Column: Patt Morrison asks: Mike Judge on the terrifying prescience of ‘Idiocracy’
If you have laughed at anything on television in the last 20-plus years, the odds are good that it was something Mike Judge created. “Beavis and Butt-Head,” “King of the Hill” and now “Silicon Valley” — all the handiwork of the Emmy-winning utility player, who is animator, writer, producer and director. His movie “Office Space” was a cultural game-changer. But it’s his decade-old film of time-traveling social satire that’s achieved a cult-status revival in this election year: “Idiocracy.” The portmanteau title — “idiot” plus “democracy” — is a Twitter favorite, but as Judge tells it, it didn’t start out being political at all.
We’ve been seeing screenings of “Idiocracy” far and wide, 10 years after it was released. Is this the “I-hate-to-say-it-but-I-told-you-so” tour?
I guess there’s a couple of different levels of I-told-you-so. One is bad and one is good, like the I-told-you-so like “The world is becoming dumber.” And then there’s the “Maybe you should have given it a better release” I-told-you-so. I’ve been getting a lot of people saying, You know, Fox screwed you over, whatever, but the fact is, Fox paid $25 million to make the movie, so it wouldn’t have been made and I put myself in that situation. And I’m way too old to be complaining about the Man keeping me down. I’m glad they paid the money to make the movie, and I think finally now it may be starting to turn a profit for them.
I was one of the people who helped make it a $445,000 box-office smash.
All of these years later, you’ve got an audience and a following for this film now who wouldn’t have been old enough to get in to see it for its first theatrical release. What do you think makes it so popular?
What I hear a lot is that people saying that it’s sort of a scary documentary now instead of fiction. So, yeah, I’m happy that it’s getting attention. “Office Space” kind of had a similar thing, but it wasn’t 10 years later – it was like two years later it started to really become popular. I’ve got to figure out how to make something popular when it’s in the theaters!
At the time you wrote “Idiocracy,” was there something specific going on that made you think, I have to do this with a movie?
A couple of things. I had had the idea for it, I think, back in ’95, when I was writing the “Beavis and Butt-Head” movie, and I had the idea and just kind of jotted it down. The year was 2001 when I decided to write it. I was in line at the teacups ride with my daughters at Disneyland, and they were little at the time.
There was a woman with a stroller and a toddler behind me, and then another woman came by and I guess they had been in an altercation, and they just started yelling at each other, obscenities and “---- you, -----, say that to my face and I’ll kick your ------- ass!” — with their little kids right there, with my kids! And I’m thinking, God, this fight is going to break out at the teacups ride. I mean, they were straight out of “The Jerry Springer Show.” And I started thinking about Disneyland, and how Walt Disney imagined it and here we are in the year 2001, and that’s the reality.
Then I started thinking about the movie “2001,” and wouldn’t it have been funny if, instead of this monolith and intelligent people and this kind of pristine sci-fi world, it was just gigantic Costcos and “The Jerry Springer Show” and all this, people yelling at each other, yelling obscenities at Disneyland? Taking the progression from when the movie “2001” came out to the year 2001 and just projecting that forward many years — just where would that go?
At the time it doesn’t sound like you had politics particularly in mind; it was more about media culture.
Yeah, the first draft that I wrote with Etan Cohen, we didn’t even have the president in it actually. We had a thing where the whole government was automated. And then I started thinking about Luke Wilson and rewrote it and added the [President] Camacho character, and then it started to come together. I didn’t start out thinking of it being political, not at all. If it is, it sort of came out of adding the Camacho character more than anything else, I suppose. And then we had the stuff about [the company] Brawndo buying the FDA and the FFC, and all of that, which I thought was funny. Looking at what’s scary, and the absurdity of it all, the way “Dr. Strangelove” looked at the atomic bomb, which was the scary, end-of-the-world thing.
With “Beavis and Butt-Head” becoming cultural tropes in their own right, 20-some years ago people raised their eyebrows at their comments, and now compared to what’s coming out of the mouths of famous people in this country, it seems kind of PG.
