Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #17

Beavis and Butt-Head: A Look Back

 

Low-brow. Unsophisticated. Vulgar. Rude. Misogynistic. Poorly animated. Nonsensical stories. Cheaply made.

Beavis and Butt-Head were all these and less that celebrated stupidity and promoted ignorance of youth. It was vile, controversial and complete trash.

And we loved every minute of it.

Beavis and Butt-Head spoke to only a select few: The "MTV Kids" that were too old for regular cartoons and too young to get into what their parents watched for entertainment. It was anti-establishment, though that was completely unintentional, and was the perfect fit to entertain a generation that found themselves utterly bored with everything around them and disenfranchised from society..

Boredom is what Beavis and Butt-Head were against. I couldn't tell you what their goals in life were, what their opinions of politics might have been or even what their favorite things were other than the bands on their T-Shirts, but I could tell you they found ways to pass the time in their lowly town in any way they could. They, like any teenagers, were also completely judgmental. Everything either boiled down to good or bad with them. Good things helped pass the time, bad things were boring. Everything was either "that's cool" or "this sucks." In all honesty...that's pretty much the truth in the minds of those that watched it.

Because of this search of "boredom resolution" and airing on the channel that spoke to most teens, naturally controversy ensued. Those teens started emulating and copying it because they saw Beavis and Butt-Head as themselves. They didn't like adults, liked toilet humor and loved to "rock out." With this came parental watch-dog groups and politicians, as expected.

The controversy might have overshadowed it, and probably its legacy, but for those that were around when it was on the air, it was a pretty significant part of their television viewing and cultural behavior. It was the "anti-Simpsons," a mantle later picked up by South Park (more intelligently, I might add) after Beavis and Butt-Head ran its course. Sometimes, looking back at these things from my childhood and teen years, you have to appreciate whatever made an impact. While it was "trash" ... it was "trash" I enjoyed. Now, in hindsight, I've actually grown to appreciate it because of what creator Mike Judge wanted to do and, if anything, it now comes across as a bizarre social commentary on youth of the mid 1990s of which I was a part of. 

Beavis and Butt-Head won no awards and I doubt anyone would say the show was well-made, written or even had much of a point. It was certainly influential and some might even say ahead of its time, yet it's very, very stupid. But, I've learned to come to understand its place, and really the place of all "dumb" things that sometimes are needed - if anything so we can appreciate the well-crafted things.

I guess in that sense...Beavis and Butt-Head was actually "good."


 

A Brief History of Beavis and Butt-Head (Heh...dork)

 

-The characters of Beavis and Butt-Head first appeared in the animated shorts by Mike Judge: "Frog Baseball" which debuted at Spike and Mike's Twisted Festival of Animation in the early 1990s and later aired on MTVs popular "Liquid Television" series - a series full of random animated shorts by various creators. Judge also animated a follow-up short entitled "Peace, Love and Understand" which also featured the duo.

-MTV commissioned Judge to write and animate (as well as voice) the duo into a series. Each episode was about ten minutes in length which included music videos inserted in. Judge did commentary during the videos as Beavis and Butt-Head watching television, these segments were completely improvised.

-Stories consisted of the two high-school students getting into some sort of trouble or situation, treating people like dirt along the way, and somehow getting out of the situation with no consequences. It all took place in the town of Hilldale and their daily routines and interactions with the town's quirky inhabitants.

-The series aired for seven "seasons" from 1993 to 1997 totaling 200 episodes and four holiday "specials" 

-1996 saw the release of the feature "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America." The film freatured voices such as Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, David Letterman, Robert Stack and Richard Linklater.  It surprised many people, receiving mostly positive critic reception and debuting number one at the box office at 20 million and grossed over 80 worldwide. 

-Controversy always followed the show, with many pundits and watch dog groups noting the boys' behavior, particular Beavis's obsession with fire, their rudeness and antics harming impressionable children. Many drew lines from violent acts by children directly back to the show. As a result, MTV began putting up the infamous Beavis and Butt-Head disclaimer (which South Park would later adopt in their own way:

"Beavis and Butt-head are not role models. They're not even human, they're cartoons. Some of the things they do could cause a person to get hurt, expelled, arrested, possibly deported. To put it another way: Don't try this at home."

Of course, this was the second version of the disclaimer because the original disclaimer was deemed to "controversial." Also,many episodes were altered, edited or outright banned from airing.

-The media obsession over them spawned more than just controversy - it also spawned a mass marketing push from MTV which resulted in toys, a comic book series, video games and a dozen or so popular books.

-By 1997, with Beavis and Butt-Head's popularity high, less was focused on the controversy with America's youth and more on their promotion of societal stupidity. Judge's response to these particular critiques was that a show about straight-A students wouldn't be funny.

-The show officially went off the air in 1997 and left as one of the highest rated television shows on the air at the time. Many believed it could have lasted longer, however Judge decided no more could be done and went to focus his efforts on his other animated series which debuted that year, King of the Hill, and to begin development of a film that was to be released a few years later: Office Space, yet another project based on a short skit Judge created for Liquid Television.


