It would require uncanny prescience to discern signs of future greatness in a crudely animated two-minute short film from 1992 entitled Frog Baseball. Yet for a nondescript twentysomething bass player and aspiring animator named Mike Judge, that’s where his improbable career as one of our greatest satirists began.
In embryonic form, Frog Baseball contains all the hallmarks that would distinguish its stars and Judge’s most notorious creations, Beavis and Butt-Head: demented, oft-imitated grunting and cackling at anything approaching double entendre, spontaneous outbursts of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and most disturbingly for parents and other authority figures, wanton cruelty to animals, notably in the form of a frog that meets a sorry fate at the business end of Butt-Head’s bat. Beavis and Butt-Head weren’t just slackers and dolts; they were borderline sub-human creatures who begin Frog Baseball giggling moronically at their own malevolent idiocy and end it with the promise that they will next take their bat to an innocent poodle next. And God knows there are few things Americans hold more dear than dogs.
When Frog Baseball’s appearance on MTV’s Liquid Television led to a generation-defining series (Beavis and Butt-Head) on the same network, the show was misunderstood by some as a representation of cultural de-evolution rather than an unsparing satire of the same phenomenon. (It’s the satirist’s curse to be mistaken for what they’re satirizing.) It didn’t help Judge with the intelligentsia that the show’s core demographic of bored, belligerent teenagers doubled as its satirical target.
Though its tone could easily pass for nihilism, Beavis and Butt-Head was powered by a righteous rage at a society that was transforming a dead-eyed generation of latchkey kids into giggling, cackling dullards via junk food, junk television, junk culture and widespread apathy and narcissism. Beavis and Butt-Head implicitly said that the apocalypse already had arrived but we were too stupid, fat and distracted to notice.
It was caustic, scorched-earth satire that became a huge money-maker for MTV (the epicenter of the moronic youth culture the show so adroitly mocked), first as a television series, next as a spin-off album (The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience, most notable for containing the Nirvana track “I Hate Myself And Want To Die,” which was prescient in all the wrong ways) and then as a pretty good, if not essential, 1996 movie (Beavis and Butt-Head Do America) that has the distinction of being the only Judge film to not bomb during its theatrical release.
By 1997, Judge was ready to move on, co-creating the FOX animated series King of the Hill with Simpsons alum Greg Daniels (an overlooked major American satirist in his own right). King of the Hill introduced a fascinating new side of Judge that eschewed the take-no-prisoners sledgehammer of Beavis and Butt-Head for a much gentler, even humanistic appreciation for the droll absurdity of everyday life. Whereas Beavis and Butt-Head looked at humanity and didn’t find much worth saving, or even valuing, King of the Hill conveyed a distinct fondness for its central family, particularly long-suffering patriarch Hank Hill, a man whose old-school moral code the show treated comedically but also with affection.
Such a droll approach to the indignities and ritualistic humiliation of life among the long-suffering working class held over to Judge’s 1999 live-action directorial debut Office Space. In it, he shows an almost musical ear for the droning, mindless patter of office life; many of the film’s most memorable moments are fundamentally sub-verbal, as nightmare boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) emits a series of condescending exhalations that suck the oxygen out of the room. Lumbergh represents the monstrousness of banality. He is the living embodiment of everything about working in an office that is injurious to the human soul and spirit.
Office Space met the fate of so many of Judge’s projects: It was misunderstood and underappreciated during its initial run, flopping at the box office and earning mixed reviews. Over time, however, wage slaves rose up and adopted the film as their own. Eventually, this box-office non-entity was being heralded not just as a superior comedy but as one of the defining cult films of its time. If Beavis and Butt-Head was a howl of rage at a society racing to cultural oblivion, Office Space was more like a silent scream on behalf of the proletariat toward a corporate world seemingly intent on extinguishing the humanity from humankind for the sake of profits.
Yet even as Judge increasingly established himself as an important, incisive social commentator, he retained a low profile. He is, in fact, the antithesis of showboats like Seth MacFarlane. While MacFarlane salivates lustily for any free camera, Judge is content to express himself through his work. Though he isn’t averse to popping up in cameos in other people’s projects, he is about as modest and self-effacing as comic geniuses come. As such, Judge’s films and television shows don’t broadcast their importance or ambition to the world. All Judge has seemingly ever set out to do was make people laugh; the fact that he has delivered many of the defining satires of the past 25 years is a nice side effect of that admirable impulse.
Seven years after the half-hearted shrug that greeted Office Space’s theatrical release Judge returned to the big screen with Idiocracy, a project that seemed doomed to failure. The film had been test-screened to negative responses in 2005 and after re-shoots, it limped into theaters with no promotion or critic screenings. Idiocracy imagines a 26th century America where corporations pander to the basest instincts of mouth-breathing consumers, where Fuddruckers has yielded to the japes of countless wiseacres and officially changed its name to Buttfuckers and Starbucks now traffics in hand jobs as well as espressos. It also envisions a future where corporations have coddled consumers into a state of drooling dependence and doctors offer diagnoses like “You talk like a fag, and your shit’s all retarded” to anyone who betrays the faintest glimmer of intelligence and intellectual curiosity.
Like the best science fiction, Idiocracy used a fantastical future to comment on an uncertain present. Idiocracy was in many ways a spiritual successor to Beavis and Butt-Head with additional years of cultural de-evolution factored into the equation. Fox gave up on Idiocracy,but as with Office Space, the populace happily claimed Idiocracy, a movie that grows more prophetic and dead-on by the day. The film now has a cult to rival that of Office Space.
The same can’t be said of Extract,a sly 2009 Judge comedy about the mid-life crisis of a small businessman (Jason Bateman) and his increasingly convoluted attempts to cheat on his wife (Kristin Wiig) with a clear conscience. Extract is another gloriously life-sized exploration of the comic angst of the little guy, but its audience-killer title and self-consciously small scope doomed it. Personally, I found its small scope to be one of its strengths, creatively at least, but it also helps explain why audiences found it easy to ignore and why a cult has yet to claim it.
Judge has been spinning his wheels creatively ever since. His 2009 series The Goode Family, a satire of contemporary progressives focusing on the titular family of do-gooders, was undone by dated jabs at liberals and hippies that would have felt tired in Beavis and Butt-Head 15 years earlier. A sour strain of social conservatism defined The Goode Family, and Judge’s best work has always been tough to pin down politically. Like all great satirists, he is a natural enemy of hypocrisy and corrupt authority.
The revival of Beavis and Butt-Head for MTV for a few months in late 2011 marked a similar retreat for Judge—i.e., it was a way of retrenching and revisiting his past. The show’s brief revival sets the stage for what will hopefully be Judge’s next generation-defining satire, HBO’s Silicon Valley, a comic series chronicling the feverish competition among a group of computer geeks. For Judge, it’s a subject dear to his heart, as he worked in Silicon Valley in the late 1980s before quitting in disgust.
In that respect, Silicon Valley represents both a step forward and a return to subject matter Judge knows all too well. His blessing and curse has been to consistently be ahead of the curve, to create entertainment too bold and adventurous to be properly appreciated at the time of its release. God willing, with Silicon Valley, pop culture will finally have caught up with him.