Mike Judge Is My Xanax
I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for Mike Judge.
Photos by Terry Richardson
I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Mike Judge. By that I mean in a cab, on the way back from a fancy hotel in midtown Manhattan, where an hour ago I watched Mike and Terry Richardson hold cardboard Beavis and Butt-Head masks over their faces and chuckle like teenage idiots while everyone else in the room giggled their asses off.
But I also mean I wouldn’t be me, a highly cynical person who, at the end of the day, would rather ridicule the absurdity of this often-terrible world than cry about it or become a serial killer. You could say that Mike’s work—especially Beavis and Butt-Head and his feature films Office Space and Idiocracy—served as coping mechanisms of sorts, visual antidepressants that at various times in my life helped me say, “This guy’s making a good living by making fun of all this crap. Things can’t be that bad.” I think it’s safe to assume that most of the people whose company I enjoy feel the same way, whether or not they want to get that obnoxiously analytic about it.
When news came earlier this year that Beavis and Butt-Head would return to MTV, I was excited. Then I started to wonder whether today’s kids would get it—whether the combination of pop culture’s current state of awfulness and the fact that internet commenting has turned young people into defensive pussies who never have to deal with retribution for their half-formed opinions would mean they’d take one look at the show and say, “I like what they’re making fun of, and this makes me feel stupid, so fuck these guys.” Either way, I’m going to laugh really hard at all of it.
So I was ecstatic when Mike, who I’ve been chasing since last year’s Larfs Issue, agreed to an interview. When he said he’d illustrate this month’s cover I pooped my pants (just a little bit). And when I emailed Terry to see if he could drop whatever he was doing for a last-minute shoot with Mike, he replied minutes later: “Holy shit… me, Mike, and Beavis and Butt-Head together? Sounds awesome! What time do you have him?” Then I threw up all over my keyboard from overexcitement.
Thank God I was able to keep it together when it came time for the interview.
VICE: I’m a little weirded out by meeting you.
Mike Judge: [laughs] Because I’m weird?
No, that’s a good thing. It’s just that your work has informed so much of my sense of humor, especially as a kid. My whole generation, really. You made it OK for me to let people know how much I thought certain things sucked, and laugh about it.
How old are you?
Yeah, I’ve been getting that a lot lately—people saying, “I grew up on your stuff” or “I grew up being told not to watch it.” Versions of that.
My parents were cool enough to let me watch it, but I did go to Catholic school and the nuns there totally didn’t approve of shows like The Simpsons, and especially not Beavis and Butt-Head. You went to Catholic school too, right?
Yeah, a Catholic high school. I went to public school until ninth grade. Actually—I just heard about this—but back when the show came out, the school’s newspaper said some negative stuff about me, but now they claim me. So…
How do you think kids who never watched the original series are going to react to the new show? I feel that the culture of this generation sucks so badly that they may be too far-gone to understand the nuances of Beavis and Butt-Head’s commentary. Or, more likely, I’m just getting old and crotchety.
When I started doing the show, I was already old. I was pushing 30; about your age, so obviously I already felt like I was older than the characters. But it’s weird, even at the time in ’92, I remember people at MTV would say that AC/DC and Metallica were old references. They were like, “Maybe it should be Nirvana or Pearl Jam or something else, you know?” It was already unhip to begin with, but to me it’s more like a state of mind than a cultural reference to a particular time period, even though there are some specific references. So it’s about going to that same place, except now I’m watching Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant. The last episode was 14 years ago, so yeah, things have changed, but…
But they haven’t.
No, they haven’t, and the other characters haven’t. Like, I was looking at the hippie teacher character, and back when I first did the show I thought, “Are there really guys like this anymore?” Then I looked around and there were plenty of hippies in tie-dyed shirts, and it’s the same thing today. There are other parts that we had to adjust a little bit, but The Simpsons are still wearing the same clothes and have the same hair and have been on this long.
How about MTV? It’s basically unrecognizable from the network it was 15 years ago, and it seems like only tweens and douchebags watch it now. Are you working with any of the same people as before?
Well, Judy McGrath just left, which was kind of a bummer. She’d been running the whole thing since I started. But as for everyone else, it’s kind of the same bunch of people. It’s funny—when I did King of The Hill over at Fox, they were firing everybody every few months. At MTV, the people at the top have been the same, so it’s like going back to the same place, except the network has obviously changed a lot. You have these executives saying, “We’ve got all these shows like Teen Mom that are watched by teenage girls. That’s our demo. We need guys watching us.” I think part of the reason they wanted to bring the show back was to see if they could get more of a male audience again.
