Mike Judge knows a good story. That’s one of the reasons King of the Hill charmed us for so many years—unlike most of Fox’s cartoons, its humor was grounded in naturalistic storytelling that grew out of a firm grasp on its characters and setting. It was more lifelike than most live action sitcoms. Mike Judge also knows that nobody tells or lives better stories than old country musicians. That’s the basis of his excellent new Cinemax show, Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus, where road stories about country legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Tammy Wynette are turned into hilarious (and sometimes frightening) cartoons that reveal the unbelievable debauchery behind some of the biggest names in the genre.
Most of the subjects of the first season’s six episodes are no longer with us. (Of the six highlighted musicians, only Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Joe Shaver survive.) The show turns to backup musicians, managers and personal friends for its stories, using a rotoscoping technique to animate them in a style that recalls Judge’s work on King of the Hill and Beavis & Butthead. The animators take some artistic license with the visuals during the most egregious stories of drug and alcohol abuse, but for the most part they strive for realism. That highlights the ridiculousness of the absurd, whiskey-soaked tales shared by gleeful octogenarian bassists and tour managers.
There’s a little bit of shame involved when you laugh at a story about a drugged up madman firing a machine gun into the wall to wake up his party guests, or about a severe alcoholic riding a horse and a lawnmower into town to get drunk when his wife throws away his car keys. These were deeply troubled individuals who regularly engaged in inhuman, illegal behavior. It’s hard not to laugh, though, especially when kindly animated grandparents are guffawing their way through these sad, dark stories. When Johnny Paycheck’s tour manager laughingly talks about the night he shot a bus driver who wouldn’t pull over so Paycheck could get a double cheeseburger, you’ll be struck by almost simultaneous waves of shock, skepticism and instinctual, uncontrollable laughter.
The MVPs of the show so far have to be the Adams brothers. Don, Gary and Arnie Adams grew up with Johnny Paycheck and played with him off and on throughout his life. They also backed up George Jones early in his career, and they have amazing stories about both men. In animated form they look like they could be Hank Hill’s elderly neighbors, three amiable, avuncular Southerners who remain in constant good cheer even as their stories turn more and more depraved. Every story they tell, from bar brawls to stolen cars to drunken disappearances, arrive with a smile and hearty laughter. It’s some of the darkest comedy on TV right now, and it’s delivered by three smiling brothers who look like they could be deacons at your parents’ church.
It’s likely that the Adams brothers and others are exaggerating or outright lying, that time and storytelling flair have conspired to embellish their road stories. Every episode begins with a disclaimer that most of these tales can’t be verified today. Some of them are already well-known by fans, though, particularly the violence, substance abuse and pedophiliac incest of the Jerry Lee Lewis episode. It’s not really a problem if the specifics are amplified, though. These six performers aren’t really people anymore. They’re legends, modern mythological figures, and stories of their unnatural appetites and actions fit their iconic stature. Jones and Lewis aren’t legends just because of their amazing music and genre-defining talent; they’ve long been symbols of passion and excess, of poor country folk feasting too ravenously on the American Dream once their innate talent brought them the riches their families could only dream of. They’re all fundamentally tragic in their own way, as most lives are. Judge’s show captures all of this—their humanity, their larger-than-life presence, the inherent absurdity of celebrity and godlike talent—with humor and humility.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.