One might wonder where someone like Mike Judge would go after crafting the pop culture characters Beavis & Butthead. How do you top the two animated creations that seemed to open the floodgates for South Park and the rest of the low brow animation generation? It seems in the case of Mr. Judge you simply retool and create another show.
Starting in 1997, King of the Hill, like The Simpsons before it, set out to show a different side of the American family. Looking at the Hill clan as Norman Lear might've if he worked in animation, Mike Judge fashioned a show that was brutally honest in it's depictions of it's characters. However, it has also chosen to never look down on them either. In short, King of the Hill is very much an examination of family, politics and everyday humanity.
To celebrate it's 200th episode, Mike Judge sat down to reflect on his creation.
When you first planned the series, did you have an arc of how you would go if you were lucky enough to go 200 episodes? That said, how do you suppose the characters have grown in the last 200 episodes?
Mike Judge: We didn't plan an arc, and definitely not for 200 episodes. We debated in the beginning about having them age possibly and then quickly decided not to. But I think some of the characters have evolved a little; especially, I think, Peggy became more interesting around the second season. If you listen early on, I think some of the voices, particularly Dale's, have evolved a little bit and I think gotten better. But overall I think part of the strength of the show is that it doesn't change a whole lot. At one point there was a note from an executive, who's not there anymore, that we need more life-changing episodes, and they were trying to apply that theory that works on some shows about just constantly shocking the audience and having crazy things happen.
I think you do that too much and then you don't have anything left. I think part of the strength of the show is that we haven't changed that much. I like shows like the old Bob Newhart Show show, where you can pretty much see something the first season or the last season in one of those episodes and really everybody stayed pretty consistent. I think that's one of our strengths.
What was the genesis of the show, I mean, the germ of an idea that started the whole thing? Can you go that far back?
Mike Judge: Yes, definitely. I think as far back as in college a good friend of mine and I used to sort of do a bit of like two bubba's sitting around drinking beer and talking about what's in the news or whatever. The neighborhood I was in in Albuquerque, there were a lot of people, particularly from Fort Worth, but I had a paper route that was sort of in a blue collar neighborhood with lots of Texas transplants, so early on I had these kinds of characters around me. But I think when I lived north of Dallas I had really a pretty good neighborhood; everyone took care of each other, helped out with each other's lawns. Later on when I was back from New York, after Beavis & Butthead I had done a panel cartoon, I just had this image of just four guys with beers standing out in front of the fence, kind of like I used to see when I'd look out my kitchen window, and I just drew them all saying, "Yep, yep, yep," and then ... And that's still basically the drawing you see at the beginning of the show, is those four guys and their beers. That was really the seed of the idea, I guess.
And obviously, you already said there's no way you thought that this would go 200 episodes, but how big did you allow yourself to dream when you first hooked up with Fox for this show?
Mike Judge: I don't dream big. If I were to have my wish granted back then, I probably wouldn't have wanted to go 200 episodes, because I kind of take the alcoholics view of-kind of not one day at a time but one season at a time, one episode at a time, because if you think of 200 that's just too daunting. When the show was about to go on the air I'd been working like crazy on the Beavis & Butthead movie, and the King of the Hill animation you work way ahead of the schedule, so I'd done most of-you know we had a half season so we had, I think it was 12 episodes or 11, maybe it was 13, I don't know-but our first season was a half season and those were all recorded pretty much in the can and I was working on the Beavis & Butthead movie and I thought, who knows what it will do; who knows what people will make of this. But I wasn't dreaming of 200 episodes; that's for sure.
I watched the screener of the 200 that was sent, and it just really struck me, your show has always been more about character than gags, and in looking at TV on Sunday nights on Fox all the animated shows, Family Guy, American Dad, The Simpsons, do you find yourself pushing it even more in that direction? Because that 200th was such a-it was almost a drama episode, it was all about character. Is that more the direction you're going in, or has it always been that way?
Mike Judge: I think for me it's always been that way. I think there were definitely some writers for a while that were pulling it more in the gag direction, which I actually like those shows, I actually like gag writing; maybe I'm just not that good at it. But my strength is just more of observational stuff, so I think I definitely push it in that direction.
You mentioned Bob Newhart Show earlier, is there something about character comedy that you really find fascinating?
Mike Judge: Yes. I guess a lot of my favorite shows tend to be that kind of stuff, but then again I also like the Three Stooges and Roadrunner, and Rodney Dangerfield, and things that are just very-of course, you could argue that Rodney Dangerfield is kind of character humor, in a way, actually, especially in something like Caddyshack. But yes, I definitely gravitate toward that stuff, I guess.
Do you see the show going to 300?
Mike Judge: No, in a word. But I don't know, we've got another 20 at least.
Can you talk a little bit about the experience of letting go of the show and then suddenly finding out, oh wait, it's not going away just yet?
