Mike Judge's comedies have always been a unique mix of the subtle and outrageous, combing cartoonish characters (in both a literal and figurative sense), with an easygoing pace that puts as much emphasis on awkward silences and uncomfortable reactions as slapstick and punch lines.
Judge has experienced tremendous success in the realm of animation, first with Beavis and Butt-head, then the recently concluded King of the Hill (the cast of which included the voice of the late Brittany Murphy) and his latest, a political correctness-skewering show on ABC called The Goode Family, was less successful and was canceled last summer (Judge hopes the reruns will find an audience on Comedy Central).
On the other hand, however, Hollywood often seems flummoxed as to how to market his live-action films. Judge's live-action work—including Office Space and Idiocracy (the latter was notoriously dumped in a few theaters)—seems to find its audience after the theatrical run, on DVD.
Unfortunately, the pattern continued with his most recent film, Extract, which came and went in Triangle theaters last summer with barely a ripple. Starring Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck and Kristen Wiig, it was tale of a frustrated factory owner who faces challenges from a trumped-up lawsuit at work and a misguided attempt to get his wife to have an affair at home.
With Extract now on DVD, we were offered the opportunity to spend a few minutes on the phone with the Austin-based filmmaker. Over the course of our interview, we had a chance to discuss his body of work, King of the Hill's unlikely connection to North Carolina and some of the perspective behind his unique sense of humor.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: I haven't had a chance to see the DVD [of Extract] yet. They did send me a press release on the features, and it sounds like the extras really go into the creative process.
MIKE JUDGE: There's a making-of thing on the disc, right?
I watched it a long time ago, I don't remember what's on it. There's some kind of pun about "flavor" or "recipe," right?"
Right, let me bring the press release up. [Reads press release aloud.]: "Mike Judge's Secret Recipe—What are the ingredients of a classic Mike Judge film? Go straight to the factory floor to uncover the writer and director's secrets."
[Laughs] Oh, boy.
"From shooting in a real working factory to the unique cast of characters and situations, Mike Judge always seems to have the right recipe." [Pause] Yes, that's it.
[Laughs] Well, I honestly—I just concentrate on making the movie. Somebody shot it, and I just said, "Cut this and that and go ahead."
Well, I've really enjoyed your commentaries on your recent DVDs, and get some insight into your process. Some people would argue that your work has had a wide range of influence on modern comedy. Do you feel that your work has been influential, and if so, in what way?
I actually, just from where I sit—I don't get recognized very often, but from talking to people, I'd say Office Space has had the biggest effect.
If you'd asked me eight years ago, I would have said Beavis and Butt-Head, but Office Space seems to be the one that people—I don't know, I hate to say this, but I've had people tell me it inspired them to quit their jobs.
Today, that's probably not a good thing, but a few years ago, it meant it inspired you to go and start your own business, so I guess that was a good thing. But yeah, that's probably the one I've been told has had the greatest effect on people.
At South by Southwest, at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, they had an Office Space 10-year anniversary thing back in February, and it was a theater loaded with fans. It was such a cool thing to see it with a packed house and an enthusiastic audience, and kind of trippy, but to have people react that way was really nice.
Your films usually tend to find an audience on DVD. You've had commercial success in the past, but that was over time, with people discovering the films and sharing them with other people. Do you have any perspective on that?
Yeah, well, I think these movies are probably ... maybe they don't have a super-emotionally-satisfying ending or story. So maybe they work better on DVD, because that's more about the moments and performances and the characters.
In that way, I kind of get it, why it would be more successful on DVD. You know, I had written Extract kind of for fun—Idiocracy was an assignment I took because I owed Fox one more script on an overall deal. This one I wrote for fun, and then Fox asked for an Office Space sequel, and people were asking me, "When are you going to do another movie like Office Space?"
But I knew going in that this wasn't going to have a big, emotionally satisfying ending, but neither did Office Space, and it wound up making a lot of money. If I were just a fan, I would be more likely to catch it on DVD anyway. I catch a lot of movies this way anyway. I'm glad I saw Star Trek in the theater, because there were all these big, cool effects, but [DVD] is what I usually tend to do.
Extract is kind of a thematic sequel to Office Space, about being your own boss and running a business. In some ways, that echoes your own professional experience. How has your perspective changed as a creative person since you started doing animated shorts in the 1990s?
