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