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Kumail Nanjiani and the impossible-to-top satire of Idiocracy

The Eternals and Silicon Valley star joins Galaxy Brains to talk about a movie that got too many things right

Graphic featuring a photo of Kumail Nanjiani and a still from the film “Idiocracy” Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Idiocracy, King of the Hill creator Mike Judge’s comedy about an unassuming man from 2005 waking up to a future where the average IQ is approaching single digits. The film was Judge’s follow-up to the cult classic Office Space, but was dumped into less than 200 theaters when it was released in 2006. When re-watching the movie today, you can see why the studio executives at 20th Century Fox might not have been thrilled to be associated with it. Its view of the world is caustic, scabrous, and profane.

Judge pulls no punches when it comes to his contempt for rampant consumerism and willful ignorance. The world of Idiocracy is one in which the most popular movie is a feature-length examination of a man’s ass, Carl’s Jr. arrests you if you can’t pay, and the President of the United States is an ex-pro wrestler who waters crops with a version of Gatorade. Not exactly a four-quadrant blockbuster.

And yet, Idiocracy became yet another beloved cult movie in Mike Judge’s canon, even more so in the last decade, as the world crept ever closer to realizing his prophetic vision of a society without empathy.

This week’s episode of Galaxy Brains features my cohost Jonah Ray reuniting with his former Meltdown Show co-host, Academy Award nominee, and one of the stars of Marvel’s Eternals, Kumail Nanjiani. The three of us wax nostalgic about the greatness of Idiocracy and talk about the state of satire in a world where that film feels more and more 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.

For more galaxy braining on Star Wars, Free Guy, The Suicide Squad, the Austin Powers trilogy, and the movie where Vin Diesel plays an angel who drives cars, check out Galaxy Brains wherever you get podcasts.