IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE A CULTURAL radical in the nineties? Depends on the culture. And the radical. For his entire professional life, Mike Judge has been dreaming up barbed, intriguing, and essentially odd little creations. Then some festival or studio or TV network takes a gamble on it, and faster than you can say “That boy ain’t right,” the work in question has achieved a level of import and popularity beyond anyone’s most ridiculous expectations—especially Mike Judge’s. As he moves from Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill to an upcoming major motion picture that will feature real human beings, the 35-year-old Austinite’s satire has become incrementally more accessible to mainstream society. Or maybe society has been moving incrementally toward Mike Judge’s viewpoint.
A professional musician (he played with the likes of Anson Funderburgh and Doyle Bramhall the elder) with a degree in physics (from the University of California at San Diego), Judge got himself into this mess when a few of his self-made animated short films passed muster with MTV’s avant-garde animation program, Liquid Television. “When I started doing animation,” he says, “I was embarrassed to tell anybody about it because I thought the odds of me actually being legitimate about making these little films were pretty small. When I got my first two in the Festival of Animation, that blew me away. Then when MTV said they wanted my stuff, I thought, ‘Oh, this is great. I’ve got a situation where I could actually make enough money just making these little cartoons.’ That was a dream come true. The greatest thing in the world.”
Somebody at MTV was crazy enough to say “Hey, let’s take the two funny-looking morons who play baseball with the frogs and give them a whole TV show.” Why not? It’s cable—no one’s watching anyway. And so the world came to know Beavis and Butt-head. The show wasn’t just good, it was a phenomenon. Not since The Simpsons had cartoon characters gotten so much attention. David Letterman adopted them. Rolling Stone put them on the cover, twice. Senator Ernest Hollings denounced them—well, actually, he denounced something called “Buffcoat and Beaver”—in congressional hearings. While the best satire is sometimes impossible to recognize as such, B and B was more misunderstood than usual—some people thought the show was merely silly, and others thought the people who watched it were as dumb as the characters.
“I think more people get Beavis and Butt-head for the right reasons than is commonly believed,” Judge says. “They’re so clearly supposed to be stupid. I don’t think there are that many people who looked at them and thought, ‘Wow, I would really like to start laughing like an idiot more.’” Except maybe intellectuals. As a subject of social discourse, Beavis and Butt-head ought to have inspired pages of encomiums regarding its devastating critique of modern commercial culture, but more often than not it defied both criticism and insight. No one could write about it for more than a sentence without resorting to “Cool. Huh-huh.”
Even when the boys got their own movie—1996’s Beavis and Butt-head Do America—no one expected anything too gigantic. The studio, Paramount Pictures, had nothing to lose: a cheap cartoon, it will at least be a cult success, why not? Instead it was a genuine Christmas hit, with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore “starring,” uncredited, as two of the main voices.
Recognize the pattern by now? Over at Fox TV, they must have. In 1996 the company gave Judge the green light for a prime-time network show, partnering with Greg Daniels, a co-producer of The Simpsons. The show would be based on an idea for a film Judge had developed in his animation-festival days: as he puts it, “four Bubbas with beers staring down at a truck engine.” He never made the short, but that, in a nutshell, became King of the Hill. The hit show has become to the nineties what Dallas was to the eighties. The difference is, King of the Hill, a cartoon, is more genuine—a greater percentage of Texans actually identify with its characters. And unlike Beavis and Butt-head, the show is affectionate, observational, and essentially moral. “In some ways we make fun of people, but no more than you would make fun of your own friends, or yourself,” Judge says.
Which brings us to the present day. One of the animator’s other early shorts was a film called Office Space, about a bureaucrat named Milton. Judge’s new, non-animated film—dubbed “Untitled Office Comedy” for now and set to begin shooting in May—is a comic exploration of a modern American netherworld, the seemingly generic office park with its seemingly generic workers. “Those kind of suburban one-story shiny buildings with a T.G.I. Friday’s and all that stuff,” Judge says. “It’s kind of autobiographical, about a year and a half of my life. It’s about some software programmers and a company that’s downsizing.” Such material has been mined by other works, from the wildly popular comic strip Dilbert to the bizarrely abstract sitcom NewsRadio and that show with the kid from The Wonder Years. But we can be pretty sure that Judge’s take on things will be totally his own. And that the movie, meant to be a low-budget, low-pressure, expectation-free first feature film by a novice director (of human beings), will strike a chord and hit the cultural stratosphere.
In other words, here we go again. Even Judge acknowledges the trend. “It’s weird. Everything I’ve ever done, I get this sick feeling in my stomach, like, ‘God, what am I doing?’ The first two-minute Beavis and Butt-head film, I just had this sinking feeling, ‘No one is going to think it’s funny. It’s weird. It’s stupid.’ I was apologizing when I took it to the lab. And I’ve had that feeling with King of the Hill and the Beavis and Butt-head movie. Now I’m getting that feeling with this movie.
“But one of these days,” he insists, “something really will suck. It’ll bomb, and that feeling will be absolutely right.”
Maybe so. But don’t bet against it.