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Film

'Beavis and Butt-Head Do America' turns 25: The eternal tao of a cultural behemoth

@TylerGolsen

It didn’t take much for Beavis and Butt-Head to connect. Two kids of below-average intelligence, sitting in front of a TV and just talking. Words were monosyllabic, comments were unrefined, focus was on the sexual or the violent, and nothing was sacred. In other words, Beavis and Butt-Head were in the exact right time and place to go global in the mid-1990s.

It’s hard to imagine today that a cartoon like Beavis and Butt-Head was as successful as it was, constituting eight seasons and a full-length feature film that turns 25 this year. It’s even harder to imagine that any of that material still holds up. But it does: Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is one of the least likely success stories in film history, but it received positive reviews, attracted major stars, made more than five times its budget at the box office, and has had enough cultural staying power for Paramount+ to order a sequel earlier this year.

Of course, the crack the against Beavis and Butt-head was that it was lowest-common denominator humour. And taken on its own merit, there wasn’t anything particular funny, and certainly nothing particularly smart, about two teenagers chuckling to themselves about how awesome “babes” and fire were while watching music videos. But during the slacker generation, the duo were acclaimed by critics as incisive satirical reflections of the then-current crop of teenagers watching MTV, while simultaneously becoming heroes to those kids who saw more than a little bit of themselves in the degenerate pair.

The key to the series was that it was a really idiotic show helmed by a really smart guy: creator and main voice actor Mike Judge. “I really liked National Lampoon when I discovered it my senior year in high school,” Judge explained. “I used to always wish that those comics in National Lampoon were animated. I’d always imagine them animated.” So Judge went about it himself, abandoning his budding eduction in the STEM field to take on poop jokes, pyromania, and junk food references.

What Judge poked and prodded at with Beavis and Butt-Head was what he would later examine more thoroughly with King of the Hill, Office Space, and Idiocracy: mediocrity taken seriously. While his other works took great pains to show just how damaging it is when idiocy and complacency takes hold, Beavis and Butt-Head embraces and revels in the burned out wasteland that is its two main characters lives. They’re losers – two teenagers with no hope of landing girlfriends, getting laid, succeeding in life, or impressing anyone they come across. but at the very least, they have each other, and they have their TV.

The show, and to a lesser extent the movie, tapped into another potent stream of comedy: the increasing obsession with pop culture. In the pre-internet days, people like Beavis and Butt-Head could think they were the funniest people in the world because their world revolved around their living room. No parents, no vegetables – just MTV and an endless amount of one-liners. As the pair began to reflect its own audience with a startling amount of accuracy, concerned parents began to wonder if the duo’s obsession with sex and violence was rubbing off (heh-heh-heh) on their own kids.

By that point, Judge himself was tiring of the constant exploits of Beavis and Butt-Head. To get out of his contract, he agreed to direct and produce Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. He also roped in a surprising amount of legitimate mainstream talent, from power couple Bruce Willis and Demi Moore to cameos from Richard Linklater and David Letterman. The premise was simple: Beavis and Butt-Head have lost their TV, and they go on a cross-country adventure to get enough money to buy a new one. From there, it was all about the central pair’s penchant for idiocy and misunderstanding landing them in increasingly wacky situations.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America was remarkable in that it was able to separate the two from their bread and butter (critiquing music videos) and into a semi-cohesive plot without losing any of the entertainment value that they had. The film remains eminently rewatchable: it’s 80 minutes long, goes haphazardly from memorable scene to memorable scene, and progresses at remarkable speed without getting too caught up in any kind of message. It’s all about the humour, and Judge compacts all the best insights from its two idiots into a perfectly paced joke-a-minute film.

Inevitably, Judge wanted out. His next show, King of the Hill, could theoretically have taken place in the same town that Beavis and Butt-Head reside in, but its focus on the minutia of everyday southern life was in stark contrast to the sophomoric humour and teenaged sensibilities of Beavis and Butt-Head. But as culture began to edge closer and closer to the style of comedy that Beavis and Butt-Head pioneered, Judge was lured back for a one more season.

It seemed as though the series’ revival in 2011 would be a coronation. Although the new series maintained the same regressively-progressive bite of the original, there was no longer anything cutting edge about the pair. In the years since their debut in 1993, Beavis and Butt-Head saw the likes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Jackass, and The Eric Andre Show forge ahead with repurposed content, elevated low-brow grossness, and gonzo blends between reality and the surreal, eclipsing their own popularity. Their attempts to bring their signature brand of commentary to MTV corporate crossovers like Jersey Shore and True Life to the revival also just felt hollow.

But 25 years after Beavis and Butt-Head Do America proved that an entire feature length movie could be made out of two idiots trying to “score” with chicks, the duo’s style of comedy has aged better than anyone would have imagined in 1993. That’s because there are still Beavises and Butt-Heads sitting around commenting on the culture they take in, even if a lot of the discourse has moved on-line in recent years. There will always be idiotic, underdeveloped teenagers with no sense of self-awareness, and so there will always be relevancy for Beavis and Butt-Head.

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