Here Comes the Judge
Beavis and Butt-head's Hollywood Score
Overnight success, it seems, was just a splattered frog-hop away, though. Backhanded irony masquerading as juvenile, lowbrow antics, Beavis and Butt-head became MTV's top animated series, and the pair -- and Judge himself -- quickly became causes célèbres, and then, instant pop-culture icons. Suddenly, everything either "sucked" or was "cool." It's still too weird to get a complete handle on, but you can bet cultural analysts will be hashing this one over for decades. Genius is like that.
On the phenomenal strength of the television series, Beavis and Butt-head Do America, the movie, opens this Friday, December 20, featuring an uncredited cast of voice actors such as Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Robert Stack, David Letterman, and a local filmmaker who gets to kick Beavis' ass all over the inside of a school bus. More on that later.
The 34-year-old Judge spent his kidhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico before moving on to college in 1980 to pursue a physics degree. Graduating after the requisite four years, he spent time working in the straight world as an engineer before finally giving in to the twin siren call of comedy and music. Oddly enough, this led him straight to Dallas, or, more accurately, Richardson, Texas. If you look closely, you just might notice some striking similarities between Beavis and Butt-head's home town of Highland and the flat, suburban sprawl that fans out around the Big D.
These days, Judge spends most of his time in Austin, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. He's an affable, extremely laid-back guy, who creates the show almost entirely from his small, nondescript office in central Austin. In person, he looks more like a quietly amused grad student who's wandered in off the Drag. There is the voice, though. It's much closer to Butt-head than it is to Beavis, which is, all things considered, a good thing, but it's still enough like those on the show to give you pause. Subconsciously, you want to hide the matches around this guy.
January 12 sees the television premiere of another Judge project, Fox's King of the Hill, an entirely new animated series slotted indestructibly on Sunday nights between The Simpsons and The X-Files. If the advance buzz is any indication, it may well prove to be a bigger hit than either of the aforementioned shows, and it's a sure bet the movie's going to be packing them in as well, and not just at the malls, either.
I caught up with the prodigious iconoclast last week and talked with him about the horrors of growing up, the evils of MTV, and finding success where you least expect it.
And, oh yeah, one other thing: If you happen to catch glimpse of a tremendous black monster truck devouring the asphalt around town, with Wes Archer's Jack Mack and Rad Boy logo emblazoned on the side and flames belching from its tailpipes, sporting a tacky "Here Comes the Judge" bumper sticker plastered on the pockmarked tailgate... it's not my fault. I had nothing to do with it.
Austin Chronicle: I like to think Freud would have had a field day with you. Growing up in Albuquerque, was your childhood the ordinary nightmare most of us had?
Mike Judge: Mine seemed worse than everybody else's at the time, you know? There's always that pecking order, or totem pole at junior high, and I was pretty low down, pretty close to the bottom. Junior high and the first couple of years of high school were -- to this day -- the worst couple of years of my life.
AC: It seems to be that way for a lot of creative people, if not all.
MJ: Yeah. In elementary school we moved a lot, like every year. Kindergarten, first grade, second, third, fourth, different every year.
AC: You were an army brat?
MJ: No, my dad was a geologist, and we just kind of moved all over Albuquerque, and then up to Colorado for a year, then back. Public schools back then -- and I guess they still are -- were pretty bad. Really rough. I actually ended up in Catholic high school after the 10th grade. I was a pretty nerdy guy, though. I didn't fit in, and not only with the "normal" people, but also with the "weirdo" crowd. I didn't belong there, either. I'm not whining or complaining. I'm sure there were people who had it much more horrible than I did, but because that seemed like such a horrible time, I'm sure I've drawn a lot from it. There's probably a lot of baggage there.
AC: What's the one thing that you remember most of all from those years? What stands out?
