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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

The Animated Physicist
Interview by Raymond Hardie


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Photograph by Jim Coit

Mike Judge, ’85, is the creator of the animated series King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-head, and the writer/ director of the movies Office Space and Idiocracy. He returned to campus June 10 to deliver the keynote speech to the graduating class of ’09, during the All Campus Graduation Celebration on RIMAC Field. Earlier that day, he talked with @UCSD editor Raymond Hardie.

In Office Space, Jennifer Aniston says: “I don’t really like talking about my flair.”  Is that your attitude toward interviews?

Mike Judge:  (laughs) Hmm. Yeah I suppose I don’t like talking about my flair. No, interviews can be OK. I’ve got an ego like anybody else and I can go on about myself once in a while—and then I just regret it later.

You majored in physics at UCSD. Did you ever use it in your career?

MJ:  The technical challenges of movie­making seemed like nothing after I’d studied physics. And, in a weird way, there is some physics of motion in animation. Also in thermodynamics you learn probability and statistics and so sometimes when the studio is trying to pull one over on me about the statistics of a test screening or something, I can just lecture them on how it really is, and how unscientific they’re being.

The UCSD Theater and Dance department has a graduate sound design program and, this year, introduced a digital and video design program–with emphasis on animation. Would you have taken those if they were available when you were here?

MJ:  I would probably be interested in taking something like a class in sound for animation now, although I don’t think I would have at the time. In my generation it was pounded into us that a degree in science would automatically land you a job. I figured if I wanted to do animation, I would learn that on my own.

What did you do directly after college?

MJ:  Actually my first engineering job was here in San Diego for a military subcontractor mostly working on electronic test systems for the F18. My second was in the Bay Area, and when I started I felt as if I was walking into some bizarre cult. On the first day, I was counting the hours until six o’clock when I could leave, but nobody left. And then 6:30 and 7:00 rolled around. At 7:30 I made up an excuse and left. Finally I just realized I shouldn’t be wasting these people’s time or mine and I quit. And then around 1987 I started playing music full time and touring as bass guitarist for Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets. I played with him for two years. I think there’s a YouTube video of the last night I played with Anson. It was at Poor David’s Pub.

How did you get into animation from physics, surfing and rock music?

MJ:  Animation is something I wanted to try but I didn’t really think it was a possibility for me. Then one day I went to the Animation Celebration festival playing in Dallas at the Inwood Theater. A local animator had made a film and his drawings were on display in the lobby. And there was something about seeing an actual drawing up close, and thinking, wow, this guy lives in my city, and he’s made this film. Suddenly it started to seem like a possibility. I went to the library, got a couple books on animation and bought a Bolex camera. I didn’t even have a computer, I just started shooting stuff and making animated shorts. The first one I finished was this little home-made cartoon called Office Space, which later was developed into the movie.

Where did Beavis and Butt-head come from?

MJ:  They are not based on anybody in particular, and there have been a lot of dumb duos, like Bill and Ted, and O.C. and Stiggs in National Lampoon. Anyway in high school I had tried to draw a student in one of my classes three or four times. One of these sketches evolved into Butt-head and one evolved into Beavis, although neither of them really looked like him. Actually, he is now a nuclear engineer.

In animation what comes first, the voice or the visual?

MJ: Until Beavis and Butt-head, which was my fourth animated short, it was the voice and soundtrack that came first, which is normally how you do it in animation. Beavis and Butt-head was the other way. I did the drawings and I thought, OK, I should do something with these guys.

How do you work? Is it highly collaborative and interactive or solitary?

MJ:  It has been a little bit of both. When I started out, I was just completely alone, making these animated shorts. I would barely show them to anybody, other than my wife at the time. But when Beavis and Butt-head became a show, there were episodes that either I or somebody else wrote—but then eventually it became more collaborative. Movies are different. I wrote Office Space by myself. Beavis and Butt-head and Idiocracy were co-written. I think when I write by myself it tends to be more like Office Space. With collaboration, the comedy tends to be broader, because you’re trying to make each other laugh.

Tell me about some of the pressure that you felt during the heady days of Beavis and Butt-head.

MJ:  We did close to 200 episodes. But from the get-go Beavis and Butt-head was really stressful. It was weird—it was really successful, although I don’t think I enjoyed the success until it was over. MTV didn’t really know what they were doing. They were nice folks, but they were like, “this show gets ratings so we want it on every day.” So I was working my butt off. As well as that, there was all this controversy. It became the scapegoat for everything that people hated about TV. But then a lot of people started defending it—like David Letterman, Stephen King and Jerry Seinfeld. It was always a mixed bag.

Someone told me that she loved your work because it jabbed at the “smarty pants” of the world. Do you think that’s true?

MJ:  I think there is a lot of elitist mentality that gets on TV, high-minded stuff, and a lot of pseudo-intellectuals. I guess those are fun people to take jabs at.

Why did you end the movie Office Space with Milton?

MJ:  You feel sorry for guys like Milton, but at the same time you probably don’t want to know too much about their lives. You don’t want to make fun of him. You want to see him have a good time, but ultimately Milton is kind of happy complaining. He doesn’t want to be in charge, because then he can’t gripe.

Do you think you’re able to have that kind of humanity because
you live outside of Hollywood?

MJ:  It took me a long time to break into Hollywood. Maybe it’s changed now, but for a long time it seemed as if a lot of the people who ended up working in television came from upper-class backgrounds and Ivy League schools. They tended not to have had experience working regular jobs, which I did for many years. So I think those working experiences helped me stay in touch with the way a lot of ordinary people think and feel.

Next year UCSD will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. How do you hope the University will evolve during the next 50 years?

MJ:  I would actually like to see it continue to evolve the way it has since my student years. When I first came here, it didn’t seem to have that sense of community or neighborhood that it does now. I hate to say it, but I think UCSD has gotten a lot better. There seems to be a little bit more pride in it now, and a sense of community and neighborhood.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what would your top five movies be?

MJ:  They would be Office Space, the Beavis and Butt-head movie, Idiocracy, Extract coming out September 4th (he laughs). No. That’s always a tough one. It depends on what time of my life you ask me. Fifteen years ago, I probably would have said Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor, Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, Clockwork Orange, the first 30 minutes of Full Metal Jacket. Now it might be Big Lebowski. You know, I’m embarrassed to admit, but this documentary American Pimp. There are scenes that just make me laugh more the more I watch it.

What advice would you give to a student arriving at UCSD today?

MJ:  I have seen so many people ruin their careers before they start by just being a jerk and not being nice. You would be amazed how far you can get if you can just be humble and nice and show up on time—along with being talented and well educated.

Raymond Hardie is the editor of @UCSD Magazine.

Mike Judge, Warren '85, the creator of Beavis and Butt-head and Office Space returned to campus in June.