Eric's Time Capsule: Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (Dec. 20, 1996)

When Beavis and Butt-Head premiered on MTV in the spring of 1993, it was heralded as the latest thing that would corrupt the nation's youth and lead to the downfall of Western civilization. After all, the moronic pair of crudely animated teenagers was first seen in a 1992 short called "Frog Baseball," which was exactly what it sounds like. The show was blamed for several dangerous (and even deadly) things that kids did in real life. Beavis and Butt-Head were going to ruin us! Won't someone think of the children??!

Beavis and Butt-Head didn't wind up doing much harm to society, though I can't say they really helped it, either. As infamous as they were at the time, their MTV antics and their feature film, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, released 12 years ago this week, seem quaint and harmless today -- a little vulgar, sure, but nothing compared to South Park (which premiered in 1997) or Family Guy (1999).

It was all the brainchild of Mike Judge, who wrote, animated, and provided most of the voices for the show. Judge's other animated series, King of the Hill, premiered on Fox a few weeks after Beavis and Butt-Head Do America hit theaters, featuring a similarly Texan setting and a lead character who strongly resembled B&B's hapless neighbor Mr. Anderson. King of the Hill is the gentlest of Fox's Sunday night animated sitcoms, and it's much closer in tone to Beavis and Butt-Head than Judge's live-action films, Office Space and Idiocracy, both of which are savagely satirical. Beavis and Butt-Head, both in TV and movie form, was toothless, rarely satirizing anything other than general teenage stupidity.

The movie, which arrived a little after the TV show had peaked in popularity but still in time to have a $20 million opening weekend, took some risks with the format. A typical half-hour TV episode would include two six-minute Beavis and Butt-Head shorts and three music videos, with snarky commentary by the duo. It was the video commentary that gave the show its hook -- Mystery Science Theater 3000 for adolescents -- and it was also many viewers' favorite part of the Beavis and Butt-Head experience. The film doesn't have any video watching, and the usual six-minute story has been expanded to 75. That's a long time to spend with characters who, by definition, never learn, grow, progress, or evolve.

Judge kept things familiar in other ways though: while the TV series had been infamous for its vulgarity, the movie was PG-13, and not a very risqué one, either. A feature film could have been the chance to circumvent MTV's standards (such as they were) and let the boys use the profanities and vulgarisms they'd always wanted to, like the South Park movie did three years later. Instead, Judge kept things reined in, offering nothing randier than viewers were used to from watching the TV show. He and his team barely even improved the animation quality, letting it remain as lovably cheap-looking as ever.

The TV show had been accused of contributing not just to the general level of crassness in society, but to the overall "dumbing down of America." Its more erudite supporters, which included Roger Ebert and David Letterman (who makes a cameo in the film as Butt-Head's probable father), insisted it was more subversive than that. To them, the show wasn't being idiotic; it was making fun of idiots. It was showing MTV's typical audience members what they really looked like. That joke was lost on plenty of those viewers, of course, who simply liked the sophomoric double entendres and felt a kinship with the boys, not realizing they were being held up to ridicule.

Ebert summed it up thus in his review of the film: "It is widely but wrongly believed that Beavis and Butt-Head celebrates its characters, and applauds their sublime lack of values, taste and intelligence. I've never thought so. I believe Mike Judge would rather die than share a taxi ride to the airport with his characters -- that for him, B&B function like Dilbert's co-workers in the Scott Adams universe. They are a target for his anger against the rising tide of stupidity." The fact that Judge later made the brilliantly perceptive Idiocracy, ruthlessly skewering America for being too dumbed-down, shows there was method to his madness all along.

By the time the Beavis and Butt-Head movie came around, complaints about the TV show's negative impact on America's I.Q. had gone away. Those who admired its no-frills approach, which stripped adolescent humor down to its basic elements, praised the movie for continuing in that vein; those who hated it had, for the most part, long since given up objecting to it. Perhaps they sensed, like animals before an earthquake, that the country's moral environment was about to get a lot raunchier, what with South Park and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal mere months away. Beavis and Butt-Head were practically altar boys compared to that.

Vulgar humor is a lot more layered today. The South Park boys are potty-mouthed juveniles, but the show is often fiendishly clever with its social and political satire. The films of Judd Apatow have set a new standard, too, being ceaselessly raunchy yet also culturally savvy, even intellectual. No longer is it enough to have two boys sit in front of a TV and grunt-laugh while saying the word "balls." Beavis and Butt-Head are relics from a simpler time who would be completely lost in the world of Seth Rogen and Steve Carell.


FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Beavis and Butt-Head Do America was released, 12 years ago this week, on Dec. 20, 1996...

Scream, One Fine Day, and My Fellow Americans were released the same day. Jerry Maguire, The Preacher's Wife, and Mars Attacks! had come out the week before.

• TV shows that had recently premiered include Everybody Loves Raymond, Blue's Clues, Judge Judy, Spin City, and Early Edition. At the other end of the circle of life: Matlock, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Murder, She Wrote, and The Ren and Stimpy Show had all recently ended their runs.

• The No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, for the third week in a row, was Toni Braxton's "Un-Break My Heart." Before that it had been Blackstreet's "No Diggity" for four weeks, and before that it was "Macarena" for -- wow -- 14 unbearable weeks.

• Bill Clinton had been reelected six weeks earlier. The Fox News Channel was 2 and a 1/2 months old. O.J. Simpson's wrongful death civil trial was well underway. JonBenét Ramsey was about to become a household name when the 6-year-old girl was murdered in her parents' basement on Dec. 26.

• Carl Sagan died on this day. Musician Tiny Tim had died three weeks earlier, and singer Eva Cassidy a few weeks before that.

• Abigail Breslin, recently an Oscar nominee for Little Miss Sunshine, was eight months old. Madonna's first child, Lourdes, was two months old.

• In Las Vegas, the Sands Hotel had recently been imploded to make way for the new Venetian; at the end of December, the Hacienda Hotel would suffer the same fate to be replaced by the Mandalay Bay.

• Books on the New York Times Best Seller List included Danielle Steele's Silent Honor, Tom Clancy's Executive Orders, Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook, and Sue Grafton's "M" Is for Malice.

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"Eric's Time Capsule" appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website.