Film

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Mike Judge, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 81 minutes.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996), Mike Judge’s animated film featuring the unholy fools he unleashed via MTV in 1993, President Bill Clinton invites the titular boys into the Oval Office, makes them honorary ATF agents, and tells them that they will one day become “leaders of America.” Well.

On November 9, 2016, this joke, not particularly funny to begin with by B&B standards, suddenly became dire prophecy. Judge made the point more explicitly in his later live-action film Idiocracy (2006), about a dystopian future society populated by mentally and culturally devolved Americans whose moronic president, Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, a former wrestler, bears a striking resemblance to one Donald Trump.

Roger Ebert, an early B&B fan and defender, wrote in response to their critics, “To study B&B is to learn about a culture of narcissism, alienation, functional illiteracy, instant gratification, and television zombiehood. Those who deplore Beavis and Butt-Head are confusing the messengers with the message.” Ebert’s response was necessary, given that the boys had been blamed for various real-life acts of adolescent mayhem, some fatal, and an aging Democratic senator, Fritz Hollings, had railed against the pernicious influence of “Buffcoat and Beaver” on the Senate floor.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is currently enjoying a theatrical rerelease in honor of its twentieth anniversary. As the critic who first brought B&B to the pages of Artforum when the TV show was new, I can report that, two decades on, the message has been delivered, and the messengers are real (they were chanting “Lock her up” at campaign rallies last fall, and they really are deplorable). A Trump voter asked by a CNN reporter why she thought Trump was qualified for the presidency responded with words seemingly lifted from Butt-Head’s perpetually open mouth, “He has his own TV show?” Huh huh, TV. Cool.

Wondering why two nihilistic sociopaths with a Neanderthal’s grasp of gender relations were curiously no longer funny in the age of Trump, I remembered that they emerged amid a parade of mentally challenged and/or willfully ignorant fictional avatars that mysteriously followed our culture’s last great seizure over Trump’s favorite bugbear, “political correctness.” In the wake of Andrea Dworkin’s and Catharine MacKinnon’s radical critiques of pornography in the 1980s (culminating in MacKinnon’s controversial, widely discussed Only Words [1993], which attacked the language of sexual assault and harassment, essentially arguing against the First Amendment), conservative intellectuals and ideologues responded with crossover books blasting PC in the academy and elsewhere: Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987), Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991), among others.

Mike Judge, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 81 minutes.

Representing the newly minted “sex-positive feminism” (which at this point is the primary mode of celebrity feminism; see Beyoncé), Madonna pushed back with her pornographic coffee-table book, Sex (1992), and hung out with Wayne and Garth on Saturday Night Live, tittering but flattered whenever they acknowledged her attractiveness by blurting out “schwing!,” their preferred word for zero-to-sixty male arousal. For dudes depressed that “major league yabbos” was no longer a socially acceptable term for mammary glands, Hollywood served up Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Wayne’s World (1992), Dumb & Dumber (1994), and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America.

These benighted bros functioned as licensed fools and jesters often do: as steam valves and truth-tellers, freely saying and doing things for which others would be harshly punished. Fundamentally, the jester’s entire authority—his capacity for delivering enlightening outrage—derives from the widespread disapproval of his speech and behavior from the culture at large and powers that be. When this disapproval turns to approval, and the king becomes the fool, the jester’s role is vacated and rendered irrelevant, a redundant nonentity.

At a time when we can listen to a tape of our President-elect bragging to the nephew of a former president about grabbing strange women “by the pussy,” women who, apparently, “let you do anything” if you’re famous, the spectacle of Butt-Head getting on the US Senate PA system, as he does late in the film, his voice booming through the halls, “Uh, we are looking for the chick with big boobs. We are ready to do you,” no longer functions as humor on its face or satire in its subtext.

Those looking for B&B-related lulz would be better served by visiting IMDB.com’s Parents Guide for Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, which lays out, in a poorly drafted, peerlessly po-faced style, all instances of potentially offensive or child-corrupting content. While the film’s MPAA rating was PG-13, “for continuous crude sexual humor, some mayhem, and a drug-related scene,” the IMDB Parents Guide reports that, among other violations, “Tom tells his wife that he caught Beavis ‘jerking off in his caravan’” (“whacking off,” actually, if we’re being pedantic); “Butt-Head falls in love with a woman on the plane and tells Beavis to look at ‘her butt’”; “Some of the pictures depicted in Beavis’s acid trip [including “deformed monsters”] might be frightening to some young children”; “Butt-Head is seen drinking beer once”; and, in addition to a few other curse words, “‘damn’ and ‘ass’ are also used.” The sound track is worth seeking out for Engelbert Humperdinck’s mellifluous rendering of the Tom Wilson song “Lesbian Seagull,” usually sung by B&B’s cloying, sanctimonious hippie teacher (he of “Mmm-kay”). Otherwise, the nightly news will provide more offensive idiocy than you’ll ever need.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America plays Thursday, December 15 and Tuesday, December 20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

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