Everyone’s into revivals right now. Arrested Development is returning, bands are reuniting to tour behind albums released in the mid-90s. I guess that’s because everyone is—
[laughs] Running out of ideas. I guess that is happening. Arrested Development is one that people keep watching—myself included—and it kind of gets better the more you watch it. There are so many networks, and a lot of people looking for content. It seems a lot of shows are failing, and you look at something like Arrested Development and think, “Why not bring it back?” I’ve heard that they’ve wanted to do that for years now.
So were you planning on making new Beavis and Butt-Head episodes for a long time, or did MTV approach you?
It started with MTV approaching me. They’d bring it up every year or two. They wanted a movie, and then there was a while when they were talking about a series, but I hadn’t heard about it for a bit. My manager would occasionally say, “You know, they call me from time to time,” but this last time it came as a full-court press, like, “Would you want to bring the show back?” King of the Hill was done, and I’d just done a live-action movie [Extract] and didn’t want to do that again anytime soon. I had written down ideas about a sequel to the movie, and ideas in general over the years, but I always felt like I wasn’t quite done with it. When I quit, I was burned out. I wanted to do other things, but I never felt like, “I’m completely burying that. I’m done with it.” I also wouldn’t have thought that, 14 years later, I’d start doing it again. But it feels right for some reason.
Did you struggle getting back into doing their voices?
I never do the voices if I don’t have to. I like doing it when I’m doing it, but it’s not anything that I do in my spare time.
Was it something that you needed to practice?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t like listening to myself after I record. But I did record, listen to it, and watch some old episodes. To me, it sounds the same. But that’s another thing, I think by the time I’m 60, I might just sound like Beavis all the time, so that’s another good reason to do it sooner rather than later.
I noticed that the show’s logo now says “Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head” rather than “MTV’s.” I feel like I’ve seen it this way on the DVD boxes of the old episodes, but it was surprising to see that it was going to carry over to TV. Got any good dirt on this subtle but important change?
When [my relationship with MTV] began, I had these two two-minute shorts with Beavis and Butt-Head that I licensed to Liquid Television. Then MTV wanted to buy the characters from me—they didn’t say what exactly they wanted to do with them—and so I negotiated for a while and thought, “It takes six to eight weeks to do two minutes when I do everything by myself,” and I was kind of done. I’d produced two shorts and made a few thousand off of them selling them to festivals and Liquid Television, but that was it and I was a nobody at the time. So I sold it to them outright, and then they wanted me to do the show so I ended up getting paid that way. But at some point they decided, “We’re gonna call it MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head.” I was like, “Really? I created this in my house with pencil and paper and cels and film and… MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head? But whatever, you own it, that’s fine.” Years later the movie came out and they wanted a sequel. I was unhappy with some stuff, and I just did a fuck-you negotiation with them [laughs]. At one point my lawyer said, “You want to ask them to call it Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head?” and I said, “Yeah, go for it.” I kind of forgot that we agreed to that, and then when we were redesigning the logo I was like “Wow, OK.” Normally I wouldn’t splash my name all over something, but if it’s between MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head or Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head, I’ll take it.
When you submitted those first shorts to Liquid Television, did you ever think a cartoon about two borderline-retarded high school friends would become such a phenomenon?
That’s a good question, because I was just making these homemade cartoons, and I didn’t want to get too delusional about it. On one level I thought, “Oh, that’d be cool if I got with some other people making films in Dallas and met some people doing comedy, or got a job running an animation camera. I was just trying to do something, so I was making these films. With Beavis and Butt-Head I did at one point think, “Oh, this could maybe be characters that someone might want to take to another level and do something with.” Then suddenly I see this show that comes on, Liquid Television, and I was like “You’ve gotta be kidding. This is too good to be true. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could get something on there?” To me, it was just an incredible dream come true for them to run my shorts. But in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I should do stuff that could maybe be taken to the next level,” because The Simpsons had just become this huge thing, along with Ren & Stimpy.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding cartoons in the 90s. People were losing their shit over the idea that they didn’t necessarily have to be made for kids, and subjects could be tackled in the animated world that would probably be off-limits or seem weird in a live-action show. But is it even possible to piss people off anymore? No one even seemed to care when Cartman made chili out of that kid’s parents. I feel like people would’ve freaked out if it happened 15 years ago. How do you up the ante?
I never think of it that way. When I first started taking meetings in Hollywood, anytime you hear an executive talk about being “edgy” or “dark,” it’s usually something that sucks and loses everybody money. Sometimes, when you get a good idea and it happens to have some crazy element to it that’s going to piss people off, then sure, it works. But I don’t start with that in mind. Back then people just had it in their heads that a cartoon is for kids. It’s not that way anymore, but at the time it was. Even The Simpsons—people probably don’t remember how controversial that was. Bart was the underachiever, and that was just a big, “Oh, how dare you have a cartoon character calling himself an underachiever. Everyone should be an overachiever!” But there was stuff at animation festivals that was just beyond anything that you would even see now [laughs]. It was that crazy, funny stuff. Right around that time, at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, there was this thing happening with cartoons and animation. We had this generation of people my age, and we’d all watched the old Warner Bros. stuff growing up, which was amazing. Then cartoons got horrible for a while until The Tracy Ullman Show and The Simpsons came out of nowhere. The idea that there was a cartoon with great stories, with funny and great characters that were relevant, was kind of mind-boggling.
