PRINT February 1994


Beavis and Butt-head

BEAVIS: How come, like, some stuff sucks, but then, like, some stuff is pretty cool?

BUTT-HEAD: Uhhh, well, if nothing sucked, and everything was cool all the time, then, like, how would you know it was cool?

BEAVIS: I would know. You just said, everything would be cool.

BUTT-HEAD: No, buttmunch. I mean like, let’s say someone came up and just hit you upside the head? Well, that would be cool.

BEAVIS: No it wouldn’t. That would suck.

BUTT-HEAD: Yeah. . . . [hits Beavis repeatedly]

BEAVIS: Owww! Cut it out butthole!

BUTT-HEAD: That was cool!

BEAVIS: No it wasn’t. That sucked!

BUTT-HEAD: Yeah, but like, you know, after it’s over, doesn’t it, like, feel pretty cool?

BEAVIS: Oh yeah.

BUTT-HEAD: See, you need, like, stuff that sucks to have stuff that’s cool.

Beavis and Butt-head are the VJs we’ve been waiting for since MTV started.
—Judy McGrath, creative director, MTV

Uh huh huh huh heh heh . . . cool.

If the above litany crosses the lips of someone you care about, do not be alarmed, as a friend of mine recently was, wondering if her new boyfriend was a regular at the inhalant bar under the sink. They have merely been infected by MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head—two animated degenerates currently charged with the dumbing of the American mind.

Beavis and Butt-head is the most visible example of a recent metamedia trend in television, employing the oh-so-po-mo framing of “watching watching.” Sitting on a dilapidated couch, the cartoon couple “watch TV,” specifically MTV’s vulnerable music videos, which they dorkily deconstruct. (Not entirely original, the format borrows from another cable-TV show, Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which a man and his robots watch subliterate sci-fi and gladiator flicks and takes potshots at straw men from beyond the galaxy). In his 1983 film Videodrome, David Cronenberg accurately presaged this development with his Marshall McLuhan-based character Professor Brian O’Blivion, who only agrees to appear “on TV on TV.” Today, it is not unusual to see a “how-to” ad one week and the same spot a week later “on TV on TV,” in the virtual living room of a follow-up spot, with the “family” nodding and demonstrating the making of an order. (As if you’ve forgotten how to use your telephone, or to respond to marketing signals.)

Created by amateur cartoonist Mike Judge, a 30-year-old exslacker from Albuquerque, Beavis and Butt-head are scrawled in the style of math-class marginalia. The pair debuted in September 1992 on Liquid Television, MTV’s animation showcase, with deliciously raw “Frog Baseball.” The title tells you everything you need to know. After focus-group screenings, MTV wanted to make them guest vj’s, but Judge suggested giving them their own show in which their comments on music videos would be intercut with their animated misadventures. By November that year, a production staff had been assembled, and Beavis and Butt-head were unleashed on mainstream America.

To call the show politically incorrect would be disservice to Howard Stern. Beavis and Butt-head’s extracurricular activities include: farting, masturbating, torturing animals, harassing neighbors, vandalizing public property, stealing pornography, inhaling solvents, blowing up toilets, and giggling helplessly at all of the above. It is in their remarks on videos, however, that their real character shines through. Their analyses of the sexual politics of the music industry are particularly illuminating: “Sometimes cool bands have to do, like, wimpy songs to get chicks” (the Red Hot Chili Peppers). “This video has, like, explosions, like, half-naked chicks, fire, TVs getting smashed, screaming. . . . It’s got something for everyone” (the Plasmatics). “The only thing cooler than bands who get lots of chicks are bands that scare chicks ” (Pantera). Butt-head: “This chick is a good singer because she hardly wears any clothes.” Beavis: “And she’s holding a bomb” (Plasmatics). And despite their dicey politics, Beavis and Butt-head occasionally seem to speak for all of us, as in this exchange in front of a Kiss video:

BUTT-HEAD: These guys are pretty cool for a bunch of mimes. Don’t you hate it when you’re, like, at the fair and some mime comes up and gets in your face and, like, doesn’t say anything? I usually kick them in the nads.

BEAVIS: Yeah, yeah! That’s when they start saying stuff. They say stuff like “Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahhh!”

If Beavis and Butt-head deserve further accolades, it would be for the epidemic rate at which their peculiar virus has infected the American media-scape. Any cartoon responsible for an aging senator blurting “Buffcoat and Beaver” in an otherwise dour congressional hearing on TV violence wins the Buttafuoco Award for Total Saturation. That the senator had to be publicly corrected by another senator, forcing him to backpedal—“Yes Butt-head. . . . I’m getting educated here”—is a kidney punch to the body politic. Dilweeds 2, Senate 0.

As Spiderman once learned, with great power comes great responsibility. Our heroes were dragged into the TV-violence debate when a five year old Ohio boy set fire to his family’s mobile home last October, killing his two-year-old sister. His mother blamed Beavis and Butt-head. (Reporters later discovered that the family didn’t have cable.) MTV responded by pushing the show into a later time slot, preceding each episode with a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer, and promising to delete all references to fire in future episodes.

