In a button-down office tower in L.A.’s Century City, King of the Hill‘s incongruously slacker-heavy creative team is running through a script for next season. Cocreators Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head) and Greg Daniels (The Simpsons) sit anonymously among the T-shirted writers of Fox’s dryly humorous, animated saga of plain ol’ Texas folk. Although Judge usually joins these sessions via video linkup from his Austin studio (staying close to home keeps him in touch with the material), today he’s appearing live. And as he pores over the script, brow in hand, the 34-year-old Judge looks about as beleaguered as Hank Hill, a character he also voices. In the scene they’re tackling, Hank is scolding his son, Bobby, for blurting out a Weird Al-style song parody in class. Judge gets a big laugh as soon as he rumbles into character — ”Son, Al Yankovic blew his brains out in the late ’80s after people stopped buying his records. He’s not worth getting in trouble over” — but sheesh, the guy seems so serious.
Similarly, the soft-spoken Daniels, 33, is still fretting on the following Monday; although the episode sounded solid enough to the casual listener, he’s concerned that it lacks emotional resonance. ”Like last night’s episode with Peggy and the Boggle tournament in Dallas, where Hank comes back from the mower show to coach her,” he explains. ”We didn’t want people just to intellectually say, ‘Oh, he came back.’ We want them to say, ‘Awwwwwww, he came back!”’ Comedy, as they say, is hard. But animation? It’s a bitch.
Hank Hill and his family took Sunday by storm in January when they moved into the 8:30 slot following The Simpsons. There’s nothing flashy or sitcom zany about Hank; he’s just your average wholesaler of propane (and propane accessories), trying to get past his tighty-whitey conservative befuddlement to be supportive of his wife, Peggy, and their endearingly awkward 12-year-old, Bobby. Still, this low-key approach is reaping big rewards for Fox: Not only is King the first show to sustain The Simpsons‘ lead-in numbers, it surpasses them. In fact, since debuting, King‘s average Nielsen ranking has been in the top 25 (versus The Simpsons‘ season average of 34), making it the only mid-season replacement on a broadcast net — short of the lucky few that coast in NBC’s Thursday slots — to qualify as a certifiable home run.
But that’s the small picture. Fox’s twin killing also marks the first time that a pair of prime-time animated series have been so successful simultaneously. And they are just the crest of an unprecedented wave of adult-oriented animation now washing over the pop-culture landscape. For starters, consider Beavis and Butt-head. Their surprise smash movie — released last December — ended up earning $62.8 million at the box office. And in March, MTV deftly spun off Beavis bit player Daria Morgendorffer. Currently, Daria averages 751,000 viewers, making the sardonic upstart one of MTV’s highest-rated shows. Huh-huh, indeed.