Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996, Mike Judge)

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Even after they gained, in the context of cable television, a Mickey Mouse-like ubiquity, the character designs of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head maintained their sloppiness and sense of aimless menace, like creatures from a Black Flag poster in the early ’80s. Only thing was, that alien nature was part of the joke — the two of them were basically normal suburban adolescents, just not very bright, and the accompanying TV show satirized both the culture of the MTV era through the signals beamed constantly to the pair’s overused set and also the mundane reality of life in the suburbs. No animated show was ever more committed to stringent designs and to never breaking certain barriers; even the loftiest ideas about some scheme whereby Beavis and Butt-head attempted to entertain themselves, like ordering a mail-order bride or visiting the site of a recent murder in their neighborhood, would routinely come crashing down into fiasco and drudgery. Even the episode entitled “Beavis and Butt-head Are Dead,” the series finale, is simply about them skipping school.

Judge never lost sight of the pair’s humanity but also was willing to let their limited scope become the object of ridicule; each time they attempt to flirt with an actual breathing woman, the results are uproarious because we all knew guys like them growing up. (That goes double for their interactions with nearby adult drunk bully Todd and the well-meaning dork Stewart.) That familiarity gives Beavis and Butt-head, the show, a certain edge it still maintains; because it never shed its crowning virtue — realism — it never fell into the crises that befell cartoons before and after it like The Simpsons and South Park. It kept itself devotedly small, meticulously designed, and its humor remained focused on the things the duo — and occasionally, the five or six secondary characters in their orbit — said and did, laced with irony. Almost scientifically, the show was funny because it wasn’t funny: during a Christmas special, Butt-head attempts to query Beavis with a riddle. “Why is Rudolph’s nose red?” There is a pause, Beavis has no answer, so Butt-head concedes. “Because it’s bloody.”

So Beavis and Butt-head, the series, was a frequently brilliant exercise in minimalism; there could be an episode simply about the boys stealing a shopping cart, or one about the pair of them attempting to grow beards by taping hair on their faces, or one in which Beavis takes to wearing an article of roadkill on his head, or — my favorite — the one in which Beavis suddenly believes that he’s pregnant. Because of the show’s glue-sniffing frivolity and depiction of doing basically nothing with one’s life, it was of course cited as a decline of civilization in many quarters, culminating when a young boy — purportedly inspired by Beavis’ obsession with fire — burned down his house with his younger sister inside. MTV responded by moving the show to a later time, which didn’t last.

Despite the accusations leveled at him, which were only a stepping stone between the outrageous histrionics directed at Fox for The Simpsons a few years earlier — it’s hard to remember now, and to understand when actually looking at its early episodes, but in the early ’90s that series was wildly controversial — and the response to Comedy Central’s more directly provocative South Park in 1997, Judge was in fact an intelligent and even somewhat conservative man who had a degree in physics, of all things. Judge’s great skill, shown even more strongly in King of the Hill and in his first few features, is highlighting things that are amusing or odd about people — people who seem distinctly real, as if drawn from life — without mocking those people. The show does let Beavis and Butt-head make constant, oblivious asses of themselves, but it is never hateful or unfair to them — nor are their constant bon mots typically as cruel as you might expect: their misogyny is largely born of cluelessness rather than aggression, which means it’s freely mocked by the show itself, and it’s telling that their utterly juvenile insults don’t incorporate anything homophobic or racially charged. Of course, none of this meant that the entirety of the audience was in on the gag, but if MTV courted addlebrained adolescents for the show, it wasn’t really Judge’s fault.

There will always be a question of whether Beavis and Butt-head was really satire and social criticism, as most serious critics then claimed, or just a commercialized bid to shock a mass audience. Deeper than all that, the movement it really predicted was anti-humor; like Albert Brooks or Itchy and Scratchy, it plumbed the depths of awkwardness and dead air and came out with something that was — once the taste was acquired — indelibly smart, odd and addictive. I was too young to experience the initial Beavis and Butt-head movement for myself. Family members warned me that the show was stupid and so I ignored it, but when I finally did stay up late enough to catch it on MTV I was attracted to it immediately. Initially I felt guilty and did my best to hide my enjoyment of the show from my parents, but the more I watched the more I realized that the show’s simultaneous disdain and affection toward its characters was effortlessly funny, that its window into a kind of kid I didn’t know or understand at all (unlike Bart and Lisa) was fascinating, that it got the ordinariness of growing up suburban uncannily right, and that the commentary on music videos of the day broke things down with accidental insight that was often as probing as any criticism then available to me.

This extended to the feature film version, which aired on HBO for the first time shortly after I became a fan of the show. For one reason or another it aired at an awkward time when it was going to be difficult for me to hide what I was watching from my dad, so I kept flipping over during commercial breaks for something else (probably The X-Files) and was so drawn into the larger-scale misadventure within the film that I found it painful to have to turn the channel back. The film is a traditional road movie that does little more than try to make use of an increased animation budget: after a fan service title sequence that parodies ’70s cop shows (by then a done to death conceit best experienced in Spike Jonze’s Beastie Boys video “Sabotage”), the gruesome twosome hit all the obvious spots across a cross-country trip by various modes of transportation from California to Washington. It’s all spurred by a missing TV set and a desire to get laid, appropriately, and gives them ample opportunity to torment neighboring retiree Mr. Anderson, but to this it adds somewhat superfluous thriller elements to which the boys are wholly oblivious.

That material, which has Bruce Willis and Demi Moore as a pair of warring big-time crooks and Robert Stack as an FBI agent in hot pursuit, is clearly what Judge et al. deemed necessary to justify the series’ graduation to the silver screen, but it’s the worst of the changes made to the show’s model. Other new characters like a cheerful elderly lady played by Cloris Leachman as well as the temporary increase in the palette of locations add to a sense of frivolous fun that’s nearly as entertaining as the show. But as funny as it seemed at the time, the movie gets bogged down by its stupid, basically pointless “plot,” which is driven by a then-popular genre of film (the likes of the Tom Clancy adaptations and various cable-targeted sex suspensers) Judge doesn’t really have the energy to valuably mock.

The music videos — the best part of the series — are sorely missed, and as weird as it sounds, the film is too ambitious; Judge’s humor worked on the small screen because it was deliberately so limited and facile. Conversely, as amusing as Beavis and Butt-head’s reactions to a vastly expanded base of stimuli is, the movie can’t really justify its existence since Judge is so committed to their perpetual problems of sexlessness and unwavering, buzzed-out blindness to their surroundings; mucking around with integral character traits is off-limits, which is both commendable and disheartening in this context. It’s actually disappointing, in a strange way, that Beavis and Butt-head don’t end up scoring in the feature — even though that’s crucial to the show’s humor. Perhaps, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone later argued, Judge was too constrained by the PG-13 rating to do anything he already couldn’t do on the show beyond the superficial and budgetary.

Still, we laughed plenty on a recent revisit to this. These are great characters — not just Beavis and Butt-head but Mr. Anderson, whose deadpan sincerity is a hoot, and the painfully true to life hippie teacher Van Driessen. Even a cameo by a caricatured Chelsea Clinton is still funny despite being automatically dated. And few things in life are as endearing as Cloris Leachman and Beavis discussing all of the sluts in Las Vegas. Is this a relic of the ’90s generation? Yes, of course it is. But my point here would be: don’t throw the series out with it.

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