 

Top Five Weird Beavis and Butt-Head Products

 

I wasn't entirely sure how to do a Top Ten for Beavis and Butt-Head. Many of the episodes were pretty repetitious of other episodes, they weren't that long and there were 200 of them. Instead, I decided to think outside the box and go with the top ten weirdest Beavis and Butt-Head merchandise.The two troublemakers were the face of MTV for years and MTV marketed the hell out of them which resulted in many official, and some unofficial, products that makes you ask "why?"


5: The Beavis and Butt-Head Action Figures

Now, I know what you're thinking: "cool, it's an action figure." That's a commonly held belief because action figures are, by all account, cool. The Beavis and Butt-Head figures themselves are actually nicely made, well-painted and posable. Sure it all seems nice, until you have a look that one of the accessories included what is described as "Spank Magazine." Both Beavis and Butthead come with this accessory. What's interesting is this isn't really a "novelty" toy as some nostalgic figures today might be (such as this one which is similar) but these figures came out right around the time of the film's release, Spank Magazine and all, and in the toy aisles of your local Wal-Mart no less.


4: Beavis and Butt-Head Plush Dolls

There's a lot of Beavis and Butt-Head merchandise that works. Action figures, even with a spank bank rag. Clothing is another one as are lunchboxes, hats and comics.

This just doesn't seem right. Ask yourself: do the words "cute" and "cuddly" really come to mind when thinking of Beavis and Butt-Head? Who are these dolls for? Not for kids, I hope. Not for women because I don't know a single woman who watched Beavis and Butt-Head when they were younger. It can't be for boys because, let's face it, most boys wouldn't be caught dead with a plush toy and certainly not the Beavis and Butt-Head demographic that probably wouldn't even buy the awesome action figures.

Instead, we get something that is completely pointless and doesn't quite appeal to anyone...except me. Yes, I would buy those off of ebay because I'm weird like that.


3: Beavis and Butt-Head Scratch and Sniff Cards

In 1994, Fleer was assigned to create and release a series of trading cards based on Beavis and Butt-Head. Now trading cards alone would make a list because, really, they're pretty worthless unless you're just a huge fan or just a ten-year-old showing them off to friends at recess. Inserted randomly into the packs were ten rare "scratch and sniff" cards that ranged in aromas from tacos to moldy cheese or from pine to sulfur. 

It was a gamble.

But then you have to ask yourself: why would you want to gamble with smells that are Beavis and Butt-Head related in the first place?


2: Beavis and Butt-Head Chicken Soup Book

The irony of there being books based on characters that hate them aside, and believe me there were tons of books featuring the troublemaking teens, this particular one is just bizarre. It's the widely-popular "Chicken Soup for the Soul" franchise parodied and picked apart by two absolute morons.

And I'll be damned if it doesn't actually work.

This isn't on this list because it's "dumb" or "pointless" - the show reveled in that enough. Instead, this book is actually smart in how it approaches the idea of 'self-help' books.

Wait...a "smart" Beavis and Butt-Head product?

Yes. As it turns out, it's thoroughly full of satire on a popular, Oprah-recommended, nationally read phenomenon and I'll be damned if it didn't bring to light the stupidity of the Chicken Soup series by acting completely and utterly stupid itself and showing how the entire "self-help" phenomenon can be pretty ridiculous if not correctly monitored (which it never has been and that's why there's hundreds of books like Chicken Soup for the Soul out there today).

Well, all that and do you really want to read a book full of advice topics by Beavis and Butt-Head?


1: Beavis and Butt-Head Nesting Dolls

In all fairness, these aren't "official" toys. They're crappy third rate Beavis and Butt-Head merchandise probably sold in eastern Europe markets between the roasted duck and boxes of babushkas. 

But that doesn't mean they're any less weird. It's Next Dolls....with Beavis and Butt-Head painted on them. It's not like the person who created them didn't know who Beavis and Butt-Head were. So one of the oldest toys in the world, still being crafted since 1900, has the luxury of two of the most obnoxious creations ever created painting on them.


 

Beavis and Butt-Head gave America's youth in the 1990s the false-impression of maturity, similar to the way youth today think violent vidoegames are "mature" or Family Guy "for adults." Even the comedic obsessions of "that's what she saids" has some thanks to give to the barrage of innuendos and sexual deviancy Beavis and Butt-Head would throw out. It's adult content, but not really for adults. In the 1990s, watching Beavis and Butt-Head felt like a badge of honor for my agegroup (roughly 13 to 18 year olds). 

It's in that element that I realize that, while shows like Beavis and Butt-Head will continue to emerge, that original "this is so cool" feeling as I snuck viewings away from my parents will never come again. You felt giddy as you watched, as though you were doing something against the code of values and really sticking it to those lame adults. Well, now I'm an adult and while I may not recapture those immediate feelings from my youth, I can certainly recapture my youth every time I occasionally catch an repeat on television and at least think about those original, almost therapeutic feelings circa 1994. I, like most kids, really, never sat out to emulate Beavis and Butt-Head or look to them as role models as the media claimed every viewer was. I never became obsessed with fire, beat frogs with bats, grope women and I think I only 'whacked off' in a tool shed once.  The show and the pop-culture wake it made came and went....heh....I said 'came.'

 


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