Mike Judge has done more than breathe life into his characters -- he has given many of them his voice as well.
Perhaps that's why the 46-year-old writer-director-animator-actor sounds so familiar -- the logy cadence of Butt-Head mixed with the flattened intonations of Hank Hill -- speaking by phone from his home state of Texas about his latest film, "Extract," which arrives in theaters Friday. Starring Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck and Mila Kunis, the shaggy comedy tells the tale of Joel Reynold (Bateman), owner of a flavor extract company, whose plans for success and love go sideways, thanks to an unresponsive wife, a drug-loving best friend, a moronic gigolo, a severed testicle and a beautiful con artist.
Though this story takes a different perspective from his most celebrated film, 1999's "Office Space," sympathizing with the boss rather than the workers, its absurdist observational humor and social satire are certainly from the same family.
"It doesn't beat you in the face, it doesn't beg for laughter," Bateman says of the film.
That approach is consistent throughout Judge's varied, unpredictable and uncompromising career. The first animated film he ever made, a two-minute short called "Office Space" back in 1991, featured characters later seen in the feature film -- Milton, a woebegone wage ape, and his smarmy, passive-aggressive boss. Looking for a venue for his work, Judge "literally just picked up the phone in Dallas and called 411, got addresses to send it to, and probably sent 15 tapes out," he explains.
The response was immediate. After his shorts were featured on the MTV show "Liquid Television," MTV then decided to spin one off into a series called "Beavis and Butt-Head," about two head-banging, emotionally stunted teenage couch potatoes who wreak unintended havoc on just about everyone they encounter. Going to New York to work on the show, he felt completely out of his league. "I'm just this guy from Texas sitting in the recording studio doing this dumb laugh, and these people are staring at me not laughing," he says. "It was like 'OK, I have to just believe in this myself.' "
The mind-set worked. To call the 1993 show a hit doesn't begin to explain the frenzy that followed. The 1996 feature film "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" (written with Joe Stillman) was equally popular and surprised everyone with what was, at the time, the biggest December opening weekend in history with $20.1 million (made for around $12 million, it would go on to earn $63.1 million at the multiplex).
His next television series, Fox's "King of the Hill," created with Greg Daniels, featured an upstanding middle-of-the-road family from Arlen, Texas, led by patriarch Hank Hill, who, unlike most sitcom dads, may have been baffled but was never a buffoon. The show, which has been running since 1997, was canceled this year and its last episode will air this month. "I like the idea of quitting before we run it into the ground," Judge says. "And I don't feel that we've run it into the ground yet, so I'm good with it."
Another series created by Judge, with John Altschuler and David Krinsky, "The Goode Family," about a family of left-wing vegans navigating life with their bleeding hearts on their sleeves, was canceled this year after its first season.
"I'm OK with that too," he adds.
That may be because many of Judge's projects have received a second lease on life, gaining popularity and appreciation with age, usually accompanied by the descriptor "underrated" when brought up in casual conversation. And no film better typifies this curious phenomenon than his "Office Space." In the film, Peter, a miserable IT employee played by Ron Livingston, is hypnotized into not worrying about his job. His hypnotist dies suddenly before rousing Peter out of his relaxed state, and he returns to work, occasionally, with an anarchic attitude and an open disdain for white-collar cubicle culture.
Twentieth Century Fox didn't seem to know what to make of the movie, so it didn't make much of anything. When the film was released, marketing was minimal. The movie earned $10.8 million in theatrical release, about equal to its budget, and Judge says he was told it was a failure and became convinced that he needed more of a high-concept idea for his next film project.
The result was the farcical "Idiocracy," written with Etan Cohen, about an average soldier (Luke Wilson) who takes part in a time-travel experiment and winds up 500 years in the future, in an era when humans have devolved into such slothful morons that he appears to have the wisdom of a god.
Meanwhile, "Office Space" had slowly started finding its audience, selling millions of DVDs. Entertainment Weekly, which panned it upon release, last year named it as one of the 100 best films made in the last 15 years.