Mike Judge’s Secret Art of Satire

on August 7, 2023 in The New Yorker

On March 8, 1993, “Beavis and Butt-Head” premièred on MTV. The show’s title characters—two gross, immature, violent, strangely lovable, and very American teen-agers—were like little else onscreen. Each episode involved the pair idling around their Texas town, indulging in petty acts of vandalism and moronic conversations. In between these adventures, they watched TV and made fart noises, and called each other names such as “monkey spank” and “turd burglar.” They were magnificently stupid, but so pure that they achieved a kind of innocence. To watch them, the critic Roger Ebert wrote, was “to learn about a culture of narcissism, alienation, functional illiteracy, instant gratification and television zombiehood.”

Both Beavis and Butt-Head were voiced by the show’s creator, Mike Judge. Judge, now fifty-nine, was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After graduating with a physics degree, he began sending out homemade cartoons to festivals, and soon became one of the most prolific, needle-accurate satirists of the past few decades. Judge has skewered the corporate workplace (“Office Space”), the rise of anti-intellectualism in politics and pop culture (“Idiocracy”), the rhythms of suburbia (“King of the Hill”), and the absurdity of a high-tech modern-day gold rush in which little of consequence is ever produced (“Silicon Valley”). He’s also something of a comedic Nostradamus: “Idiocracy,” which came out in 2006, predicts a near future in which payment is automated, Crocs are popular, and the President orders fast food in bulk.

Judge has been busy of late. Since HBO failed to extend his two-year, eight-figure contract in 2021, he and his 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’s also reunited with some old friends. In June, Paramount+ aired “Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe,” the animated pair’s first movie feature since 1996, and their first appearance onscreen since 2011. (The plot sees them sucked into a time portal in 1998, and spit out in 2022, washed up on the shores of a very changed America.) And, on Thursday, “Beavis and Butt-Head” returned to TV, where there will be two new seasons, also on Paramount+, featuring the duo in both youth and middle age.

In June, I talked with Judge in the course of two afternoons, on subjects 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 subject near and dear to your heart: Why is getting hit in the balls so funny?

I don’t think we really came up with an answer. But he did have some great insights into another question: Why did the testicles evolve in such a vulnerable place? Charles Darwin talked about the male peacock, with these giant feathers. They’re colorful, bright, make it hard to escape a predator. Why would something evolve that makes it more difficult to escape a predator? Why didn’t the testicles evolve where the pituitary gland is? Or any other number of glands? Maybe the idea is, like, Yeah, they’re there, what are you going to do about it? I can protect the young if I can protect these testicles.

Getting hit in the testicles is a trope that’s often featured in your work.

Maybe too much. We actually discussed that quite a bit for the new [“Beavis and Butt-Head”] movie—we had an entirely different beginning that did not involve testicle kicking. But we ended up going with the testicle-kicking version. I guess I’ve probably gone to that well too many times.

Do you think there’s a Darwinist purpose to having a sense of humor?

There are theories that it has something to do with signalling that everything is O.K.—that danger is gone or something. I think it could also be connected to other abilities. The ability to make a bunch of people laugh has a certain amount of power associated with it. To unite people.

You brought back a wilder, more anarchic comedy with “Beavis and Butt-Head” in the nineties. At the time, it reminded me of the ferocity of the Three Stooges and other early filmed comedy.

Yeah. It had disappeared for a while. I think for a lot of us—the old folks—there was a time when we were kids, in the seventies or eighties, and the Three Stooges would come on late at night on some weird channel, and it just seemed amazing. I’m a huge Three Stooges fan. It’s interesting to me that when film first had sound, it didn’t take long for people to realize that possibly the best use of that technology was just somebody smacking another person in the head. I’m always arguing with sound mixers about this, because now they layer all the sounds, and it’s funnier when it’s one pure, distinct sound like the Three Stooges had, which is probably just some guy sitting there with a coconut or smacking something. Those sounds are hard to beat. But they now have the ability to layer twenty different sounds, and it ends up being one big, mushy, meaningless, loud sound.