Mike Judge: It was a little weird. They had talked about ordering another season, and I might get these numbers wrong, but there was going to be another season of 22 which they then said, okay, it's only five and then that's the end, so this was a little over a year ago, something like that, and so we did our last episode, people moved out of their offices and animators got other jobs, and several months later there was kind of some rumors about them picking it up, but I didn't really believe and then suddenly they wanted it back. So it was a little bit of a scramble to get people back, but John Ultraler and David Krinsky, who run the show, we talked and we looked at what we had, episode ideas-because there were going to be 22 a lot of these had already been written-so we were able to kind of look at it, and also they came up with some kind of new stuff, like Peggy getting a real estate license, things like that, and we looked at it and said, okay, I think we can probably do another decent good season, so decided to do it. But it was a little-I mean, we're in a completely different office now, I mean, I'm in my same office in Austin, but everybody moved to a different place in L.A, so I don't know. Right now it feels good, though.
With LuAnn getting married, was that originally going to be the series finale?
Mike Judge: That was going to be the second to the last one.
So has the one that was supposed to be the last one aired yet, or is that being saved for next year?
Mike Judge: I think it's being saved for the very end of next year.
That's still a finale type episode?
Mike Judge: Yes.
I think you've got Tom Petty now, I believe this was the sixth episode he's done his Lucky, and it almost looks like he has to be a regular now. Is he prepared for that?
Mike Judge: Yes. After the first one we all liked the character so much and asked him if he'd be willing to do it again. And he said any time, anything you want; and it turns out he really meant it. We've actually done more than six now, I think-well, not that have aired, but he's in practically every episode this season it seems.
Do you mean the upcoming or next year?
Mike Judge: Yes. This one coming next year, we've already started on that.
And you said there are 20 of those for next season, 20 new ones?
Mike Judge: I guess there will be 21-
Twenty-one with-okay, including-
Mike Judge: With the last one, yes.
Could you talk a little bit-your first guest actor was Willie Nelson and over the years you've had an incredibly, I mean, I think it rivals or even exceeds The Simpsons guest voice list-can you talk a bit about whether this is you actively seeking people out or whether pretty much they're aware of the show and they come to you guys and say, "Can you write me in for an episode or two?"
Mike Judge: It's a little bit of both. I actually think The Simpsons definitely had more celebrities, I mean, they kind of started that tradition, I think. I was actually not that driven by that. It seems like if it's right and it fits. There was a lot of pressure from the network to get celebrities, and I think we've had some really great ones, though, that really worked. But it's usually a little bit of both. It's probably 50/50 of us hearing that somebody wants to do the show or having the script and then saying so-and-so would be good for this. I think a lot of celebrities like it, because it's a lot easier than doing live action, you don't have to go through make-up and worry what you look like ... And it's just really quick, it's a lot quicker than a live action shoot for the voice actor.
Office Space seems to cry out for a sequel-it's a cult hit and it still is a movie, I think, that people watch over and over again-any chances of that happening?
Mike Judge: Fox has been asking about it. I don't know. I finished this last movie I did, and I've got something else that I wrote that's more like Office Space, in that it's smaller and kind of character driven stuff, but I don't know. I haven't been working on a sequel. I ran into Gary Cole, who played ... back in December, and I just started thinking boy, it would be fun to just do more scenes with him and Milton and him and Ron, but nothing's in the works right now.
King of the Hill has been a very dependable show for Fox over the years but it doesn't tend to get the media attention of The Simpsons or Family Guy. Do you feel comfortable in that position, or do you wish sometimes that you'd get more notice?
Mike Judge: I'm comfortable with that. I don't want the kind of press that you have to ask for and complain about. If somebody's interested in writing about it or covering it, then great, that's fine. I think with the Family Guy it's interesting what happened, that's an interesting story that it was canceled and then became huge on its own, and I think that deserves some press because that's kind of a phenomenon. Whereas, King of the Hill has just kind of been steady and getting the same kind of decent ratings for a while; it will go up a little bit, or it's gone up a little bit, I guess I've heard over the last couple of years, but I'm comfortable with that.
Did you like the portrayal on South Park, your staff as being the calm one that just sat there and worked ... ?
Mike Judge: I loved those two episodes, I thought they were brilliant, actually. I was just glad there was any reference to it at all in there. It was an honor to just be sitting in their calmly while those two were fighting.
As a TV viewer, what is your favorite TV moment, or number one moment that you think of as someone who's watching TV, either growing up or recently?
Mike Judge: Boy, that's a tough one. Recently, I actually liked the South Park scientology episode a lot and the cartoon wars, and the Ali G Show, when-I can't think of it, maybe when Ali G interviewed Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut-or, I'm going to get this wrong, and I'm going to think of the right thing later. You know, I watch American Idol a lot too. I'm totally hooked on that show. Boy, if something comes to me by the end of interview, I probably have the right answer to that somewhere in my mind, but I can't think of it right now.
