THE TEXAN customs man is a stiff little redneck, uniformed, crew-cutted, decked out in an unironic moustache and malevolent black leather gloves. It's plain that he'd rather see a troupe of purple-arsed baboons in Red Army regalia effect entry into the US of A than anything resembling me.
“You're a reporter?” he bristles, as he flips contemptuously through my copy of Loaded. “What are you covering here?”
I tell him that I'm here to interview Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis & Butt-head. Next thing I know, I'm spread-eagled against the wall, on the receiving end of a highly intimate weapons search, while my luggage is disassembled one atom at a time.
They must have heard of the show.
“I HATE those guys,” mutters Mike Judge. “Every time I go into Canada they take me apart. I don't say what I do, unless I have to. One time I did, and the guy just goes, ‘It's incredible what people will buy nowadays.’”
Judge has just concluded his seventh and last series of Beavis & Butt-head for MTV. He wants to spend more time on his new animated show, King Of The Hill, created with Simpsons writer Greg Daniels. He's not happy with the latest Beavis & Butt-head episodes; he feels they've suffered from his neglect as he's been concentrating on the moronic duo's first feature film, Beavis & Butt head Do America.
The funny thing about the movie is that it's funny. Most such films are spun off from a half-hour TV comedy, and fail to sustain the humour even that long. A typical Beavis & Butt-head episode lasts only a few minutes, interspersed with video clips, and usually very little happens in it. But at over 80 minutes, Beavis & Butt-head Do America rarely flags. Often, it's completely hilarious. Judge calls it a combination of modern noir thriller Red Rock West and the Cheech & Chong movies, and there's bits of Easy Rider and the old Clouseau caper A Shot In The Dark in there as well. B&BDA is not profound or self-conscious enough a work of cinema to have been ‘influenced'. It's a cartoon caper, a royal piss-take, brilliantly done. But then Mike Judge is the maestro of American idiocy. He has a gift for it.
“BEAVIS & Butt-head started out as a two-minute short that I did literally everything on. And after that it never stopped. At its peak it's had something like 80 people working on it. I didn't know where it would lead me, I just thought, this may be my only chance to do something weird and self-indulgent. When I was in high school, I used to draw these pictures of somebody screaming and running towards the camera. I got picked on a lot when I was at school. They ussed to mek ssport of me,” Judge cackles in perfect Billy-Bob Thornton, Southern in breed. He's superb at voices; he does almost all the male characters in the show. For a while, you find yourself amazed at his facility for imitating them, until you remember that he invented them.
“I was kind of a skinny little kid. I used to draw pictures of what ended up being Butt-head swinging the bat at Beavis's head.”
Mike Judge now works out of a neat mini-studio in Austin Texas, from which he supervises the New York production team and records the show's dialogue. He is 34, balding, amiable and slyly amusing company. He has spent most of his life in the kind of Southern suburbs portrayed with such flat accuracy in Beavis and Butt-head's home town of Highland.
“I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and lived in Dallas. I always think of Highland as West Texas or East New Mexico. I've always had that fascination with suburbia. It's not like I just like to make fun of it from my ivory tower. I actually like suburban areas. Even when I was a kid - jeez, from the first time I can remember writing something for school. It was about this guy who did these really horrible commercials on local TV, this fat guy with this slew of fences behind him - ‘I'm George Martinez for thee Albuquerque Fence Qompanee. For strong doorable fenceeng please call four-five-seex nine-seex-three-seex.’ I wrote about what George's life was like, and I was really proud of it. The teacher never gave it back. I don't think he read those things or anything, just threw them away.”
With this kind of encouragement, it's no wonder young Mike went on to become an electrical engineer.
AFTER getting a degree in Physics from The University of California in San Diego, Judge went to work on electronic test systems for the F-18 jet. “Worried that he was working on bringing death to people,” runs his self penned movie biog, “he decided that he would rather just make them miserable instead. So he started playing music for a living.”
This is how fondly Mike Judge recalls his life as an enginer.
“Engineers are weird people. When there's been those parents who left two little kids alone with no babysitter while they went to Acapulco, and those parents who killed their kid ‘cause they locked him in a room tied up to the fixtures. . . they're all engineers. All of them. They're very stiff people with weird brains and no heart.”
His decision to take up music full-time was, unusually, financial. “It was very cynical and I was just doing it for the money. I get confused with this Mike Judge who had a thrash metal band called Judge, but I wasn't him. I was just in the back of blues bands playing upright bass and getting my cheque.”