The writer and actor Buck Henry felt that, when it came to comedy, simpler was better. A Three Stooges or a Laurel and Hardy product—which wasn’t that beautiful when it came to 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. The humor tends to become lost when things are too beautiful to look at.

I think he’s probably right, although I did love that movie. During the pandemic, I was watching Laurel and Hardy a lot. I love the way they just let it play in a wide shot. Buster Keaton did that, too. When I did “Office Space,” there’s that car-crash scene. The typical way it would be done nowadays would be to shoot a bunch of different angles, double-cut it, triple-cut it, like an action movie. But I just love the way comedy plays flat and wide—like in Keaton’s movies, which I’d been bingeing at the time—and you just see the whole thing. They’re not trying to cover anything up. That’s why I did it all in one wide shot like that.

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

That’s a good question. It doesn’t seem like it. But, at the same time, there are now so many animation tools available. Anybody with an iPad or a computer can make pretty high-quality animation if they put the time in. And now you can put it out there on YouTube. If it gets popular, it gets popular.

That’s kind of how I started. I made my own short films, transferred them to VHS, just sent them around to people, and got them in festivals.

It’s a punk philosophy: just make it yourself and get it out there.

Well, I had been a full-time musician for a few years when I started animating, and I was tired of touring. I didn’t want to travel all the time, so my plan was to become a math teacher at a community college. I was going to the University of Texas at Dallas, part time, taking classes toward a master’s in math. I thought, I’m just going to become a math teacher, and animation will be my hobby. When I discovered that I could do this all myself, I could make whatever the hell I wanted, I thought, Why not? And, when I sent out my tapes, I got all these calls back, and I started to work.

If you’re going to wait for permission, you might be waiting a long time.

If you put something out there and it’s really good or interesting, someone will show somebody else. Don’t worry about connections and whatever. Just do something, and things will sort of gravitate toward it. It’s the old build-it-and-they-will-come thing.

I just started making these things and mailing out VHS tapes. But I wish I had thought about it earlier. I was already twenty-seven.

Well, the medium you chose was animation, not the easiest to create on your own.

I actually thought that that would give me an advantage. I thought, O.K., I don’t know many people who would do something this crazy, spend six to eight weeks inking and painting cells and doing these drawings and sitting there with a stopwatch, timing every syllable, doing all this for two minutes of animation. I thought it was crazy. There were probably people sending a lot of scripts out, but you don’t often get—at least back then—just a VHS that’s homemade cartoons.

I drew a crazy-looking character on VHS-tape covers, gave it a crazy name. I think it said, “Inbred Jed’s Homemade Cartoons.” I was hoping somebody would give it a watch just because of how weird it looked. I think that ended up being to my advantage. I still think it’s that way. It’s one thing to pitch a cartoon and show drawings. It’s another to put in enough hours and actually do it. And it also shows that you’ve worked hard and thought about all this. You’re not just trying to become famous easily.

In 2009, you gave a commencement address at the University of California, San Diego, your alma mater. You said that it didn’t even occur to you when you graduated, in 1985, that you didn’t have to work a job that you had no interest in.

Back then, there was this big demand in the tech world for anybody with a science degree. Probably there still is. I just thought, Oh, everything will sort itself out when I graduate. And then you’re hit with that reality of: this is the job you get. Also, these aren’t jobs like working in a cafeteria, working construction—both of which I’ve done—where you can daydream while doing it. You can’t daydream while you’re doing something with your brain. These engineering jobs occupy the soul. I barely managed through the first week. And yet I was grateful for the job. I didn’t consider myself above it, which made it even more depressing, because it’s, like, “I’m lucky to have this job . .  . and I can’t stand it.”

Did working dreary jobs help you when it came to writing comedy?

Puts it in perspective. There’s so much material I’ve got from working so many jobs. A lot of the writers that I’ve worked with, same thing. It usually ends up being a good experience.

