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A Quirk In Evolution

March 28th, 2010 · 5 Comments

Idiocracy 2006 poster Idiocracy DVD

Idiocracy (2006)
Directed by Mike Judge
Screenplay by Mike Judge & Etan Cohen, story by Mike Judge
Produced by Mike Judge, Elysa Koplovitz
84 minutes

Should I Care?
In a case as mysterious as lightning striking twice, the long awaited follow-up from Austin based animator and filmmaker Mike Judge was wrapped in a blanket and abandoned on a church doorstep by Fox, who committed the same offense on Judge’s previous film. Like Office Space, Idiocracy is an unpolished gem whose cult status has multiplied the more moviegoers find it. Thrusting a regular Jack and Jill from the present into a future where human evolution has regressed to the point where Beavis and Butt-Head would be considered the minds of their time, Judge whips up another potent and laugh-out-loud cultural satire. Its faults are glaring, but Idiocracy is funny, smart, dumb and unnerving all at the same time. Much of its ragged charm is generated by how low Fox set the bar on this film. Considering that its ideal presentation is a living room or laptop computer — where at most you’re investing a couple of bucks and 80 minutes of your time — the studio might have even known what they were doing.

Watching Idiocracy without socks not only boosts its entertainment value, it gives the viewer the ability to pause and process the data mine of comic material hidden in family trees, TV menus and billboards. The film is embarrassingly shy of post-production value, with special effects that look more abandoned than finished, as well as narration that suggests the movie was put in the rearview mirror by all those involved as quickly as possible. Idiocracy almost qualifies as a student thesis, but if that’s the case, this is the most hilarious and intelligently sketched student thesis of all time. Gently mocking the greed and consumption depended on by corporations, Judge avoids a smug or angry tone; like Office Space, his heart lies with the common man. But underneath the sight gags and occasional toilet humor lurks an acidic satire of those further down the evolutionary ladder, too lazy, dumb or irresponsible for planned parenthood and how that — at its most ridiculous extreme — could alter the future.

Idiocracy 2006

So, What’s This About?
In the year 2005, Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is reassigned from an Army library and volunteered for “a human hibernation experiment” in which the military will revive him after one year of cryogenic sleep. Chosen due to his lack of family and how average he is, the army is unable to find a comparable female test subject and selects one from the private sector: Rita (Maya Rudolph), whose pardon for criminal charges and an arrangement with her pimp have secured her cooperation. When the army base is scuttled and replaced by a Fuddrucker’s, Joe and Rita lie dormant until the year 2505, when one of the many mountains of garbage mankind has left to accumulate crumbles. Joe crashes into the living room of Frito Pendejo (Dax Shepard), who we later learn earned his law degree at Costco. While Joe is able to understand everyone — whose English has devolved into a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, street slang and grunts featuring the words “ass” or “shut up” — Joe’s voice strikes those of the future as “pompous and faggy” and provokes them.

Joe discovers that in the future, water has been replaced by a sports drink called Brwando (“The Thirst Mutilator”), a dust bowl has decimated the economy and the number one movie in the country is Ass, which consists of nothing more than 90 minutes of a guy’s naked ass (“It won eight Oscars that year, including Best Screenplay”). Arrested for inability to pay his hospital bill, Joe escapes from prison by notifying a guard that he’s supposed to be getting out. His abnormally high intelligence brings Joe to the attention of President Camacho (Terry Crews), a five-time Ultimate Smackdown champion and porn superstar. Now the smartest man on earth, Joe is named Secretary of the Interior and tasked with fixing the economy in exchange for a full pardon. Employing the help of Tina and Frito, Joe figures out that irrigating crops with Brwando is the cause for the dust bowl. The practice is banned, but when his decision bankrupts Brawndo, Joe is sentenced to “rehabilitation” as the center attraction at a gigantic tractor pull.

