Revisiting the films of Mike Judge

Luke Savage examines the film career of the man who gave the world Office Space and Beavis and Butt-Head...

He created Beavis And Butt-Head. He did King Of The Hill too. But for me, the greatest joy of Mike Judge is his work as a filmmaker. Moving effortlessly from his early 90s animation work to live action feature films with 1999’s Office Space, Judge was able to keep what made those TV shows so distinct – comedy alongside social commentary that didn’t feel preach-y. In the process, he’d create a film that would speak to a generation wasting away in office cubicles around the world.

These are his films.

N.B. There are a couple of f-bombs in here. Not that I’m potty-mouthed. It’s all about the quotes.

Beavis And Butt-Head Do America (1996)

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“This sucks more than anything that’s ever sucked before. We must find this butt-hole that took our TV.”

Starting life as characters in Judge’s 1992 animated short Frog Baseball, before starring in their own show on MTV in 1993, Beavis and Butt-Head graduated to the big screen with a feature film all their own in 1996. 

Beginning with the theft of the duo’s TV, the film soon has them mistaken by Bruce Willis’ sleazy bad guy as hitmen hired to kill his wife (Demi Moore), who happens to be carrying a stolen Ebola-like virus, itself being tracked down by Robert Stack’s cavity-search obsessed Federal Agent, and which takes Beavis and Butt-Head to the White House as they unwittingly save the day and earn the respect of President Clinton. Plot, as you may have guessed, isn’t the raison d’être of Judge’s feature debut.

Rather, it’s the continuation of the TV show’s satiric take on the youth of America, something Judge seems both amused by and rather worried about. Beavis and Butt-Head are the forefathers to Idiocracy‘s future generation of dullards who watch TV and grunt at someone getting hit in the balls. When Judge has a cartoon President Clinton tell them, in all sincerity, “You exemplify a fine new crop of young Americans who will grow into the leaders of this great country”, you sense it’s not just a joke, but Judge’s fears laid bare on screen.

And yet, they’re also the template for many of Judge’s future leading men. When Office Space‘s Peter Gibbons asks himself what he’d do if he had a million dollars, he says: “Nothing. I would relax.I would sit on my ass all day.” Which is essentially the Beavis and Butt-Head school of living.

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Similarly, Idiocracy‘s Joe Bauers has found a job in the military that requires him to do nothing more than sit in a warehouse and watch TV all day. And he’s blissfully happy with it until an unfortunate turn of events sees him frozen for 500 years and emerge as the smartest guy in the world. BABDA (can that catch on as an abbreviation?) could be seen as the first in Mike Judge’s ‘Lazy Man Trilogy’, all three with protagonists whose ambitions are no higher than Beavis and Butt-Head’s own modest ones.

And what of BABDA itself? Well, it’s a lesser film in the Judge canon, one that’s more interesting as the launch pad for his future film output, and home to many of the themes he’d revisit later, than as a film in its own right. Fans of the TV show will lap it up, and it is very likeable and charming – words you’d not immediately associate with a film featuring two protagonists who laugh at someone’s assertion that “we don’t need TV to entertain us” because it rhymes with ‘anus’. But it’s kind of one-note, and can’t quite sustain itself over a feature running time, even a slight 80 minutes.

Still, BABDA broke box office records in its day for an opening weekend in December, taking $20m, incredibly, not far short of the combined box office runs of all of Mike Judge’s subsequent films Office Space, Idiocracy and Extract.

The following year Judge would embark on his second successful TV venture, King Of The Hill, while bringing the TV adventures of Beavis and Butt-Head to a close. It wasn’t until 1999 that he would bring us his first live action film, though you’d be forgiven for not knowing anything about it at the time.

Office Space (1999)

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“We need to talk about your TPS reports.”

What makes a cult film? Studio interference? Box office failure? Critical apathy? A growing, devoted fanbase? A rebirth on video and DVD that sees it rise from the ashes phoenix-like into critics’ best ever lists long after they snubbed it?

