Mike Judge

The 41-year-old writer, director, and animator on Hank Hill’s Texanness, the inspiration for Beavis and Butt-head, and the case for burning down Harvard.

October 2004By Comments

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?

MJ: Yeah, I had always played music. At the time, I was thinking, “What am I going to do with my life?” I knew I didn’t want to be a road-rat musician, but I thought I could at least buy some time so I didn’t have to be in a cubicle. I did that for five years. I guess I was 26 or 27 when I thought, if nothing else, as soon as I animated something—as soon as I got the film back and said, “Wow. This looks like a cartoon”—at least I’d have a hobby. Even if I had to work a depressing and miserable cubicle job.

ES: Who’d you play with?

MJ: Eventually Doyle Bramhall. He and Doyle II used to do these father-and-son things. It was a great time. He didn’t want to go on road trips, so I could pretty much stay in Texas. We’d go down to Austin every other weekend and make good money. That gave me enough time to mess around with animation. My wife was working, and—just to kind of ease everyone’s mind—I was taking a couple of graduate math classes at UT-Dallas. My backup plan was that I was going to be a community college math teacher.

ES: At what point when you were playing music and doing animation on the side did you think, “Let’s reverse that”?

MJ: In the summer of ’91 I finished two cartoons. At first I was going to put together some kind of tape with me doing the voices, but then I just decided to send them out as is. I was in Dallas, and I had no connections to anybody in show business, so I picked up the phone, dialed information for New York, and said, “MTV, please.” I also called Comedy Central. I got the runaround from lots of rude receptionists, but I got the addresses and mailed out twelve tapes. I figured that they probably get stacks of stuff, so I drew this funny-looking character, Inbred Jed, on the label, and I wrote, “Inbred Jed’s Homemade Cartoons.” And I got three calls back. I couldn’t believe it. Comedy Central called me! I thought, “I can’t believe it’s this easy.”

ES: I can’t believe it was that easy.

MJ: Allan Havey had a late-night talk show on Comedy Central. He called me and said, “I love them. I want to play them.” His staff flew me to New York, and they were like, “How fast can you do these?” I made a few more shorts, and then, at the beginning of 1992, I finished “Frog Baseball,” the first Beavis and Butt-head short.

ES: You must get asked this all the time, but who were Beavis and Butt-head based on?

MJ: I don’t really have a great answer. It kind of evolved. I started out trying to draw a guy I went to high school with, but he wasn’t anything like Beavis or Butt-head. He was a straight-A student, and he’s now a nuclear engineer. I was talking to a friend of mine in the summer of ’90, and he was telling me about this same guy. My sketches of Beavis and Butt-head were both attempts at drawing him. Sometimes I’d draw and it would stop looking like him, but I’d go in the direction it was starting to look like. So I had him in this sketchbook. For some reason I’d drawn Beavis with a lighter and a locust, biting his bottom lip. Every time I’d see these sketches, they’d make me laugh.

ES: Did people understand Beavis and Butt-head? The name of the show became shorthand for something not particularly good.

MJ: I think most of the fans got it. I don’t think the press got it at all. There were a lot of people writing about it who hadn’t seen it. In one of the first AP reviews, the person did not understand that it was supposed to be satire. The guy thought I was trying to write smart dialogue, that this was the best I could do. There was a tagline going into a commercial, network-announcer-like, that said, “Coming up next, Beavis and Butt-head burn things and blow stuff up!” Clearly it was just parodying these types of things, but the guy thought it was honest.

ES: You did the voices for both Beavis and Butt-head?

MJ: I did almost all the male voices—the hippie teacher, the principal, the old guy—kind of out of necessity at first. I actually didn’t want to do the voice of Beavis, but I’m glad I did it, because it ended up being one of my favorites. In the beginning I didn’t know what to do with that voice. All I’d done in the shorts was kind of a grunty laugh. It took me a little while to find it.

ES: By the end of the show, that grunty laugh was gold, the thing people remember.

MJ: I was at [the Austin bakery] Mozart’s a few years back with my daughter, and I cleared my throat. Some guy turns around and says, “Mike Judge!” It sounded like Beavis.

ES: How did you feel about Beavis and Butt-head getting tagged for being a bad influence on children? Anything to that?

MJ: It was bad timing. Beavis and Butt-head came out when the Gulf War was over, the Cold War was over, when people were looking for something to demonize. If you step back and look at it, it seems pretty ridiculous to me, especially since MTV was on cable. You have to pay to get cable. You have to be responsible enough to pay your cable bill. You have to actively get MTV, and it’s really easy to shut off. Then to say, “It’s your fault that my kids are seeing this”? That’s like buying Hustler and leaving it out on your coffee table and then complaining to the publisher that your kid saw a dirty picture. There are all kinds of things in the real world that your kids shouldn’t see, that you have to protect them from. You can’t make all of TV and movies kid-safe. If you do, we’re all going to be watching the Care Bears and Barney. I think there should be things that are just for adults.

