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Dr. Toon: A Tale Told By Idiots

In this retrospective edition of "Dr. Toon," Martin Goodman revisits a couple of idiots named Beavis and Butt-head.

"Children are our nation's most precious natural resource."
-- Jimmy Carter, 1979


Had President Carter been able to look ahead to 1992, he might have made an exception or two. That was the year that MTV spewed forth Beavis and Butt-head into America's popular culture. It began innocuously enough; independent animator (and former physics major) Mike Judge was preparing short films for a festival. MTV's senior vice president Abby Terkhule, on the lookout for new talent, grabbed one of them for the network's animated hodgepodge series Liquid Television.

The short, ominously titled Frog Baseball, premiered in September of 1992. It featured two disreputable young boys originally named Bobby and Billy. B&B were not exactly the epitome of evolutionary progress, and their dialogue suggested borderline intelligence, if that. The short delivered its promised vivisection, gleefully carried out by the lads, and stars were born that day.

These degenerates, soon to be known as Beavis and Butt-head, returned for a reprise shortly afterwards in a short called Peace, Love, and Understanding. Significantly, the boys ended up buried in feces, which was perhaps their natural habitat. No matter; Beavis and Butt-head elicited an incredible response from viewers, and Mike Judge was awarded a contract for a daily half-hour series. Considering that the animation was kept at a rather primitive level, this was very possible. Still, production delays moved the show from a March to May 1993 premiere. That was the last thing that would slow down Beavis and Butt-head for the next four years.

There is not much to be gained by recapping the show, save to recall that much of it was spent watching the boys watching TV. Beavis and Butt-head were discriminating, if rather unsophisticated, critics of countless music videos. When not doing this, the pair bungled their fast-food jobs in various disgusting ways; destroyed nearly everything of value belonging to Mr. Anderson, their demented neighbor; or attempted to score with chicks, a task that met with unremitting failure. For four seasons Beavis and Butt-head's moronic, monotonic giggles echoed through American culture.

A large number of highbrow critics wept with consternation; gallons of ink were spent on overblown interpretations of Beavis and Butt-head as a symbol of a culture gone rotten. Many took Mike Judge's creations to be harbingers of civilization's doom. In a representative text, Dr. Daniel Murphy of Hanover College took Beavis and Butt-head to represent "cultural arterial sclerosis" and went on to say that "we are living among other people's ruins, fashioning pale and increasingly crude imitations of other people's masterworks. Modernism, and with it the tottering edifice of the Modern Age, is dying not with a bang, but a whimper. We are at the end of the ending." Beavis would no doubt respond with, "Heh hehheh! You said 'bang'!"

Meanwhile, that crumbling culture embraced the teenaged morons. References to Beavis and Butt-head popped up on television, in movies, and in texts. The lads appeared on Late Night with David Letterman (Letterman himself is a pop culture arbiter), as well as on awards shows, in holiday specials, and in their own full-length feature. Merchandise and licensed items followed, as did controversy. Fires were alleged to be set and bowling balls hurled from overpasses due to young fools imitating Beavis and Butt-head. At the height of their popularity, the duo reached full celebrity status in America (not that it helped them to score with chicks). Then, almost as suddenly, they disappeared. Even more surprising, there are few traces left of them today.

Consider: When was the last time you saw, heard of, or thought about Beavis and Butt-head? Unlike many other animated shows that left a lasting mark on the cultural landscape, B&B simply faded away into virtual obscurity. Moreover, there has never been a wave of nostalgia for them, or any talk of even a one-shot revival. For a TV show that once commanded an audience of millions and stirred up so much controversy, analysis, and debate, this is truly stunning. How many other animated series, once they had broken through into mass cultural awareness, can this be true of? Not many at all.

How did one of America's most visible cartoons just disappear? It is tempting to say that Beavis and Butt-head was simply not a great show in the first place. Or one could say that their popularity was a freak accident, an abnormal blip in the pulse of popular culture. Tempting, but not true. Some of the episodes, in their sheer imbecility, were quite funny. The very nihilism of the show had a subversive appeal. Besides, the show lasted for four years; surely MTV was no more interested in losing money than, say, FOX, ABC, or BET would be. People were watching, and that was no freak accident. In truth, the reason that Beavis and Butt-head is supremely defunct in a way that even Ren & Stimpy is not is because Mike Judge spoke in only one voice to one audience.

B&B reached their zenith within a specific demographic. Relatively few females watched the show, and many despised it. Despite allegations that young kids were negatively influenced by the animated asses, not many of them tuned in, either. In fact, after Beavis and Butt-head was accused of inspiring a boy to set fire to his family's mobile home, MTV moved the show to a later slot in the evenings. The allegedly damning episode took place in 1993, not long after the show premiered. Thus, it was even harder (hunh-hunh!) to grab a young audience over the life of the show. Adults did not watch massive blocks of MTV, nor did they pay much attention to Beavis and Butt-head. Who did?