Idiocracy 2006 Luke Wilson Maya Rudolph

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Mike Judge was raised in the suburbs of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from UC San Diego in 1985 and embarked on a series of dull engineering jobs. Relocating to Dallas to pursue his musical career as a bass guitar player, Judge’s love for animation led him to create a two-minute short; titled Office Space, it featured a neurotic paper pusher named Milton being tormented by his smarmy boss. Office Space was screened at Animation Celebration, which was being held that year in Dallas. Judge’s work began appearing on MTV’s Liquid Television, which launched another animated short Judge had come up with titled Beavis and Butt-Head into its own program. The mega success of the show — vilified by pundits as everything dumb about TV and praised by David Letterman, Stephen King and others as anything but — led to a hugely successful animated film released in 1996, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America.

A live action version of Office Space written and directed by Judge was ignored in theaters, building a big cult following on DVD instead. Convinced that a high concept idea was needed to go over well at the box office, Judge came back with a sci-fi comedy titled 3001. Written with a gofer turned writer on Beavis and Butt-Head named Etan Cohen, Fox agreed to bankroll Judge’s next film at a budget of roughly $30 million. Shooting commenced at Austin Studios in May 2004, with Judge and Elysa Koplovitz — former VP of MTV Films who’d worked on the Beavis and Butt-Head feature — producing under Judge’s Austin-based Ternion banner. Once 3001 went before test audiences, the lukewarm response failed to garner the financial support from Fox to properly finish the film, which was shelved. Discarded into a handful of U.S. cities in September 2006 without any promotional campaign whatsoever, the bizarre saga of Idiocracy remained a mystery until Judge broke his silence during the press junket for Extract three years later.

Idiocracy 2006

How’d They Do It?
Interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross in August 2009, Mike Judge confirmed that the idea for what became Idiocracy began in 1995, while he was writing Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. “I guess I was just thinking about evolution and now that there’s no predators and everybody survives — where would it go? But, so I’d written down something about this idea. And then it was in 2001, I was at Disneyland and I was waiting in line at the Alice In Wonderland ride with my daughter and somebody — or both daughters I guess — and somebody behind me had a stroller and two little kids and her and this other woman with two little kids was passing by. I guess they’d had an altercation and they just start getting in this cussing match with each other, just, you know, ‘bitch’ this. But you know, just yelling and like ‘I’ll kick you ass and I’ll’ and I was just sitting there thinking wow, the Disneyland of that was envisioned, way back in the ’50s and, to right now.”

Judge elaborated in a July 2004 interview with The Dallas Morning News, “There was an article that didn’t get a lot of attention about how the crime-rate drop corresponded to about 17 years after Roe v. Wade. The theory was that a lot of unwanted kids weren’t born who would have been coming of criminal age.” Judge admitted this debate wasn’t one that was necessarily politically correct. “It gets into eugenics. To me, it’s just like all the people on The Jerry Springer Show, who’ve knocked up, like, five girls, and then their sons knocked up five and the responsible people waited to have kids.” Judge turned to Etan Cohen, who’d spent his term at Harvard pursuing a degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and writing for Beavis and Butt-Head, where Cohen started out as a summer gofer his freshman year. Upon graduation in 1997, Cohen moved to Los Angeles and landed a job on the ABC sitcom It’s Like, You Know before joining the writing staff of Judge’s award winning animated series for Fox, King of the Hill.

Idiocracy 2006 Luke Wilson Maya Rudolph

Etan Cohen — in a June 2006 interview with Variety — recalled, “Mike called me up and asked me to write Idiocracy — about a man who signs on for a sleep experiment and wakes up 500 years later, but a quirk in evolution has left him the smartest guy on the planet — which was insane. It was almost like film school, except Mike Judge was teaching the class.” Cohen suggested that in five centuries of devolution, the National Art Museum would have morphed into the National Fart Museum. In the world of Judge & Cohen’s script, every available space is covered with advertising — even clothing — while the Secretary of State ends each sentence with “ … brought to you by Carl’s Jr.” because he’s been well compensated. Nurses too dumb to speak diagnose patients with a console where pictures depict various ailments. Cash resembles a hillbilly version of a Master P album cover. Starbucks is still around, but has changed its name to “Starbuck’s Exotic Coffee for Men” to lure more customers.

