overthinking the idiot box

July 17, 2006

Animation on television, child-safe and otherwise.

Beavis and Butthead: Suburbia's Ambassadors

by Andreanna Ditton

If you want to introduce someone to American suburbia with a side helping of white trash, Detroit isn't a bad place to start.

A recent weekend gathering of fellow writers and TV geeks elicited the following questions from our resident visiting foreign national:

"What's White Castle?" Pause. "What's a funion?" Pause. "How can you think Beavis and Butthead is funny?"

Products of American suburbia all, the rest of us decided that we need to introduce Kathryn to the wonders of our culture in a white trash festival of overindulgence sure to make her giddy, sick and mildly disgusted with herself. And yes, beer was involved.

The crux of this evening was not, surprisingly, the beer. Or the Funions. Or the White Castle. Actually, we decided to forego the White Castle and the Funions because really, they're better in theory and Kath mostly wanted White Castle because Harold and Kumar had gone there.

"They're hamburgers," I say

"With little holes," Carrie adds. "And onions."

"They're smelly," I say. "You're not allowed to eat them in the car."

(It was a legitimate caveat. Kath's Canadian, and has the resulting odd attitude towards what constitutes edible food. I will mention both butter tarts — false advertising if anything is because a butter tart sounds like it'd be really wonder. Also Poutine. 'Nuff said). But to the point, the crux of this white trash indoctrination was to present to the Canadian the beauty that is Beavis and Butthead.

"Do you remember those guys in high school who'd sit in the back in Health Class and make fart jokes, who'd steal the condoms off the sex-ed board and say, "yeah, baby" when a girl walked by them in the hallway?" I ask.

"Yeah," says Kath. "I wanted to punch them in the head."

"This will help you let go of the hate," Carrie says

"Yeah," says Kath. "I wanted to punch them in the head."

"This will help you let go of the hate," Carrie says

"I am the great Cornholio, I need TP for my bunghole," adds Carrie's husband, Lee. He does an excellent Beavis, for future reference.

Kath remains dubious.1

"Look," says Carrie, "Yeah, it's kind of offensive, but dude, they represent the waste and despair that's American suburbia. They're the kids who are never gonna get out of 9th grade, who jack off in health class, who just don't know any better."

We start Kath off slow. You've gotta build up to Cornholio. We let Lee pick. He was a teenage boy once. We figure he'll know best.

After "Washing the Dog," we turned expectantly to Kath.

"Yeah, I still want to punch them in the head. They're so stupid."

I sigh. "It's supposed to be stupid. They've got no future. They worship Todd, who's an asshole. They're never gonna get laid and they think the phrase dillhole is funny. You're not seeing the brilliance in this?"

"No, not so much."

"Lee still thinks the fact that the Kosher picker jar says 'Kosher Dill whose' is funny," Carrie says. We all look at Lee. He grins. "I am Cornholio," he says. Lee's spent the weekend with us. He deserves ample rewards. We try another episode. "The Final Judgment of Beavis."

I nearly fall onto the floor giggling when Beavis meets St. Peter who has to read the list of what Beavis has done with his life. Mostly it's been whacking off.

Kath looks horrified.

"Oh god," I say, "You really think that's what's gonna happen, don't you?"

"Maybe," says Kath, shifting on the couch.

I keep giggling. I'm the only one of us not raised Catholic. It may be a cultural thing. I hope to god St. Peter isn't keeping a list of when any of us are whacking off. Maybe Saint Peter can't afford cable. Or his Tivo's broken.

"Dude, is that Hank Hill?" Kath asks, moving on, as Butthead tries to bury Beavis in a shallow grave.

"Totally," we say.

"Sometimes," I add enthusiastically, "Hank Hill sounds exactly like Butthead! Mike Judge does the voices. He's Boomhauer too."

Judge actually ended Beavis and Butthead to create and produce "King of the Hill." The themes of suburban America, of the struggle to be a person of worth in a world out to get you continues. Just ask Hank Hill about his lawn if you think I'm kidding.

Kath looks vaguely impressed. She loves King of the Hill.

"I think we'd better show her Cornholio," Carrie says. We all agree.

About the third time Beavis twitches, and then goes to wander the halls asking for teepee, even Kath is laughing.

"McVickers!" We shout, as Beavis steals candy from the dish and pumps Cornholio up for another round.

"See," I say. "It's funny."

"Kinda funny," she concedes.

"Maybe it's funnier when you start watching in college?"

"I didn't think they were funny in college. But I didn't so much hate them as I'd just gotten free of spending an enforced eight hours a day with hundreds of them."
"Nah," Carrie pauses, erudite and more articulate than the rest of us, despite spending an hour with me earlier trying to figure out why Charles Xavier couldn't get temps to come in and run Cerebro. "I didn't think they were funny in college. But I didn't so much hate them as I'd just gotten free of spending an enforced eight hours a day with hundreds of them. It took a few years of distance and perspective to look back and laugh. Call it nostalgia, call it schadenfreude, I couldn't laugh until I'd gotten *out* myself."

