We're sitting in Mike Judge's office on MLK, waiting for the phone
to ring. I'm hanging with Johnny Hardwick, the former Austin comic who plays Dale,
the conspiracy nut, on Fox's wildly popular animated show, King of the Hill.
Hardwick, who now resides in Venice Beach, California, is taking a few days off from
the frantic pace of network television and kicking back in Austin. Today, however,
he's scheduled to do a "table-read," which is a final rehearsal before
a script is actually recorded. The read is scheduled for noon, but comedian Paul
Rodriguez (a guest voice on this episode) is running late. Judge, who created King
of the Hill with Greg Daniels, is waiting in Fox's L.A. studio with the rest
of the KOTH cast.
While Hardwick thumbs through his script, laughing out loud every few seconds,
I peruse the inner sanctum of the man who first breathed life into Beavis and
Butt-head. The walls are lined with color animation stills of teen-aged America's
favorite role models, their hyperactive hijinks frozen in time. Piles of folders
litter the floor. The top folder on one stack reads, "New skin color variations
and close-up head samples for color xeroxes." Uh, huh-huh, like, cool! Finally,
the phone rings and everyone greets Johnny. Toby Huss, who plays Hank's Asian neighbor
Khan, announces that he's in Iowa. "My sister's getting married."
A voice on the line pipes up, "Who's she marrying, your brother?"
A huge swell of laughter erupts over the phone. There must be 20 people in the
studio. Hardwick later explains that the network sends a bunch of people to the table-reads
to act as joke barometers. If certain parts of the script fail to get laughs, they
are usually reworked before the final version is recorded.
Things settle down and the read begins. This particular episode focuses on a Hill
family vacation in Mexico. Much of the humor is based on typical American misconceptions
about foreign countries. "How are you supposed to relax," moans Hank, "when
you don't know how much anything costs or weighs?"
Hank Hill (played by Judge) is a sort of Everydad, obtuse but lovable, anal-retentive
about the most inconsequential details. He measures his grass when he's finished
mowing it to make sure it's perfectly symmetrical; after all, neighborhood competition
in the lawn department is fierce and unforgiving. Every tool has its proper place,
and Hank suffers greatly whenever his orderly world is disrupted. His simple family
and quirky neighbors present constant challenges to his intricate organization, and
therein lie the conflicts and foibles that make up life in the little town of Arlen,
Part of the ironic genius of the show is the accuracy and truth of the writing,
which renders the cartoon characters more life-like and real than most of the actors
on regular sitcoms. We laugh at the familiar, and everyone knows family members or
neighbors like the citizens of Arlen. But what really makes this sharp-edged suburban
satire work is the empathy one feels for the characters. Even when you're laughing
at Hank Hill, somehow you're laughing with him as well.
Johnny and I take a late lunch after the table-read. I'm delighted to observe
that Hollywood hasn't changed Hardwick at all. Dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and faded
Chuck Taylors, he's the same old Austin slacker I met when I first started doing
comedy at the Velveeta. Johnny's a soft-spoken guy, quick to smile, with a mischievous
gleam in his eyes and crow's feet wrinkles that permanently mark a man who spends
his life laughing.
"Thank god I work on King of the Hill," he says, "because
everybody on the show is pretty well grounded in reality. Out in L.A. everybody's
ego-driven; all they talk about is show biz. It's great working with Mike and Greg
because they aren't your typical ego-driven, maniacal, grotesque Hollywood monsters."
(I found proof of this statement in Mike Judge's bathroom; his platinum album for
The Beavis and Butt-head Experience is ceremoniously hung above the crapper!)
Hardwick's laid-back attitude and ability to keep an even keel are a large part
of his success. Though it's been less than 10 years since he told his first joke
on stage at the Dallas Improv, Hardwick has accomplished more than most comics dream
of in a lifetime. Along with local comics Laura House, Howard Kremer, and Chip, Hardwick
was tapped by MTV to star in Austin Stories. That was three years ago, and
when the show seemed to falter and die, Hardwick kept rolling without looking back.
(Incidentally, MTV's Austin Stories is in full swing production here in town.
Look for the first episode to air in September.)
A showcase at the Velveeta landed Hardwick a berth at the prestigious Montreal
comedy festival in 1995. Brandon Tartikoff of NBC saw Hardwick there and absolutely
loved his stuff. Tartikoff offered him a development deal and, once again, it appeared
that Hardwick's ship had come in.
"We had like one meeting, and Tartikoff says, `We're so excited; we're going
to build a sitcom around you. What kind of show do you see, what do you like?' And
I said, `Green Acres and Get A Life, the Chris Elliott show.' And that
was the only meeting they ever had with me. I'm not sure they were impressed with
Though Hardwick's NBC sitcom never happened, he did sign with the high-profile
Strauss-McGarr agency, the same agency that represented the legendary Bill Hicks
in the latter part of his career. Duncan Strauss and Colleen McGarr kept Hardwick
busy after Montreal, and he shuttled back and forth between Austin and Los Angeles.
