Beavis and Butthead began as a pair of animated shorts by then-unknown cartoonist Mike Judge, first aired on MTV's mixed animation show, Liquid Television. Their popularity led the "music" network to offer Judge a show which he, starving artist indeed, took them up on. The first episode aired in March of 1993, and the show lasted 7 ambiguous "seasons", to the final episode in late November of 1997, tossing off a movie (Beavis & Butthead Do America), a spin-off show (Daria), a collaboration with Cher (I Got You Babe), several video games, tons of merchandising, and a host of pop-culture references along the way.

The focus of the show were the eponymous characters of Beavis and Butthead, two stupid friends living in the town of Highland, which appeared to be somewhere along the rural-suburban border of a Great Plains state. The boys went to school at Highland High, worked at Burger World, sat on Butthead's couch and watched TV, and otherwise attempted to entertain themselves, or claim and assert a "coolness" they never had a chance at. Butthead, with dark hair, braces, and an AC/DC shirt, was what passed for the leader and calm head of the group, though that's not saying much. Beavis, a blond in a Metallica shirt with a heavy overbite and a high-pitched laugh, was the "inspiration" of the pair. Radically unstable, he would veer from complete randomness to bursts of genius and back again. Heavy sugar or stimulant consumption would bring out his alter ego, "The Great Cornholio", a madman of vaguely latin background constantly in search of "TP for [his] bunghole". Both characters were absolutely moronic and functionally illiterate, and plots were usually based around the two, through their stupidity, creating or entering into some sort of situation that they were then completely unprepared to deal with. (My personal favorite storyline involved the two forgetting how to urinate.)

Secondary characters included middle-aged neighbor Tom Anderson, Highland High's Principal McVicker, hippie teacher Mr. Van Driessen, standard gym teacher goon Buzzcut, Winger shirt-wearing dork Stuart, and the introverted, sarcastic Daria Morgendorffer, who would go on to have her own eponymous show. Most voices were performed by Judge himself (who went on to reuse his "Tom Anderson" voice for the lead character of Hank in his next animated series, "King of the Hill") or members of the writing and animation staffs, the only notable exception being David Spade, who performed occasional narration and character voices.

The show featured around 200 individual animated "sketches" over the series' 7-season run, although an episode count is a bit difficult due to the manner in which these were packaged. Each sketch was broken up and/or bookended by (usually two) music videos or portions thereof. One sketch and four videos would fill a 15 minute block, and two sketches and eight videos, or (in the last season) three sketches and one video would last half an hour. Specials, double-length sketches, and the replacement or re-pairing of sketches and videos, for censorship or other network purposes, would further complicate things. Scheduling tended to be somewhat random - original episodes were shown, at times, weekly, biweekly, and daily for one week each month, among other formats; if my memory serves me right, the actual time they were shown at seemed to change at random as well. As the individual shows had no overarching plot, and seasons were irregular (containing widely different numbers of episodes, running for different lengths, in different months and time slots, and sometimes switching without an intervening break) it was very difficult to know when exactly new shows were broadcast. More or less, if for some reason you were a dedicated fan of the show, you had to rely on the notoriously fickle MTV promo department. The network made up for this, however, in heavy reruns, and for several years the show was on, in one form or another, fairly often.

In every 15 minutes of show, there would be approximately 6 minutes of sketch, 2 of commercials, and the remainder would be given over to music videos. As mentioned before, there tended to be 4 videos in the middle of and/or at the end of each sketch, although these videos would often not be shown in their entirety. These videos tended to be of rap, rock or pop-rock of the late '80s to mid '90s, and seemed about an equal mix of the obscure, notable, and forgettable. Beavis and Butthead would talk to each other while these videos played, making commentary, cracking jokes and going off on tangents inspired by the video. In contrast with the obvious analogue of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Beavis and Butthead did not exclusively mock the videos shown - while there was a fair share of videos they found to "suck", they found about an equal number to "rock", and one of them usually found some feature of a video redeeming enough not to change the channel. (It's worth noting that while their TV did during the skits feature a normal assortment of channels, during the video portion, each and every one was playing videos.) Further, the commentary of Beavis and Butthead did not stick nearly as close to the "source" as MST3K - where at most, in the latter, the characters might hit upon a theme that they would reference again when something appropriate came up on screen, the former were known to take a comment from one part of the video and expand it into an ongoing back-and-forth that would continue on for some time, regardless of the video itself.