"Society failed them," I add. "Is failing them. It's hysterical, but it's also sort of... pointed. Mostly it's jerk off and potty humor, but... there's a point."

Carrie agrees. "Sure they were assholes, but dude, look at Cornholio. Too much sugar, no parental supervision, teachers that are either raging or too zoned to care, suburban apathy, failing structures, and teenage boys drowning in the midst of that."

"Yeah," I says. "Mike Judge is a fricking genius."

Beavis and Butthead are not. Geniuses, that is. But god, I can't stop laughing. Nostalgia, my inner 12 year old boy, I don't know what it is. I've long since stopped trying to justify it.

Still, since we got Kath to laugh, we push our luck. Lee scans through the eps on DVD — the eps complete with the vids, I must add because the first round of DVD releases did not have the videos and the real genius of the show is the MST3King of rock vids by the world's foremost experts in cracked out TV.

"Oh, this is it," Lee begins to guffaw.

"Tainted Meat."

It's about the time that Beavis starts scratching his balls with the spatula, the moment when I announced in my best Beavis voice, "Would you like a spatula?" that Kath startes to laugh for real.

"I told you not to eat fast food," I say.

A little green around the gills, Kath nods.

"So what," she says. "These were just short shows, like the Simpsons?" She pauses. "Is that Daria?"

They watched videos, we explain. Because it was MTV. Back when MTV played videos. Really bad videos.

"Okay," Kath says. "Let's see 'em."

We watch the videos on the DVD. "I don't know these songs," Kath says. Her pop music education started in college.

"You don't need to," we say "Sometimes you're better off."

I'd actually forgotten how funny the commentary is. Not just the terrible puns, and the innuendo, and the Beavis and Butthead trademark laughs, but the actually commentary on the music and the videos.

In fact, I'd sort of forgotten how funny the episodes themselves are.

Sure, it's sophomoric gross-out humor. Sure the animation is... unique to the vision of the show, I guess is the kindest way to describe it. And yeah, I learned a lot more about teenage boys and their habits than I ever needed to, but in the scheme of things, the show is kind of... innocent. It lacks the biting political commentary of The Simpsons, the brilliant genre parody of Futurama, but the show itself is about apathy, about small words and small minds, and while Beavis and Butthead are gonna be the guys buying 40s in paper bags and renting porn from the dollar video store, they're not gonna be child molesters. They're gonna be someone's drunk uncle, or maybe they'll catch a break and go to community college and sell computer supplies at Circuit City and maybe meet a nice girl someday. Unless, of course, Beavis becomes the dictator of a small South American country or goes completely sociopath. But we'll hope for the best.

When the show debuted on MTV in 1993, cries of outrage poured out to rival the haranguing of The Simpsons.

"This filth is damaging our children," they'd say. "It's encouraging kids to behave without conscience, without moral standards."

And you know, that's just so much bullshit. Yeah, I know some kids who tried to fly because of Superman, who've eaten a variety of disgusting things because of Beavis and Butthead, who've tried in vain to get Acme, Inc to send them anvils. But I don't know a single adolescent or adult who believes that Beavis, or Butthead, or Bart Simpson, or Bender are role models. Kids shrewd enough to watch these kinds of shows tend to understand that they're being offered a glimpse of the worst possible scenario, of who they don't want to be.

But they're also surprisingly insightful. They can't read because no one's ever bothered to do more than dismiss or tolerate them. They're delinquents because there's no one around to give them other options.
On the other hand, they — and we- are also learning that no one deserves to be dismissed out of hand. Yeah, Beavis and Butthead can't read. They exist pretty exclusively to beat their meat and watch bad videos and make the girls in their classes long for graduation. But they're also surprisingly insightful. They can't read because no one's ever bothered to do more than dismiss or tolerate them. They're delinquents because there's no one around to give them other options. And occasionally — when filled with sugar, or having shaken themselves into a sort of genius state (like Bender with the magnets and the folk songs, Beavis can turn himself into a philosophical idiot savant), they can make a lot of sense.

The animation offers us these brief glimpses into these modern day Candides — granted with more emphasis on boobs, butts and beer — showing us what we've done to our society, and what the future holds for kids like these. Kids who, years later, smart girls like us have finally learned to forgive.

Thirty minutes after we'd turned off the DVDs, Kath announced to the room. "My name's Cornholio. I need TP for my bunghole."

"Have we created a monster, or increased her cultural awareness?" I ask.

"I don't know," Carrie admits "But fortunately, now that we've wound her up, we're sending her home."

They still let people dial out from Canada though, and every once in awhile, we both get messages on our phones. "I am the great Cornholio," my phone says, "Would you like a spatula?"

1. Kath would like it to be known that Beavis and Butthead did come to Canada, she just missed out on it. Or rather, "would have rather set (herself) on fire than watch." Canada should not be considered ill-informed in matters of teenager boys run amok.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 19.