The constant standup showcases eventually paid off.
"I was doing a set at the Laff Factory in L.A. and Greg Daniels saw me. I
was talking about my dad yelling about the air conditioning, `Shut the door! You're
air conditioning the entire state of Texas!' Apparently that reminded him of Hank
"I remember he showed me his diary from when he saw me. It said, `Johnny
Hardwick,' and scribbled next to it, `Obviously not his real name.' I guess he thought
I was trying to be a porn star or something."
"So they asked you to be on the show?"
"Well, they hired me as a writer. I was [in L.A.] interviewing with Greg
and he said, `Okay, you've got the job. When can you be out here?' and I said, `When
do you want me out here?' `Five days?' So I drove my truck back here, which was a
two-day process, and packed up everything I could fit in my truck and gave the rest
away, and drove back out there. I literally started work there the day my development
deal with Brandon Tartikoff ended. I had had a nine-month development deal which,
if they had picked up the option, would have prevented me from doing King of the
Hardwick is a firm believer in the notion that everything happens for a reason.
Not content to merely write for the show, he decided to try for an acting role. "Mike
had written a pilot and I really liked the character Dale, because I had, like, a
UFO Web page and everything. I thought, hey, that guy's pretty cool. It was a rather
grueling audition process. It took about three weeks and they looked at 53 people.
The first time I didn't really have it. I told the casting director, Julie Mossberg,
`Ah, that wasn't quite it.' So I went home and got the picture of Dale and just started
staring at it. He sort of reminded me of William S. Burroughs, actually. So I listened
to some William S. Burroughs. One thing that's good is that I'm really lousy at impressions
so I can just do my impression of someone and it sounds like a completely made-up
character. They called me back a few times and I ended up getting the part."
Because he plays a dual role of writer and actor, Hardwick rarely gets a break
from the show. The complexities of animation require eight or nine months of preparation
for each episode, so the cast and crew must work at a feverish pace to fulfill their
24 shows-per-season contract. Just getting a script written and recorded is an epic
journey. Story ideas are formulated and pitched to Judge or Daniels, who must then
pitch the ideas to the network. Once an idea is approved, the team of 12-15 writers
goes to work. Round after round of writing, editing, revising, and jokes, jokes,
jokes, go into each script. The table-read is the final test for a script. After
the table-read, the team has only a couple of days for last-minute revisions before
"The way we record the show is like an old radio show. It's in the basement
of the Zanuck theater and they put seven or eight mikes in a semicircle and we record
the show scene by scene. There's a lot of back and forth between the actors, almost
like a radio play. That part is really fun. Everyone in the cast is just great, real
fun to work with."
But the recording, as Hardwick explains, is just the beginning. "Once it's
recorded and edited together, they send it to Film Roman where they put together
an `animatic,' which is a kind of line drawing version of the episode. It's real
crude, but it's done according to the soundtrack. Then they send the animatic off
to Korea where they turn it into a color movie."
"Korea!" I blurt. "What, they have little
12-year-old kids in sweatshops coloring in frames?"
Hardwick laughs and screams into the tape recorder, "No! No! Nothing like
that! Of course not! This is not a Kathie Lee Gifford situation here!
"Actually, it's some place they found for The Simpsons. They're just
very skilled at the process. But they're not always perfect when they come back.
Sometimes there are communication problems where the wrong character is saying lines
When that happens, last-minute edits and things can be taken care of in L.A. But
the length of time between a finished script and a finished product presents problems
for the writers. "Like three weeks ago we recorded the Valentine's Day show,"
Hardwick says. "You can't do really juicy, topical humor because it will be
old by the time the show airs."
King of the Hill fans can look for a killer season in the fall. Hardwick
penned an episode in which the members of Green Day will be playing a garage band
that moves into a house near the Hills; an all-out paintball war ensues. Other episodes
will feature guest stars like Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, and Olympic hero Kerri
Strug. And be sure not to miss Chris Rock's appearance as a "def" defensive
driving instructor: "His name was supposed to be Busta Nut, but we ended up
having to call him Booty Sack. The network censors said that `Busta Nut' was an `urban
term for ejaculation.'" Censors never sleep.
Hardwick says he misses the Austin lifestyle, but the success of King of the
Hill will probably keep him in California for quite some time. When you combine
the talents of Judge and Daniels, a stellar cast and writing team, and a time slot
between The Simpsons and The X-Files, there's not a lot that can push
you off the top of the hill. Besides, Hardwick has noticed nefarious elements creeping
"When I moved here I could rollerblade down Sixth Street with a beer in my
hand that I had bought out of a window for a dollar, smoking a joint, it was great.
Now all of those things are illegal! And the bike helmet law is total fascism! I
mean, a $50 fine for riding without a helmet? That's more than a helmet costs. The
punishment doesn't fit the crime."
No, Dale, it doesn't. In fact, it sounds like a damn conspiracy!