By Virginia Valenzuela, Arts Editor
It started with frog baseball; two weirdo teenagers playing games out in a desert field, their parents nowhere to be seen, their eyes and mouths glitching out like early 2000’s internet memes. The year was 1992, and newbie animator, professional blues musician, and former engineer Mike Judge had just licensed one of his first cartoons to Liquid Television for $4,000.
Judge loved drawing cartoons, even as a kid, but it was after he went to an animation festival that he was inspired to draw for real. With a 16mm movie camera, some paper, a pencil, and cels, he went to work in his free time. In 1991, he began sending tapes—yes, physical VHS tapes—out to studios to see if anyone would take a bite. Judge’s style was rigid, producing animations that felt hand-drawn and homemade, and his characters were simple on the surface and easy to laugh at. Even the storyline for “Frog Baseball” was nothing complex. And yet, the people at MTV loved it, and knew their viewers would love it as well.
“I wasn’t trying to blow someone away with visuals,” Judge said. “I was going more for character and comedy.” Judge not only wrote and animated the short, but he also did the voices and composed original music for it.
“I’ve always done imitations, and originally wanted to get into sketch comedy, and I almost did that because right as MTV was talking early on about Beavis and Butthead I got an offer from this show, the Edge, and they wanted me to do animated transitions between sketches, and I thought, this was my dream come true.”Mike Judge
That two-minute-long film would eventually turn into one of the most iconic cult classics of the ‘90s, a little show called Beavis and Butthead that still charms audiences today. Sometimes they’d be at school, or skipping school, or watching tv on their nasty couch, commenting how “that sucks” or “that’s cool” in the world around them.
Mike Judge’s work captures moments in time in a way that is approachable, unique, and belly-achingly funny. If it wasn’t helping to spearhead cartoons for adults (did I mention he also created and was a voice actor in King of the Hill?), it was writing and directing cult classics like the 1998 film Office Space, which captured the chaos of cubicle work culture during the internet revolution. Or maybe it was the 2006 hit Idiocracy, which ventured into the apocalyptic future of an America where evolution no longer favors the intelligent, and fast food, guns, pop culture and monster trucks are king. Or, it was satirising the crazy world of Silicon Valley, based on the world Judge saw as an engineer in his early career.
Each of these works has accrued impressive followings and grown better with age. Which is part of why so many people are excited for Judge’s genesis NFT, “Dancing Dan.”
There were cycles of walking, noted Judge, that gave him the idea that doing one of different people dancing would be, as Butthead would say, really cool. The animation—hand-drawn, of course—is of a stumpy man moving his hips to a funky little tune. It is accompanied by original music, a trio of guitar, upright bass and drums, composed and performed by Judge himself.
“When I was a kid, my grandpa would watch Lawrence Welk, which I really hated, and to me it was this old-timey way of dancing, and I really wanted to capture that,” Judge said. “There was also this song that inspired me. I’m a big fan of swing-era music and so I gave him that dorky swing.”
“Dancing Dan” is unique in that it makes the viewer feel nostalgic, but they’re not exactly sure why or what for. It taps into a style of animation that is not aimed at perfection, but rather the unique elements and imperfections that make something or someone a one-of-a-kind, making it a perfect fit for the blockchain.
Judge’s work coincided with a major cultural shift that was brought on by the digital revolution. But even with programs like ProCreate, that make it easier than ever to animate, Judge prefers a pencil and paper and a camera.
“People were worried when CG [computer graphics] came along, that it would ruin traditional animation,” Judge told SuperRare, “and it sort of did, but I’m guessing that when photography came along that people thought painters would be out of jobs. But that’s when great impressionist stuff happened. I think people, even just now, haven’t even scraped the surface of what can happen, just exploring CG. I think this could lead to a new explosion of art and innovation.”
Because when depicting reality is taken care of, it allows artists to look at the world through a different lens, to experiment, to explore.
Judge has been interested in NFTs for years now, and has even spoken at conferences like the Decentralized Web Summit in 2018. “I think NFTs are the next big step towards new artists finding success and connecting with their audiences directly. There aren’t quite as many gatekeepers, and there seems to be a big demand for it. I think it’s going to enable people to share their work in such an effective way.”
The NFT as a medium has also made it possible for artists to create works that, up until recently, did not have a place to be expressed, let alone sold for money. Judge remembered fondly how Chris Prynoski, a fellow animator who worked on the Beavis and Butthead movie, hosted something he called “five second day.” “Animators would submit something that was just five seconds long, and it really inspired people,” said Judge. Which was a relief for creators in an industry that often required each piece, each animation, to have a storyline and character development in order to be considered “finished.”
“Some people say animation is tedious or boring, doing tons of drawings, but for me it is the opposite. To me, illustrating is boring, rather than making something move. And often I’ll have a little idea, a cycle of something.” And now that little cycle can be presented, not as a scrap, but as a fully-formed product.
Judge is full of little ideas, and his work shows how big those little ideas can be. The movie Office Space started out as a little cartoon. Beavis and Butthead started out as a two-minute clip. “Dancing Dan,” and the other dancing characters he has in mind, started out, like so many of Judge’s ideas, as a joke. “Often when I get the urge to draw,” he said, “it’s because I see someone annoying and I am tempted to make fun of them.”
Which is perhaps part of why he has grown so popular and so beloved over the years. Mike Judge is not out to impress anyone, and yet, his satire has left a deep impression on the minds of millions. He’s just a dude with pencil and paper setting out to have a laugh, and inviting us to laugh along with him.