It seems very innocent and tame now, and even on MTV itself, a few years back, they had that show “Skins,” and “16 and Pregnant” — oh my God.
I think that “Beavis and Butt-Head” landed at a time when there wasn’t a whole lot going in the news, and the Cold War was over, and all of a sudden everyone was worried about violence on TV, and TV influencing kids. And over the course of the whole time that “Beavis and Butt-Head” was on the air, crime was actually dropping in the country everywhere. There wasn’t a lot of news happening, and so the news machine finds news and makes news, and I felt like that was part of it.
Now there’s so much worse, if someone was really going to worry about that.
Can you talk about “Silicon Valley”? What’s going on with that?
We’re plugging away. We’re writing as we go, as always, and we’re a little bit ahead but it’s been fun.
You worked there for a while.
Yeah I worked as an engineer.
And you’re not a billionaire?
No, I was just a cog in the wheel. It was kind of different when I worked there in the late ’80s. There was a smaller number of billionaires coming out of there back then, but still some. No, I made an hourly wage as an engineer.
It strikes me that if Madison Avenue and “Mad Men” were very 20th century, Silicon Valley is very 21st century. You’ve got hoodies instead of three-piece suits, but “Mad Men” was kind of cynical about what it was doing, but Silicon Valley seems to be pretty righteous sometimes.
As much as I like to make fun of it, if you’re saying that everything they do is stupid or just wrong, then it’s not as fun to watch. If these guys were real-life characters, I would actually like them. I would be friends with them, I think, the main character especially. We also have awful billionaire types and characters that are really there to make fun of the world.
And save it at the same time.
Yeah, that’s right! They’re all saving the world. It’s funny, everybody since the show aired and we went back up, we meet with a lot of people in the tech world and I’ve met so many billionaires now. Almost every company we would go to, they’d say, it’s really funny how you’re making fun of everyone saying they’re making the world a better place — but here, we really are making the world a better place. We’re going to show what you what we’re doing!
It’s really funny how almost all of them do that: Here’s how we’re aiming to make the world a better place.
How are they doing that, besides making R-rated pictures disappear after 10 seconds?
Well, that’s the thing is I find annoying about it, and I think it’s sort of steeped in the hippie culture of the place. It really is capitalism, which I have nothing against, but it’s all shrouded in this stuff about altruism and we’re making the world a better place. And they say it all the time, still. It’s not enough to be some of the richest people in the world — they also have to be saving the world and acting like prophets. It’s part of the [show’s] appeal to normal people who aren’t in the tech world — I think they get a little tired of hearing these tech people, who make a lot of sometimes really annoying products out there, pontificating about how they’re saving the world, and the road ahead, and all this kind of stuff. There are some technologies that I think are really good, really are helping people.
I like to try to not be too snarky and cynical. I also try not to analyze my stuff too much; I try not to think about it too much. But I guess “Beavis and Butt-Head” was fairly cynical, but I also tried I also tried making you feel sorry for them sometimes. I think it actually made it funnier.
You’ve mentioned “Dr. Strangelove” as an inspiration. Anything else you watched as a teenager, as a kid, and thought, boy, I want to do that?
Early on it was Chuck Jones’ Warner Bros. cartoons and “Monty Python,” Jerry Lewis. I think “Monty Python” really blew me away because it was on PBS, which I couldn’t believe. It just really blew my mind.
Growing up in Albuquerque, the idea that there is this place somewhere where people can make a show like that and get it on the air — it seemed like just a whole other world out there that wasn’t anything like the world I was living in.
“Fernwood Tonight” and National Lampoon magazine was another one that really made me want to do comedy. When I started doing animation, I always would look at the comics and National Lampoon and think, why can’t those things be animated? Mary K. Brown, she had stuff in National Lampoon that I just loved, which was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that.
We’re taping this before election day, so we don’t know who won, but as a cultural observer and a creator, would you prefer a President Trump or a cable TV mogul Trump?
I think that’s an easy one — cable TV mogul — and maybe he’ll run “Beavis and Butt-Head.”
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