Mike Judge might know that, even with all of his culturally influential television and film projects over the years, his only Primetime Emmy Award win out of a sea of nominations was for King of the Hill. What even this caliber of fan might not know, however, is that Judge is a card-carrying member of the scientific community.
Long before Judge’s creations—Beavis and Butthead, Office Space, and Silicon Valley to name a few—ever entered the zeitgeist, Judge himself entered the world as the second of three children born to archaeologist Jim Judge and librarian Margaret Blue. His father also worked for a nonprofit organization focusing on agricultural development in Ecuador, where Judge spent his earliest years. It was during those years, and his childhood in Albuquerque, that Judge and his brother Jay first dreamed up the colorful characters he’d become known for, some of which were based on real people they knew personally. One such character was based partially on Judge’s college physics professor, a man who would play a pivotal role in Judge’s artistic career as well as his academic one.
In 1986, Judge graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He used the skills he developed in college to land jobs first at Support Systems Associates Incorporated and then at Parallax Graphics, which made hardware interface cards for early high-resolution screens. If Judge had stuck with that company instead of quitting to play bass for a touring blues band, we may never have experienced the wealth of comedic content he would eventually develop.
His time in the band took Judge to Dallas, where he enrolled in graduate math classes at the University of Texas at Dallas, while also dabbling in animation. It was this early experimentation with animation that led to the first iteration of Office Space—a.k.a. the Milton series of shorts—and firmly set Judge on the creative path:
“I really felt alive,” Judge said. “Especially when I first got film back from the lab and put it in the projector and saw that it looked like a cartoon.”
Despite his successes in the TV and film industry, and the decision to move away from a career in the sciences, Judge didn’t forget his alma mater. In 2009, he returned to UCSD as a keynote speaker for the school’s graduation ceremony. He stressed that just because academic and workplace superiors might have a certain path in mind for you, that doesn’t mean it’s the best one:
They pounded into us that if everyone would just get a degree in science, it would solve all the world’s problems … But if you’re doing something you like, and you know what you want, you have a passion, you’ll have that to guide you.
During a Q&A from that event, Judge also spoke in no uncertain terms about how his foundation in science still serves a function his creative life:
I don’t think you need to know physics to do animation, but there is a thing called squash and stretch that you do in animation — because the physics don’t look right. In a weird way, there is some physics of motion in animation. In thermodynamics, you learn probability and statistics and, so, sometimes when the studio is trying to pull one over on me about the statistics of a test screening etc. I can just lecture them on how it really is and how unscientific they’re being.
Judge is a fantastic case to show how a scientific education helps to inform the way we approach challenges and how we view the world, even if the specific science of study has little to do with our day-to-day job. You can clearly see science’s influence in Judge’s work; he shines a light on the dangers of its absence in Idiocracy, and mines comedy from its painfully awkward side in Silicon Valley. Despite his frustrations with engineers and the tech world at large, it was worth it to see those formative experiences turned into a wealth of hilarity for generations of audiences to enjoy.
Now that you know Mike Judge is a member of the Secret Science Nerds, who would you like us to profile next? Let us know in the comments below!
Featured Image: HBO