Judging Judge

If you were to simply look at his career as a cartoonist, a man who turned a talent for capturing the marginalized and the moronic into the long running animated efforts Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, you’d swear Mike Judge was born under a very lucky star indeed. Few pen and ink efforts ever make a cultural impact, let along create the kind of pure pop phenomenon that his two dimwitted metal heads did when they first appeared on MTV. Within months, they were the subject of scholarly dissertation, parents group protests, and oversized governmental concern. Parlaying that notoriety into a standard gig with Fox, Judge made King into one of the few character based comedies within the genre, a show less concerned about the medium or the means being used, and more about the people and the message being depicted.

But when it comes to motion picture, Judge has a big black cloud hanging over his head. True, Beavis and Butthead made a semi-successful jump to the big screen when they “did” America back in 1996, but since then his other films have been marginalized, or downright dismissed, by the studios who hired him in the first place. Oddly enough, home video has helped to resurrect both Office Space and Idiocracy, turning the former into an unqualified cult smash while the latter builds on its post-perspective excellence. Why his efforts are weakened so might have something to do with the way he approaches humor, something evident in his latest laughfest, the 4 September release known as Extract. While his animated efforts go straight for the gut – and sometimes, the gutter – his live action works strive for something more subtle and personable – and that might just be the problem.

Judge could be called the master of the “microcomedy” – that is, satires and parodies that use little observational moments about the human condition and life in general to comment on and lampoon the world around us. Even in a “big idea” film like Idiocracy (which finds a frozen soldier waking up in a single digit IQ future), he avoids the flashy and the farcical to discover the truth beneath the spoof. At their core, each one of his feature films is about a specific set of individual obstacles – the oppressive workplace, the dumbing down of society, the pleasures and pitfalls of the small businessman. He then wraps up each narrative in recognizable individuals and specific types. Sure, they may occasionally act dumb, or downright retarded, but it’s always in service of a sentiment that suggests that this is the way people really are, eccentricities and all.

Indeed, if he tossed in a bunch of directorial flourishes and obvious homages to cinema’s past, he’d be the Coen Brothers. In fact, Extract is a lot like the noted Oscar winners work on films like Raising Arizona and Burn After Reading. Definitely not as stylized, but still treading the same twisted tightrope between authentic and outrageous, Judge lets his actors and his story do most of the selling. When he needs the pratfall or the obvious joke to sell a scene, he handles it with his typically understated aplomb. Most people respond to his movies because the do such a good job of mimicking the realities of contemporary existence. Heck, even in his sci-fi send up, he has the audacity to condemn his audience for enjoying the very braindead diversions that the Idiocracy citizenry thrives on. We may not be a world of power drinks and televised crotch shots quite yet, but we’re definitely damn close.

And that’s another confusing aspect to Judge’s moviemaking motives. He’s a social satirist, Will Rodgers without all the “Aw Shucks” barbs or Mort Saul minus the polished political rants. That he focuses on the less obvious aspects of the condition – cubicle Hell in a soulless corporate combine, the fake fun flippancy of the chain restaurant experience, the everyday ennui of the factory line worker – doesn’t lessen his observational impact. It’s not just that he understands the situations he’s highlighting. Like John Hughes and teenagers, Judge is a man of the little people, a participant in the process as well as a documenter of its deadening properties. Office Space is certainly a very funny film, and no one would deny Idiocracy‘s outrageous laughs. But as Extract illustrates, the deeper Judge digs, the more laughs he manages to milk out of the truth.

Which again raises the question – what’s gone wrong? Why have none of his films (and there is ever indication that his latest, no matter how strong or celebrated, is headed for the same fate) become the big mainstream hits that a massive second life on home video suggests they could be. Well, if comedy is timing, Judge has had some very bad temporal luck. Office Space came out in February of 1999, not necessarily the strongest time of the year for a proposed theatrical blockbusters. Fox also marketed the film poorly, focusing on Judge’s past as the papa of Beavis and Butthead, not the creator of a subtle and slightly deadpan look at dead end careerism. Anyone going in expecting extended dick jokes was in for a substantial shock indeed.

Similarly, Idiocracy was mangled horribly when poor test screenings suggested it would flop outright. Fox (again) pulled out of the post-production, leaving Judge to rely on pal Robert Rodriguez to finish up the F/X for the film. With his vision substantially undermined and absolutely no publicity from the studio, the movie had little or no chance of succeeding. That Judge was also attacking Middle America mainstays like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and other noted corporate giants couldn’t have helped. Surely, a major show business player like Rupert Murdock wasn’t about to insult the very businesses that provide him with untold millions in advertising dollars. Between Judge and his targets, the cash rich objectives won out.

2006 also saw the subject of dysgenics (defined as “the study of factors producing the accumulation and perpetuation of defective or disadvantageous genes and traits in offspring in a particular population or species”) batted around in conversations condemning reality TV and broadcast affronts like The Jerry Springer Show. The media was being blamed for everything from violent youth to lower test scores, with scholars suggesting that, unless something changed, things would only get worse. At that point, Judge should have been seen as topical. Instead, the controversial nature of the concept and its inherent insulting of the determined demographic made such a brave stance seem antithetical to Idiocracy‘s entertainment value. It really did take a lot of guts to call your viewers “rock stupid” to their faces.

Extract may change all that. Sure, September is still a standard dumping ground for films the studios don’t think will do all that well, and this genial little comedy faces one of the biggest hurdles ever in the current cinematic state – Judd Apatow. Indeed, when one thinks of the kind of films that audiences have flocked to over the last three years, the penis obsessed offerings of Mr. 40 Year Old Virgin and his minions dot the internal landscape. Judge’s work is the polar opposite of something like Superbad, a film framed almost exclusively out of scatology and shrill self-abuse. And again, he is trying to make people, not penises, the reason for all the laughter. Thanks to some glorified geek love (Harry Knowles and his minions have been all over this title for months), Extract could have a chance to doing something Judge’s other work hasn’t – that is, work at the box office.

But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean Mike Judge is some kind of no talent pariah. He just hasn’t been blessed with the best luck in the world. Even his most recent TV series, ABC’s The Goode Family, was cancelled after a lack luster effort by the network to promote it over the summer (answer honestly – did you even know it was on? Neither did we…). Apparently, unless he’s dealing with Texas rednecks or stunted suburban youth, he’s destined to be dismissed – and as the ever increasing popularity of his other works indicate, he doesn’t deserve to be. Sometime in the future of filmmaking, when the big book of cinematic history is crafted, this phase of Judge’s career will either be a minor footnote in his established greatness, or the main theme of a career misunderstood. Here’s hoping for the former.