In my opinion, and that of many others, the videos were at best a distraction, lacking the very randomness and juvenile, character-driven low humor that made the show entertaining. If the videos were to be removed, however, between Beavis and Butthead's inherent limits and the tendency to leave secondary characters as perhaps "quirky" but overall weakly-characterized foils for the two, it is questionable whether the show could have stretched its plots to fill an entire time slot - the movie only managed 81 minutes of material through constant location changes and the introduction of external driving forces - and perhaps only with the videos was the concept feasible. The final season's three sketch, one video format seems to be the best that could be hoped for.

The significance of a show on MTV about people sitting on a couch watching MTV, aimed at a "Generation X" audience that at the time was still thought of as a bunch of slackers who sat on couches watching television, fetishizing irony and postmodern self-awareness, was not lost on cultural critics, both of the scholarly and alarmist variety. With the benefit of hindsight, the sheer volume of outcry and output on the subject now seems absolutely ridiculous - how did anyone take this seriously? What points were scored against the show mostly came along "think of the children!" lines, and MTV did censor parts of some shows after or in fear of copycat behavior, most notably a mention of inserting firecrackers in a cat's anus and lighting them and Beavis' frequent "Fire, fire!" comments. Despite this, the series lived to eventually die a natural death, ended when Mike Judge thought the concept was exhausted. However, Beavis and Butthead yet live on, in our hearts and minds.


"The future sucks. Change it."
-Beavis

"I'm way cool, Beavis, but I cannot change the future."
-Butthead

With the exception of a single viewing at one of the rare occasions I actually got to watch cable television before college, I was unable to bask in the abject moronity of Beavis and Butthead until I started college in the fall of 1994. I loved it and watched it every chance I could, seeing every episode at least once, until its conclusion in 1997. That was one of the last times I ever saw an episode of B&B until last night. I'm not sure why I hadn't thought of this before, but I looked them up on YouTube, using the app in my iPhone, and watched various episodes while doing some household chores. I was surprised by something.

What was this surprise, you might ask? Because, what would be so surprising, why would one expect anything other than the same idiotic slapstick toilet humor I'd seen before? Well, what surprised me is how much I laughed my fucking ass off.

(I was also a little surprised that none of the episodes included their music video reviews; where has all that footage gone? It disappeared from the reruns of the show after it was over. Hmmmm.)

See, lately, I've been listening to (like at work) and watching a lot of serious things on YouTube, soaking it all up like an insatiable sponge, videos by scientists and political cowboys, by theists, Atheists and Deists, lots of things about science, politics, and religion. But, I think I've gotten burned out on it, I feel like I've dried up that well (even though, given the sheer number of YouTube users, that's probably not the case; I've seen all the videos there is to see from my favorite users at least). So last night I felt I needed a break from all that horizon-broadening. I thought, hey, I'll bet there's lots of B&B on there. And I found lots.

YouTube is pretty damn awesome, by the way.

So there I was, viewing things I hadn't seen in 13 - 15 years, and my god, I was shocked at how funny they were! Some of you might be surprised that I was surprised, but let me explain: I had expected them to not be as funny to me, now, as they were to me in my youth, before I was a grown-up, before I was out of college, married, with 3.5 kids. Of course, anybody who's read any of stuff I create here will know that I have quite an appreciation for sophomoric humor. But I had remembered Beavis and Butthead being so childish that I didn't expect I would find it nearly as funny, now in 2010, as I had in the mid-1990s, when I was just a little older than the title characters themselves.