Many took Mike Judge's creations to be harbingers of civilization's doom.

An audience comprised largely of white males in their 20s. This demographic is significant for one outstanding reason: It was the first MTV generation. MTV premiered on August 1, 1981. Anyone who was 10 years old at the time was 21 when Beavis and Butt-head first appeared. Throughout the teen years of males who comprised B&B's most loyal fans, thousands upon thousands of music videos were shown by the cable station. These were the first teens to grow up with MTV as a major cultural force in their lives, and it is certainly no accident that Beavis and Butt-head -- both male -- spent a considerable amount of time watching music videos (presumably shown by MTV) from their ratty couch.

For this audience, Beavis and Butt-head was a look back at their own teen years, a dunderheaded parody of the kids, teachers, and adults they shared their lives with. It poked fun at first jobs, seemingly useless classes, repressive administrators, and the sometimes unattainable goal of sexual conquest. Beavis and Butt-head even mocked the sacrosanct world of music that sustained them. Most of the music videos B&B watched "sucked," and those that were "cool" elicited ridiculous vocal and physical reactions from the boys, including dances like "The Fartknocker Double Inverted Nad Twist."

Beavis and Butt-head could, and did, get away with everything. No act of smashing, burning destruction ever met with any lasting punishment. The boys had the power to corrupt everything around them. In one episode, B&B befriend a diligent, brilliant Asian exchange student; by cartoon's end they have turned him into a brain-damaged clone of themselves. Beavis and Butt-head enjoyed a guiltless (and brainless) joyride through a satire of American adolescence during the prime years of MTV, and the audience it spoofed was the one that enjoyed -- and appreciated it -- most.

That is where highbrow cultural analysts blew it. Those who read the decay of civilization into this cartoon, in which B&B represented the vanguard of an atrophied youth, were far too profound in their pronouncements. If American culture was in fact falling into corrupt decay, using Beavis and Butt-head as an evident puzzle piece in the larger picture was a myopic choice. Blaming the pair for the ills of youth was unfounded; from 1993-1997, there was actually a decline in serious youth crimes, particularly juvenile homicides. Beavis and Butt-head never had the power to appear even as symbols of entropy; they had serious limitations of their own and in the end sank beneath them.

To begin with, the demographic that enjoyed B&B the most generally went on to college and greater concerns, and their tastes in entertainment changed. Even MTV switched content, and Beavis and Butt-head could not survive those changes. The series remained trapped in time, a satiric vision of an era gone by. By 1997, the last year that Beavis and Butt-head aired, MTV was receiving countless complaints that the channel was no longer giving enough air time to music videos -- the mainstay of Beavis and Butt-head. MTV increasingly generated original programming and found a suitable replacement in Jackass not long afterwards.

Mike Judge moved on, too, becoming a mainstream producer and director for the immensely popular prime-time animated series King of the Hill -- the very same year that B&B disappeared. As the ratings on FOX network proved, Judge had the talent to produce far more elegant entertainment than Beavis and Butt-head. Finally, Matt Stone and Trey Parker (also in 1997) premiered South Park on Comedy Central. This was perhaps the show that picked up most of the former B&B audience, now older and more sophisticated in their appreciation of humor. There was nowhere left for Beavis and Butt-head to go, and no one left to take them there. This is why only traces of them remain today, with no revival in sight. Even Gumby has had more lives.

While Beavis and Butt-head lived, they lived big. The age group and gender that followed them was highly sought-after by advertisers and merchandisers, and this is one reason why B&B were so pervasive in so many different media in their heyday. They were cool, hip, controversial, lucrative, and any mention of them anywhere was good for a laugh. Or ratings. Or a sale. When Beavis and Butt-head were no longer commercially viable, they simply passed on like so many fads tend to do. Beavis and Butt-head existed for a specific audience with specific tastes at a specific time. To say anything more is analytic overkill.

Beavis and Butt-head live on in extensive DVD collections and in the memories of those who see a certain vintage music video and smile at the thought of Butt-head thrusting his forked fingers into the air. Beavis, The Great Cornholio, may have gone on his final sugar binge but at least he had the last laugh: An older generation of serious critics, never realizing the true meaning of the show, made utter fools of themselves in damning Beavis and Butt-head as a leading example of a country's degeneration. Leave it to two utter morons to prick the critics' bubble.

(Huh-huh-huh! He said "prick!")

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.