Beavis and Butthead

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Beavis and Butthead

MTV's breakthrough hit of the 1990s, Beavis and Butthead, grew out of a series of animated shorts. Each half-hour episode chronicled the title characters' hormone-driven adventures while offering their commentary on popular music videos. Beavis and Butthead were almost universally-recognized pop icons by the time their run on MTV ended in 1997. They helped to usher in a new genre of irreverent television comedy and symbolized for many critics the decay of the American mind in the days of Generation X.

Those viewing "Frog Baseball," Beavis and Butthead's premiere installment on MTV's animation showcase Liquid TV, might have judged the cartoon—in which the duo does indeed play our national pastime with a frog as the ball—nothing more than a demented teenage doodle. But creator Mike Judge's simplistically-rendered protagonists struck some chord with MTV's young audience, and more episodes were featured. Beavis and Butthead's appearance on the 1992 Video Music Awards marked a coming-out of sorts, and Judge and his creations were offered a weekly spot on the cable network in 1993. Including videos layered with the boys' comments from the couch was the network's idea. The Beavis and Butthead Experience, an album featuring the two heroes collaborating with several of their favorite artists, was released late in 1993. Beavis and Butthead were guests several times on Late Night with David Letterman and were a featured act at the 1994 Super Bowl halftime show. Judge's cartoon creations were becoming important Hollywood personalities in an age that demanded celebrities who could wield power in several media. The culmination of this process was the release of their 1996 movie, Beavis and Butthead Do America, in which they embark on a cross-country quest for their lost television.

Beavis and Butthead's rise to stardom was not without its wrinkles. The show was sued in late 1993, while their popularity surged, by an Ohio mother who claimed Beavis's repeated maniacal calls of "Fire! Fire!" had encouraged her son to set a fire in their trailer home that claimed the life of his older sister. As part of the settlement, all references to fire have been edited from old and new episodes of the show. Judge and MTV parted ways amicably in 1997, after 220 episodes. Judge continued creating animated shows for adults. Beavis and Butthead, despite their best efforts to do nothing, had irrevocably altered the fields of animation, comedy, and teen culture as a whole. Taboos had been broken. Crudity had soared to new heights.

On the surface, Beavis and Butthead is a celebration of the frustrated male adolescent sex drive. Butthead, the dominant member of the team, is described in his own Beavis and Butthead Ensucklopedia as " … pretty cool. He hangs out a lot and watches TV. Or else he cruises for chicks … he just keeps changing the channels, and when a hot chick comes on he'll check out her thingies." Butthead's off-center whipping boy Beavis is, in comparison, " … a poet, a storyteller, a wuss, a fartknocker, a dillweed, a doorstop and a paper weight." The show established and maintained its fan base with storylines about escape (from the law, social norms, or teenage boredom) and desire (for women, recognition, or some new stimulus). Judge's vignettes, peppered with Beavis' nerdy snicker and Butthead's brain dead "Huh. Huh-huh," left no subject as sacred, from God and school to death itself. They destroyed public and private property, dodged responsibilities, let the world wash through the television and over them on their threadbare couch, and bragged about their fantasies of exploiting women. Critics and would-be censors were quick to point to the show as evidence of the current generation's desensitization to modern social issues and general dumbing-down. Beavis and Butthead, many said, were evidence enough that the current crop of kids were not ready to take over. "I hate words," snorts Beavis while a music video flashes superimposed phrases on the screen. "Words suck. If I wanted to read, I'd go to school."

But Beavis and Butthead's innocent absorption of America's mass media and their simultaneous applause and ridicule of popular culture spoke to "Gen X" on some level. And deep in their observations were occasional gems of world-weary wisdom. "The future sucks," insists Beavis in one episode, "change it!" Butthead replies, "I'm pretty cool Beavis, but I cannot change the future."

—Colby Vargas

Further Reading:

Judge, Mike, et al. The Beavis and Butthead Ensucklopedia. New York, MTV Pocket Books, 1994.