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From Physics Degree to Hollywood Success
Filmmaker Mike Judge outlines ‘crooked path’ to fame as keynote speaker at All Campus Graduation Celebration

Ioana Patringenaru | June 15, 2009

How do you go from earning a degree in physics to becoming a successful filmmaker and the creator of cult animated TV series? How do you find your passion? And how to do you get a job in this economy anyway?

These were some of the questions that filmmaker and UC San Diego alumnus Mike Judge tried to answer Friday during the All Campus Graduation Celebration on RIMAC Field, where he served as the keynote speaker. Judge, who graduated from UCSD in 1985 with a bachelor’s in physics, spoke to more than 1,200 students and their parents, as well as staff members and alumni.

“I’ll tell you a quick version of the humble story of my crooked path,” Judge said. “Hopefully, there will be a lesson in there somewhere.”

The event kicked off a weekend of commencements on campus, including UCSD’s six colleges, the Graduate Studies division, the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and the Rady School of Management.

“This is an exciting time for you—or at least it should be,” Chancellor Marye Anne Fox told the All Campus Graduation audience.

Photo of Chancellor Fox and Mike Judge
Chancellor Marye Anne Fox sought to reassure students about the future.

She sought to reassure students about the future they face in a troubled economy. “You have a UCSD education and that means something,” she said. With such an education, you can do everything you set your mind to, she added, pointing to Judge as a perfect example.

Judge is perhaps best known as the creator of cult movies and TV shows such as “Office Space” and “King of the Hill,” the second-longest running animated show in television history, for which he won an Emmy in 1999. His new film, “Extract,” starring Ben Affleck and Jason Bateman, is due out this fall. Judge first gained recognition for creating the animated series “Beavis and Butt-Head,” one of the most popular programs in the history of MTV.

“I never thought I’d say ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ is the beauty of a UCSD education,” Fox quipped. “But that’s what my script says, so that’s what I’m telling you.”

Photo of UC San Diego Graduation
Students gave Judge a standing ovation Friday.

Friday, Judge resurrected characters from these works during his graduation speech. He opened with Butt-Head’s mutterings, followed by the Texas drawl of Hank Hill, the main character of “King of the Hill,” followed by more mutterings, this time from a character named Boomhauer, one of Hill’s friends. Students cheered loudly and applauded as Judge assumed each persona.

After this impromptu performance, the filmmaker got down to business. “I know that I probably wasn’t asked to speak here because of my political views on the Middle East, or my philosophical contemplations on where the soul ends and man begins,” he joked. Instead, he said, he would try to tell his story and give some helpful hints to graduates about how to fend for themselves in a difficult economy.

Finding a job, finding your passion

Photo of Vice Chancellor Penny Rue
Vice Chancellor Penny Rue also spoke at Friday's event.

There’s nothing wrong with jobs and working for other people, he said. But, Judge warned, bosses will be focused on what’s best for them and for their company “What they don’t know is what’s best for you,” he said. “Only you know that. And whether you’re working for yourself or for someone else, always try to find that and know that.” 

Jobs, as they are defined today, are a fairly new concept, Judge pointed out. For most of humanity’s history, people practiced a trade, such as making furniture or making horseshoes. Business was good or bad, but unemployment was not an issue. “The Vikings didn’t worry about unemployment,” Judge said.

So, perhaps it’s time to revert to that old way of thinking, he said. Find something that people need, or want, and that they are ready to pay for. In Judge’s case, he found that people liked to watch two somewhat idiotic teenagers sitting on a couch and watching bad music videos, he said. Hopefully, graduates will find a higher-minded goal, he added.

“Tough economic times have inspired people to do great things, to be innovative, to start businesses,” he said.

Difficult beginnings

Photo of Senior Shae Lynn Zastrow
Shae Lynn Zastrow received the Outstanding Senior award from A.S. President Donna Bean.

That’s exactly what Judge ended up doing, though it took him a while. He had always dreamed of a career in comedy, he said. He did imitations of his teachers and wanted to make animated films. But he grew up in Albuquerque, N.M. Without connections to show business, he felt there was no way he could succeed.

So, instead, he took the advice of his high-school guidance counselors and other adults around him. “They pounded into us that if everyone would just get a degree in science, it would solve all the world’s problems,” he said.

But after graduating from UCSD in 1985 with a degree in physics, Judge tried his hand at engineering. But he soon discovered he was not cut out for a desk job. He felt that he wasn’t in control of his destiny, he said. He then started playing music full time, while also starting a family. He was living in Dallas.

A life changing moment

Photo of picnic at graduation
Students and their families enjoyed free food and a picnic on the grass after Judge's speech.

Judge then experienced what he describes as a life-changing moment. He went to an animation festival and saw a short made by a local artist, who had some of his artwork on display in the movie theater’s lobby. That got Judge thinking. He always thought that you had to have a lot of money or connections to a studio to make animated shorts. Now, he suddenly realized it was something he could do, right there, in Dallas.

From then on, Judge said he stopped drifting. He knew what he wanted to do and was motivated. “This is probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. He wrote, drew and animated shorts. He called information and got addresses for MTV, Comedy Central and animation festivals. Within a week, Comedy Central called him, as did festivals. He has been making TV series and movies ever since. This somewhat alternative path entails hard work, Judge said.

“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,” he said.

After the speech, several students said they found Judge’s words both entertaining and inspiring. “You have to follow your passion,” said Jack Korpob, a psychology major at Sixth College. “But it’s going to take time.” Vice Chancellor Penny Rue had a similar message for the graduates. “I think you know we expect great things from you,” she said. “But not all at one time.”

Outstanding students

Photo of UCSD graduation
The all-campus event ended with fireworks.

During Friday’s all-campus celebration, officials recognized two students who already have accomplished extraordinary things on campus. Senior Shae Lynn Zastrow has been an advocate for Native American issues and a dedicated mentor to middle and high school students. She received the Outstanding Senior award. Preston Sharp, a graduate student at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, volunteered in the Peace Corps, where he found his passion: international development. He received the Outstanding Graduate Student award.

As a whole, the class of 2009 also deserves recognition for setting a new standard of giving, said Katie Hall, the incoming president of the UCSD Student Foundation. She announced that the class of 2009 had raised more than $15,000—the largest class gift in the campus’ history. The money will go to scholarships. Meanwhile, Chancellor Fox invited graduates to come back to campus next year for the university’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

“This university is part of you and you’re part of this university,” she said.

Bringing UCSD’s best and brightest alumni back to campus is important, said Armin Afsahi, the executive director of the Alumni Assocation. “Every time we do that, we not only celebrate our history, we inspire our future.” he said.


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