Mike Judge: A Good Judge Of Character

From Highland High to Hooli, Mike Judge continues to successfully satirize society.

Tomorrow, Alamo Drafthouses across the country will show the first two episodes of Silicon Valley season four followed by a livestreamed Q&A with co-creator / executive producer Mike Judge and cast members Martin Starr (Gilfoyle), and Zach Woods (Jared). Get your tickets here!

The '90s was a radical decade filled with rollerblades, dial-up internet, and good old-fashioned MTV. Television typically aired perfectly flawed, innocent families and cartoons starring talking animals such as Garfield and Friends and Ren and Stimpy. Realizing there was a disconnect between what Hollywood was showcasing and what people were really feeling, Mike Judge emerged like a rainbow in the dark to provide us some of the most iconic animated shows that represent life around us, including Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. A jack of all trades, Judge has been able to produce characters, TV shows, and films that have withstood the test of time by executing comical social commentary that audiences can relate to and vicariously live through.

Growing up, Judge enjoyed animation, but did not start seriously exploring his creativity until he was in his late twenties. Born in Ecuador, his family later moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico when he was seven years old. He earned a degree in Physics from University of California San Diego, and in 1987 landed a job as a programmer in Silicon Valley working for a start-up called Parallax Graphics. Feeling uninspired and with an aversion towards his fellow coworkers, Judge quit his job after three months and set out to play bass with a traveling blues band. Driven to finally pursue his love for animation, he purchased a Bolex 16mm film camera. In 1992, he created a series of hand-inked shorts which he painted onto cells and then shot onto film. One of the shorts, Frog Baseball, was later picked up and aired on MTV’s Liquid Television. This was the world’s first introduction to the slacker duo known as Beavis and Butt-Head. Landing its own series, Beavis and Butt-Head showcased the lives of two heavy-metal-loving, barely literate, delinquent teenagers, alongside other characters loosely based on people in Judge’s real life. Judge created, wrote, produced, and voiced Beavis and Butt-Head, which is pretty damn impressive for a first television attempt. The show’s success landed Judge a movie opportunity featuring the duo and inspired a spin-off series called Daria, but without Judge’s direct involvement.

In 1997, Judge went on to create, produce, and voice the animated slice of life show called King of the Hill, which was part of Fox’s attempt to add more animation concepts to follow The Simpsons. King realistically depicts the life of a conservative, working-class family living in the Texas suburbs. Set in the fictional town of Arlen (influenced by Arlington, Richardson, and Garland, Texas), King follows the day-to-day life of the Hill family. Several scenes focus on the casual conversations he has with his friends, which are usually set in the alley with a beer in hand, unknowingly working on their farmer tans. This scene is the first drawing Judge did in order to conceptualize the show. Typically starting with a picture, he brainstorms character voices and a plot around the central image. Since Judge had previously lived in the Dallas suburbs, he knew how to choose conversation topics down to the style of houses that are frequently seen in neighborhoods. The series combined sociopolitical humor with character development while focusing on the mundane experiences of everyday family life. The little nods to Texas are also what makes this series so entertaining. The big hair, the vernacular, the reference to the Dallas Cowboys (Tom Landry Middle School), and the dog’s name (Ladybird, a political reference to the former First Lady of the ‘60s), are fun allusions for us Texans. King lasted thirteen seasons and is one of the longest-running prime-time animation series, winning several awards.

The next project Judge pursued as a writer and director was based on his old animated short Milton. This short is what ultimately sparked the creation of the cult classic, Office Space. The film further highlights Judge’s keen ability to relate to his audience while also playing on his personal experiences working in Silicon Valley. The story evolves around an office worker who despises his job as a programmer (sound familiar?) and how he breaks free of corporate culture after being hypnotized at a party. His love interest, played by Jennifer Anniston, works as a waitress who is required to wear several buttons or “flair” on her uniform at a soul-sucking service industry job. By incorporating this into the script, TGI Friday’s actually discontinued their flair requirement, which further supports how on-target Judge was in his satire. I’m sure everyone can relate to both characters in one way or another professionally. You’ve had a micro-managing boss, you’re unmotivated with the kind of work you’re doing, you sit next to a coworker who guards their office supplies like crown jewels. That’s the beauty of Mike Judge’s work. He’s able to continuously satirize normalcy for many of us and create scenes that audiences enjoy indirectly living through. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take a baseball bat to a printer while blaring Geto Boys?

Judge’s third directorial endeavor emerged in 2006 with his dystopian sci-fi comedy, Idiocracy. In addition to directing, Judge also produced and wrote the film. After participating in a military experiment, the protagonist, played by Luke Wilson, awakens 500 years in the future to a society that is so idiotic that water has been replaced by Gatorade (it’s what plants crave!). The notion of being the smartest guy in the room is taken to a disturbing new level of being the smartest guy on the planet. The film was played alongside the 2016 presidential election as a comic relief to the candidates running, as many people saw disturbing similarities in the character’s traits such as voicing multiple false accusations, a heightened ego, and a lack of regard for human rights. Idiocracy is yet another example of how Judge’s cultural perception satirically plays out in a jocular manner on screen.

Currently, Judge is the Executive Producer on his HBO hit comedy series, Silicon Valley, which was again inspired by his own experience. The plot centers around an anxious programmer named Richard Hendricks, who develops an app called Pied Piper, which contains a revolutionary data compression algorithm. Silicon showcases everything stereotypical about the tech industry from the introverted band of misfits trying to strike it rich, to problems dating women, to the over-the-top hip workspaces frequently seen in the offices of Google and Facebook. Reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s 1995 fictional start-up novel, Microserfs, the plots seem to have their parallels. The fact that start-ups typically begin in small operations— usually out of someone’s home, with everyone dedicated entirely to the goal of developing the next big thing while disregarding any notion of a social life—not that they would know what to do if they had one. The shy, genius protagonist alongside their facetious sidekick is not a foreign Hollywood character foil and has been played out in such movies as Real Genius and Weird Science. However, Judge actually uses real-life tech gurus to loosely influence his Silicon characters’ personality types, including Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, Steve Jobs, and Sean Parker.

Following the pattern of turning real life into comedy, Judge set out to accurately satirize the tech industry as factually as possible. In Season 3 alone, over 250 tech insiders were consulted in order to keep the dialogue (and even the diagrams) accurate. In another attempt to blur the lines of fiction and reality, Judge created a real Pied Piper website. Additionally, Silicon has generated the use of the Weismann score, which was a formula initially invented for the show but is now executed in reality as a real metric and reference point.

After winning the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Comedy in 2015 and 2016, as well as two Satellite Awards for Best Comedy Series, Silicon Valley is set to return to HBO on April 23rd.

Throughout his career, Judge has been influenced by human nature in order to create satire both in animation and live-action outlets. He’s created his own work, but has also acted in movies such as Spy Kids, Serving Sara, while also performing Kenny’s voice in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. His perception of human character and society has produced some of the most archetypal shows in television. With over twenty years in the business, Judge, thankfully, doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Get your tickets here!

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