In a September 2009 interview with Slashfilm, Judge admitted, “I realize that a lot of the things I’m doing don’t fit into the category so easily that people are comfortable with. You know, when we were writing the first draft, we’d start coming up with this stuff. And I think one of the first things that I had written, even when it was a treatment, was the billboard that said, ‘If you don’t smoke Carlton’s, Fuck You.’ Because there’s the billboard: ‘If you smoke, please try Carlton’s.’ So, when I was thinking about this idea, I thought one of the most fun things to do would be the advertising, you know? And when I moved to Austin, maybe a little before I moved to it, I had seen this sign that said, ‘Erotic Tan for Men.’ So, I was like, god, now there are tanning salons that are like, brothels or something. So, I just started thinking what if all these other places started sexualizing things, because people in advertising are always using sex to sell things. There’s already, like, ‘Sexy Scissors’ and Hooters and all of this stuff. And I thought, what if you just cut these people loose and they literally used sex to sell things.”

Idiocracy 2006

Judge continued, “It became really fun to write. And you know, looking back, I can see how it can look like an odd movie to come out of Fox I guess. But you know, they were pretty supportive of it up until the end. They also, they didn’t know how to give notes on something like this.” While Carlton Cigarettes and Wal-Mart did not permit their logos to be lampooned, they were the exception. “And as far as the products stuff, I remember writing it and going, ‘Oh man, there’s no way we’re going to clear all of this stuff.’ And I had a meeting with the lawyers, who were actually really cool and really liked the script. And in the Beavis & Butt-Head movie I couldn’t even have a bottle that was shaped like a Jack Daniel’s bottle. I couldn’t have, there was more, it was just ridiculous on that. But on Idiocracy, when we were talking about Starbucks, the lawyers said, ‘Well, it would help if you didn’t pick on just one company and if you did more than one.’ So, I was like okay, and that’s why there’s the whole red light district with Starbucks and there’s an H&R Block with ‘Tax Return and Relief,’ and all of that. But the other stuff, Carl Jr’s, that was all in the script, and I couldn’t believe it all cleared.”

Once Judge decided to cast Luke Wilson, he rewrote the script with the actor from Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tennenbaums in mind. “Luke is really funny. I think because he’s so good looking, casting people in Hollywood tend to want to put him in boyfriend roles. But he’s really funny. He does really good imitations. He could have been in sketch comedy.” Auditioning performers for the female lead, Judge saw Maya Rudolph and was concerned that the Saturday Night Live cast member might go over the top in a bid for laughs. Rudolph ended up winning the part. “I thought her acting was very much like real movie acting. She definitely gets the big picture. She was really fun to work with and this is her first big part in a movie.” Dax Shepard — from the MTV series Punk’d — wasn’t the physical type Judge was looking for in the part of the dim witted Frito. “I was imagining this big, heavy guy, but it wasn’t working and then Dax came in and read for it. Driving home I was thinking about how funny he was … He has no fear of the camera or of being in a movie. He lets it all hang out in a really funny way.”

Idiocracy 2006 Luke Wilson Dax Shepard

With roughly $30 million in financing from Fox, what was then titled 3001 began shooting May 2004 at Austin Studios. Two still photographs emerged online and as of February, a release date of August 2005 was scheduled. Little was made public about the film, even when it finally escaped into theaters September 2006. There were no trailers, no press junket and no major ad campaign of any kind. There was no mention of Idiocracy on the Fox Movies website and if moviegoers who somehow knew about the film dialed Moviefone for show times, there was no listing for Idiocracy but for something called The Untitled Mike Judge Project. Fox opened Idiocracy in seven cities — Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Toronto — on a limited number of screens. Waiting to see the box office returns before expanding Idiocracy to other markets, the studio never did. Limited to 130 theaters, the new comedy from the creator of Beavis and Butt-Head and Office Space managed $444,093 in the U.S. and $51,210 internationally.