On all those counts, Mike Judge’s 1999 masterpiece fits the bill. Like many, I was a latecomer to the Holy Grail that is Office Space. Having bypassed UK cinemas completely after a less than spectacular performance in America (the film trickled to a final haul of $10m, just covering its production budget), Office Space gradually invaded late night British TV and DVD collections around the country.

But chancing upon Office Space away from the hype and endless PR machine is perhaps the best way to discover it. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading, go buy it, enjoy, and come back to us later. For Judge’s ode to working in an anonymous cubicle in an anonymous office park has that rare quality of feeling like it’s made especially for you, if you share the same fate as Ron Livingston’s Peter Gibbons. Moreover, you sense that Judge has lived and breathed this world of slimy bosses, soul-destroying monotony, PC Load Letter spouting printers, and people who say “Looks like someone’s got a case of the Mondays!”

But it’s one thing being accurate and true to life. Office Space‘s trump card is that it’s funny. Really, really funny. Mixed in with the film’s plot (Livingston’s cubicle slave rises up against the drudgery of his life, goes after the girl of his dreams, Jennifer Aniston, and hatches a plot with two work colleagues to steal from his company via a computer programme that they’ve come up with after watching Superman 3), are a collection of perfectly played supporting characters. 

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Gary Cole’s Lumbergh (“Yeah … I’m going to have to go ahead and … sort of disagree with you there. Yeah.”) is an inspired creation. After displaying an easy charisma as radio detective extraordinaire in Midnight Caller (how good a show was that?), Cole’s output since has seen him hone his skills as a comedic force of nature. But his trick is to never be in on the joke – check out his Cotton McKnight in Dodgeball – and Office Space shows him at his peak.

There are too many to mention elsewhere: Diedrich Bader’s Lawrence (“Two chicks at the same time, man”, his response to what he’d do with a million dollars), David Herman’s perennially downtrodden Michael Bolton, who has to fend off no end of questions about the other Michael Bolton (“Why should I change my name? He’s the one who sucks.”), the always excellent Stephen Root as the mumbling Milton, the subject of Judge’s animated short that inspired the film. John C McGinley as one of the two Bobs (“The pleasure’s all on this side of the table.”).

That, more than anything else, is what defines Office Space as one of the best comedies of its time: its quotability. Watching it with friends becomes an exercise in storing up your conversations for the next few years. Or reciting the film’s Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta soundtrackedmontage, for my money one of the top three montages of all time (the other two being Team America‘s montage about montages, and anything from Rockys 3 and 4). Yet, for all its marvels, the film failed to find its audience first time round.

Marketed by 20th Century Fox as a broad, BABDA-style comedy rather than the slow, wryly observed one it is, Office Space didn’t stand much of a chance in the opening weekend fixated era of late 90s Hollywood. Especially when its studio didn’t know what they had. This year’s Paranormal Activity showed how inspired marketing can build word of mouth to tremendous effect and lead to big box office. How, you wonder, could Office Space have fared with wiser marketing heads at the helm?

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But there was vindication over the horizon for Judge. In 2003, Office Space was one of the studio’s biggest DVD hits; today, it’s said to be one of Fox’s top 20 DVD sellers of all time. And there are Office Space fans the world over trying to get the message out. Like one of the writers on the U.S. version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, who slipped a $250,000 question into the show in 2007 (hilarious for the contestant’s unbridled joy, at both his love of the movie and his luck in getting a question on it).

After the turmoil of making and releasing Office Space, there was no escape for Judge from the studio politics that dogged him. He was still tied to a two-picture deal with Fox. And his next project with them would be no easier.

Idiocracy (2006)

“Brawndo’s got what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes.”

Having started to write what would become Extract immediately after finishing Office Space, Judge soon found himself pursuing another project that owed a little to Futurama. That project would become Idiocracy.