MJ: Oh, just walking down the halls of junior high, constantly getting shaken down for money. Getting picked on constantly. I was just a real skinny, buck-toothed, shiny, blond-haired perfect target, too. And with the rednecks? You know how they'll see some kid who's the son of their dad's boss, right? They'll instinctively know that this may be their only chance in life to lash out against him in that, um, situation, and they did. That's why Beavis and Butt-head are such ugly guys.
One thing that people may not notice off the bat, but in my animation, one of the things that I pride myself on is making the mouth movements match the character. Usually in a cartoon, it's just these bouncing mouths, right? Butt-head has braces, and so, even the way he talks should conform to that fact. When you have braces, you don't want your cheeks to scrape against those metal wires, so you're always going [á là Butt-head] "Ah, well, ow." That's why when you see Butt-head, although it doesn't really look like a frown, his mouth is turned upside down. When you have braces, you tend not to smile as much, and so that's the origin of Butt-head's, um...
AC: ...bizarre facial expressions?
AC: Were you a cartoon baby? Did you rise at dawn on Saturdays to catch all the new shows?
MJ: I was always much more into the Warner Bros. cartoons more than the Saturday morning stuff. The way I really got into cartoons was through Captain Billy, which was a local kids' show in Albuquerque. He would play old Warner's cartoons, sometimes really ancient ones, and on your birthday you could go and sit in the bleachers with all the other kids at the studio. That was a big influence.
AC: What about specific animators who may have influenced you? Anyone in particular?
MJ: One of my favorites, and it's hard to say this since I know him real well now, is a guy by the name of Wes Archer, who's currently the animation director on the new Fox show [King of the Hill]. He did this thing called Jack Mack and Rad Boy Go! That came out, I think, in the mid-Eighties, and he then went on to direct most of the original Simpsons shorts. He's real good at just directing other people's stuff, but, man, I'd love to see him do some more original work. He's from Houston, actually, and his sister lives here in Austin.
AC: I think Texas attracts all the insane, genius animators. I remember the first time people saw Jack Mack. It just blew everyone away. Totally twisted, inspired, thrill-a-minute lunacy. There's really been nothing like it, before or since.
MJ: I know. I saw that, and I just flipped out. (He's done some animation for a Butthole Surfers video that's pretty cool, too.) Yeah, I saw that and I just totally flipped out, because it's kind of like the dreams I have. I mean, Jack Mack and Rad Boy Go! just made me want to go draw. It really inspired me. I saw it once in a theatre in '85 or '86, but I couldn't get a copy of it for the longest time. Definitely, though, that's one of the greatest pieces of animation ever.
AC: Anyone else?
MJ: John Kricfalusi [Ren & Stimpy]. He really did something kind of different. Part of it is that people our age laugh because he's kind of making a joke out of animation a lot of the time. It's kind of high-concept. Whenever they'd cut to a close-up in an old cartoon, there was always the obvious difference between the painting and the cel, and he makes a big joke out of that. It was such a great show when he was on it. I think after he left it went downhill. The first ones, in which he's doing the voice of Ren, he did something really wonderful with that.
AC: There are not a lot of animators these days who can use their physics degree to fall back on in the event their show gets canceled. How'd that come about?
MJ: Well, I wasn't really bent on becoming a physicist, I just wanted to get done with school. I was able to get through that easier than any kind of literature, or anything else, so that's what I did. I'd always been thinking that I either wanted to go into music or comedy, so I just got the school thing over with as quickly and quietly as possible.
The summer after I graduated [from the University of California at San Diego] -- that was in 1984 -- was really rough, and I kind of hit rock bottom there for a while. I ran out money and I didn't have a phone and I was trying to get a job -- which is really hard when you don't have a phone. My parents had just gotten divorced and I was trying to get ahold of them and I couldn't find them anywhere. Basically, I had this really scary glimpse of reality and realized, you know, "You're alone in this world, and you have to make money," and all that. I had this really scary feeling of, "Okay, forget fooling around with music and comedy; I've got to get a job." I ended up playing bass with this guy and getting an engineering job on top of that for about a year, which led to me hooking up with Anson Funderburgh and moving out to Dallas after that. So it all worked out.
