I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Surprising Brilliance of Beavis and Butthead

by Jake Goldman
July 12, 2011

It is, perhaps, a strange and unsavory thing to say but, alas, the truth must make itself known: Beavis and Butthead had a profound impact on me as a kid. I remember sitting on my basement couch in an uncommon state of awe and laughter; I felt high, though I’d never so much as known the smell of weed at that point (I do now, thanks). All of the MTV-produced programming at that time blew my spongy little mind. Shows like The State, Liquid Television, and even Remote Control all had nuanced, well-developed sensibilities that spoke to me in a way that the sound-stages of sitcoms could not; it all felt so new, and almost revolutionary. However, it was Beavis and Butthead that ultimately won the largest share of my heart.

I obsessed over the show. I watched the re-runs and would write down the funnier lines in a spiral notebook. I bought the video game, and the guidebooks, and saw the movie four times in the theater. Every time the pair sunk into a fit of laughter, I joined in with them, narrowly avoiding death by choking on whatever salty, powdered snack I was inhaling. My hair, at the time, was a large brown poof and braces lined my teeth. Someone once called me Butthead, and I was surprisingly okay with it.

At the time, I couldn’t be certain why exactly it was I loved them so. True, I had always been partial to fart jokes, but looking back, I was nothing like those characters. Though every episode makes it clear that Beavis and Butthead are headed nowhere in a hurry, there was something exciting about it. I didn’t emulate the pair per se, but it was their carefree spirits, their nonchalance around authority figures, and their general, simple life philosophy of just enjoying the fuck out of it by doing stupid things that drew me in. I think what I realized is that Beavis and Butthead were way more comfortable in their own skin than I was. And I wanted to get to their level.

Hey, whatever -- we were all delicate flowers once and needed something to latch onto, something to comfort us and tell us we weren’t in prime position to fail in life just because we had a whole lot of social anxiety. Maybe you had Boxcar Children or whatever. I had my laughing brothers, sitting on couches in soiled shirts, skipping school and making a mess of deep fryers.

Watching it now, of course, had a different yet still profound impact on me. As it would happen, I did not become a Beavis or a Butthead. My braces have since been removed, my hair is without poof, I have held a decent job for a good, long while and I have never hit a frog with a baseball bat. I turned out okay, which makes the circumstances surrounding this episode of Beavis and Butthead all the more hilarious. It’s split into two parts: "Be All You Can Be" and "Closing Time".  

"Be All You Can Be" was one of eleven episodes banned by the powers that be at MTV and Viacom for numerous references to fire and misuse of a grenade that is thrown through a window and seems to explode outside (we never see what sort of damage it did or didn’t do). That’s important to note, because I think this episode does something pretty damn brilliant. Standards and practices departments at major television networks are notorious for robbing good shows of their ability to take risks. In truth, what most networks fear is bad P.R. From my point of view, it’s bullshit. Television does not make kids set stuff on fire or hurl themselves off of cliffs—sure, maybe the seed was planted in their mind by something they saw, but a kid who is predisposed to pyromania is going to find a way to destroy something one way or another. What makes "Be All You Can Be" so deliciously excellent, though, is the subtext. Yes, Beavis and Butthead dangerously play with a grenade and then laugh about the explosion afterward. But they’re doing so inside a military recruitment office after being forced to watch a video in which a soldier brags about killing a slew of innocent “enemies” early in the morning. Beavis and Butthead are then forced at gunpoint to sign up for service while the recruiting Sergeant screams “I took a bullet for Uncle Sam!” Here, Mike Judge is deftly lampooning the degree to which we’re all brainwashed into thinking how important and heroic our military is by butting it up against two complete, nearly brain-dead morons. In other words: war and murder are essentially on the same operating level of Beavis and Butthead. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

Judge goes even subtler in "Closing Time", poking fun at small-time government bureaucracy. In this episode, Beavis and Butthead work the late shift at Burger World, a fast food joined that cheekily employs an upside-down set of McDonald’s golden arches as its logo. Bored on the slow shift, the pair decide to partake in their ritual “Burger War,” in which they hurl half-cooked meat at one another. In this war, they discover a ceiling fan that elevates the game to an entirely new level and within minutes, Burger World is transformed into a slimy, disgusting pit of grease and pickle juice. The walls are covered. A hefty health inspector saunters in saying he received a truckload of complaints that night and needed to perform an immediate inspection. He finds 37 violations, but then suddenly smells something emanating from the deep fryer: “curly fries.” “Curly fries,” here, are in quotes because they aren’t so much potato-filled as they are deep-fried worms Beavis chucked in at the end of his shift. The health inspector dumbly inhales the worms, none the wiser, and hints that with this bribe, he could maybe turn a blind eye to some of the violations. Again, there goes Judge quietly pointing out hypocrisies while still pulling of a silly, fart-joke-filled program.

Say what you will, but I think this is a truly smart cartoon. And I’m extremely glad I could experience it once again. 

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.