The Secret Art of Mike Judge’s Satire

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On March 8, 1993, “Beavis and Butt-Head” premiered on MTV. The show’s main characters—two rude, immature, violent, oddly lovable, and very American teenagers—looked like few others on screen. Each episode involved the idle couple in their Texas town, engaging in petty acts of vandalism and mindless conversations. Between these adventures, they watched TV and made fart noises, and called each other names such as “monkey spanking” and “turd burglar”. They were beautifully stupid, but so pure that they achieved a kind of innocence. To watch them, wrote critic Roger Ebert, was “to learn a culture of narcissism, alienation, functional illiteracy, instant gratification, and zombie television.”

Beavis and Butt-Head were both voiced by show creator Mike Judge. Judge, now 59, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After earning a degree in physics, he began sending homemade cartoons to festivals and quickly became one of the most prolific and accurate satirists of decades. Judge skewered the corporate workplace (“Office Space”), the rise of anti-intellectualism in politics and pop culture (“Idiocracy”), suburban beats (“King of the Hill”) and the absurdity of a high-modern gold rush of technology in which little importance is ever produced (“Silicon Valley”). It’s also comedic Nostradamus: “Idiocracy,” released in 2006, predicts a near future in which payment will be automated, Crocs will be popular, and the president will order fast food wholesale.

The judge has been busy lately. Since HBO failed to extend his two-year, eight-figure contract in 2021, he and longtime partner Greg Daniels (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation”) have formed their own production company, Bandera Entertainment. , with more than a dozen shows already in development. He also reunited with old friends. In June, Paramount+ aired “Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe,” the animated duo’s first feature film since 1996, and their first screen appearance since 2011. (The plot sees them sucked into a time portal in 1998, and spit into 2022, washed up on the shores of a much-changed America.) And, on Thursday, “Beavis and Butt-Head” returned to television, where there will be two new seasons, also on Paramount+, featuring the duo in both youth and middle age.

In June, I spoke with Judge over two afternoons, on topics ranging from how tedious jobs influenced his comedy to the importance of creating art without waiting for permission. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

You once spoke with Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” about a topic close to your heart: Why is getting hit in bullets so fun?

I don’t think we’ve really found an answer. But he had some good ideas on another question: why did the testicles evolve in such a vulnerable place? Charles Darwin talked about the male peacock, with those giant feathers. They are colorful, bright, it is difficult to escape from a predator. Why would something evolve that makes it After difficult to escape a predator? Why didn’t the testicles evolve where the pituitary is? Or any other number of glands? Maybe the idea is, like, Yeah, they’re here, what are you gonna do about it? I can protect the young if I can protect these testicles.

Getting punched in the testicles is a trope that comes up often in your work.

May be too much. In fact, we discussed it a bit for the new [“Beavis and Butt-Head”] movie – we got an entirely different start that didn’t involve kicking the testicles. But we ended up opting for the testicular version. Guess I’ve probably been down that well too many times.

Do you think there is a Darwinist purpose in having a sense of humor?

There are theories that it has something to do with signaling that all is well, danger is gone or something like that. I think it could be related to other abilities as well. The ability to make a group of people laugh has a certain power associated with it. To unite people.

You brought back wilder, more anarchic comedy with “Beavis and Butt-Head” in the 90s. At the time, it reminded me of the ferocity of The Three Stooges and other early film comedies.

Yeah. He had been missing for a while. I think for a lot of us – the old folks – there was a time when we were kids, in the 70s or 80s, and the Three Stooges were playing late at night on some weird channel, and it just sounded amazing. I’m a huge Three Stooges fan. What interests me is that when the movie first had sound, it didn’t take long for people to realize that maybe the best use of this technology was just someone one that hit another person in the head. I always argue with mixers about this, because now they layer all the sounds, and it’s funnier when it’s a pure, distinct sound like the Three Stooges had, which is probably just a guy sitting there with a coconut or hitting something. These sounds are hard to beat. But they now have the ability to layer twenty different sounds, and it ends up sounding big, mushy, meaningless and loud.

Writer and actor Buck Henry felt that when it comes to comedy, the simpler the better. A Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy product – which wasn’t so great in terms of lighting, cinematography or sound – was always funnier than a well-crafted movie. And he implicated his own work – the film adaptation of “Catch-22”, which he scripted – in this theory. Humor tends to get lost when things are too beautiful to look at.

I think he’s probably right, even though I loved that movie. During the pandemic, I was watching Laurel and Hardy a lot. I like how they let him play in a wide shot. Buster Keaton did too. When I did “Office Space,” there’s this car crash scene. The typical way to do it these days would be to shoot a bunch of different angles, double it, triple it, like an action movie. But I love how the comedy plays out flat and wide – like in the Keaton movies, which I snagged at the time – and you see it all. They don’t try to hide anything. That’s why I did it all at once like that.

So much has changed culturally in the decades since “Beavis and Butt-Head” first appeared. If you started now, creating your own animation and sending it to the networks, as you did with your first works, do you think you would be able to sell the ideas?

It’s a good question. It doesn’t look like it. But, at the same time, there are now so many animation tools available. Anyone with an iPad or computer can make a fairly high-quality animation if they put the time into it. And now you can stream it on YouTube. If it becomes popular, it becomes popular.

That’s kind of how I started. I made my own shorts, put them on VHS, just sent them to people and showed them at festivals.

It’s a punk philosophy: do it yourself and release it.

Well, I had been a full-time musician for a few years when I started hosting, and I was tired of touring. I didn’t want to travel all the time, so my plan was to become a community college math teacher. I was going to the University of Texas at Dallas, part-time, to take courses for a master’s degree in mathematics. I thought, I’ll just become a math teacher, and animation will be my hobby. When I discovered that I could do everything myself, I could do whatever I wanted, I thought: why not? And when I sent in my tapes, I got all these calls and I started working.

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