I remember there was a book I grabbed at a bookstore a long time ago, “Ernest Hemingway on Writing,” and I expected him to be, like, “You’ve got to suffer,” and this and that. But one thing that stood out was something he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life—and one is as good as the other.” I think that’s a pretty honest thing for him to admit. I remember conversations pretty well. Can’t remember people’s names, but I remember their life story and other details.

What about working as a musician? You were a professional bassist, and even did a short stint, in the mid-eighties, playing for Shamu’s Blues Band, at San Diego’s SeaWorld. Did music influence your comic style?

Definitely. Having a rhythm to things. The first time I ever had a test screening or saw my stuff in front of an audience, I had that feeling of, O.K., this has got to move on here. You have got to get in the groove of the audience. With writing, it’s sort of like when you’re recording music: you wait until everything feels good, and then you go, “O.K., let’s do one take. Let’s try this.” Writing’s kind of the same thing for me. I’d be pacing around, pacing around. A lot of times, I know what I want to write, and then I’ll just sit down and do it all at once. I think some of the best scenes I’ve written just came out all at once like that.

Have you ever been able to figure out the specific appeal of “Beavis and Butt-Head”? I mean, what exactly is it about these two that people love?

It’s hard to describe, but there’s something there. Butt-Head is this ugly guy who has confidence that he shouldn’t have. Beavis is crazy. They’re both stupid. They’re usually very positive. They’re fairly optimistic characters, I guess, no matter how bad things go.

When it’s a good episode, when the animation looks right, when everything’s going well, I like watching it. I think there’s something kind of relaxing about it. I think there are two categories of classic TV comedies, the kind I would watch when I was a kid. One type is like “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Every character is ridiculous. And they’re not having warm and cuddly moments at the end, where Granny and Uncle Jed say they love each other, or anything like that. But it’s funny, and it’s relaxing. The other type of show is “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Andy Griffith.” They’re based more on a story, and the characters aren’t just ridiculous. And “Beavis and Butt-Head” is my attempt at “The Beverly Hillbillies” kind of comedy. I always liked watching that show. It’s like a warm blanket.

I think that part of the likability of Beavis and Butt-Head, as characters, lies in the fact that they just do what they do, without any overthinking. There’s no Woody Allen angst for them.

I had a friend in junior high—I don’t know why I was friends with him, probably because I couldn’t get anyone else to be my friend—and “Happy Days” had just come out, and he thought he was the Fonz. He thought he was the coolest guy. I remember thinking, He’s happier than I am, and it’s just because he doesn’t know any better. There’s something to be said for that kind of unfounded confidence. These two are pretty content. There’s not a lot of self-awareness. That’s true of many great comedy characters.

They’re also not out to hurt anybody. There’s something liberating about watching characters that just don’t care much about what happens. Their relationship kind of works. Beavis is insane. Butt-Head is the only friend he can get. Butt-Head abuses Beavis just enough, as much as he can get away with. And it all kind of balances out.

They’re also incredibly independent. No helicopter parenting in sight.

Growing up in Albuquerque, it was amazing, the lack of supervision. As a kid, I lived out on the edge of town. I don’t remember if it was on the weekend or the summer, but me and my brother and three other boys would just wander the schoolyard. School was out of session. We found some kind of janitor’s closet that was open. We were just running around. Guys were peeing on teachers’ desks and scratching stuff into the glass. In Albuquerque, there was all this empty space, and we would just go out and throw bottles and break them. Sort of a scary combination of bored teen-agers with nothing to do and wide-open spaces. It doesn’t seem like there’s quite as much of that now as there used to be.

A lot of your work is about the comedy of boredom—making do with what little you have, whether in your parent’s basement or at an office job.

There is a lot of that. Maybe it has to do with growing up and being bored, having jobs where I was bored. Maybe it’s just a way to get all of that frustration out of my system.

I had a paper route in Albuquerque, starting in sixth grade. One day, I remember looking over at this office building, seeing a desk in there, and thinking, Man, I can hardly wait until I get older, and I can just live in my own place and work in a building like that! And I don’t have to slave away in the hot sun! I can just sit there at a comfortable desk!