Can Beavis say “fire” again?
Yes, he can say “fire.”
Good. Kids need to burn more shit down these days. Another thing I was wondering: Is Daria coming back?
I’ve been asked that question so much lately that I was thinking maybe we should bring her back. I always liked that character, but my producers at the time said, “You know, we’re thinking of spinning this show off,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” But they became determined to do it without me, I guess, so they went and hired all these people—I had no idea. So I was a little pissed off about that, and I just disassociated myself with it. I liked the character, and I know they had a couple of great writers on that show, so it must have been pretty good, but, yeah, a lot of people seem to want that character back.
I liked her better on Beavis and Butt-Head, for the record. But a lot of people would probably disagree with that.
I liked her on Beavis and Butt-Head. Everyone on the show is portrayed negatively across the board. Daria was the only one who was occasionally not. I liked that interaction with her and them. So yeah, I might have to bring her back.
Someone told me that some of the story ideas for the new Beavis and Butt-Head came from uncompleted episodes of King of the Hill. Is that true?
Not really from King of the Hill. Just seeing something around, I’d go, “Oh that would be a good idea.” And doing movies and King of the Hill, I think I’ve gotten better at filmmaking in general, and thought, “I’d like to go back and do Beavis and Butt-Head.” I knew that it’d be easier now to get it right, from a filmmaking perspective. When I did those initial shorts, I didn’t know how to stage things, or what “crossing the line” meant—there were all of these things I learned as I went.
I also heard that if things got too racy for MTV that, this time around, you’d put them online. Have they freaked out about anything to that degree yet?
Not yet. Came close to it [laughs].
Can you divulge?
I’m trying to remember exactly what it was. It was something where they were watching one of these shows like 16 and Pregnant and the MTV folks were like, “Well, the producers of the show aren’t happy with this or that,” and I’m like, “Well, all right, I’m unhappy with you telling me I can’t put it in there [laughs], and I’m a producer of this show, so we’ll just put it on YouTube.” You can do that now. Everyone’s putting my stuff on YouTube, so…
Because everyone loves it. But I imagine it can be a headache to deal with sometimes.
It’s good. The only thing that’s a bummer is that the very first thing I ever animated—they call it track-reading animation, when you follow the lip sync and you animate to that. I did that with a stopwatch, which took forever. I got it perfect, and now it’s on YouTube for the entire world to see but it’s out of sync [laughs]. It drives me crazy. I’m flattered that it’s on there; I just wish it were in sync.
Speaking of YouTube, it’s about the only place where people watch music videos now. I don’t think MTV even shows them at 4 AM anymore. I’m hoping Beavis and Butt-Head will still be watching new and weird videos that you don’t see elsewhere, and I always wondered if you handpicked them or if you had someone who would trawl through all of that stuff for you.
Most of them I handpicked, but I did have some people who worked on the show do some trawling for me. We would get sent tons of stuff once the show was a hit and people saw what was going on. It’s kind of the same with the new series. There are actually a lot of really cool music videos out there right now, even though no one plays them on TV anymore. In fact, as someone who has seen a gazillion of them, I’d argue that they’re better now than they were back then.
So you have encyclopedic music video knowledge, but something people might not know about you is that you also have a degree in physics. Does that ever come in handy?
There’s some technical stuff maybe that, after you’ve studied physics, just seems easy. There was a time, after a test screening of Office Space, when a Fox executive was trying to make a point about one of the statistics, and when you do physics, in thermodynamics, you learn statistics inside and out, or pretty well. So I was able to go, “No, that’s not what that number means; it’s this, this, and this.” I lectured them all on statistics after a screening that didn’t get a very high number.
What was the statistic?
It was some kind of data that they used to try to tell me that I should get rid of the gangsta rap.
Really? What a giant crock of shit.
They were fighting so hard to get me to take it out, so I went out on a limb and said, “OK, let’s specifically ask the focus group at this next screening, and if they don’t like it, I’ll take it out.” So this group of 19- to 30-year-olds or whatever said it was great. The woman running the thing was trying so hard to pollute the thing. She was like, “What’d you think about the music?” And they were like, “Oh, it’s great!” “But what about the gangsta rap?” And then they said, “Oh man, it was great!” “But maybe there was too much of it?” They wouldn’t give her anything. Not one bit of negativity came up, and this focus group saved me.
