Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)

Sean O’Neal

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, like the characters themselves, is insularly focused on the boys’ twin desires to “score” and watch TV.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America

Subtitle: 10th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition
Cast: Mike Judge, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Robert Stack, Cloris Leachman
Director: Yvette Kaplan
Display Artist: Mike Judge, Yvette Kaplan
Studio: MTV
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA rating: PG-13
First date: 1996
US DVD Release Date: 2006-09-12

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.


This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.