Judge rules in favor of ‘King of the Hill’

Sounding like a man desperate to move past his first love affair and on to a different romance, animator Mike Judge wants at least a yearlong, if not a permanent, separation from his controversial and successful MTV cartoon series, “Beavis and Butt-head.” That plan, however, became more complicated earlier this year when his slovenly creations had the audacity to become bona fide box-office stars, thanks to the animated MTV film, “Beavis and Butt-head Do America,” a Paramount release.

When the movie opened to big numbers, MTV immediately began pushing Judge for seconds. He is undeterred, however, saying he wants a long rest before embarking on a film sequel, and wants out of the “Beavis and Butt-head” TV series permanently. With enough episodes for the rest of this year and next season already in the can and his contractual obligations to MTV complete, Judge has repeatedly nixed overtures by the cable network, admitting he has become burned out creating new ideas for the show.

“The thing is, after more than 200 episodes (on TV and the film), it’s nice to take a break from (‘Beavis and Butt-head’),” says Judge. “I’d like to take at least a year off before I did another movie, and I don’t know about doing any more TV with them. It’s hard to keep that 14-year-old sensibility. Plus, it was a rough year trying to do both ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ and ‘King of the Hill’ (for Fox), so I just want a long break from ‘Beavis and Butt-head.’ ”

Instead, his creative juices have been flowing lately into his new animated Fox show, “King of the Hill,” produced with “Simpsons” veteran Greg Daniels. The midseason replacement has thus far garnered substantial ratings for the Fox web. The show, about the adventures of the conservative Hank Hill family in a Texas suburb, has consistently improved on its “Simpsons” lead-in early in its young life, and in fact, premiered in January with a 13.1 rating and 18 share. Airing between “The Simpsons” and the hit drama “The X-Files,” the show is the first Fox program to hold or improve on the “Simpsons” lead-in in all key demos, according to Fox officials.

Freshman Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth, who inked the “Hill” deal with Judge in his former role as president of 20th Century Fox Television, says Fox sorely needed “Hill” to be a hit.

“We want the creative community to know we’re back in the business of creating alternative programming,” says Roth. “We’ve had our greatest success with shows that are bold and daring and this show most embodies that philosophy.”

Birth of brainless duo

While Judge gives credit to David Letterman’s support of “Beavis and Butt-head” for his climb up the Hollywood ladder, his creations also benefited from the midwife skills of Spike Decker, co-founder of the Spike and Mike Animation Festival. Decker and his late partner, Mike Gribble, helped fund Judge back in 1991 when few others were interested, and premiered the debut of the brainless duo, “Frog Baseball.” Decker advised Judge to put the boys in front of a TV as the premise of a new show, something he gleaned from watching Canadian animator Richard Condie’s work.

“Beavis and Butt-head” then caught the attention of MTV and became a breakout hit five years ago. Now, however, Judge wants to move on to less gross pastures by concentrating on “King of the Hill,” using characters created by observing his Texas neighbors and sketching customers at a local Home Depot. To lure the show, Fox gave Judge a budget substantially higher than MTV could offer, and the 34-year-old animator has used that money to upgrade his animation style.

Gromit would approve

Judge infuses his new characters with the type of subtle movements he has long admired in the work of stop-motion legend Nick Park, and he has been known to screen Park’s short, the Oscar-winning “Creature Comforts” (1990), for animators working with him on “King of the Hill.”

“Park bothers to pay attention to little things like a guy clearing his throat or a little pause with an eye line, and allows the characters to breathe,” Judge says. “In a lot of animation, the direction hasn’t gone with natural delivery. From the animators to the actors, they think with cartoons, everything has to be done BIG.”

By financial and creative necessity, Judge, who holds a degree in physics from UC San Diego, has always provided the voices for most of his characters, including “Beavis and Butt-head.” He began voice work even before ever doing his own animation, in fact. Although “Hill” possesses a strong cast, led by Kathy Najimy as Hank Hill’s wife, Peggy, Judge still does the voices of two characters on the show, including Hank Hill.

Labors of love

Wes Archer serves as animation director for “Hill,” but the hands-on Judge plots out every frame himself by hand, including such minute details as where Hank Hill will place his hand in a particular frame, before sending the cartoon off for finishing. Indeed, the animator refuses to even try doing some of his animation with computers. In fact, the Austin resident says the best use of computers for him is for the purpose of video conferencing, so he can remain in Texas most of the time during production of “Hill.”

“I think it makes me more creative living there, staying in one place,” Judge says. “It gets a little freaky to be out (in Los Angeles) for long periods of time.”

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