I went from never having anybody work for me—I mowed my own lawn, and I even changed my oil—to being a boss. I mean, on Beavis and Butt-Head, I had a lot of people working for me, initially—at one point, there were about 90 people.
So that definitely made me look at things differently, and appreciate the former bosses I'd had. That was the main thing. I think anybody who tries start a business, it kind of shifts your perspective a little.
And your next announced project is Brigadier Gerard.
That might be next. I'm not directing, I think. I might just produce it. I'm also thinking about doing some TV stuff again, actually. This is the first time I've not had a show on the air since I started doing TV, really.
That has to be a very unusual experience for you.
Yeah, it is. I kind of like it, actually. It's nice being back in that place where—it's hard to explain, but it's the same feeling I had when I first started, where you're just drawing and trying to come up with stuff. It's a good feeling. I want to do more animation, actually.
So, here in North Carolina, we have an interesting local perspective on your work—[the now-troubled former] Gov. Mike Easley was quoted as saying that he used King of the Hill as a way of gauging his constituents.
Yeah, I remember that!
What did you think of that, the "King of the Hill Democrats?"
Oh, I liked it. Jim Altschuler actually talked to Easley on the phone and got to know him, I think—he's from North Carolina.
I get it, I think. But it kind of occurred to me—if it had happened earlier in the show, politicians making decisions based on it ... (laughs) I'm glad we got to do the show the way we did and keep the characters pure and true. I think that's what makes TV shows last.
A lot of times, people will go for a quick laugh by making the characters do something out of character, and they keep doing it, and it's just not the character anymore, does that make sense? I think for a politician to say that shows that the characters are pretty real to people, and that was what we were trying to do. So I really liked that.
When the show ended recently, a TV critic I know named Jaime Weinman did an analysis of it and suggested that you and [co-creator] Greg Daniels had different perspectives, with Daniels preferring the characters grow and change over time, and you preferring something more static. Do you agree with this assessment, and what do you prefer, characters who develop, or who stay within certain boundaries?
First of all, I don't know if that's true—Greg and I didn't disagree over that much. When you do a show together, there's all sorts of disagreements, but I don't remember that many between Greg and myself.
If it's a drama, they can grow, I think. There's something just comforting to me, I think, about a show like The Andy Griffith Show or The Bob Newhart Show, where he's always going to be that guy. I think it was smart.
There was always pressure on [Newhart] to have kids on the show, and he refused to do it, and I think that would have made the show jump the shark. On King of the Hill, I think there's just something comforting about them not changing a whole lot, you know? You always have somebody learn some lesson in each episode, but that's just storytelling.
I think early on there was some talk of having [the characters] age one year every three seasons, and this and that, but that was just kind of ideas that we were kicking around. But I think, eventually, we all agreed we would keep the characters as they were.
Well, I liked the note the show ended on—this idea that Arlen is going to go on, and the characters can learn more about each other, but it's just a nice place to live in general.
Yeah. It's like a warm pair of hushpuppies. I feel like that about The Beverly Hillbillies. I didn't want Jethro to learn more than a sixth-grade education [laughs]. There's something Zen about that show—it's always going to be what it is, and Mr. Drysdale isn't suddenly going to realize that greed is bad. There's something comforting about knowing they all stay the same.
Given the initial reception to the characters, what do you make of Beavis and Butt-Head compared to teens today, both in real life and on television? Some aspects of the characters seem almost calm by comparison.
]Laughs] Well, I actually thought they were fairly calm even at the time. At the beginning, there was so much ... the media was in a weird place when Beavis and Butt-Head came out where they were attacking television violence and television's influence, and there was a show with this ridiculous name, Beavis and Butt-Head, coming out. It's not this way now, but at the time, there was the assumption that cartoons were just for little kids.
You know, The Simpsons ran into that—it's not this way now because you have a generation who grew up watching The Simpsons and knew cartoons aren't just for kids. But Beavis and Butt-Head—in my mind, they were like teenagers of any time. Just that awkward age of your hormones kicking in and you can't do anything about it.
When I first did that show, the big thing on MTV was Pauly Shore, who was using all this California lingo. I was 29 at the time, and I was already too old to be talking like that. So in my mind, Beavis and Butt-Head were like teenagers of my time, the 1970s. So they weren't even of the time when they came out. But I kind of think teenagers never change. It's just the way they're portrayed that changes.
Extract is available on DVD Dec. 22.