Evan Smith: Television is so weird these days; you never know what’s going to be a hit. Did you ever imagine King of the Hill would make it to a ninth season?
Mike Judge: I have to say I didn’t think it would be on this long. And if you had told me so at the beginning, I probably would have backed out of doing it, because it would have sounded like way too much work. That’s the thing about TV: You want your show to be successful, but if it’s successful, it goes on and on and it’s hard to get out of it. Then again, these past two or three seasons have been really good. I’m more proud of them than any of the others.
ES: Deflate the mystery. What exactly do you do on the show?
MJ: I do the voices of Hank and Boomhauer and a kid named Dooley, who has a line here and there, and I do Monsignor Martinez occasionally. I’ve been trying to get somebody else to do Monsignor Martinez, but it keeps coming back to me. Basically, when the season starts, [executive producers] John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky tell me the story ideas in outline form, and we sort of kick them around. Then they go off and assign an idea to each of the writers—I’m not sure of the exact number, but there are, like, ten or twelve of them. The writers write a script, and when they come back, we give them notes. We do a table read on Friday, with all the actors reading the script in character. We’ll talk about it again. I’ll give notes and suggest changes. We do another read-through the following Wednesday, and then we record. Then there’s the animation phase of it, which I also give notes on.
ES: Do you do any of the animation yourself?
MJ: There are people who think I animate the entire thing, when in fact there are probably 90 to 120 animators in total here and in Korea. Then there are people who think I just phoned in the idea and sit here and collect the check. The truth is, I’ve hardly done any drawing lately. I think I’m probably a better animator than some animators may think and probably a worse animator than some of the public may think. I’m not good at drawing buildings and cars. I know how to make things move. I haven’t done this on King of the Hill as much, but on Beavis and Butt-head I animated walk cycles, so when they’re walking, it’s my actual animation cut and xeroxed and reduced. King of the Hill has gotten to where it looks good, I think. It’s hard to make things look homemade when they’re done by an animation factory, but we’ve gotten a pretty good look that isn’t too slick.
ES: It strikes a balance between cheesy and too polished.
MJ: It’s like music. To me, it’s more interesting to hear somebody with a lot of soul trying to play guitar than to hear Al Di Meola or someone who’s completely polished or perfect. I’d rather listen to Kurt Cobain. When I started in animation, I couldn’t draw that well, but sometimes the stuff I drew looked interesting or funny. I was always hoping that the look would be [that of] someone trying to draw. Of course, if you get something too crude, it’s not as fun to watch.
ES: Beavis and Butt-head was more crude.
MJ: I thought that look was probably more appropriate for Beavis and Butt-head. I wanted it to look like it was drawn with contempt, like the guy doing it was deranged also. That came a little more easily than drawing nicely.
ES: How did you learn to animate? Is it true that you checked a book out of the library?
MJ: When I was living in Dallas, I went with my wife to an animation festival. They had some cells from a local guy, a minute-long short film he had done. I had always been interested in animation, but I had assumed you needed tons of money and a bunch of people to do it. So I started thinking, “Wow. I could do this myself.” I went to the library, got out a couple books, and ordered some supplies—at this point I still hadn’t met any animators. Then I got a Bolex camera and started playing around with it. The first thing I animated, actually, was a story called ”Office Space”; the characters were Milton and the boss. I did it the hard way. I created exposure sheets, timing the lip-sync with a stopwatch to find out where each syllable fell. I had this cassette four-track, and I recorded my own voices. The whole thing was a minute-forty-five. I figured it was a little embarrassing. I mean, you have no reason to think you’re going to be successful at something like this. But I knew that when I had played the track for my wife and for somebody else, it made them laugh, so I thought, “Well, my track’s funny even if my animation is bad.”
ES: Did you do voices growing up?
MJ: I always did imitations of people. I think I peaked in my senior year of high school. I had most of the teachers down. Then, in my freshman year of college [at the University of California, San Diego], I wrote something for a writing class that made everyone laugh. I was thinking of trying to write for National Lampoon, but I figured you had to have connections. So I never pursued it.
ES: Going to Harvard helps, apparently.
MJ: In Hollywood a lot of people who don’t deserve jobs get them because they have a buddy from Harvard. One of the guys at King of the Hill wants to burn Harvard to the ground and start over. Everything would be better.
ES: Your first career was as a musician, right?