For a movie that grossed a whopping $444,093 at the box office upon its release, Mike Judge’s Idiocracy has occupied an outsized role in the cultural conversation. Partly that’s because of the charming performances of Maya Rudolph and Luke Wilson, and the over-the-top comedy of Terry Crews and Dax Shepard. The film tells the story of an unexceptional man (Wilson) who finds himself put in deep-freeze and thawed out 500 years too late, in a future where the dumbest people alive have taken over the world–and he’s suddenly the smartest man alive, if only by default. It’s a pretty funny concept, but mostly, Idiocracy endures because a movie about how the world keeps getting dumber seems to resonates with people more and more as time goes on.
That’s come to a head with the 2016 Presidential election, which has seen more than a few parallels between the America of Idiocracy and the real America which one candidate–who, like the film’s President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, is prone to furious outbursts and has a history with pro wrestling–seeks to make great again. And as those parallels have grown undeniable, Judge, working with the Alamo Drafthouse, the movie theaters of the Art House Convergence, and local chapters of the League of Women Voters, is bringing Idiocracy back to the big screen.
The film screens one night only–tonight, October 4th–in 45 theaters around the country. At the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, that screening is joined by special guests: Judge himself, along with Rudolph, where they’ll be participating in a post-screening conversation about the film. As theatergoers prepare to revisit Judge’s parable about what happens in a dumbed-down future, we caught up with him to learn what inspired Idiocracy, how the current anti-intellectual strain in America reminds him of junior high, and why he sometimes wishes he had just released a movie called Ass instead.
The screenings are billed as the 10th anniversary event, but it feels like the screening is less about celebrating ten years since the movie came out, and more like, “Man, this really close to home this election.” Is that how the screening came about? Yeah, actually, the fact that it’s been ten years was almost an afterthought. I ran into Maya Rudolph back in March, and she was talking about doing something with it around the election. And for the last year, it’s just been building more and more–all day, I get comments on Twitter. It’s not just the election, but other weird similarities popping up all over the place. Carl’s Jr. specifically saying they’re going to have an all-automated store [editor’s note: Carl’s Jr. reached out to indicate that they’ve never discussed this, while McDonald’s has been pursuing the idea], and the fellatio cafe in Switzerland opening with lattes and, you know, sexual favors. It’s kind of scary, but yeah, we might be having this some kind of screening of it anyway. Even if it was 11 years.
What do you think you would have to do differently if Idiocracy were made today? Boy, oh boy. I mean, I guess there are things I didn’t exaggerate nearly enough. Occasionally I’ll get ideas, but yeah–if I made it now it seems like it would be optimistic to think there’ll even be a country in 500 years. I guess the Earth would be completely wasted, and there’d be some people living in a bubble on Mars as the last colony of humans.
What’s it like for a movie that didn’t do well theatrically to take on a second life that’s got a sharper edge than even the second life than Office Space got? You know, Office Space becoming popular after it didn’t initially do well was a very sweet success. This one, it’s not all that sweet because the success is maybe partly because the world is getting bad. But it is nice. Office Space was given a chance in the theaters, and it didn’t do that well—it didn’t do horribly, but it didn’t do great. This wasn’t given a chance at all. So it’s really nice to see it getting attention, although it’s usually the tension is more just about how dumb things are getting in mainstream politics. So it’s all very surreal.
Do you think that part of the reason why people are latching on to the film is that it gives us a framework to understand that phenomenon? I think it gives you a go-to, one-word buzzword to sum all this up. I don’t know how much of it is people actually liking the movie, or the concept of it. It’s hard to tell. But it’s been playing for years on Comedy Central and Showtime and HBO and all these places, so I think people must like the movie.
There was a thing with Office Space where people connected with it because it told people whose lives looked like that that it was okay to feel like their jobs were depressing. Is that something that you see here, where people watch it and they’re like, “Oh, it’s not just me.” Yeah, I think that might be true. When I had the idea for this way back, I think in 1995, it was when I was writing the Beavis and Butthead movie, but when I really decided to try to write it it was in 2001 when I was standing in line with my daughters, who were little at the time, at the Teacups ride at Disneyland. These two mothers with kids in strollers started yelling at each other, and saying ‘bitch,’ and all kinds of expletives. They were about to fight. And I was just looking around and just thinking, ‘God, this is not the way Disney imagined it being. Sometimes I get from people that they would see the movie and go to the parking lot, and go, ‘Oh well…’ and feeling like there’s sort of an anti-intellectual thing happening. I have heard that from friends, and just anecdotally from people.