The preshow disclaimer reads, “Beavis and Butt-head are not role models; they’re not even human.” The latter point seems to have been lost on the show’s opponents. Cartoons have always been a “safe space” where our impossible fantasies are enacted, our secret fears come to life, and our most piercing social critiques can be staged. The Simpsons paints television’s richest satirical portrait of the American family in the ’90s because Bart and Co., as cartoons, are absolved of any responsibility to the “real world.” Beavis and Butt-head, as cartoons, can simultaneously celebrate and satirize adolescent nihilism while remaining within the boundaries of their painted cels. They are simply another step in the continuum of cartoon history, a series of funhouse mirrors held up to society’s stern face.

It is as “safe” satirists the Beavis and Butt-head take their place in the metanarrative of MTV. Their critique of the music video—the art from that MTV helped pioneer, and that drives the network (and the music industry) to this day—may seem biting, but ultimately does nothing more than establish MTV’s willingness to make fun to itself, confirming the network’s self-awareness credentials for a media-savvy generation. If you told an ad exec from the ’50s that the best way to pump a product for young people would eventually be to denigrate it, he’d, like have a cow, dude. But it’s true. The most successful shows, ad campaigns, and networks of the ’90s are those that are willing to abase themselves and traditional marketing and media conceits—those that are ready for irony. Late Night with David Letterman was a pioneer of this strategy, Beavis and Butt-head are the latest manifestation, and it’s no coincidence that Letterman has signed the duo up for his own new show.

Beavis and Butt-heads jibes are vicious enough for maximum ironic abasement, but, as cartoons, they keep the rest of MTV “safe” from the venom of their critique. The pair also perform a valuable service for the network in its difficult role as fashion arbiter. “I may be cool, Beavis, but I can’t change the future,” Butt-head remarks, in a rare moment of clarity. But he can change the past. Beavis and Butt-head help MTV in its constant task of reinventing itself; they are its garbage disposal. Their show is a site where MTV can safely distance itself from its “old”(even three-months-old) product, so that the rest of the network’s offering seems continually “new” and “cutting edge.”Again, Beavis and Butt-head as cartoons can perform this function more effectively than the human vjs, who if they tried it might undermine the network’s “sincerity.”

A straw man Beavis and Butt-head ritually torch is the unabashedly boomeresque VH-1 cable network, which masks as a competitor of MTV’s but is actually spawned by the same company. Demarcating an important demographic distinction that MTV vjs could not without, again, risking damage to the parent company’s interests, Beavis and Butt-head falsely position themselves against VH-1 to further the esthetic rift between the two networks, and to make MTV seem more “happening” by contrast. Bottom line: you’ve got to have stuff that sucks to have stuff that’s cool. These days, TV generally sucks. In order to make it cool, you must admit that you suck, or have one of your programs do it for you. Ironic abasement is paradoxically the only strategy for appearing “sincere.” After failing miserably at raising its sincerity ratings last year through traditional means—the painfully earnest “Choose or Lose” coverage of the presidential campaign, a slew of well-meaning “documentaries” on the problems of today’s youth—MTV found an unlikely panacea in Beavis and Butt-head. “After the . . . ‘choose or lose’ campaign, I think we were sick to death of being politically correct,” says Judy McGrath, creative director at MTV. “Beavis and Butt-head came along at just the right time for comic relief.” Actually, they came along at a time when MTV desperately needed to change its positioning—from cloying paternalist to winking flagellant.

Supporting Beavis and Butt-head’s “oppositional” relationship to the rest of the network, Kennedy (a snarky female vj) announces the show by denigrating it—and you, the Beavis and Butt-head fan. The conceit is that the pair are party crashers whose presence on the network insults the rest of the staff. In actuality, Beavis and Butt-head is paying the bills around MTV these days. It’s the network’s highest rated program, with a platinum-bound album, a book, a movie in the works, and merchandising up the wazoo.

BUTT-HEAD: TV is cool.

BEAVIS: Yeah, yeah. TV rules!

BUTT-HEAD: Hey Beavis. I heard, like, pretty soon they’re going to have, like, 500 channels. That’s going to be cool.

BEAVIS: Really? That would be cool.

BUTT-HEAD: You know what would be really cool, though? If like one of the channels didn’t suck.

BEAVIS: Yeah, if one of them didn’t suck, then why would you need the other, uhhh, 300 hundred channels?

BUTT-HEAD: Because you know all those TV shows that suck? It’s like, you have to put them somewhere. You can’t put them on the cool channel.

BEAVIS: Yeah, yeah. They should call it the Cool Channel.

Beavis and Butt-head’s true innovation lies in its contrived hostility to its medium. The boys are free to do their worst, as their ’toon status and endless self-referentiality make even their most scathing critique easy to recuperate. With Beavis and Butt-head biting its ass, much to the delight of young America, MTV is positioning itself as the Cool Channel on the still hot tarmac of the Info Supersuckway.

Andrew Hultkrans