AC: You played the bluesy stuff?
MJ: Yeah. I played upright bass (and electric, too). At the time there weren't a lot of people who played upright bass loud, kind of rockabilly, which was what I was really into at the time. I ended up getting more into the blues bands, which was alright, too.
AC: So Frog Baseball... that was when?
MJ: That was 1992. I had gone to an animation festival in '89 or so, and I'd always thought animation was impossible, you know? Tons of work and equipment and all that. Anyway, I was at this festival and I saw some work on display by this guy from Dallas, and all of a sudden it was like this bolt of lightning hit me. I drove home thinking, "I'm just gonna do whatever it takes." It was something concrete. Proof that it could be done. I could make a film. I didn't know what I was gonna do with it, but I was gonna do it.
Doyle [Bramhall -- Judge pal and fellow musician] had always said he never worried about what he was going to do when he sat down to write a song -- he just did it. And that's completely true. If you can relax and let it come, it does. Things just work out that way.
AC: Frog Baseball was the first piece you came up with?
MJ: No, I did this thing called Office Space with a character named Milton first. Really, the first thing I did was get a camera and make the test of a guy making a face, just to see if it would work. I was doing Milton just to see if I could sync up sound, but when it was done, people seemed to think it was funny, so I plowed forward.
I ended up sending Office Space and another one called Huh? to the Festival of Animation, Kids in the Hall, and other places, and within two weeks I got three phone calls! I was blown away. I was, like, "Why didn't I do this when I was 22?!" I always thought you had to know somebody or something. I thought it would take forever, but from then on, it just kept building.
AC: When did MTV become involved in the whole Judge saga? Did you approach them or did they approach you?
MJ: I called them about Liquid Television [MTV's groundbreaking animation anthology show] and just got the runaround. I got transferred around literally like eight or nine times. Real snotty interns, people who were just too cool to talk to you. Finally, I got someone who said, "We're not looking at anything right now, call back in a couple of months." I never tried that again.
Eventually, [the MTV-affiliated production company] Colossal Pictures, which was doing Liquid Television at the time, called me, not even a week after I had finished Frog Baseball, and said they wanted to run all three of the cartoons. And then, literally, a couple of hours after I had gotten off the phone with them the first time, they called back and said "MTV's really interested in these characters Beavis and Butt-head from Frog Baseball, and they want to do something more with them. They'd like to own the characters." I remember they were being really vague, and I wasn't sure what was going on at all. I was feeling kind of paranoid, but MTV ended up buying the characters, even though they weren't really sure what they were going to do with them.
They flew me up to a meeting in September , and we were sitting in this room talking about what to do with the characters and Abby Terkuhle [executive vice president/creative director, MTV] just walks in and says, "Well, I just talked to the higher-ups and they're interested in doing 35 episodes." That kind of floored me, because I didn't think they knew how much money that would take. And then, of course, Abby says, "Well, they've approved a million dollars to do this thing." It was like, wow. I'd been making these things for $800, which was a lot of money to me. And that was that.
AC: How's your working relationship with MTV these days? Do you ever feel they're stepping on your toes in regard to what you'd like to see with the series?
MJ: Yeah, well, their Standards Department is very weird. It's weird what they will and won't let through. And then "the fire thing" was...
AC: ... a disaster?
MJ: Yeah. A disaster. What's always bothering me are just general screw-ups on the show. It's not a real smooth operation, you know? I'll be sitting at home watching something that I tried to get fixed a million times and was assured was working, and there it is, on TV, still screwed up. Overall though, it's been pretty good. Up until recently, I haven't had anything to compare it to. It's been really unorganized. A lot of stuff has gotten on the air that shouldn't have. Things that have been out of character, or not drawn right. With Fox, it's much more organized and they take care of you a lot better, but they also sort of interfere more. They're in there creatively more. MTV is pretty much a hands-off operation, but the drawback is that it's not as together. There are a lot more screw-ups.
