Mike Judge on Returning to ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ and ‘The Whole Thing About White-Male Mediocrity’

No American storyteller has scrutinized stupidity like Mike Judge. Ever since “Beavis and Butt-Head” launched on MTV in the Clinton era and lasted seven seasons, Judge’s chuckling, puerile teenagers have remained his most iconic creation, even as he widened his oeuvre to tackle many more targets with the likes of “King of the Hill,” “Office Space,” “Idiocracy,” and “Silicon Valley.”

Among those, only “Beavis and Butt-Head” has continued to make a comeback, first with new episodes produced in 2011, and now with a busy summer that includes both the new feature-length “Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe” and “Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head,” both of which are out now on Paramount+.

In the movie, the two morons travel from the ’90s to the present day; they remain there for the new episodes, as their signature couch commentary now applies to online videos and social media. In a few episodes, they even make it to middle age. Beyond those tweaks, though, they’re still the same crass troublemakers that have entertained audiences for nearly three decades. Judge spoke to IndieWire about the impetus to revisit the show, its strange impact over the years, and whether he plans to resurrect any of his other creations.

IndieWire: You were 30 years when the first season of “Beavis and Butt-Head” aired. Now you’re 59. How did you get back into the mindset of two juvenile teenagers?

Mike Judge: Back then, I tried to make them these very pure characters who were hormonally-charged, stupid, and young. Everyone can remember and relate to that — or observed it. On the original show for MTV, there was a writer named David Felton who was really good at it, and he was almost 50. I figured if he could do that back then, I could do it now.

How much preparation was necessary to get back into it?

I watched the old episodes and just thought about how eternal the idea was. Fifteen-year-old males really haven’t changed that much in hundreds of years. There are some things that don’t have anything to do with what time period you’re in.

You have said that it was a 2018 “Beavis and Butt-Head” intro you created for the band Portugal. The Man that inspired you to do more episodes. What was it about that experience that confirmed to you this was worthwhile?

I hadn’t done the voices in many years and I just gave it a try. When I put the animation on it, I realized it looked and sounded like the Beavis and Butt-Head I knew. And it was fun to do. When Paramount asked me to do this, I thought that if it looks right and people think it’s funny, why not?

You mentioned in another interview that plans for a live-action version of the latest “Beavis and Butt-Head” movie went so far as a casting session. Who did you envision to play these characters?

I didn’t have anybody that famous. Paramount was really pushing for it, so I said, “Rather than just saying yes, why not just have people read for it?” It would be the first part of the process after writing it. All of the people who read were between the ages of 15 and 21. Some of them were famous, but I can’t say who. Nobody jumped out.

What would have convinced you it was worthwhile?

I think for it to work, someone would really have to make it their own more than just imitating the characters. There were a couple of guys doing Beavis that were pretty funny and making me laugh, but Butt-Head, not so much. They didn’t cast the net really wide. We just gave it a try for this script and then I said, “This was really meant to be animated.” But if another idea comes up, I’m open to doing it live action. We haven’t closed the door, but that was the first time we ever did an actual casting session.

So much about the new episodes and the movie are built on what came before. In one of the early new episodes, “The Special One,” Beavis gets to meet Fire as a character, which feels like an explicit callback to the way his obsession with fire became politicized back in the day after people claimed a five-year-old arsonist was inspired by the show. You even had a senator criticize the show on floor. What kind of impact did all that have to you as a storyteller in the public eye?


Mike Judge

ASSOCIATED PRESS

“Beavis and Butt-Head” exploded pretty quickly. It didn’t seem that way to me because animation takes time, but all that controversy was only like three or four months after it came out. It was all kind of scary and surreal. It definitely had an effect on me. The media was in a really weird place back then. The show came along at a time when there wasn’t a whole lot going on in the world. Things were pretty good. The Cold War was over. Crime was starting to go down in the ‘90s. Suddenly there was this whole thing about blaming violence on television. “Beavis and Butt-Head” was served up perfectly as the show that defined that. Anyway, the “fire” thing was a big deal.

You had to cut the word out of the show, right?

We had to take the word “fire” out of everything. In fact, some of the original episodes where Beavis talked about it in videos were lost. When we did the DVDs we tried to find them and MTV didn’t have them. They only exist on people’s VHS tapes when they taped the show.

So how did the idea of this new episode come up?

Somebody had an idea for an all-musical episode with “Fire” as a character. I didn’t want to do a whole musical because “South Park” does that better than anybody. But [producer] Lew Morton and I decided on an episode where Fire starts speaking to Beavis and telling him to do good things, which is just frustrating to him. He’s trying to help him! [laughs]

The cultural landscape is so different now. Do you ever feel like it’s harder to write jokes that could offend people, especially with these characters?