Do you have any favorite episodes of King of the Hill? Are there any that stand out to you?
Mike Judge: That's another that's-for the first three seasons I used to say that the episodes were Hank ... as a junkie; the guy is protected by the Disabilities Act, the Civil Liberties, and he can't fire him. That was one of my favorites. I like this one where Hank-well, I actually liked the 100th episode, where he unwittingly becomes a pimp. I also like the one where there's a-actually one of my favorites in the last year is probably the one where they're draining a quarry where they had ditched Boone Hiller's car years ago and there are people protesting because there's an endangered species of algae, so Hank has to pretend to be protesting with the Save the Algae people because he doesn't want Boone Hiller's car to be found. I really like that one a lot.
Is there any kind of formula to an ideal episode of King of the Hill, or anything you kind of stick to?
Mike Judge: Well, it's usually putting Hank up against something really annoying and ridiculous in the modern world and just making it as annoying and ridiculous as possible, like the mold episode, where the mold inspector comes to his house and he's got to live in a hotel. Also, we've ... all the characters and just had them really humiliated and embarrassed, putting them in humiliating situations, like when Hank was constipated, or when Peggy tried to join the beauty pageant. I think those are two formulas, if you can call them formulas, I guess.
What's next? Would you like to do more animation, or do you want to go into live action?
Mike Judge: If I don't just completely retire, I'd like to do another live action movie, something along the lines of Office Space, I think. I'm kind of thinking about Christopher Guest's career, how he, in the '90s started making these little movies that have an audience, and I'd like to do something like that, kind of lower budget comedies.
What was the status of the movie you were working on, Idiocracy?
Mike Judge: It's, Idiocracy I think, is coming out Labor Day weekend, they told me is the official release date. That was kind of a bigger effects movie and I think I'd like to get back to doing at least one or two more like Office Space.
I know it's kind of early, you've still got a year, are you going to miss Hank? You are Hank, I guess.
Mike Judge: Yes, I mean, I don't know. It's hard to say. Right now I've got plenty of Hank's, I don't need to-yes, I probably will. There was a while when I didn't think I would miss Beavis & Butthead, but I kind of definitely miss doing that. And even though I'm not eager to sign up for more, there are times where I kind of go, oh, that was fun. It would be fun to do a little bit of that again. But I have done a little bit of it again and I think that will probably, I mean, it happened with Hank, I think cartoon characters have a way of coming back from the dead all the time.
Did they ask you to do more Beavis?
Mike Judge: Yes, there's been a lot of interest in a sequel to the movie, and I did some stuff for the Video Music Awards last year, and we've got these DVDs coming out. So I've actually been looking at a lot of Beavis & Butthead lately for these DVD volumes.
You would entertain, though, the idea of doing it again?
Mike Judge: Yes, not a full-blown show again, but something with them would be fun. Yes, that would be fun.
Given the fact that everybody had packed up their office and all that was it at all difficult to restart and get your writers and animators back?
Mike Judge: John and Dave, the show runners, I think the animators were a little-well, one thing is, and this is probably why a lot of the animators on the show hate me-this style of animation doesn't look that good on your resume for other jobs, because there are not a lot of shows that are made to look like real people like this that much, so it's not a great thing on your resume.
You're, I think, one of the few cartoons where the characters have five fingers.
Mike Judge: Yes. So they were probably easier to get back. We actually hired at least a couple of the directors from Beavis & Butthead, people who had been in New York all this time, and it was a little hard, but also what we discovered was there was a lot of young writers with a lot of energy and a lot of really good ideas and they're eager, so in a way we have a lot of new people, actually, and it's been great. We've been getting a lot of people who really know the show and are really eager. Right now there are a lot of unemployed comedy writers so it's actually a good time to be staffing up, I think.
With the longer time that it takes to produce animation you guys probably wouldn't be on until the middle of next season, is that right?
Mike Judge: Actually, I think we got it in time to start in the fall, because we started back a few months ago, I guess, three months ago or something like that. No, we started in March, so I think we'll have some for the fall.
And then you'll have to deal with the usual getting ... because of the NFL?
Mike Judge: Yes. I don't even know when the show comes on anymore; it's changed so many times. I see it on tapes before it airs.
I'm curious if the writers and producers are still doing the annual field trip to Texas?
Mike Judge: We didn't do it last year. We did it, I think, the year before. I don't think we'll do it this year, I think the budget is cut way down. If there's another season after this we probably would, but I think this is the last one so we probably won't be doing that.
One of the things that the show was sort of way ahead on the curve from at the start was just the satire of the big box stores and the homogenization of America, with Megalo-Mart and all that, and frankly, that sort of thing has gotten worse, the type of independent, service-minded person like Hank Hill is pretty much becoming extinct. Has that made it easier or harder to write this character in the show as time has gone on?