Always observant, Judge was storing away characters who would later emerge in Beavis & Butt-head. The hippie teacher Van Driessen, whose drippy tones, sickly opinions and dreadful songs invite the most awful violence, owes his voice to a white, patronising blues fan.
“I played with Sam Myers, who's like the real thing, an old blind blues guy. This other guy was interviewing Sam, saying: ‘Sam, it must be really wonderful for you, having grown up in the deep South, to be able to go over to Europe and share some of their culture and experience. . .’ And Sam would be going, ‘Whuh kinda food they got in heeuh?’ We used to travel by bus and I'd get on the CB radio to all the redneck truck drivers and go, ‘Excuse me, Breaker one nine, I'm on the I-35 and I was wondering if there would be a good vegetarian restaurant somewhere around Norman, Oklahoma?’ Those guys would cuss me out - ‘Yew got a deathwish, buddy?’”
IN 1991, Judge became obsessed with animation. Seeing a way into the comedy he longed to write, he got a How To Do It book from library, bought an old camera, and began to work. By June he'd finished his first short film, Office Space. He made three more, the last of which was called Frog Baseball. It depicted a pair of dumb, ugly kids playing the self-explanatory game of the title. He came to the attention of MTV's Liquid Television cartoon showcase, which took all four shorts. By the end of 1992, plans were afoot to turn the dumb, ugly kids into a series.
Beavis & Butt-head was an immediate hit. The slow movement and lack of action gave it such a naturalistic feel that viewers often forgot it was a cartoon. If anyone ever wanted to bootleg an animation, this would have to be the easiest one to do.
“I've seen a lot of bootleg drawings, but never any animations,” says Judge. “That would actually be pretty cool.”
Has anyone ever done a pornographic version of it?
“I started to. But I didn't get very far. I was doing it at home, and I've got young daughters. There is a live-action porno Beavis & Butt head, it's called Beaver & Butt-face. It's not like you can do much to Beavis & Butt-head to make it sound dirtier. I have a little poster for it, it's really funny. Full insertion porno. I'm dying to see it.”
At first MTV had wanted the duo to present their metal show, Headbangers’ Ball, or act as video jockeys in some other capacity. Judge refused, but suggested having them
watch videos and comment on them. It was cheap, it was funny, and, strangely, it was always spot-on. This pair of cretins in shorts and grubby band T-shirts, with their two available opinions - “This is cool"/"This sucks” - were inevitably right. They were the world's most reliable music critics.
“At first I kind of thought, maybe it should be an insult to the band to have Beavis and Butt-head be into ‘em. But then I realised, make them idiots savants, that somehow through being really vacant, a simple truth can come out. It's fun to have a really stupid guy figure out that something's bad.
“It was like when they were doing focus groups, testing stuff from Liquid television on a bunch of bored kids they'd fished out of a mall - you know, some of them looked like gang members. They'd play some really artsy Liquid Television thing, and it would be like, ‘That wuz stoopid.’ Beavis and Butt-head came on, and there's this one black kid that obviously didn't want to be there, and it's like his body's doing this chuckle, shoulders heaving, and no sound's coming out. And there's this one kid at the end of the table who's just losing it, he's going ‘HUHOOHOOHUHOOOHOO! HAHHHOOOHAAA!’ And Beavis and Butt-head are on-screen going ‘Huh-huh-huh.’ It was like some kind of crazed psychology experiment.”
Beavis and Butt-head had cottoned on to American kids’ taste in things, which may help account for the fact that no British band has really cracked America in years. Every time a video by a British act comes on, the pair look either bewildered or disgusted: “What's this crap?” Beavis has professed a desire to piss on Damon from Blur, and The Shamen's ‘Ebenezer Goode’ was met with the question, “Isn't this from that country where everything sucks?”
“You know,” grins Judge, “this just now occurred to me. There was this guy called Japhet Asher who was sort of in charge of Liquid Television. He kind of rubbed me up the wrong way. He struck me as one of those British people who come over here and people think they're smart just because they have a British accent. He speaks, he has the cadence of someone who's saying something very heavy, but there's not a whole lot of content. He would say things like, ‘A bit of criticism, if I may, Mike.’ I wonder if a lot of that is just down to him.”
THE SHOW quickly became seen as symptomatic of ‘The dumbing down of America'. Commentators queued up to pontificate on it, pronouncing the name as if unable to believe anything so crass could exist. A jokey magazine cover labelling the duo ‘The Voice Of A Generation’ was taken far more seriously than it should have been.
