Tuneless, Not Timeless
Beavis & Butt-head is not a cartoon about a couple of metalheads in a state of arrested adolescence. It is not a mix of toilet humor and sexual innuendo, a portrait of disaffected males, or an ode to wasted youth. In fact, without its music video inserts, it’s not much of anything at all. When the series first appeared on MTV in the mid-‘90s, it was a weird wake-up call for parents who were clueless about their children’s destructive drives. Now, over a decade later, it’s a backwards glance at a demographic gone demented.
Some viewers see it as history. In the documentary, “Taint of Greatness,” on the second collection of Mike Judge-approved episodes, Trey Parker and Snoop Dogg discuss the shows’ sentient social commentary. Parker believes it to be a window into the world of restless “teen angst,” championing Judge for painting such a caustic picture. Mr. D-O-Double-G also gives the series props for offering a couple of “crazy-ass dudes” who responded to rap before the rest of the white world did.
Sadly, we’ll have to take his word for it. For reasons having to do with rights clearances and longstanding feuds, Beavis & Butt-head episodes are hitting the digital domain without music video segments. This presents two major problems. First, without these peeks into the cultural landscape circa 1993-97, we lose much of the series’ significance. Beavis & Butt-head was not just about two dorks discussing their nut-sacks and trying to score. Judge, who voiced both characters, regularly chastised bands for using imbecilic imagery and focused his fanboy love on classic creativity.
When Disc Three delivers a baker’s dozen of the much missed music videos, presented just as they first aired, with the boys’ dishing. With such something like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” is actually made more compelling by Beavis and Butt-head’s discussion (they keep waiting for the film’s fake crime show to start) and they consistently let the air our of the ‘90s fixation with alternative rock (Six String Satellite and Helium get significant smackdowns). When Judge can make mocking Madonna or ragging on Rush seem new, you understand where his true talents lie. Deconstructing the music scene and the network that championed such chum, Judge voiced what thousands of disenchanted fans were thinking.
Indeed, Beavis & Butt-head frequently courted controversy in pursuit of socio-political insights (among its diverse targets, count Bill Clinton and the Religious Right). While shows like The Simpsons, South Park or Family Guy wear their ideologies on their hand-drawn sleeves, Judge offered subtler critiques, in his dysfunctional duo’s peculiar worldview. For the most part, however, the music-video-less episodes are rough going. The 40 episodes here are a chaotic cross-section of Beavis & Butt-head‘s history. Lacking chronology, the episodes include several in the middle of Season Five (on the second disc, starting with “Animation Sucks” and ending 10 installments later with “Close Encounters”), and some from Season Six. As Judge hasn’t organized the DVDs into single seasons, we don’t see how the humor or targets change with time. Every episode must more or less stand on its own. For a concept that so cagily mirrored its context, such a scattered approach is problematic at best.
Take “Lightning Strikes.” Using a simple set-up—Beavis and Butt-head get electrocuted trying to recreate Ben Franklin’s kite experiment—Judge jumps on the anti-TV violence bandwagon by introducing a character, Ms. Weiner, who is looking into the connection between irresponsible kids and the media. It was a subject the animator knew well: when the series first hit the airwaves, numerous cases of adolescent arson were attached to the series when kids claimed they “learned” the behavior from mimicking Beavis’ “Fire! FIRE! FIRE!!!” mantra. Yet without that subtext, the show’s overriding message—dumb-asses will do dumb-ass things no matter what the media present—is given short shrift.
Or again, in the coffee-house-skewering “Buttniks,” Beavis and Butt-head observe an amateur poetry reading at the local java joint. A few caffeinated beverages later, Beavis is transformed into his blithering, Hispanic alter ego Cornholio. Naturally, the crowd digs his rabid riffing. It’s a funny bit, but all the ancillary humor is missing. Beavis’ success suggests that slam was equal parts bravado and bullshit: if any hard-rock retard jolted on joe can so easily emulate the ersatz aesthetic, the genre is a joke. But this bit doesn’t hit so hard, because most viewers won’t remember the moment of its inception.
Still, some of the episodes do fine as singles. “Spanish Fly” features homoerotic and homophobic jokes, alluding to the confusions of middle school, when Butt-head spikes some milk, only to have it drunk by a guy he will wrestle later in gym class. The duo throws the most pathetic “Party” of all time (uber-nerd Stewart and his Sunday School pals show up, only to be beat down by town delinquent Todd and his badass buddies. But without the organization provided by seasons, these are isolated successes.