Beavis and Butt-Head appealed to a cult audience of jaded, pop-culture-savvy young men, and for this reason, they’re often compared to the kids on South Park (which is clearly indebted to the earlier show, right down to the touchy-feely teacher who likes to say, “Mmm-kay?”). But the elementary-school heroes of South Park are smartass social critics, taking down liberal and conservative pieties with an equal-opportunity cynicism that reflects the libertarian beliefs of their co-creator Trey Parker. The high-school burnouts Beavis and Butt-Head have no such ambition; they are sublimely passive losers, both products and harbingers of the end-of-history anomie of the mid-’90s. It’s impossible to imagine a post-9/11 Beavis and Butt-Head. Not because the show was devoid of political content but because the world it so ruthlessly satirized, a suburban cocoon of mindless consumption and complacent self-regard, abruptly ceased to exist at the beginning of this millennium.
The new DVD set, Beavis and Butt-Head: The Mike Judge Collection, is the best anthology yet of the MTV series. That said, it’s still bound to disappoint truly obsessive fans of the original show. While there have been several previous attempts to release the B&B material on DVD, none of these earlier compilations has included the music videos that constituted the heart of the Beavis and Butt-Head show, which consisted of videos intercut with animated segments. Since issuing the full-season box sets would involve securing the rights to literally hundreds of music videos, the show’s creator, Mike Judge, has chosen instead to go the “best of” route—selecting his favorite two-thirds of the animated segments, along with whatever music videos Paramount can wangle the rights to, and issuing them in three successive sets. Of the 199 total episodes of the animated series, 40 are included in this first collection, along with a paltry 12 music videos with the boys’ inimitably vacuous commentary.
In the making-of featurette (irresistibly titled “The Taint of Greatness”), one of the show’s writers reflects on the unique challenges of “writing stupid”: “You have to go back to the place where thinking begins and stay there.” To truly appreciate Beavis and Butt-Head, you have to watch from a similar place, a Zen rock garden of peaceful imbecility. There’s an almost Beckett-like purity to the tedium of Beavis and Butt-Head’s serenely empty lives; in one short, “Killing Time,” the boys wait out the two hours until something good comes on TV by staring at the gas meter outside Butt-Head’s house. “Time sucks,” Butt-Head finally observes. Beavis’ response: a chuckle, then silence.
The making-of doc only briefly mentions the social controversy that B&B caused in their day. When a 5-year-old boy in Ohio set fire to his family’s trailer home in 1993, killing his 2-year-old sister, his mother blamed the act on her son’s love for MTV’s animated teenage vandals. At a Senate hearing about violence on television in 1993, Sen. Fritz Hollings flagged the show as a symptom of cultural decline (though his credibility as a critic was somewhat undermined when he referred to the show’s protagonists as “Buff-Kote and Beaver”). One psychiatrist testified that the show functioned as a “Sesame Street for psychopaths.” In response, MTV pulled the show out of prime time and cut all references to fire and pyromania, resulting in lines of dialogue like, “Liar, liar, pants on … oh … err … heh heh.”
In light of later events like the Columbine school shootings, these debates seem worth revisiting. They’re exactly the questions that Beavis and Butt-Head itself, in its indirect way, asks of its viewers: Is attributing the moral decay of a generation to the antics of these two snickering dill-weeds a classic case of mistaking the effect for the cause? Is our culture stupid because we watch TV, or do we watch TV because we’re stupid? And why was a 5-year-old watching Beavis and Butt-Head in the first place?
Maybe with the release of this DVD collection, the appeal of B&B will finally reach beyond their adoring fan base. You certainly can’t fault Mike Judge on his selection so far. Judge’s own favorite episode, included here, is “The Great Cornholio,” in which Beavis, hopped up on sugar and caffeine, transforms into his manic alter ego, pulling his Metallica T-shirt over his head as he rambles incoherently about needing “TP for [his] bunghole.” The weird brilliance of the Beavis/Cornholio transformation, and the joy it has brought to countless B&B fans, is difficult to describe, though these audio clips might help.
There’s also “The Final Judgment of Beavis,” in which Beavis undergoes a near-death experience and ascends to heaven for a conversation with St. Peter, who reads to him from the book of his irredeemably sucky life. “What do you know, asswipe?” asks Beavis as the guardian of the pearly gates condemns him to eternal damnation. St. Peter’s portentous response: “I know everything, buttmunch.”
Rewatching Beavis and Butt-Head 12 years after its debut, it’s striking to note how the show’s style of primitive low-budget animation, which looked so crude and fresh in 1993, has become a part of our tele-visual language. To achieve cult credibility, it’s now de rigueur for new animated shows for adults to look scruffy and hastily drawn (South Park and Aqua Teen Hunger Force are just two examples). Wonky animation used to signify outsider status (along with, in Mike Judge’s case, a charmingly limited ability to draw); now it signifies mainstream cool. In the same way, the boys’ stupidity, which originally held up a cruel mirror to the MTV audience, was soon adopted as a model of behavior for, well, stupid people. Maybe it’s only now that Beavis and Butt-Head are dead—to quote the title of their last animated short together, which aired in Nov. 1997—that they can be appreciated as the subversive sages they truly were.