Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)

Earlier this year, millions of people felt a sinking sensation upon the release of Beavis and Butt-Head: The Mike Judge Collection. They realized that it’s been 15 years since these boys first splattered a frog with a baseball bat. Beavis and Butt-Head should be around 30 now, as frightening as all the thought that their fans — those little cretins who used to chant “Fire! Fire!” — now have families of their own and are handling your tax returns. It’s also hard to believe that it’s been a decade since Beavis and Butt-Head Do America hit theaters, and yet, here comes the special “retrospective” edition. Even the dumbest dog, apparently, has its day.

Beavis and Butt-Head are either humor for the lowest common denominator or trenchant satire. From the perspective of the teenagers who aped their “This sucks” philosophy, Beavis and Butt-Head are anti-heroes whose complete disregard for social mores and decorum offers a Zen-like path to enlightened simplicity. (Of course, intellectualizing it fairly defeats the purpose.) On the other hand, their crude behavior earned them plenty of ire from not only parents’ groups and the FCC, but also critics who failed to see the send-up in celebrating stupidity or abhorred it for its influence on the very kids it was supposedly lampooning.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America was popular, but critics were split down the middle as to whether it was poignant commentary or puerile trash. Creator Mike Judge sees it as an update of the classic “man who knows too little” archetype. As he explains in the DVD commentary, he was inspired by the movies of Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers, playing hapless fools who save the day by accident, mostly as a result of their own bumbling. As Judge says,

You can’t have Beavis and Butt-Head figuring a way to get out of the trunk they’re trapped in, because they’re dumbasses. Things have to happen to them by accident or because they’re stupid.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is a cross-country adventure that includes double-crossing lovers and biological weapons, all happening to Beavis and Butt-head. Like Sellers or Lewis, they are oblivious to all but their own shortsighted desires. At first, they’re on a quest to find a new TV after theirs is stolen. This leads them to a seedy motel where Muddy (Bruce Willis) mistakes them for hit men and charges them with killing his ex-wife Dallas (Demi Moore). The boys comprehend absolutely none of this, mistaking Muddy’s instructions to “do” his wife for an invitation to have sex with her. They hit the road when Dallas slips a secret, highly potent virus into Beavis’ shorts and asks them to meet her in Washington, D.C.

Despite its ostensibly epic scope, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, like the characters themselves, is insularly focused on the boys’ twin desires to “score” and watch TV. Co-director Yvette Kaplan, who shares the commentary duties with Judge, acknowledges that the film’s humor comes from the characters’ “purity.” Midway through an extended desert scene, the boys are exhausted and near death, crawling across the sands: “The sun sucks,” Butt-Head says, pouring sweat. As they gasp for air, Butt-Head extends a shaky finger and weakly intones, “Hey Beavis, check it out.” He points to two buzzards humping away, and the boys cough their way through a round of their signature “Huh-huh” laughter.

It’s their complete inability to comprehend their surroundings or situation that makes them so damn funny. As Judge describes it, the “magic” of Beavis and Butt-Head is their ability to say “the most inappropriate thing in front of the wrong person and have absolutely no shame about it.” Indeed, that anarchic thrill is exactly what captured the hearts of teenagers — actual and overgrown — everywhere.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is little more than an extended episode of the show, and Judge claims this was fully his intention. But watching “The Big Picture,” the behind the scenes documentary included on this edition, one realizes how close the movie came to being too spectacular and movie-like, and how awful that would have been (one idea was a live action version starring Chris Farley as Butt-Head and David Spade as Beavis). Judge observes that, had the show or movie been pitched today, the studio would have immediately begun casting celebrities to voice Beavis and Butt-Head, a now standard process that Judge unsurprisingly argues is “ruining” animation. Many name actors appear in supporting roles here, everyone from old pros like Robert Stack and Cloris Leachman to Greg Kinnear, Eric Bogosian, and an uncredited David Letterman. But all of them worked for minor or no pay, out of genuine love for the project.

The 10th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition is full of happy surprises. Who knew, for example, that Richard Linklater did several voices, or that the faux-Latin lyrics in John Frizzell’s sweeping score are “Scrotum agitato, genitilus largo”? Or that Matt Stone and Trey Parker met their future South Park collaborator Isaac Hayes at the movie’s premiere? More interestingly, who would have guessed that “Lesbian Seagull” (sung here by both the boys’ hippie teacher Mr. Van Driessen [Judge] and Englebert Humperdinck) was an actual song? Those who feel indifferent or even virulently opposed to Beavis and Butt-Head won’t likely be swayed by such revelations. For their legion of fans, however, this DVD provides yet another dimension to a story that’s aging unexpectedly gracefully.

RATING 8 / 10