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
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
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
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
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.