Reviews

Reviews

Beavis and Butt-head Do America

Beavis and Butt-head Do America

Mike Judge and Yvette Kaplan

USA, 1996

Credits

Review by Katherine Follett

Posted on 15 February 2009

Source Paramount Home Entertainment DVD

If Beavis and Butt-head had been the third or fourth creation of Mike Judge, rather than the first, culture critics would see it in a very different light. Since the infamously stupid cartoon duo first aired on MTV, Judge has gone on to create one of the most relatable and beloved modern cult films (Office Space); a warm, realistic, highly-rated animated sitcom that has run for over ten seasons (King of the Hill); and what many believed was a mockery of mass culture so biting that its studio refused to promote it for fear of condemning itself (Idiocracy). In almost every effort, Judge has proved himself a satirist of the first order. But when Beavis and Butt-head first arrived in 1992 (back when MTV enjoyed a near-monopoly on national hip youth culture), people saw it as a lamentable example, rather than a scathing parody, of wasted youth. In light of his later work, the truth should now be obvious. As with many brilliant parodies, Beavis and Butt-head was so spot-on that it could easily be mistaken for the real thing, even by the very TV-staring, soda-swilling, chick-ogling idiots it mocked.

There seemed to be three classes of reaction to Beavis and Butt-head among its target demographic. There were people who got the satire and found it hilarious. There were people who didn’t get it and found it incredibly dumb. And there were people who didn’t get it and found it hilarious. At certain points, there is overlap between the first and last categories, because Beavis and Butt-head Do America (and Beavis and Butt-head the show) is hilarious, often at several levels at once. One of my moments occurs at the Hoover Dam: instead of beholding the glory that is a whole lot of concrete blocking a river, Beavis and Butt-head snigger and inquire, “Excuse me, is this a God dam?” On one level, the lowest level, they say “God damn” in front of a bunch of old ladies and a National Parks employee. On another level, they’re too stupid to appreciate an engineering marvel, and make crass jokes at the expense of a simple homophone (Heh heh. Homo.) But on yet another level, the Hoover Dam is a hokey and somewhat depressing tourist trap, and there’s a delightful absurdist post-grammar to the phrase, “is this a God dam?” Whether you want to grab one, two, or three of these levels, Beavis and Butt-head Do America is classic entertainment.

The plot is irrelevant simple: someone steals Beavis and Butt-head’s television and, nearly paralyzed by the possibility of an evening without passive entertainment, they wander in search of it until they stumble upon a crime that takes them across the country, mostly by senior-citizen tour bus. Beavis and Butt-head create havoc and evade authority through simple haplessness and idiocy. But the point of the film isn’t what happens; it’s how Beavis and Butt-head react to what happens.

Beavis and Butt-head are the primal American id, lacking in all motivation other than instant gratification and amusement. The only time they sustain any kind of attention span is with the possibility of scoring. Otherwise, it’s nothing but butt jokes. Each destination on their tour unleashes these appetites on mainstream America, and sometimes the results are destructive, but more often, they’re just juvenile, familiar, or even uncomfortably indistinguishable from the rest of the culture. At the Grand Canyon, they watch a donkey take a crap (“It’s like, poop is coming out of the ass… of the ass!”). At Yellowstone, they get so distracted by automatic urinals that they miss their bus. At the Capitol, they announce over the Senate loudspeakers that they’re “ready to do” the “chick with big boobs,” and the senators echo the duo’s unmistakable mouth-breathing chuckle. As with much satire, the point isn’t the singular stupidity of the characters, it’s the universal stupidity of everyone those characters represent. Anyone who has ever been on a boring historical field trip will realize that Beavis and Butt-head represent them, as well.

When normal people have to deal with Beavis and Butt-head, they almost never get outraged at their stupidity and destructiveness. Instead, they do their jobs, then shrug and walk away when things devolve into nonsense. Were Judge truly aiming to please the dumb, more than half of Do America’s running time would be the enraged reaction shots of un-cool authority figures, as if it were Larry the Cable Guy’s Witless Protection. The non-reaction is a much more realistic – and therefore much funnier – depiction of how we actually deal with idiocy in our culture. We say the lines we’ve been taught, and then we give up and let it be someone else’s problem. These non-reactions only emphasize the sheer ubiquity of people like Beavis and Butt-head, and mirror moments in Office Space, when characters accept completely retarded inconveniences simply because they’ve become accustomed to them.

And yet, while they’re infuriatingly stupid, Beavis and Butt-head also have the wisdom of the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes—a sort of Zen stupidity that can’t grasp the artificial social constructs we’ve built around ourselves, and punctures them as ridiculous. On Beavis and Butt-head the television show (their intended home, and where they truly flourish), the social construct was MTV and youth culture. In Do America, the social constructs are some of the foundations of our country—technological achievement, political and military power, and the wide-open yet exploited landscape. Their accidental wisdom shines best when they unintentionally outsmart the people around them. A tour guide at Yellowstone enthusiastically recites that “the geyser can shoot twenty-one thousand gallons of water in a single eruption!” to which Beavis deadpans, “That’s not that much, really.” It’s a perfect skewering of our American tendency to market the grandeur nature until it’s indistinguishable from the advertising-superlative background-noise. When the duo happens into possession of a biological weapon, they’re hunted down as “terrorists.” Even from fifteen years ago, the film’s use of the term “terrorist” rings perfectly with the government opportunism and abuse of power of the previous administration. It makes you wonder if Richard Reid, that guy who tried to light his shoe on the airplane, was chanting “Fire! Fire!” when he did it.

Though its plot is trite, its animation is as ugly and amateurish as anything projected on a big screen (with the exception of Beavis’ kickass Rob Zombie-designed peyote trip), Beavis and Butt-head Do America is not stupid. Nor is it, as some critics allege, nothing but a cash-in on an already over-hyped phenomenon. The film was Mike Judge’s first chance to stretch his legs and expand his razor-sharp social commentary beyond the world of TV-addicted fifteen-year-olds, half of whom thought he was celebrating them. As Idiocracy does, _Beavis and Butt-Head Do America suggests that much of American culture, from Las Vegas to the way our politicians talk to us, is aimed right at Beavis and Butt-head’s level. Beavis and Butt-head is meta-entertainment, in which we watch ourselves watching. It isn’t pretty. But it’s damn funny. And those of us who see past the first, most obvious level can relieve the guilt of this guilty pleasure knowing that it is not Beavis and Butt-head who are stupid, but the mass culture of lowest-common-denominator marketing that created them.

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