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The film tells the story of Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), an average soldier picked to be a test dummy, along with Maya Rudolph’s prostitute Rita, for a new military cryogenics programme. Yet, instead of being frozen for a year, Joe and Rita find themselves thawed out in the year 2505. They wake up to an America where violent, sex-obsessed citizens speak in slang and half finished sentences, a show called “Ow, My Balls” is the country’s top rated TV show, the film Ass (consisting of a 90 minute unbroken shot of a man’s ass) wins two Oscars (including best screenplay), and corporations use sex to sell everything from fast food to coffee (Starbucks sells sex alongside its coffee, including a “full body latte”). In Judge’s mind, it’s a future not too far from where we are now.

And he pulls no punches throughout the film, not least in his view that corporations resort to the basest of emotions to sell their wares. As with Office Space, Judge shows he’s not the biggest fan of corporate America, but he takes up a notch or two here. Adverts strewn across the future landscape read “If you don’t smoke Tarryltons … Fuck You”, or Carl’s Jr fast food outlet that goes with “Fuck You!  I’m Eating!”. 

It’s a daring, ballsy film, one that makes you gasp at the thought that a studio like Fox financed it in the first place, especially since they aren’t spared in Judge’s swipes at certain media outlets dumbing down and foregoing rational debates (alongside The Masturbation Network, Fox News is hosted by naked presenters who swear profusely and carry assault rifles). Yet it’s often more impressive than it is funny, with scenes that don’t always produce the kind of laughs its predecessor did. But like a good Mike Judge film, it remains endlessly quotable. 

It’s probably worth noting here that Judge seems to have a less than rosy view of women. Either that or he can’t write them very well. Idiocracy‘s Rita is a prostitute, which throws up some nice gags when Wilson’s Joe continually thinks she’s an artist, but also reinforces a trend noticeable throughout the Judge Universe – all of his women don’t come off that well.

Office Space‘s Joanna (Aniston) is accused of sleeping around a lot, while everyone thinks that Peter’s ex-girlfriend was cheating on him (she was, she admits quite brazenly). Extract‘s Mila Kunis is a petty thief using her feminine charms to get her hands on whatever she can, and Joel’s wife doesn’t think twice about sleeping with the pool boy, who happens to be a gigolo hired by Joel (there’s some internal logic in there when you watch it, trust me).

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But back to Idiocracy. It’s a film that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Some have seen it already, including the makers of Wall-E, who borrowed the film’s theme of a future world ravaged by escalating garbage that simply has nowhere to go but side-by-side with crumbling buildings and homes.

It’s not surprising that Fox weren’t particularly taken with it considering how it turned out. Yet what is surprising is how determined they seemed to stop it being seen. Having finished production by 2005, Idiocracy sat on the shelf until September 2006 when the studio slid it quietly into just 130 screens nationwide (Transylmania, the latest “comedy” release in the States, just went out on a modest 1000+). They ran no marketing or trailers, and didn’t even screen it for critics. It left Idiocracy with an opening weekend of just $124,000, and a final box office just shy of $0.5m.  Suffice to say, the UK didn’t get a look in. Although DVD sales and rentals saw it earn $9m by early 2007. Who knows what it’s at now?

After the less-than-positive experiences Judge had with Idiocracy and Office Space, his next, and latest, film would see him work outside the studio system for the first time.

Extract (2009)

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“There he goes … Johnny Horsecock.”

I won’t go on too long here about what makes Extract the middle ground of Judge’s live action output (you can read a full review of it here).

What’s most interesting about it is that it marks, at least in the U.S., a long-overdue recognition of the cult that is Mike Judge. Extract‘s tagline “the creator of Office Space heads back to work”, trades on the reputation of a film that earned its stripes via word of mouth and home entertainment, as opposed to box office bucks. It’s not the first, of course, and certainly won’t be the last. And in the UK someone hasn’t quite caught on yet, if the film’s lack of a distributor is anything to by.

But here’s hoping that despite Extract‘s lukewarm box office performance, Mike Judge continues to benefit from financiers who recognise his growing fanbase, and that films don’t necessarily have to earn all their money back in a weekend. Sometimes, it just takes a few years.