Mike Judge’s Secret Art of Satire

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.

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