The press began speculating about what had happened. There were several theories. One was that Idiocracy was so awful that no one involved wanted to be associated with it. Mike Judge could not be reached for comment. Publicists for Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph maintained that their clients were unavailable for interviews. In August 2005, a reader giving the name “Delicious” had submitted to the website Ain’t It Cool News a review of a test screening he/she claimed to have attended several months previous. “Not only is it not funny, the acting is atrocious. I’ll give it to Mike Judge for trying something completely different for this movie, trying not to copy Office Space, but man, I can’t see this movie coming out into theatres, if not just straight to DVD.” A self-professed fan of Office Space who’d been looking forward to the screening, the scooper added, “I must also say that I wasn’t alone in the audience I was at. People sitting around us were saying things, and not mincing words, about how bad the movie was. People were actually MAD about seeing a movie that was FREE!”

Idiocracy 2006

Another theory was that Fox buckled under pressure from corporate sponsors. Kim Morgan — a contributor for MSN’s film blog The Hitlist — posted a rave review of Idiocracy on her blog Sunset Gun and speculated the cause of its media blackout.“No one knows for sure, but I’m thinking that attacking Starbucks, Fuddruckers, Carl’s Jr. and Costco had something to do with it. Oh yes, and Fox News, can’t forget that beacon of ‘fair and balanced’ broadcast journalism. Fittingly, this is exactly the kind of DEVO inspired treatment Idiocracy is mocking — that big business rules and there’s very little we can do about it. So, like Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head, his now classic Office Space and his TV Show King of the Hill, Idiocracy (and the predicament it fell into) is both darkly hilarious and deeply sad.” Luke Thompson — who also posted a positive review, for E! Online — told Fishbowl L.A., “It was obvious the studio killed it. Usually, movies that don’t screen for the press are promoted up the wazoo with misleading trailers, posters, etc., but this wasn’t promoted at all. It’s possible Mike Judge or somebody else pissed somebody important off.”

Still another theory was that Judge might have had a dispute with Fox over final cut. In retaliation, the studio might have slashed his post-production budget and dumped the film into theaters to fulfill their contractual obligation. Tim League, founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas in Texas, supported this theory by revealing to the website Cinematical that his exhibition contract only specified Idiocracy be run for one week — two weeks is the standard for a new release — at only a 35% share for Fox, which League considered uncommonly low for what distributors typically ask for in the first two weeks of a major release. He added that in spite of requests he’d fielded from film festivals seeking permission to screen Idiocracy, Fox had apparently turned those requests down. League commented, “I’ve never seen anything like this. A studio releases a movie and then doesn’t want anyone to see it. Marketing it should be a no-brainer, with Mike Judge’s pedigree and Luke Wilson starring.”

Idiocracy 2006 David Herman Anthony Campos Brendan Hill Sara Rue

In a chat with in November 2006, Dax Shepard was stumped about the fate of Idiocracy. “I don’t know. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories surrounding it now, but there are a couple of issues. One is that it tested poorly, and they base all their P&A funds on how well it tests. But what they didn’t step back and think about is that the people who go see a free test screening on a Saturday night are the people being made fun of in the movie, so of course it didn’t test well. And then I think there are also issues with all the corporate attacks and Rupert [Murdoch, founder of News Corp., which owns Fox] being a very immersed guy in the corporate world, globally. That has to do something to do with it.” Shepard added, “The only perplexing thing about the Mike Judge movie is, why did they make it? The ballsy thing, in my opinion, was making the movie. The movie was the script — they knew what it was going to be. I don’t understand them making it in the first place. It doesn’t shock me that they didn’t know how to market it, but I’m shocked they made it.”

Promoting Extract on in September 2009, Judge offered his theory on who or what killed Idiocracy. “I think it was a combination of — I don’t think anyone was out to get me — I think the combination was just kind of incompetence and just not knowing what to do with it. They tried a few ads, it didn’t look very good, and then I think what happened is they said, ‘Okay, Office Space made a lot of money on DVD. Didn’t do a lot at the box office. This is like that, what did we do wrong on Office Space? Well, we spent money promoting it. That was a waste of money because everyone found it on their own anyway, so let’s not spend anything. Let’s not even call Moviefone and give ‘em a title.’” Judge added, “So I just said, well, I’m not going to lift a finger to do any press. I don’t want to talk about it to anybody. ‘Cause I really don’t know why they’re doing this. I don’t own it. It didn’t bug me as much as it does some people because I just kind of, in a way, I ended up getting — without doing any interviews — getting a lot of press about how it didn’t get any press. So maybe it wasn’t a bad idea. I don’t think that was their plan. I don’t think it was a master plan to dump it on purpose. I mean, they did dump it.”