Mike Judge: It probably made it easier because there are more things you can-we just did this mega-church episode and stuff like that just becomes more material. So I guess it's made it easier.
When you were starting up the show, was this something that you had noticed Wal-Mart-or what was the genesis of some of the Megalo-Mart stuff?
Mike Judge: I had written into the pilot a scene that was actually inspired by something that happened when I was in Radio Shack, but I had just written, I think I had him in the Home Depot or Megalo-Mart-but I don't know. I'm sorry. You were asking what was the genesis of-?
Mike Judge: I don't know. I just was thinking about this guy and what's funny about the world. I guess if you really wanted to dig deep, I guess, going way back, before The Simpsons cartoons were pretty much stuck in the '50s in a weird way. Like any time anybody was at a restaurant it was at a diner, there was never a McDonald's, and there were all these things, and cartoons were just really out of touch with the real world. Actually, everything kind of was, it seems like-and I remember when that movie Do the Right Thing came out I was just kind of thinking, I mean, I don't know much about that world, but it was just kind of interesting to see this dialogue that seemed very real and not inspired by other movies and I remember thinking, someone ought to just do a movie like this about suburban white people with the same kind of realistic dialogue. And The Simpsons started to do that first, when they had what's-his-name at the 7-Eleven, you know-
That was one of those first little touches that everyone said, oh, my God that's really funny. So I don't know, when I was first writing the pilot I was just really thinking about the neighborhood I lived in in Dallas and what I did day-to-day; I would go to Home Depot all the time and work on my fence. So it's really just kind of trying to just look to real life for inspiration as much as possible instead of other TV and movie characters.
I wouldn't have envisioned you as a fan of American Idol, so I wonder if I can ask you, number one, who do you think should win, or has that person already been eliminated, and how about a little judge critiquing from you about whether Paula makes you hold your ears, or whether Simon does, or what.
Mike Judge: I started watching it because my daughters were obsessed with it and then I quickly became obsessed with it. This season what hooked me, I actually thought Paris Bennett, when she did that a cappella version of "Take Five" it kind of blew me away. I thought, I would buy a CD of this, even just a cappella, and that kind of hooked me in. I guess I thought she was the most interesting singer when she was doing the right kind of song; when she was doing the wrong kind of song it didn't work. And I haven't seen every single one, but I think they've got a good thing going. I think the judges have good chemistry. They milk it out a little too much, but I think they've found the exact amount of milking out that people are willing to put up with to maximize the ratings. I don't know, I don't have probably much interesting to say about it that hasn't already been said by a million other people. But I do watch it.
Well, it is interesting that when you let America vote, and I actually think America has good taste, I'm not one of those-it is interesting that somebody like what's-his-name with the grayish hair?
Mike Judge: That somebody like Taylor Hicks-I guarantee you the Fox executives would never have allowed that guy on TV, but when you let America vote you get-I don't think they would have put half these people on. But when you leave it to the public it's kind of interesting that people-executives are so hung up on being cool they would have just immediately nixed a guy with gray hair, so it's kind of cool to see that he's got character and he's a good singer and people respond to it. It's kind of like that scene in a gladiator drama where a condemned guy wins the public's support.
See now that is a different take.
Mike Judge: Okay, I guess-
And this is really shifting gears back to King of the Hill, I know Hank is certainly a conservative man, and I guess he's been identified as a Republican, and it's gotten a little bit dicey lately and I know you've never really gone too topical, but have you been tempted to go in that area a little bit more, given what's been going on in the last few years in the country?
Mike Judge: Probably less tempted, I guess. I try to not let the show get too political. To me, it's more social than political I guess you'd say, because that's funnier. I don't really like political reference humor that much, although occasionally, like I liked-actually the episode I think was last night where Hank's talking to the mailman and he says, "Why would anyone want to lick a stamp that has Bill Clinton on it?" To me that's just like more of a character thing about Hank than it is a political joke or anything. I don't know, I don't want to do a bunch of stuff about the war, particularly. I don't know, it doesn't seem that fun.
I was just wondering if you could explain a little more about Idiocracy and what the plot is and how the genesis for that came about.
Mike Judge: That started with an idea I had when I was working on the Beavis & Butthead movie and I was thinking about evolution and how since now there's no natural predators and pretty much everybody survives, evolution kind of favors people who don't wear a condom and people who knock up a bunch of baby's mamas and all that kind of stuff. So this is basically kind of a-it's one of those movies where a guy's frozen and thawed out in the future, which there have been many, but basically it's 500 years in the future and everybody's gotten a lot dumber. So Luke Wilson plays a guy who's just kind of a dumb-ass average Joe in the army today and in the future he's the smartest guy in the world, because everyone's gotten so dumb, and he ends up having to save the world is pretty much the plot.