Based on the hit MTV animated series, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America was the feature length directorial debut of Middle America provocateur Mike Judge. After several offers were made and turned down by Judge for a motion picture production based on his original cast of characters, a Beavis and Butt-Head movie finally began to go into production in 1994, with co-writer Joe Stillman attached to develop the an original screenplay. Eventually, Stillman and Judge developed what became one of the most successful December releases of all time, making back $20,114,233 on a $12 million budget.
Taking the form and inheriting the narrative tradition of the road movie in the same tradition as Easy Rider and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beavis and Butt-head Do America takes to the American highway with the same kind of willful abandon and reckless insouciance that the two eponymous anti-heroes had become known for already on the small screen. Instead of listlessly adding off-color commentary to the latest music videos currently airing on MTV, Judge’s directorial debut saw the high school burnouts grossly misunderstanding national monuments from the Hoover Dam to the Oval Office.
Twenty years later, Beavis and Butt-head Do America offers the same subversive titillation in a world that has become even more dependent on the soporific effects of multi-media consumerism. Hours spent on the couch watching MTV turned Beavis and Butt-head’s brains to mush over two decades ago, but in the time since then the rise of fake news conglomerates and nationalist demagogues confirms that the same can be said for the popular majority of Americans who grew up watching the movie in theaters originally. Apathy by-way-of MTV still stands as the centralizing dilemma of Beavis and Butt-head Do America, and Judge understands the ramifications of that problem more than the average viewer.
There’s nothing pretty about Beavis and Butt-head Do America. The two American delinquents’ actions are entirely repulsive, and the comedy that ensues arises from the tacit understanding on the part of the viewer that the kind of dependency on entertainment that the two protagonists blindly placate is analogous to anyone else’s respective habits as a consumer. Watching MTV music videos is synonymous with self-flagellation in Judge’s eyes, and Beavis and Butt-head are two of the most masochistic cartoon characters in recent memory.
So is Beavis and Butt-head Do America still funny in an American culture that appears to have severely underestimated its own kinship with the film’s prescient comedic foils? On the surface, the comedy on display throughout is even more insidious in its ability to reflect the viewer’s own narcissism and gluttony with an accuracy that increases by the day. As you dig a little deeper, the levels of verisimilitude between the base temperament and analytical integrity of the viewer and that of the subjects of objective satire line up too closely for comfort.
But if the difference between Beavis and Butt-head and the average American moviegoer and TV binge watcher is that small, can Judge’s film still offer some kind of relief? Yes. Yes he can. Because Beavis and Butt-head Do America demands that each and every one of us take stock of our own apathy and resignation to the alluring effects of media as a substitute for actual thought. The proliferation of multi-media options has only exacerbated the problem, as the inclusion of social media and online film and TV streaming options have extended beyond the living room to anywhere and everywhere. We can watch Beavis and Butt-head Do America while on a cross-country road trip across the United States, providing yet another level of contextual irony that not even Judge could have possibly predicted twenty years ago.
Beavis and Butt-head Do America isn’t a particularly novel animated comedy. But in its unrepentant depiction of the very basic structural hypocrisies of American life it reaches an enviable level of timeless relevancy. Beavis and Butt-head are still sitting on the couch thanks to a recent reboot of the MTV series, and the only difference is they’re now listlessly watching reality shows like Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant instead of the latest hair metal music videos. Their opinions and outlook on life hasn’t changed, which makes their sorry vocational obsolescence a comfortable consolation prize for the resigned viewer.
American life hasn’t changed that much since 1996. We’ve had our first African American president, survived another international war of contentious origins, and are in the brink of another generational epoch. And we still can’t stop watching TV. Even when our better judgment tells us to stop watching, many of us just can’t help ourselves from indulging in a multi-media marketplace that has become so variegated and incongruous that we have divided ourselves as a nation not according to religious belief or political affiliation but according to the content of our respective TV viewing diets.
Beavis and Butt-head Do America offers the bizarre solidarity of a generation raised on the singular programming options of the MTV generation. In its wake, other options have been introduced, and very few basic cable channels or TV programs are even watched by a the same kind of vast majority that used to tune in to see news anchor Walter Cronkite deliver the CBS Evening News in a bygone era. We’re no worse than we were twenty years ago, but we’re not really any better either. And Beavis and Butt-head’s continuing residence in the cultural consciousness confirms a lot of the social paranoia that creator Mike Judge has been warning us against as complacent viewers for just over two decades.
Beavis and Butt-head are still on the couch twenty years later, and Beavis and Butt-head Do America sees the two slackers aging comfortably into the twenty-first century. In 1996, the movie presented a possible outcome of the kinds of consumer culture being propagated and encouraged by an American populace dedicated to TV viewership on a part-time basis. As the proliferation of viewing options and access to entertainment content has become more readily available in the years since, the distinction between the film’s satire and the reality that it was meant to correct has grown more in sync with one another. Watching Beavis and Butt-head Do America today begins to take on the tone of personal assimilation to the title characters’ apathetic resignation to social consciousness, a facet of the property’s continuing appeal that simultaneously makes it one of the most biting cartoon caricatures of all time.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures