It’s been more than fifteen years since Beavis and Butt-Head first aired, and maybe only now can it be truly appreciated. Okay, that’s probably crap — plenty of very bright people appreciated it when it was on. But now that social norms have passed it by, making its outrageous content a little tamer, and now that, as Dana Stevens of Slate noted when the first DVD collection came out, “[T]he world it so ruthlessly satirized, a suburban cocoon of mindless consumption and complacent self-regard, abruptly ceased to exist” after 9/11, maybe we can look at exactly what it did so well.
B&B is often seen as a precursor to South Park, a show that generally provokes a mixture of sympathy and exasperation in me — exasperation primarily because it’s so goddamned on the nose with its satire of topical political issues and celebrity quirks. (“Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet! Just come out of the closet, Mr. Cruise!”) B&B, on the other hand, isn’t usually about anyone recognizable at all, apart from a very generic Rush Limbaugh parody in “Right On.” Usually it’s just about these two sad fools, trying to squeeze something that doesn’t suck out of life. There’s rarely any fantasy or adventure in their lives — they’re too old for make-believe, unlike the South Park gang, and the show’s writers don’t allow things like a giant, out-of-control Barbra Streisand to come rampaging through the duo’s crappy Texas town. When there’s nothing on TV, there’s just nothing at all. And while in South Park the adults may be self-centered, thick, and sexually deviant, in B&B they’re flatly cruel. When Buzzcut and McVicker fake a fire alarm and lock the boys out of the school in just their underwear (“Wet Behind The Rears”), a line is horribly crossed — but of course, these boys’ absent parents will never file a complaint.
Speaking of which, Beavis and Butthead, unlike Family Guy, American Dad, and even Mike Judge’s own King of the Hill, owes no debt to The Simpsons. Matt Groening’s dysfunctional, greedy, but ultimately loving nuclear family look like the Flanderses compared to the brutally impoverished home life Beavis and Butt-Head seem to have emerged from. There’s no dopey dad, no long-suffering mom, no charmingly rivalrous sibs. These boys are afloat in the world, left to create meaning for themselves, or as we sometimes say outside of existentialist circles, criminally neglected. Why even the attentive Mr. Van Driessen doesn’t see this is something of a mystery, although he may simply be too liberal to criticize other people’s childrearing traditions.
But here’s an interesting secret: given that they’ve had absolutely no guidance and have had to develop their own stupid, TV-addled code of conduct, Beavis and Butthead are actually pretty smart. Presaging the interface-mediated worldview of kids raised on the internet, the two treat nearsighted Mr. Anderson, essentially, as an annoying but necessary program that simply requires certain inputs in order to function:
ANDERSON: Now I want you boys to prune both of these trees up front here, and uh… uh…. Hey, you boys look familiar. Aren’t you the ones that ran off with my ridin’ mower last week?
BUTT-HEAD: Uh… no.
ANDERSON: You the ones that painted my cat’s butt?
BUTT-HEAD: Huh-huh. No.
They frequently get the better of adults, exposing a sellout commercial DJ in “Radio Sweethearts” and applying perfectly reasonable logic to their refusal to take showers in “Wet Behind The Rears.” (“Uh, we didn’t sweat,” says Butt-Head, which is true — the two sat on the grass watching everyone else during P.E.)
The boys are also genuinely scientific in their curiosity, even if it only applies to certain realms of experience. They unintentionally discover recursion when they decide the coolest tattoo would be one of a butt, with a tattoo of a butt… on your butt. And Mr. Van Driessen is actually able to kindle their interest for a moment when he assigns them to figure out where “morning wood” comes from. They fail, because they fall asleep before morning comes, but they are nonetheless willing to try to the experimental method when the question posed interests them sufficiently. In “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Huh-Huh,” they try to figure out how many pencils can be shoved in their nostrils. Later in the episode, Butt-Head instantly grasps the principle of a Newton’s Cradle, and actually improvises a joke with it, holding it in front of his groin and saying “Ow….” [CLACK] “Ow….” [CLACK] “Ow….” In “Animation Sucks,” they enthusiastically draw hundreds of violent cartoons for an animated film, though the brevity of the final product disappoints them. (Anyone who’s ever animated by hand can relate.) And like Rosencrantz in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Beavis seems dim-witted but is actually possessed of the better scientific imagination, if only his more aggressive partner would stop sidetracking him:
[After a vending machine has failed to give them their snack.]
BUTT-HEAD: Hey Beavis, I just thought of something. Whoever buys the next pork rinds is gonna get our bag, plus another one.
BEAVIS: Cool, yeah. Let’s wait ’till they come, then kick their ass. Yeah, yeah!
BUTT-HEAD: No, dumbass! I mean like, if we get another sixty cents, we could like, get two for the price of one.
BEAVIS: Two for the price of one? That would be cool.
On the other hand, here’s Butt-Head’s circumspect, clinically scientific assessment of being stuck headfirst in a drainage pipe: “It’s not cool, Beavis. I’m not sure yet, but I think it sucks.” What other character on TV would be so willing to reserve judgement? (The boys, thinking things through in their own way, actually get as far as considering how to meet girls while stuck in a pipe before a security guard finds them.)
Perhaps none of this seems like it adds up to a whole lot in their favor, and indeed it doesn’t –the whole emotional gravity of the show comes out of the huge gap between what they can figure out for themselves and what they’re going to need to know to become even minimally functional adults. Periodically, as when they miss an opportunity to make out with trashy hotties Lolita and Tanqueray, they seem to glimpse what their shortcomings will actually mean for them in the future:
BUTT-HEAD: That sucks.
BEAVIS: Heh-heh, yeah, it doesn’t just suck, Butt-Head. It like, it really sucks. We’re gonna like, never gonna score, and we’re gonna be wussies, forever. It’s really gonna suck!
BUTT-HEAD: Settle down, Beavis.
BEAVIS: No — no, Butt-Head, I can’t settle down. It’s not fair! We’re not gonna score. It’s like, we’ll have cars, and we’ll get, like, a job, and we’ll, like, have to, like, mow lawns, and, like, scrub the grill, and we’re not gonna score — ever! Ahhh! Ahhh!
David Simon, creator of the most lauded television show in history, The Wire, said recently that while most writers today write Shakespearean dramas about human agency, he and his writers wrote stories in the Greek tragic mold, in which the human being was generally helpless before divine (or, in Simon’s case, institutional) forces that would ultimately, pitilessly crush him. Mike Judge was there way before you, dude. But Judge, unlike Simon, gives his characters some youthful optimism: as he points out in the documentary Taint of Greatness, whatever happens, at least they keep laughing.