What I discovered when watching them last night on my phone was something I'd never appreciated before, and actually, I might have found them more funny last night than I had in my late teens and early-20s: the humor of B&B is only crude on the surface, like the oil currently slicking across the Gulf. I runs deeper somehow. I say somehow, because as of writing this, I still don't have a completely solid understanding of this, but I'll attempt to hash it out here anyway. But part of it is that there's many different forms of humor going on, not just one - the toilet humor - that somebody only glancing at the crudely-animated shorts might deduce.

First, yes, of course, there's the farts, nose-picking, and bodily waste removal (one episode was all about urinating, another all about defecating). If I were to ever let my five-year-old watch this stuff, he'd find that hysterical I'm sure. But there's also some political humor. It is subtle, but it is there, especially episodes featuring Daria and Mr. Van Driessen. You also have some cultural humor. Virtually every episode pokes fun at the suburban southern United States, and even though it never explicitly says, that I recall, I'm pretty sure it takes place in Texas, as does one of Mike Judge's other creations, King of the Hill. And then of course there's the infamous Cornholio episodes, where Beavis conjures up a ridiculous parody of Latino culture. One episode in particular among those I watched last night was eerily relevant to current events, where Beavis, as Cornholio, actually gets deported to Mexico, and the irrational and xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants blatantly alive today in Arizona are excellently parodied. And that episode originally aired sometime in 1994 or 1995, not sure.

There's also slapstick and mild violence, something I've always loved (I'm a big Three Stooges fan). Sometimes the violence goes beyond mild, but most of the time it's not too bad. There's also plenty of absurdist and non-sequitor humor, and, last night at least, that's what got me the most. I laughed the hardest and longest at a single joke in their Halloween episode: after getting kicked in the peas by a father pissed off that they'd stolen his kids' candy bags - he yells "HAPPY HALLOWEEN!" sarcastically afterward - Butthead, while writhing on the floor in pain, chuckles and says "Huh huh... 'ween!'" It hit something visceral, a deep humor nerve, and it was because it was unexpected. Maybe if it hadn't been so long since I'd watched B&B I would have expected it more, but I'm not so sure of that. Even in a cartoon that's only a little more realistic than old Tex Avery shorts, you just don't expect that that would ever be the time and place, while bottle rockets of pain are shooting up from your groin area, to contrive a double entendre like that and mention it aloud. That's Butthead for you. And random, unexpected jokes like that is probably my favorite type of humor. It's the type that's far more clever than it seems on the surface. Not all people get this type of humor, but if you really get it, it can really get you.

Now I think I understand why their 1996 theatrical film, Beavis and Butthead Do America actually got "two thumbs up" from Siskel and Ebert. The first time I saw a movie poster for the film with the words "TWO THUMBS UP - Siskel and Ebert" I thought it was a joke. I thought it was the product of a sarcastic promotional department. But no, it actually did get two thumbs up. As Roger Ebert astutely pointed out in his review of the film (and this applies to the entire TV series): "Beavis and Butt-Head are so stupid and sublimely self-absorbed that the exterior world has little reality except as an annoyance or distraction." Further, I'll invoke him again, something he wrote later in the review when trying to explain why B&B held his interest so much, putting it eloquently probably better than I ever could: "Because B&B represent an extreme version of people we see around us every day, and because the movie is radical and uncompromising: Having identified B&B as an extreme example of grunge, disaffection and cheerfully embraced ignorance, the movie is uncompromising in its detestation of them." The point of B&B is not to celebrate them, but to present to us an extreme version of the rising tide of stupidity (the movie Idiocracy comes to mind). Especially considering this takes place in Texas, it can be relevant to something else in current events: the Texas School Board fiasco. If you take enough wrecking balls to the public education system in this country as those ignorant whackos are attempting to do, you might dumb the kids down enough to get real Beavises and Buttheads.

And that wouldn't be funny at all.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.