And then, when I finally did it, I thought, Oh, my God, I can hardly wait to get out of this building. The first office job I had, before I graduated college, was alphabetizing purchase orders. I’d get home and be alphabetizing in my sleep. Dreaming about alphabetizing. It was bad news.

Your comedy is very effective at satirizing suburbia without resorting to clichés or falsehoods.

I actually like living in the suburbs. One of the big influences for me was Harvey Pekar and his comic books. Pekar said that everyday life has a huge effect on people. And I’d never seen a comic book that was just about these kinds of small moments, washing the dishes or whatever. I thought that was pretty amazing.

And “Do the Right Thing,” when that came out—even though I had never been to Brooklyn, there’s a nuance to something that’s real, where you can just tell. I was just really blown away by that movie. I thought, Why doesn’t someone make a movie with that sort of attention to detail about a suburban area?

My ex-wife and I, we had a house in Richardson, Texas. And there was a guy who lived on the corner. He was probably in his mid- to late thirties. He was a slightly chubby guy, very pasty-looking. Nerdy, thick glasses. It was just him and his mom. He’d be out there mowing his lawn in his dress slacks from work. It was, like, ninety-eight degrees. Sort of a typical engineer.

It was a really tight turn to get into the alley. So sometimes you’d end up running over a tiny little corner of his lawn—not on purpose. I mean, like, six to twelve inches of it. And it was just infuriating to him. He was always out there looking at that little corner. One day, he was pruning the trees, and he started sharpening all these branches, medieval-style. Then he stuck them in the mud, these wooden spikes, as if to say, Oh, this will show them. They won’t try to run over that little corner now!

And the next day some car spun its tires and gouged a big old hole right on that corner. I went out there, and he’s standing there looking down at the grass. And I guess he got the city or someone to place a little piece of concrete on that corner of his lawn. I remember thinking, I bet this is as interesting as anything that happens in New York. I loved it. It just made me laugh. Like, they didn’t patch his whole lawn, they just patched the one part that he put spiked sticks in. I mean, if you announce to the world, “Do not touch this square foot of my lawn, or else,” of course some kid is going to mess it up to see what happens.

So you didn’t feel like a realistic portrait of the suburbs existed, in movies or TV?

I never saw a portrait that seemed like it came from somebody who really knew it. Usually they do that thing where they make fun of a white picket fence in the suburbs. Oh, it looks all nice and nineteen-fifties on the outside . .  . but on the inside, watch out. You’ve seen that a hundred times.

With “King of the Hill,” I wanted to do an honest portrayal of those types of neighborhoods, treating the characters with dignity. It’s like making fun of your friends. It’s not looking down on it all.

Did you ever, even at the height of the show’s fame, think that “Beavis and Butt-Head” would last this long?

No. I didn’t think it would. I was really, from the get-go, pretty eager to move on to something else. Going into Season 2, I was just, like, Oh, man, how do I get out of this? I have all these opportunities now—even though a lawyer had me sign something that committed me to around eight seasons. A season was, like, thirty-five episodes. But we ended up doing seven of them, inside of four or five years. It was just non-stop. And by the third season I felt like I started to hit a stride. It got better.

Not long ago, I did a thing for the band Portugal. The Man. It was Beavis and Butt-Head introducing them at Coachella. I hadn’t done the voices in so long, and I didn’t know if they would sound right. I did it and listened to it and thought, This is pretty fun, it sounds like Beavis and Butt-Head. And then when Paramount reached out about doing all this again I figured, Why not? My voice will start to sound weird after a while, so I should give it one last try. And we’re doing episodes where they’re middle-aged, which was fun to do. We did one where they do jury duty. It’s one of my favorites we’ve ever done. We also worked on an episode where they want to get vasectomies because they think it might help their chances with women.

Typically, a comedy writer will respond to what is happening in the culture right now, or what has already happened. But with so many of your projects you’ve been ahead of the curve, which is a really hard place to work in comedy.