I feel like that very sort of situation is exactly why so many people love your stuff. I wouldn’t say you’re an underdog, because that’s not entirely accurate, but it seems that you always prevail in some roundabout fashion that really sticks it to your detractors.
I’d feel better if it was a huge hit out of the gate, but, actually, yeah. I grew up watching lots of TV, but not so many movies until later in life. I was brought up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, completely away from any entertainment people in New York or LA, and I always kept getting this feeling that they’re slightly out of touch with the way most of us think and feel. And when something does happen that you can relate to, especially stuff that’s about everyday life, you really appreciate it. I did. I guess part of it is me thinking that way, trying to do stuff that maybe Hollywood is a little too out of touch to do. That’s probably why I gravitate to stuff like King of the Hill or Office Space. It’s more about everyday, normal people. But yeah, I guess my movies have a delayed reaction thing going.
It’s the same thing with Idiocracy, which is one of my favorite movies of all time because it’s very frank, in a hilarious way, about how dumb people are. But it never had a wide theatrical release. I’ve heard tons of rumors, but can you set the record straight?
I can tell you what I know. We locked and finished the movie and put it in the can, and it didn’t come out until over a year later. So by the time that it got around to marketing, I was completely out of touch with them. I got a couple calls. They showed me a couple trailers—some of them I thought were good, others I thought were horrible. This always happens. It happened with Office Space too. They sent me a tape with 13 trailers on it. At first I was really happy, and I go, “I like all of these except No. 3 and No. 11. All the rest are great.” I call them up, “Hey, these are great,” and they go, “Yeah, we really like No. 3 and No. 11.”
So they tested the trailers, and they didn’t do well—I wouldn’t have liked them either if I were in a test group. Then they looked at it and said, “OK, let’s use Office Space as a business model. It made us a ton of money, but it was like three or four years later. What did we do wrong there? We spent money on the release and trailers, so let’s not do that this time.” But you could argue that maybe they did the right thing. It seems to be making money now, just like Office Space. But with Idiocracy, that really was a case of ditching a movie. They put it in maybe like 11 theaters. I always hated articles that said how much the movie made, but not that it was in only 11 theaters. Not only that, but if you looked it up on Moviefone, it was still listed under “Untitled Mike Judge Movie Project” [laughs]. They didn’t even go through the effort of entering a title into whatever database they pull that stuff from.
The reason that movie is so important—and probably so controversial—is because it helps people like me cope with the rest of the world. It’s like, “Well, at least it’s not that bad yet, and I’ll be dead before it gets to this.”
I’ve got to watch it again, because I haven’t seen it since it came out. Over the last year, so many people have been talking to me about it. I saw it a million times in the editing room, obsessed over every frame of it, but I’ll have people quote it to me now, and I’ll think, “Yeah, I should check it out again.”
How do you feel about how The Goode Family was handled?
I’m one of three creators of that show, and I kind of let my partners do it. I was busy making Extract. I did do some of the drawings and the voice of the main guy. It seemed like they promoted it right, the show just didn’t work for whatever reason. That happens. It seems like with animation—or maybe it’s true with everything—but especially with animation, shows are either a complete sensation, a phenomenon, or they just don’t work at all. If you look at Family Guy, South Park, The Simpsons—they all have that thing where it clicks like crazy.
What about how Extract was promoted? I remember hearing quite a bit about it leading up to its release.
Yeah, no excuses there, really [laughs]. The thing is, though, it was a very low-budget movie. We used private investors, and everyone seemed happy.
It seemed like everything went right for once.
It actually did. That was about as good of an experience as I think you can have making a movie—where you’re getting up at 5 AM and all that stuff. It went well from beginning to end. I had a great crew, great producers, and everything.
Will you be making another live-action movie anytime soon?
I’m going to take a break from it. I think Extract was around an eight-week shoot? Yeah, that was about right for me [laughs]. Idiocracy was ten or 12 weeks, and that gets a little rough. But, yeah, it was actually a good experience. The thing I don’t like is the casting process. Actors come in, they want the part, and sometimes you want to tell actors that they’re great even though they’re not right for it, and it’s going to sound like BS. It’s like going on an awkward date every five minutes for eight hours. It’s really tough.
One last and very important question that I thought you might be able to clear up: I’ve had a long-standing debate with a couple friends about the definition of the word chode. Some people think it’s a dick that’s fatter than it is long, while others are adamant that it’s another word for “taint”—the perineum. What do you think it means? Or maybe it’s better to ask what Beavis and Butt-Head think it means.
Well, like I said, I grew up in Albuquerque, and what I heard is that it just means “penis”—it’s short for “chorizo,” and it came from the vatos. That’s how I heard it growing up: The cholos were like, “chode—short for ‘chorizo.’” And the taint, you know where that comes from, right?
Taint your balls, taint your asshole. ’Tis in between.