Idiocracy 2006

Where’d You Get All of This?
Beavis Creator Sees a Funny Future and Films It” By Jane Sumner. The Dallas Morning News, 30 July 2004

“Mike Judge Is Getting Screwed (Again)” By Brian Rafferty. Esquire, June 2006

“Etan Cohen” By Steven Kotler. Variety, 22 June 2006

“Sooner or Later, Mike Judge Extracts Success” By Lisa Rosen. The Los Angeles Times, 3 September 2009

“The Mike Judge Interview” By Hunter Stephenson., 9 September 2009

“IndieSeen: Time For Mike Judge To Go Indie” By Jette Kernion. Cinematical, 22 October 2006

“Dax Shepard Ponders Fox’s Idiocracy By Devin Faraci., 15 November 2006

“Mike Judge, Finding A Comic Extract in the Office” By Terry Gross. Fresh Air, 25 August 2009

“Mike Judge talks Office Space, Idiocracy and Extract By Steve Weintraub., 1 September 2009

Tags: Alternate universe · Black comedy · Cult favorite · End of the world · Famous line · Military · Museums and galleries · Prostitute · Shot In Texas

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Wes // Mar 28, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I loved “Idiocracy”, probably because I was cozy in the idea that it was not making fun of “people like me”. Yeah I know how that sounds in our current culture of anti-elitism. When I think of the movie now, my first thought is how many offspring Levi Johnston might produce in his lifetime.

  • 2 Greg F // Mar 28, 2010 at 11:41 am

    If that anonymous test screener was even real then I’d say that says about all we need to know about test screeners. It may not be the greatest comedy in the world but if one find it “unfunny” then he probably should keep his mouth shut when it comes to discussing comedy. The final big joke of the time machine ride with T-Rexes, Charlie Chaplin and the UN is one of the funniest climaxes to a movie I’ve seen in years.

  • 3 AR // Mar 28, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I think I remember reading a couple bad reviews when this came out, but a friend of mine, a fellow Judge fan, liked it, and I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing it at some point.
    “Unpolished gem” beautifully describes a lot of Judge’s work and is actually part of his charm as a writer/director.

  • 4 Jeremy // Mar 29, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Wow Joe,
    What a terrific, fascinating and detailed post. It really makes me want to revisit this film, which I thought was interesting but it didn’t capture me as much as OFFICE SPACE. Great stuff as always…

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Mar 29, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    Wes: Thanks for visiting and for commenting! I think lots of people could watch Idiocracy and not think it’s about them. Then you remember how many times you’ve visited Starbucks, Carls Jr or Costco in the last year, or watched Jackass. Then the movie no longer becomes as funny. I loved it.

    Greg: Test screenings can be valuable depending on who you think your audience is. Iron Man 2 should be test screened because it’s trying to satisfy as many customers as possible, whereas Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coen brothers submitting to that process would be asinine because they’re not making movies for everybody. Idiocracy falls into that latter category. Thanks for commenting!

    Amanda: I also read very fair weather reviews of Extract but you know, I don’t think Mike Judge is making movies to go see opening weekend with a bunch of your friends. If I paid $14 to see Office Space I might have wanted my money back. These are films to be watched in your socks, late at night and given time to play around in your mind. I think they’ll age supremely well. Thanks for commenting!

    Jeremy: Thanks so much for that compliment. Your seal of approval definitely carries its weight in gold. Mike Judge has already had more success than most animators or filmmakers dream of, even if critics might not think to put him shoulder to shoulder with Tim Burton or Brad Bird. Judge is building a terrific body of work though. I’ve been savoring Extract.

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