“A certain kind of journalist just assumed that they knew what it was,” sighs Judge. “Just because you do a show about dumb guys doesn't make it a dumb show. I think that's a dumb way to look at it. Like if you did a show about straight-A students, that would be a smart show.”
In fact, Beavis & Butt-head is a very smart show. It's an acutely observed, low-key satire on Middle America by one of its own, devoid of sentiment, and without any of the pretension or condescension that an outsider might have brought to it. More to the point, it's good comedy. Judge likes to compare it to The Three Stooges. Plus it has meticulous rules about its characters which help to set up the delicious running jokes that have carried it over 200 episodes.
“I almost never have them try to say something like a wisecrack that's really wise,” explains Judge, “or a smart ass remark that's really funny. To me, what should be funny is how lame it is. One rule, also, but this gets broken a lot, I don't think they're bullies at all, I think they're at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Clearly, they'll never fulfil their biggest dream: to score.
“Yeah! That's a big rule. And they never get the upper hand on a woman. To me, that would ruin it. To have these leering guys have some kind of power over a woman, they wouldn't be likeable any more. And they never learn anything, unless it's the wrong thing.”
Even in their own cartoon world, the pair look like caricatures, with their outsized heads and spindly bodies. Maybe this explains why in a time obsessed to the point of hysteria with the way children are portrayed, Judge can get away with heaping every kind of abuse and indignity on his 14-year-old characters. Beavis spends a large chunk of the movie ripped to the tits on speed, assorted prescription drugs and even peyote.
“I know. I'm surprised there was no press about that. But I've done worse things to them. The episodes where Todd beats them and throws them in the trunk of his car get pretty bad. It's also kind of sad because they're still laughing, it's almost like Butt-head's laughing out of embarrassment as he gets his ass kicked.”
Those laughs. ‘Huh-huh-huh.’ ‘Heh-heh. Heh heh.’ The cornerstone of everything that is Beavis and Butt-head. Did Judge hear them and capture them for future use, or did he go out of his way to invent the most annoying noise he could?
“The first time I ever drew Beavis, I drew him holding a locust in one hand a lighter in the other. So I just kind of imagined him having a real annoying laugh, which I borrowed from a guy in Calculus class at high school who used to laugh every time the teacher made some lame joke. And for Butt-head, I'd done the drawing of him, and he had braces and gums, and I just tried to come up with the dumbest-sounding, irritatingest, stupidest-sounding laugh I could.”
Mike Judge is a funny man let loose upon the foes of his youth. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
CHARACTERS FROM THE SHOW
The myopic perpetual victim of Beavis and Butt-head's accidental, idiotic mayhem.
“My favourite character. He was based on a guy on my paper route when I was a kid. He's completely oblivious. You always get the idea he's going to forget about it the next day. Maybe that's why he never remembers who they are, he's always like, ‘Yew two look kinduh familiuh.’ Bill Clinton has that memory problem with them as well.”
The Walter Softie of Beavis & Butt-head, and another perpetual victim of their hapless destructiveness.
“I thought there ought to be a guy who's a little younger and doesn't have many friends. I suppose he's lower down the totem pole than Beavis and Butt-head. They kind of abuse him, but it's more because he's the one guy who can't kick their ass.”
DT-ridden High School boss who longs for Beavis and Butt-head to go away and never come back.
“He's based on a band director I had for a long time, a really bad alcoholic, obviously, he was always shaking. He'd go, ‘Wuhhhh, wuhhhh, wuhhhht're you guys doin'? Uhhhh, sit down.’ There was always this noise coming from him: ‘Uhhhhh. . .’”<
Teacher, ex-marine, and Beavis and Butt-head's nemesis.
“He's based on a few guys, a math teacher and a shop teacher. My junior high was really rough, a kinda dangerous place, and this shop teacher did not take any shit. He took this kid once and just threw him into a bunch of drawing tables: ‘Go ahead! Report me! You wanna report me? I'd love it!’ I loved the guy, because it was the one class where you didn't have to worry about someone kicking your ass.”
Vicious delinquent who frequently beats Beavis and Butt-head to a pulp, for which they worship him all the more.
“There was a family down the street from us when I was a kid - they were actually called the Simpsons. The dad was a truck driver. One of the kids was always in and out of jail for stealing cars. He had a motorcycle, and he'd rev down the street and see us out on the front lawn, and just turn around and tear up our lawn with his back wheel and say, ‘Yeah, I'm gonna come back later and kick your ass.’ Just terrorise us for no reason, like, ‘There's those guys, I'd better go and fuck with them ‘cause I'm older and bigger.’”
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