Beavis and Butt-head was first aired on the U.S. cable network MTV in March 1993. This show, which combined animation and music videos, was an example of the unique programming that MTV has consistently provided for its youthful demographics. The half-hour program alternated between a simple narrative, which focused on the exploits of two low-life adolescents, and clips from music videos, which the two teens commented on. Creator Mike Judge had penned the aimless duo for a festival of animation when Abby Turkuhle, MTV's senior vice president picked up an episode for the network's animated compendium Liquid Television. MTV immediately contracted for 65 episodes from Judge, with Turkuhle as producer, and placed Beavis and Butt-head in the 7:00 and 11:00 P.M. week-day time slots.
The characters, Beavis and Butt-head, are rude, crude, and stupid, and can be placed in the "dumb comedy" tradition, which includes Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, Cheech and Chong, Saturday Night Live's Wayne and Garth, and FOX's The Simpsons. When the show debuted, television critics differed in their opinions, with some praising the show for daring to present the stupidity of male "metalheads" who watch too much television (effectively satirizing the core MTV audience), and others categorizing Beavis and Butt-head as another example of television's declining quality. Beavis and Butt-head did find an audience and began pulling in MTV's highest ratings. But the show was also quite controversial, instigating heated public debate on the interconnected issues of representations of violence in the media and generational politics surrounding youth subcultures.
In October 1993 a two-year-old Ohio girl was killed in a fire lit by her five-year-old brother. The children's mother said that her son was inspired by the pyromaniac proclivities of Beavis and Butt-head. This real life event sparked the ire of media watchdog groups, who claimed that there was a direct link between the television show and the violent act of this impressionable child. One psychiatrist proclaimed Beavis and Butt-head a "Sesame Street for psychopaths." Concurrent Senate hearings on television violence placed these issues at the forefront of American cultural politics. Because of this incident, and given the cultural climate, MTV eliminated all references to fire, pulled four episodes off the air, and moved the cartoon to 10:30-11:30 P.M. only. MTV insisted that they changed the time slot, not because they believed the show was directly responsible for the incident, but because they felt that it was designed for an older audience, and that a different time slot would allow them to target that audience more effectively. Claiming that 90% of its audience was over 12 years of age, MTV attempted to move the discussion away from the children's television debate.
Beavis and Butt-head they found, was especially popular with those in their twenties. It turned out to be bothersome to many that young people enjoyed the show and laughed at its two imbecilic boys, even if these fans were much more intelligent and much less grating than Beavis and Butt-head. In this sense, Beavis and Butt-head raised the issue of generational taste cultures. Definitions of "taste," Pierre Bourdieu notes, "unite and separate, uniting those who are the product of similar conditions but only by distinguishing them from all others. And taste distinguishes in an essential way, since it is the basis of all that one has--people and things--and of all that one is for others, whereby one classifies oneself and is classified by others." To the degree that taste cultures agree, they are brought together into a subcultural formation; but to this degree they are also separated from those with whom they differ. It was the "bad taste" of Beavis and Butt-head's audience which bothered many, and this brings to the surface another one of the reasons why Beavis and Butt-head was so controversial.
Cultural critics, educators, and concerned parents gathered skeptically, sternly, and anxiously in front of the television set and passed judgment upon the "tasteless" Beavis and Butt-head show. And in an ironic reversal, Beavis and Butt-head countered by ascending the cultural hierarchy. The two youths channel-surfed, looking for videos that didn't suck (i.e. those with heavy metal or hardcore rap, those that contained violence, or encouraged genital response.) In becoming the self-proclaimed Siskel and Ebert of music video, they served to evaluate pop culture with an unencumbered bottom line--does a music video "suck" or is it "cool?" Beavis and Butt-head as a television show, was certainly towards the lower end of traditional scales of cultural "quality." But these two animated "slackers" evaluated other media, and so pronounced their own critical opinions and erected their own taste hierarchies. Beavis and Butt-head had their own particular brand of "taste:" they determined acceptability and unacceptability, invoking, while simultaneously upending, notions of "high" and "low" culture. In this, they entered that hallowed sphere of criticism, where they competed with others in overseeing the public good and preserving the place and status of artistic evaluation. They disregarded other accepted forms of authority, refusing to acknowledge their own limited perspectives. But like other critics, this was an important part of their appeal. After all, critics are sought out for straightforward opinion, not muddled oscillation.
In this recuperation of the critical discourse, Beavis and Butt-head joined with their audience, approximating the contradictory impulses of contemporary cynical youth, who mixed their self-delusion with self-awareness. In the case of fans of Beavis and Butt-head, these lines of demarcation indicated both a generational unity and the generation-based barriers between the baby boomers and the "baby busters." The reputed cynicism of the "twentynothings" was on view as Beavis and Butt-head evoked both a stunted adolescence which was long past and an unsure and seemingly inaccessible future.
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Gardner, James. "Beavis and Butt-head." National Review (New York), 2 May 1994.
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Leland, John. "Battle For Your Brain." Newsweek (New York) 11 October 1993.
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