a far cry indeed from the likes of The Simpsons or Family Guy, with their antic pacing and mile-a-minute pop culture references. In fact, Judge’s funniest jokes barely sound like jokes at all, just playful exaggerations on the weirdness of modern existence: the father-son shooting tournament, for instance, which is sponsored by the Arlen Endowment for the Arts, or the sublime detail that Bobby’s middle school is named not for any assassinated presidents or civil rights leaders but for the late Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry.
Of course, in sitcomville, the snider the humor (Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace), the higher the ratings. That probably explains why King of the Hill has long gone overlooked, by both Emmy voters (only two wins out of only six nominations) and regular viewers (it ranked number 111 out of 156 programs for the 2005–2006 season). The glory of Judge’s work, though, is that it has always resisted mean-spiritedness, reaching instead for more-complicated emotions. Consider perhaps my favorite Judge-ian figure, Michael Bolton (David Herman), the pasty, bespectacled tech support staffer from Office Space who comes alive only in bumper-to-bumper traffic, belting out rap songs at the top of his lungs. As the story unfolds, Michael and his co-workers Peter (Ron Livingston) and Samir (Ajay Naidu) plot to turn the tables on their employer. But whereas most other filmmakers might use Michael solely to mock him—he’s the latest in a long line of nerds hankering for revenge—Judge portrays him with pathos and complexity. This is a guy who yearns to find meaning in his life but who can’t see much of anything from the narrow portal that is his cubicle.
And that, finally, may be Judge’s greatest contribution, and why he is most underappreciated of all: He understands deep in his bones what it means to live a life that never quite seems to live up to your expectations. At heart, each of his works is a study in masculine panic: Beavis and Butt-head, snickering and making dirty puns as a means of masking their own pubescent sexual insecurities; Hank in King of the Hill, always trying to prove his fatherly bona fides to Bobby (and prove to himself that Bobby isn’t gay); and Peter in Office Space, whose greatest fear is that his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) might have once slept with his boss (Gary Cole). And while Judge doesn’t soft-pedal his characters’ melancholy, he never exults in it either. Mostly he just does what Hank does each week on King of the Hill: He looks askance at the screwed-up nature of everyone and everything around him, and he comes to realize there isn’t a thing in the world he can do about it.
Then he cracks open a beer and does his best to get on with the rest of the day.
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF: The scoop on the director’s latest.
The screenplay was originally called “The United States of Uhh-merica.” By the time production began, in spring 2004, the title had changed to “3001.” It changed again, to Idiocracy, in summer 2005. The test screenings were rumored to have been disastrous; the studio reportedly demanded reshoots. Originally set for release last year, the film now opens on Labor Day weekend, a date on which Hollywood usually dumps its most damaged goods. So will Idiocracy—about an average guy (Luke Wilson) launched one thousand years into the future, where he’s suddenly the smartest man alive—turn out to be Judge’s first bomb? The evidence is damning. But let’s remember that Judge is famous for his come-from-behind surprises: The film Beavis and Butt-head Do America shocked everyone by grossing $20 million its opening weekend, in 1996, and Office Space slowly found a following on video. Besides, with the likes of Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph and Punk’d idiot savant Dax Shephard in the cast, Idiocracy can’t possibly be that bad.