When the show started, there was a different type of cancel culture with the Christian Right, and there were a different set of triggers. Beavis and Butt-Head were actually innocent characters. The joke’s on them. They’re just too stupid to even be hateful. They’re just clueless.

That bring us to the scene in the new movie where they think “white privilege” gives them permission to steal.

That was just fun to do. I liked the idea that they could completely misunderstand “white privilege” as some kind of superpower. You know, it’s a different world and a different set of things to be careful about, but I really don’t think Beavis and Butt-Head have ever really been that bad. Just clueless and ignorant. The show never celebrated masculinity; it just made fun of it.

And in the new episodes, you see how that follows them into adulthood.


“Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe”

Paramount+

That’s the whole thing about white-male mediocrity. The joke is that even when Butt-Head is older, he’s still arrogant and has absolutely nothing going for him.

Still, it does occur to me that, like “Idiocracy,” the earlier episodes of “Beavis and Butt-Head” anticipated the way people could be empowered by their own stupidity. Could there be MAGA trolls now who might hold these characters in high regard?

[laughs] Back in the ’90s, I got a string of hate mail from this one neo-Nazi white supremacist because of the way I was portraying white people. He was accusing me of being Jewish, too. He would circle my name in articles and say things like, “Is this real name Judge-stein?” He was just a really awful dude. Every now and then these days, someone celebrates this work the wrong way, but I don’t see it as often as the reverse.

But surely you’ve had some weird encounters with fans?

There was one guy who came into my office because he knew someone who worked on the show and it turned out he lived near me outside of Dallas. He was like, “Dude! I worked at that McDonalds over there, and we used to take oil out of the fries and pour it on the grass and it would catch fire! It was so cool!” I was like, OK, get this guy out of my office. But I haven’t really seen any of the MAGA-head right-wingers celebrating these guys. Beavis and Butt-Head are such losers. They’re not tearing ass with a giant truck or anything. So hopefully it doesn’t cross paths with all that.

“Beavis and Butt-Head” had huge ratings early on. What is your sense of what a successful show is now?

I actually don’t know what success looks like now. It’s all about downloads, clicks, subscriptions. I don’t really know how you measure success other than these companies wanting you to do more. I suppose there are, like, polls and surveys. When “Silicon Valley” started on HBO, they still had ratings, but they didn’t matter that much since people were starting to stream it. You don’t really see what the number one show is now.

The media landscape has changed in other ways. Beavis and Butt-Head are still commenting on music videos, but they’re also watching viral videos and TikToks. What’s it like for you to dig through all that?

I’m just as much of a sucker as anyone when it comes to watching dumb stuff on YouTube, although the stuff that was selected for this show might not have crossed paths with me as often as it does for the younger people who work for me. It’s pretty fun when you find something and there’s an angle on it, like the TikTok on creating prison ink tattoo. It was pretty fun to imitate that guy as Beavis and Butt-Head. I’m really just looking for anything that would be funny for them to talk about. I’m not critiquing it.

The other show you’ve been open to revisiting is “King of the Hill.” Texas is in a fascinating place right now with a surprisingly close gubernatorial election. What would Hank Hill make of the political climate right now?

That’s a good question. I think if you had asked Hank during the original run of the show what he thought about Donald Trump, he’d be pretty repulsed by him for all kinds of reasons. However, it seems like the bar drops pretty low for comedy when it gets into politics. It’s not a very fun place to go. We only did one episode of the show where they talked about voting, and another episode that Ann Richards was in, the former Democratic governor. But it’s hard to say if it would be much fun to go into all that now with “King of the Hill.” There’s so much material already and so much going on in the world. When you’re watching “King of the Hill,” you might want a break from all that.

As for “Silicon Valley,” the series finale seemed pretty definitive. But so much keeps changing in the tech world. “Metaverse” wasn’t even a buzzword when the show ended. Do you ever wonder what you might’ve mocked with another season?

Just when you think the comedy material of the tech world has run out! The whole WeWork thing happened toward the end of the last season. Then there’s this whole NFT ridiculousness. It’s just one absurdity upon another. I think we did well at the basic stuff that I always fantasized making fun of from the tech world, the character types. I haven’t followed the tech world as closely as I did when I wrote the show, but there’s just crazier stuff happening now.

But you’re really done with it, right?

I’m not necessarily bringing back that show, but I do have at least one thing that’s in that world that I’m working on, a movie. I’m thinking of revisiting that world in all the absurdity of it.

No reunion show for Pied Piper, then.

Well, maybe they went to the outer space and there was a quantum slip where they went to another reality. Or some other metaverse.

“Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe” is now streaming on Paramount+. The first two episodes of “Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head” will be available to stream on Thursday, August 4.

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