There are coincidences like the Carl’s Jr. opening an automated restaurant, or the fact that both your president and Donald Trump have a history with pro wrestling. But the anti-intellectualism in the movie feels more salient at a time where Hillary Clinton gets criticized for being “over-prepared” for a Presidential debate. Is that one of the more pointed elements of the film for you? Oh, yeah. The way I sort of imagined that was that I kind of took my junior high school experience. I remember in junior high, the math teacher was really disappointed in the test scores, and just saying, ‘The only person who got them all right was Mike Judge here.’ And then these guys turned around, like, ‘We’re going to beat the shit out of you after class.’ And I literally had to run and hide. And they said ‘Fag.’ Because I’d gotten everything right on a math test. So I was kind of imagining my junior high taking over the world. You can definitely see that, even on both sides. I’ve heard that clip of Glenn Beck talking about how evolution can’t be real because it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s sort of like the people who failed biology class taking over. But then, I’ve since heard people on the environmentalist side that just don’t seem to want to hear anything about science that isn’t what they agree with. I was touring with this kind of hippie school, I guess you could say, in Malibu a few years ago, and the guy was talking about how, you know, instead of teaching kids geometry we have them build a bird house and he said geometry was such disdain. It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re not going to make your kids suffer through math the way your teachers did. It’s like, finally, all the people that failed math are going to take over the school and do it right.
The movie talks a lot about politics, but it also goes into entertainment. And it seems like “Ow, My Balls” is something that could be popular on YouTube right now. I’ve got to admit, it’s not like I’m above that. I’m the Beavis & Butthead guy. We probably could’ve done better than that. The “Ass” movie was kind of, to me, distilling everything down to the basics. And that the funny thing is, we you know we had a theater full of people that we’d recruited, and we had actually shot that ass and we put it up there, and it was getting huge laughs. And at some point I just thought ‘What are we doing? We should just release ‘Ass’ and stop wasting all this time for a story and stuff,’ since it was literally getting huge laughs.
It sounds like even as you were making the movie, you were seeing these parallels. You want another crazy thing? The wardrobe had to be something that’s not around now. It had to be created for a lot of extras, and so you know our wardrobe person was looking for ways to make the budget work. And Crocs were not out in the world yet. They were just a small startup at the time. We shot in 2004, so no one was wearing Crocs. And she showed me these things, and I thought, ‘Oh those are great, just stupid plastic shoes.’ And I said to her, ‘But you actually bought these, you can order these. What if by the time the movie comes out, these things are everywhere, and it doesn’t look like we’re set in the future?’ And she said, ‘Oh no, that’s never going to happen. And sure enough, by the time it comes out two years later, everyone is wearing Crocs. So it already started coming true even faster than we made the movie, really.
We live in polarized times, which means that for every ‘Idiocracy is a documentary!’ take that goes around, there’s also a critique that argues that Idiocracy is a celebration of eugenics. Have you thought about that interpretation of it? Well, yeah. I mean I’ve actually read that a couple of times. But to me, I thought the opening made it very clear that whatever side you take, nature and nurture are both covered in that. That guy is clearly not a good father. I mean, there’s a kid with a motorcycle in the front yard, and no one’s paying attention to this. He’s just irresponsibly knocking up different woman, and proud of it. It’s not like he’s a good, upstanding role model for the kid. So I think it’s pretty clear here that, whichever one it is, [nature or nurture], there’s some combination of both. I obviously don’t believe in eugenics. I think you could look at it both ways—you have this couple that’s trying to be so responsible that they end up never having kids. Then there’s another couple who just irresponsibly keeps having them and not raising them right. So, you know, if the other couple adopted the other kids. I’m sure they would probably be better off.