We tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Way out. Now we say good-bye, but not good riddance, to Beavis and Butt-head.
By Dan Tobin
DECEMBER 1, 1997: An era will end on Friday night. After more than 200 episodes, four books, a movie, a CD, and 3.2 million grunts, Beavis and Butt-head will have its final episode. And that sucks.
It sucks because Beavis and Butt-head have brought subversive humor to a bold new low. It sucks because they're poetically pathetic. A pair of idiot metalheads wasn't exactly a new formula, but Beavis and Butt-head are aggressively stupid in a way their predecessors were not. Bill and Ted found excellent ways out of bogus situations; Wayne and Garth slyly riffed on pop culture mainstays. Beavis and Butt-head just broke stuff and talked about poop.
Here are two adolescents with no redeeming features. They are gross, mean, directionless, and impossibly dumb. Their humor is rooted in toilet jokes, sexism, and gratuitous violence. Even the way they're drawn accentuates the rough edges, exaggerating all the awkwardness of adolescence. Yet every time they put a poodle in the washing machine, call 411 for an emergency, or pierce their ears with an electric drill, you can't help feeling better about yourself in comparison. And you can't help laughing out loud.
Beavis and Butt-head succeeds because even though people don't like to admit it, fart jokes and people hurting themselves are funny. Beavis and Butt-head turned stupidity into a crusade, forcing us to acknowledge how little it really takes to make us laugh.
As Christopher Guest said in This Is Spinal Tap, "There's a fine line between clever and stupid." Originally, Beavis and Butt-head was planted firmly in stupidity, with an occasional moment or two approaching the clever side of that line. Their humor came from their bluntness, immaturity, and complete lack of common sense. Beavis gets hit in the nads. Butt-head admits the Sir Mix-A-Lot video for "Baby's Got Back" gives him a stiffie. That's stupid, not clever.
Stupid, after all, is where they came from. Frog Baseball, the short animated film that marked their debut, featured crude animation and a level of mindless violence that would have made the Three Stooges blanch. In their early episodes on MTV, the pair abused animals, abused each other, disrupted class, and grunted out air guitar to heavy-metal songs. Even when they discussed music videos, their sparse commentary didn't get far past what was cool versus what sucked.
But every season a little more intelligence would creep into the dialogue, and their personalities would become a little more distinct. Butt-head was the ringleader, the devious visionary, while Beavis -- the sidekick and follower -- grew into more of a loose cannon. "The Great Cornholio," the watershed episode where Beavis, on a sugar high, develops a berserk alternate personality, pushed abstract stupidity to a hilarious new level. From then on, cleverness began to play a larger role in the show.
Beavis and Butt-head see a video with Frank Sinatra in it, and mistake him for Andy Rooney, only they get his name wrong and call him "that Mickey Rooney dude." This segues into a cruel parody of the 60 Minutes guru's observational humor. "Why is it called taking a dump?" Beavis whines. "You're not taking it anywhere. They should call it leaving a dump." And you wonder: if Andy Rooney did a segment on potty talk, wouldn't that be his commentary?
Suddenly, they'd got it. These two complete imbeciles were wielding their base, scatological humor to parody the culture in a way that made the kids listen. They were straddling that line between clever and stupid, working both sides until they had created something truly fresh, however bad it may have smelled.
Beavis and Butt-head are accused of stealing money from their employer, Burger World. After Butt-head passes the lie detector test, they hook Beavis up to the machine. To test the connection, they ask him to say the first thing that comes to mind. Blank stare. "Um, I killed a bunch of people once." The polygraph signals true, and Beavis gets sent to the electric chair.
Butt-head tunes into the execution proceedings on TV. "Huh-huh," he laughs, and gets ready to watch his friend fry.
Beavis and Butt-head may be soulmates, but there isn't a drop of loyalty between them. Their lexicon consists mostly of insults -- wuss, fart-knocker, assmunch, bunghole, dillweed, turd-burglar -- and they are constantly hurling threats and blows. Their most frequently used weapon, though, is ridicule. For Beavis and Butt-head, the surest route to becoming cool is to tell someone else that what he likes sucks. They embody something any 13-year-old boy can understand: self-definition through negativity.
Trashing everything, even the things they liked, they became poster boys for our complaint-oriented culture. They built themselves up by tearing other things down, and suddenly we had to wonder: are the writers and cultural critics who view everything mainstream as garbage really all that different from Beavis telling Butt-head he's a wuss for liking Sugar Ray?
Beavis and Butt-head don't care about solutions; they just want to say things suck. Never for a second do they pretend to have any purpose. They are redeemed (or at least saved from hypocrisy) by their own nihilism. It never occurs to them to use their constant carping for anything other than immediate, nasty gratification. One way or another, everything sucks. God is dead. Elton John blows. As cartoons, that's one of the luxuries they can afford: they don't have to make sense or make a point. They just have to be funny.
Part of the humor comes from the show's relationship with its audience. Kurt Cobain once complained that the people who beat him up in high school had become his biggest fans. "Smells like Teen Spirit," Nirvana's rant about stupid Gen X kids, flew to the top of the charts thanks to stupid Gen X kids buying their album. It was pure irony, however unintentional.
Beavis and Butt-head deliberately milked that same irony by making fans of the very demographic it was ridiculing. Conventional wisdom tells us there are two types of Beavis and Butt-head fans: those who get the joke and those who are part of the joke. The smarter viewers appreciate the satire, while the bulk of the audience likes the show because hey, breaking stuff is funny, and poop jokes are wicked funny. Right?
But aye, there's the rub: it's the same show no matter who's holding the remote. And all those Ivy Leaguers aren't really watching Beavis and Butt-head for the deft social commentary. They're watching it because poop jokes are wicked funny. In their continual dive toward the gutter, Beavis and Butt-head bring all of us down with them, and remind us that some things are universally funny regardless of how cultured we pretend to be. Bob Saget will never be funny, but the video he shows us of a guy falling off a chair will always get laughs.
As much as we'd like to praise the fine entertainment value of Masterpiece Theatre, deep down we'd probably rather watch Beavis roam the school demanding TP for his bunghole. We'd rather watch Butt-head try to kill a fly with a hammer and smash his toilet to pieces in the process. We'd rather watch the two of them get wasted on nonalcoholic beer.
Beavis and Butt-head is the ultimate guilty pleasure. We can tune in, turn on, and drop out -- way out -- and feel okay about it because the world is watching with us. But in the end, everyone's part of the joke: while we're laughing at how pathetic these guys are for wasting their lives in front of the TV, we're doing the exact same thing. In the end, they're laughing at us.
Huh-huh. We suck.
Dan Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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