AC: So it's not really as bad as people make it out to be?
MJ: MTV has kind of become a whipping post for a lot of people, and in a way, I guess they deserve it. It's evil, don't get me wrong, but there's no one evil individual you can point to. It acts as an evil corporation, but you don't really know where the evil comes from. To be honest, they really don't treat new talent well at all. They do screw people. They'll sign someone to a three-year option for some amount of money that you could live off of for a month, and then just sit on it. It's kind of like there are these punk lawyers who come in and want to show how tough they are. It's a weird place.
AC: How many writers do you have on the series? It's not just you, is it?
MJ: When the show was up and running at its own pace, there were four staff writers. I used to write a lot of them, but now I just sort of do rewriting to make it my own, where I can. Usually they'll write a treatment, and then we'll go over it and change it up. We record it first, and then we do storyboards and layout, and it can take anywhere from five months to a year before it's on the air.
AC: How about the bits with the videos?
MJ: That's done pretty quickly. I'll have a writer with me and the engineer, and we do them here [in Austin], and we just watch the video and try to come up with stuff. As for the animation, there are miles of stock Beavis and Butt-head "head turns" and "smacks" and everything, and that's built in the editing. There's a big backlog of shows now that they've been holding for after the movie. It's some of the best stuff, I think, ever. There's an episode called "Nosebleed" that I'm real proud of. That'll all be coming up.
AC: Did it surprise you? Did you have even the faintest glimmer that the show would take off and revolutionize life as we know it? It freaked you out a little, didn't it?
MJ: [laughing] Yeah. I mean, it doesn't freak me out that much, but every now and then, there'll be moments where I'm just like... [holding his head in his hands]. There was a point during this movie, after doing Beavis and Butt-head 18 hours a day, where it was really... consuming. The thing is, when it started, it seemed like it happened real quick, but it sort of didn't. It should have freaked me out more than it did, I guess.
AC: It took a while to sink in.
MJ: Well, the first five episodes were so bad. Horribly animated. I thought the show was going to die. I was embarrassed. I think the only thing that saved it was the videos.
I was very isolated in the beginning. I didn't know anyone in New York and I was still wondering what was going to happen. Over like three months it all came together, and all of a sudden I was doing interviews and so on. The cover of Rolling Stone kind of freaked me out, but still, even then, I was worried about renting our house out in Dallas, going to and from work. It wasn't like wild parties, or anything. It was a lot of work, and a lot of stress. There wasn't really a lot of time to think about what was happening.
AC: Looking back, how do you feel about the experience now?
MJ: Well, it wasn't until I got back down here that I could really sit back and look at it and be, like, "cool." Once you get to Season Three, from "Cornholio" on, I'm really pretty proud of that show. I think, overall, it's pretty good. I have few comp... well, I have a lot of complaints, but, I'm really lucky. I feel pretty good about it.
AC: At one point, wasn't the idea of a live-action Beavis and Butt-head movie being batted around? Did anyone ever decide who would play them?
MJ: Someone said Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. They may have been joking.
AC: Tell me about King of the Hill.
MJ: It starts January 12, on Fox. The thing about King of the Hill is that it's sort of being written about as my show, but it's really not. It started out as an idea I pitched, and then Greg Daniels took it over when I came in later to do a voice. I've been so involved with the movie that I've been really out of it. I can't call it my show at all.
There's some article that came out that said it's set in Austin, which really isn't true. When I pitched the idea, I was actually thinking of a place like Garland, outside of Dallas. People who've seen it say that it's different than The Simpsons and different than Beavis and Butt-head, but it still has "my mark" on it. So.
AC: What's the premise?
MJ: It's kind of like the Tom Anderson guy in Beavis and Butt-head. If he had a family and a bunch of drinking buddies.... It's kind of based on neighbors I've had.
