“Beavis & Butt-head”
Contributor: Devon Tincknell
Beavis: Hey Butthead, what did people do before they invented TV?
Butthead: Don’t be stupid, Beavis. There’s always been TV. There’s just more channels now.
Beavis: Oh yeah, (snickers), progress is cool.
- “Beavis and Butt-head,” Killing Time
Debuting on MTV on March 8, 1993, Beavis and Butt-head quickly became two of the nineties’ most iconic characters. Created and voiced by Mike Judge, the duo’s self-titled series was the Seinfeld of low-brow animation, yet another “show about nothing.” Most of the series’ short vignettes centered around Beavis and Butt-head heckling MTV, using television to determine what was “cool” and what “sucked,” and chortling incessantly, all while completely bereft of adult supervision.
Less than a year after “Beavis and Butt-head” first hit the airwaves, a 2-year-old girl in Ohio was killed when her 5-year-old brother, Austin, lit a fire in their trailer. The girl’s mother, Darcy Burck, said Austin’s behavior was inspired by Beavis and Butt-head, particularly Beavis’ pyromaniacal fascinations and repetitive catchphrase, “Fire! Fire!” In the weeks following the incident, MTV pledged to scrub references to fire from previous episodes and cancel the show’s earlier 7 p.m. time slot to discourage younger viewers, but the cultural controversy around the show had already been ignited.
Growing up without MTV, or cable for that matter, my initial awareness of Beavis and Butt-head arrived filtered through two opposing forces: my peers and my parents. While friends with unfettered access to MTV, often due to lax or working parents, loved the show and mocked my ignorance of it, my mother considered it to be one of the worst things she had ever seen. Of course, she had never actually seen the show, but rather picked up the gist of it from the supermarket tabloid headlines that detailed the show’s role in the trailer fire, as well as another incident where a cat was killed by a firecracker, something Beavis and Butt-head joked about but never actually did.
Years later, a friend bought the series on DVD and I finally sat down to watch it. With only a few of the show’s 5 minute episodes under my belt, I was shocked to discover that, rather than being the irredeemable, irresponsible trash culture scourge my mother had feared, the show was a sharp satire of the warped view of reality children obtain when raised primarily by their television sets.
Mike Sweeney, writing for the Baltimore Sun, described Beavis and Butt-head as “living out an adult’s worst fears of what adolescents would be like without any parental influence. Filled with violence, arson, cruelty to animals, sexual innuendo, ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ is a parent’s nightmare of how his or her little boy might turn out.” Ironically, the show became incredibly popular with precisely the sort of unsupervised children Beavis and Butt-head’s moronic, dangerous behavior was designed to mock.
On the show, Beavis and Butt-head spend more time on the couch in front of the TV than anywhere else. Their parents are non-existent. Though as cartoon characters, they rarely suffer serious consequences for their idiotic actions, the show’s creators never seem to be offering them up as role models or suggesting that what they are doing is in any way a good idea.
Even Judge himself said he doesn’t allow his own children to watch the show he works on. “It’s definitely not for 5-year-olds,” Judge said. “It seems that no matter how many times I say it’s adult animation, people think it’s for kids.”
Following the fire incident, media critics decried Beavis and Butt-head as poor role models and explained that “young children can’t tell always the difference between TV and reality.” Unfortunately, media critics can’t always discern the difference between satire and sincerity, either. After two years of being held up as the poster boys of America’s declining values, “Beavis and Butt-head,” whose writing staff included Harvard graduates, struck back with the episode “Lightning Strikes,” a pointed jab aimed squarely at their detractors.
In the episode, the boys watch a PBS special about Ben Franklin and then, inspired by what they saw on TV, set out into a thunderstorm to fly a kite with a metal key attached. They’re struck by lightning and end up in the hospital where Butt-head is interviewed by Besty Weiner from the fictional organization Decency in Media about what inspired his foolish actions. Butt-head describes watching a show with some “old dude with long hair and glasses,” who Weiner assumes is Howard Stern, and then admits to maybe watching “some videos or something” earlier in the day. Weiner pounces on the music videos as the inspiration and the next day holds a press conference blaming music television for Beavis and Butt-head’s injuries.
Like the fictional Weiner, the critics who sought to blame Beavis and Butt-head for the moronic acts of unsupervised children missed the point. Beavis and Butt-head aren’t role models for dumb kids, they’re parodies of them. As a child, I received contradictory messages about Beavis and Butt-head: friends said it was cool, while the media said it was cruel. And as a child, without access to the show or the intelligence to understand it, I failed to realize that both of those messages are flawed. The characters Beavis and Butt-head aren’t cool; they’re cruel, ignorant little urchins who have been badly damaged by overexposure to media. The show “Beavis and Butt-head,” on the other hand, is not only cool, it’s hilarious and brilliant.
Next month, “Beavis and Butt-head” will return to MTV with new episodes for the first time in over a decade. The pop cultural landscape has changed significantly since the last time Beavis and Butt-head sat down on a couch to mock it, so in accordance with MTV’s general lack of music videos these days, the snickering twosome will be poking fun at YouTube videos, reality TV, and other novel 21st-century cultural ephemera. But while Beavis and Butt-head are prepared to poke fun at the new media landscape, how the new media will welcome back the nineties most infamous instigators remains to be seen.
 Jim DeBrosse, “MTV tries to cool ‘Beavis’ debate raging in wake of fatal fire set by fan,” Cox News Service, November 9, 1993, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1993-11-09/features/1993313130_1_beavis-and-butt-head-violence-mtv.
 David Zurawik, “Beavis and Fire, Mass Media and Behavior”, October 24, 1993, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1993-10-24/news/1993297147_1_beavis-and-butt-head-tv-and-film-shows.
 John Leland et al., “Battle for Your Brain,” Newsweek, October 11, 1193, http://www.lexisnexis.com/lnacui2api/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T12780447406&format=GNBFI&sort=
 Mike Sweeney, “Heh-Heh, Heh-Heh,” Baltimore Sun, October 22, 1993, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1993-10-22/news/1993295063_1_beavis-and-butt-head-newsweek-heh.
 Bob Fenster, “Drawing the line for Beavis and Butt-head,” Arizona Republic, December 22, 1996, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-12-22/news/1996357138_1_beavis-and-butt-head-butt-head-do-america-judge.
 Zurawik, “Beavis and Fire, Mass Media and Behavior.”
 Leland et al., “Battle for Your Brain.”
 Greg Braxton, “‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ on MTV: Fall TV,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2011, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/11/entertainment/la-ca-mike-judge-20110911.