Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s comedy about an unassuming man from 2005 waking up in a future where the average IQ is approaching single digits, is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. When the film was released in 2006, it was Judge’s follow-up to the cult classic Office Space, but it only played in about 200 theatres. Re-watching the film today, it’s easy to see why 20th Century Fox executives were less than pleased to be associated with it. It has a corrosive, scabrous, and profane outlook on the world.
Judge makes no apologies for his contempt for rampant consumerism and willful ignorance. In the world of Idiocracy, the most popular film is a feature-length examination of a man’s ass, Carl’s Jr. arrests you if you don’t pay, and the US President is an ex-pro wrestler who waters crops with a version of Gatorade. This isn’t quite a four-quadrant blockbuster.
Yet, as the world crept closer to realizing Mike Judge’s prophetic vision of a society without empathy, Idiocracy became yet another beloved cult film in Mike Judge’s canon, even more so in the last decade.
My co-host Jonah Ray reunites with his former Meltdown Show co-host, Academy Award nominee, and one of the stars of Marvel’s Eternals, Kumail Nanjiani, on this week’s episode of Galaxy Brains. We wax nostalgic about Idiocracy’s greatness and discuss the state of satire in a world where that film increasingly feels like an unheeded warning.
As usual, this conversation has been edited and condensed to be slightly less weird.
Dave: Does Idiocracy play differently now that we know how bad it can get? Or is it better because of the catharsis of watching a movie during a moment like this in history?
Kumail: For me, it was definitely harder. I just felt a lot more bummed out because I hadn’t seen it in a long time. I loved it. I laughed so much. The movie was actually even better than I remembered it in terms of being a movie. Like, I thought of it as these really funny jokes and moments and an amazing world. All the beats really work. The characters really work. But it did bum me out to watch it. And now, you know, this is pretty close to where we are.
Dave: We don’t quite have Starbucks handing out hand jobs, but we’re getting there.
Jonah: That was maybe the one good thing of that futuristic world, huh?
Kumail: Full release lattes.
Dave: You got to work with Mike Judge on Silicon Valley. What is his approach to satire and why is it so successful? Why is he able to tap into these really resonant themes across multiple different genres? Have you ever figured out what the secret sauce is?
Kumail: He just has a really strong anti-authority streak, and he just thinks that authority is really funny. It’s weird, when you watch this stuff, you think that his animating emotion might be anger, but it’s not. He really thinks this stuff is so stupid. One of my favorite jokes is “Welcome to Costco, I love you.” And to me, that’s perfect Mike Judge, because it really gets to how corporations try and be your friends and people have this brand loyalty. Like, if you go on Twitter now, people feel a kinship with these massive corporations. It’s really fucking bizarre. And it’s gotten so much worse since then. Mike is just really good at figuring out how people interact with bad systems. That’s what Silicon Valley is: a really bad, crazy system and there are people stuck within it. His approach, I think, is really understanding the big corporate systems and having empathy for the people that are stuck in them.
Dave: That’s something that he shares with Charlie Brooker, who also is, I think, one of the better satirists of his time, that empathy, but also that kind of…not anger, but you’re bemused by this. You’re like, why is this like this? You’re asking the question. I don’t think satire is an angry thing. There’s this perception that, oh, you’ve got to be really upset and pissed off to be a good satirical comedian or writer.
Jonah: There has to be a level of condescension, though, right? Sure. If you do parody, you have to love the thing you’re going to parody. If you don’t, it shows and it comes off. I mean, with satire, you have to have a distaste for it. You can’t ultimately love it in the end, right?
Dave: Yeah, you can’t be a fan of the thing that you’re satirizing. Then, there’s no bite to it. I think you’re absolutely right, Jonah. I guess one of the biggest challenges of satire is actually getting your point across and people understanding what you’re trying to say. How do you keep satire funny and interesting and exciting and entertaining while also making sure that your audience doesn’t completely misinterpret what you’re trying to say?
Kumail: I’ve thought about this a lot before, and I think I’ve landed on: It’s not the responsibility of the artist to make sure that the audience gets it. I think all you can do if you’re making satire is make great satire, make your points and do the best you can. Ultimately it’s up to the audience to get it or not. A great example is Fight Club. People watched that movie and thought, “Oh, I should join the fight club?” And that’s exactly the opposite of the point of the movie. I used to get upset at satire that was very easy to misinterpret as supporting the bad thing that the piece of art was satirizing. But now I feel like, you know, it’s sort of the responsibility of the people to understand it. And if they don’t understand it, there’s really only so much the artist can do.