AC: Sounds good. One thing I've been meaning to ask you....
AC: Were you surprised to find out that Patrick Stewart [Star Trek's Captain Picard] was a big Beavis and Butt-head fan? I mean, who would have guessed?
MJ: Yeah. I was surprised. Although, there've been others, too, that are surprising.
AC: Such as?
MJ: Well, Bernardo Bertolucci's a big fan. He really raves about it. He was on Leno talking about it, and in a couple of interviews. There's another weird one, too. Uh, I heard Brian Keith is a big fan. I met his son, and he said his dad watches it religiously.
AC: Wow. That's like Buddy Ebsen or something. Just as weird. Only not dead.
MJ: Yeah. Family Affair was such a bizarre show to me. Just really bizarre. Surreal. Strange. That's a good example of a show that Janet Reno would approve of. There's nothing outwardly bad, but the whole thing had this really evil vibe.
AC: So, getting back to the movie (and therefore far, far away from Sebastian Cabot), I've heard that Rick Linklater has a part in it, right?
MJ: Yeah. He's the bus driver that's kicking Beavis' ass at the end.
AC: How'd you hook up with Linklater?
MJ: He was doing Slacker and stuff around the same time I was starting my animated films, so he was around Southwest Labs in Dallas. I'd read about him, and I'd think, man, we must know a ton of the same people, and so I eventually called him up. I'd never done that before, but Dazed and Confused just blew me away so much. For a while, I was renting some office space from him.
AC: Over at Detour?
MJ: Yeah. Actually a lot of Season Four of Beavis and Butt-head was done at Detour. We'd have to EQ the sounds of I-35 out of the mix sometimes.
AC: Why the move to Austin? I mean, apart from the obvious advantages here.
MJ: Well, when we lived in Dallas I was down in Austin twice a month. I was playing with Doyle Bramhall and he had moved down here. We had thought about moving here and had always said, "Austin's a lot better; let's move to Austin." But then the show happened and we moved to New York and that went on for a year, and then a year and a half, and we thought, "Well, now we've got more money, so we can pretty much live anywhere," and Austin was it. We had so many friends here already. And even though I'd grown up in Albuquerque and my wife had grown up in Palo Alto, I still felt like Texas was home. And then there was the fact that everyone I knew in Dallas moved down to Austin while we were in New York. That sealed it.
AC: What do you see yourself doing in 20 years?
MJ: Oh boy. That's kinda scary. And it goes by fast, too. I'd like to slow down, and I'd really like to direct a live-action movie. It'd be great to just be able to stay around here -- and it's looking more and more possible -- and do movies and whatever, and make a living at it here.
AC: Austin may be the perfect place for that.
MJ: Yeah. That's the other thing about Austin: When I was traveling, I'd think a lot about the places I'd want to live. It was, like, north of San Francisco, Athens, Georgia, some parts of Kentucky are nice, but the thing about Austin... it's really the people, I think. The attitude is really good here.
Whenever I'd drive down here from Dallas -- when I was playing music -- as soon as you get into Austin, you just get this peaceful feeling. It's really weird. I don't know what it is, maybe the water, or the air, or whatever. You just come to Austin and go "Ahhhhh." [laughing]
And on top of that, I can run the show here better than pretty much anywhere else. I can take these storyboards and make a bunch of notes on them, and just work by myself. Just FedEx the stuff off. It's just better here.
AC: Okay. Last one. Just for curiosity's sake, what was your first big-bucks expenditure once you knew everything was coming together?
MJ: I'm still waiting to buy some kind of muscle car from the muscle-car years, '67-'71.
AC: I would have thought... monster truck.
MJ: [Laughing] A monster truck! That's a good idea. When I started coming into money, it took me a long time to splurge. I've had these cheap instincts all my life, and it's only recently that I've finally started to shed my cheap instincts. I still haven't gone out and done anything crazy, though. Buying a monster truck. A big old, obnoxious, jacked-up... that's a damn good idea.