With “Idiocracy,” I had the idea in 1995 or ’96. I just jotted it down. I started writing it in 2001. I was thinking about Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001” and how his vision of the future was this pristine, intelligent kind of world, where everything’s safe, and it’s all about technology. And I got to thinking that it would’ve been pretty cool if that movie had shown the “Jerry Springer” show and these big Walmarts. I was noticing more and more profanity being mainstream. More advertising. All these trends that had been happening my whole life. For the movie, I’d just keep exaggerating them in a comedic way.

I guess in some ways I got lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it. When we were making the movie, the person in charge of wardrobe showed me these things called Crocs. She said that a startup was making these things, these horrible plastic shoes. And I said, “Yeah, those look pretty ridiculous. But what if they become popular and people start wearing them by the time the movie comes out? It’s not going to seem like a future movie.” She goes, “Oh, no. These will never fly. Nobody would buy these. The company’s going to fail.”

Meanwhile, the movie takes two years to come out. By the time it does, Crocs are just everywhere. And the characters in the movie are wearing Crocs, and there are closeups of their feet. Man, I was so bummed out. But I thought, Maybe more and more stuff is going to start coming true here.

Do you have any comedy pet peeves?

I have tons of them. People high-fiving. Everyone fist-bumping and high-fiving—it just seems like a bunch of frat-daddy stuff, too bro-y. And the minute you put that in they’ll take it and put it straight into the trailer. In “Silicon Valley,” we did a thing where a character wanted to fist-bump. The whole point was that he’s not a fist-bump guy. And that just went straight into the first trailer, exactly like I said it would.

Willie Nelson’s sound guy, who’s a friend of mine, once asked me, “Why is it that any time somebody grabs a microphone in comedy there’s feedback?” I thought, Wow, that’s true—every single time. And then, with “Silicon Valley,” I was, like, I’m not going to do this in this whole series. No feedback on the mike! In the pilot, there’s a scene where a tech guy comes up and grabs a mike. And the editor put in feedback. I said, “Take it out.” The sound mixer put it back in. I said, “Take it out.” It got all the way to the final mix, and we were playing it back, and another guy who just started goes, “Oh, wait, the feedback’s gone. We’ve got to get the feedback on it!”

No. No feedback!

My biggest pet peeve might be dialogue that’s straining for the joke, that sounds overly written. And you see that a lot. [The “Office Space” actor] Ron Livingston said something kind of nice. He said if it’s really well-written dialogue, it will sound like people spontaneously talking. Good writing will jump off the page, and it’s quick to read. That’s pretty much what you want from a script.

You now have your own production company, Bandera. Did you create it in part to avoid some of these pet peeves?

I guess I’ve seen it done wrong so many times, where I can clearly see why it doesn’t work. A lot of times, in animation, they get a famous voice and a drawing, and they don’t really fit together. You have this celebrity doing a voice, combined with a good animation company, and they think it’s just going to work. There have been so many failed versions of that.

And as I get older it’s fun to mentor people. I love animation. To see characters come alive and not to have to create them all by myself is incredible.

What advice would you give to young animators or comedy writers reading this?

Shoot something, even on an iPhone. Find some actors to play the stuff. And then you can find out if it’s working, if it’s good dialogue. It’s probably a good exercise to actually have a table read. That’s a really informative thing to do.

J. J. Abrams once said to me that, as a writer, what you should want is: if you give people your script, and they’re two pages in, and you say, “Hey, give it back,” they’re going to say, “No. Let me keep reading.” Or if it’s page 60 and they say, “No, I got to keep going.” There are different ways to do that. It could be someone’s got a gun to someone’s head. Or it could just be that it’s really funny, although that won’t always last a hundred pages. But I think that’s a good way to think of it: make every page count. Make every line count. Beyond that, if you’re trying to get a job on a show, you shouldn’t try to write a spec script for that particular show. They’re tired of reading them. You should write it for a different show.