Describing Beavis And Butt-Head in 1996, legendary film critic Roger Ebert wrote that, “To study B&B is to learn about a culture of narcissism, alienation, functional illiteracy, instant gratification and television zombiehood.”
It’s an admittedly highbrow assessment of a show that, to many, was the very chamber pot of television. Perhaps easier to swallow is a remark from Primus guitarist Larry Lalonde a couple of years later, that Beavis and Butthead were “the two greatest music critics who ever lived”.
That’s the real legacy of Mike Judge’s revolting, brilliant, disgusting and genius creations: in the 1990s, nobody else had quite the same reach or cache as they did.
Across their original four-year run on MTV, starting in 1993, the pair’s misadventures were interspersed with some 592 music video clips, which they didn’t so much talk about as talk over and around.
In a time when getting on MTV was crucial to an artist’s success, the show was one of the channel’s biggest assets, disgusting millions of homes across the world every week. Centring on the two titular characters, a pair of metalheads with a level of ignorance and stupidity the writers turned into pin-sharp brilliance, the show consisted of Tom & Jerry-length goings on in their hometown of Highland, Texas, where they’d go to high school, work at Burger World, hang out at the convenience store and fail to impress both women and local hero and gang leader, Todd.
The humour was largely sitcom farce, with most conversation involving arses, boobs, farts, turds, boogers, wieners and monkey spanking. Anything even remotely sexual-sounding was met with their endless, monotonous chuckling. Viewers had never never heard so many creative and descriptive ways of talking about a penis.
But that was their special incorruptibility: they were so low that there was literally nowhere for them to punch but upward. And unlike MTV’s human VJs, like Headbangers’ Ball presenter Riki Rachtman and the channel’s smooth-talking head of state, Kurt Loder, Beavis And Butt-Head didn’t need to walk any sort of line to keep relations or secure access. It gave them gold-plated carte blanche to say whatever they wanted.
It wasn’t even really a music show as anyone knew it. They just chatted shit over the top of whatever happened to be on their TV. Scores out of 10 were not awarded, no album of the month accolade given – bands were either “cool” or they “sucked”, and often they’d watch videos without even specifically saying if they thought it was good or not. Yet somehow, by the end of a clip, you’d always know which side of their taste-making Iron Curtain something had fallen. And almost always, you’d agree with them.
“I remember Beavis And Butt-Head instantly making [metal] music journalism irrelevant and obsolete,” recalls legendary music journalist and former Kerrang! editor Paul Brannigan. “One ‘these guys suck’ comment was more savage and damaging than any 1K review in Kerrang!. And on the other end of the scale, they totally made careers. For a time, in our world, they were the only critics that mattered.”
The bands who came off well, if not entirely un-laughed at, are a who’s who of the most important artists of the 90s: Nirvana, Metallica, Green Day, Primus, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Björk, Beastie Boys, Type O Negative and more. Obviously it would be ridiculous to say these bands were made by Beavis And Butt-Head, but to gain their patronage was nevertheless to pass a cultural test. If something was self-evidently good – whether musically, or simply because the video had fire in it – it would be reflected as such. There were no sacred cows, but no axes to grind, either.
“Getting Beavis And Butt-Head to cover your video was one of the biggest scores a label and band could ever hope for,” says Monte Connor, then working at Roadrunner Records, home to a grand tally of bands who flew onto the pair’s radar. “A perfect example was the Gruntruck video ‘Tribe’, which really took off due to their coverage. That Gruntruck album, Push, became our most successful selling rock release to that point in 1993. We were still very much a metal label back in 1993, and were not well versed in selling or breaking rock bands. But that Gruntruck record took off after B&B latched onto that video.”
For those who weren’t so lucky, it was almost an announcement that you were done. The pair’s animated friend Stuart – an even wetter version of Milhouse – was always pictured wearing merch belonging to 80s hair-metallers Winger. Their frontman has long professed that the show ruined their career.
But as cruel as they could be, popping egos with pins made of dick jokes, often it was just shit being called out as shit. With grunge, new American punk, hip-hop and a wave of street-level metal bands like Pantera and Sepultura on the rise, the showy decadence of the 1980s looked particularly cheap. All Beavis and Butt-Head were doing was pulling on loose threads until the tassled white leather jackets fell apart.
Conversely, by the time their full-length movie Beavis And Butt-Head Do America was released in 1996, bands were queueing up to be inside the velvet rope of their club: Red Hot Chili Peppers provided “Love Rollercoaster” as an alternative theme tune, while Rob Zombie drew Beavis’ psychedelic desert freak-out.
For all their obsession with sex and “scoring”, their efforts were always thwarted at their own expense. Although they were both intentionally and inadvertently awful to every woman they came across – most notably classmate Daria “Diarrhoea” Morgendorffer, who would go on to have her own spin-off – they were ultimately and deservedly always outsmarted, outclassed, or kicked in the balls.
As they gear up for a return this year on Comedy Central, Beavis And Butt-Head will be occupying a very different world than they once did. For one thing, the lazy Friday night ritual of sitting with your mates and watching videos on MTV go round and round is now a relic. It’s something they actually saw happening in their original run, and were smart enough to point out.
“They don’t show many videos anymore,” observed Butt-Head, confused as to whether Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” was a music promo or a repeat of Happy Days. “It’s all shows about, like, snowboarding and stuff.” Indeed, on their 2011 return, the writers had them watching clips of Jersey Shore, a combination that worked spectacularly well.
For me, there is a sadness that music won’t quite be at the centre of things as it once was. The chances of a kid having their taste curated by the bitching of two idiots, as happened to me as a ten-year-old budding metal fan, are slim. But in a world where both opinion and #content reign, maybe Beavis and Butt-Head will return to be the astute, if not most disgusting, voices in the room.