ES: King of the Hill doesn’t have any of those problems. Did you make a conscious decision to toggle over to a more conventional and less controversial show?

MJ: I don’t remember ever thinking that. It was more about wanting to do something different. I wanted to do something with a conservative, no-nonsense guy up against all these modern, New Age, hippie, whole-earth types, but the sympathy would be for the guy. I also wanted to do something with my neighbors in Dallas, guys sitting around with beers in an alley. I’d done a panel cartoon in 1995 or 1996 of four guys—three saying, “Yep,” “Yep,” “Yep,” and Boomhauer thinking, “Yep.” So it just started from there.

ES: How important was it to you that the show be based in Texas? As it’s turned out, there are few cases on TV where the setting is as relevant to the substance of the show.

MJ: I guess that’s true. I really loved living in Dallas. I was living in Richardson, actually, for most of the time, and I had good neighbors. We bought a house pretty early on when I was a musician, and I just really liked my neighborhood. When Do the Right Thing came out, I just kept thinking, “Someone should make a movie or a TV show about a regular suburban white neighborhood like mine.” You wouldn’t have trash cans going through windows, but a lot of interesting, funny stuff goes on. Texas was what I knew, and I ended up setting King of the Hill there.

ES: You could argue that one reason the show has succeeded is because the characters seem real. They seem like people from Texas you know. You know Boomhauer. You know Hank.

MJ: We tried. I’m always the one bumming people out by saying, “No, it’s got to be more realistic.” But I think in the long run, it’s important. It’s always easier to get the cheaper laugh by exaggerating things, but it’s like eating your seed. If you do that too many times, you don’t believe they’re real anymore and you don’t care about them as much. That’s the balance you have to find. All the little Texas touches make it seem more real, even if you’re not from Texas. But there are things about it that are universal too. Anywhere there are middle-aged white people and engines and lawn mowers, there are probably things that are the same.

ES: Do you ever get any of the Texas touches wrong?

MJ: There was one time when the Hills were in Marfa that I had to have the animators try to digitally change the color of the sand. Or sometimes they’re out in the forest, and it’s like, “Where the hell are they?” On one show we’re doing for this season, we have them in Port Aransas, and there’s something about a bungalow. I called—it was like the middle of the night—and I said, “I go down there all the time to go surfing. Let’s make sure the bungalow looks like something in Port Aransas.” People aren’t too good with geography.

ES: Let me ask you about the live-action stuff you’re doing. The first film you directed, Office Space, didn’t do much business at the box office, but it’s been a phenomenal success on DVD.

MJ: I was just meeting with someone in the DVD department at [Twentieth Century] Fox. He drew me a graph—he showed me that most films start out strong when the DVD is released and then there’s a falloff, but Office Space just built and built over three years, and now it’s solid. It’s like a classic rock album in the way it keeps selling and selling.

ES: What’s amazing is that the cast is Jennifer Aniston and a bunch of nobodies.

MJ: That’s why it’s been so nice to have it do well. I really believed in the casting. They wanted bigger names, but I fought tooth and nail to get Ron Livingston, Gary Cole, Diedrich Bader. The only reason I won all those battles, probably, was because King of the Hill was being done by the same company and they didn’t want it to get all the way to the top that I was angry.

ES: You just finished another film, one set in the future. The rumor is that it’s going to be called “3001.”

MJ: We don’t have an official title. It might be called “2505,” and the tagline would be, “If you think the world’s getting dumb now, wait five hundred years.”

ES: You hadn’t done anything since Office Space, right? That’s six years. Why’d you wait so long?

MJ: I was kind of thinking of not making a movie again. It takes a lot of time. You get up at six in the morning and you work sixteen-hour days for ten weeks. It’s brutal. I wanted to take it easy and watch my kids grow up for a while. I wasn’t in any rush. When I broke my ankle in 2001 and was laid-up, I started working on this script. I rewrote it last summer.

ES: The cast of this one is a little bit more Hollywood-ish. Luke Wilson. Maya Rudolph, from Saturday Night Live.

MJ: Dax Shepard. He’s really, really funny. He’d done King of the Hill, and I had seem him on an episode of Punk’d—the one when he’s in the trailer on Nick Lachey’s lawn pretending to be Jessica Simpson’s second cousin. It’s really funny. And Terry Crews, from White Chicks, is in it too.

ES: You made the movie in Austin. Is that just a convenience for you, because your family is here, or is there something to the idea that there’s an Austin film community?

MJ: On the one hand, there is something in the water. People in this line of work come to Austin. On the other, I didn’t want to be away from my kids. If I lived in Albuquerque or some remote place, it might be a little weird to make movies, because I might be the only one doing it. It’s nice to know other people in Austin who are doing it too, so if you tell your kid’s schoolteacher what you do, she’s not shocked. Or she doesn’t think you’re lying.

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