MTV has announced that it is pulling the plug on new episodes of “Beavis and Butthead”, its most famous creations, after four years as a night-in, night-out programming staple.
The Beavis and Butthead characters had a spectacularly successful run. They entered the national mind; they were a successful feature film; they spun off another show, MTV’s grim “Daria,” and got their creator, Mike Judge, a prime-time sitcom, “King of the Hill” on Fox.
Distillates of MTV’s demographic bloc, the pair ridiculed what had been MTV’s bread and butter, music videos. In their wake, music videos became so drained of their cutting-edge mystique that MTV began to run game shows and documentaries more than videos - no small feat.
After all, when cultural historians think about the ‘80s in the years to come, the discussion will likely center on three phenomena: Ronald Reagan as the presiding spirit of the age, all image and no content; ditto Don Johnson and “Miami Vice,” the Reagan administration’s zeitgeist-laden counterpart on prime-time; and MTV, the dead center of the glossy, new meaning-free culture.
MTV’s videos had everyone decrying the tyranny of the image and the fractured attention span of our youth, and the death of context and narrative. Beavis and Butthead restored context and narrative; and for this their passing deserves some respect.
Mike Judge, their creator, knew how teenagers watch MTV. They don’t sit with rapt and attentive gaze, as alarmed parents and lobbyists suppose; nor do they watch with any great excitement. For the most part, they are cynical and jaded, like anyone seeing something for the ten-thousandth time.
More importantly, Beavis and Butthead finally provided a way for people to talk critically about TV without sounding pompous or culturally alienated. The pair also showed up MTV for the pretentious dreck it is and did it without trying to grab the high ground.
Some will say that Beavis and Butthead are symptoms of post-modern irony, mocking the meat they feed on and ignoring the fact that they are themselves products and prisoners of TV. Please.
Beavis and Butthead are about as post-modern as Alexander Pope. Their characters were painstakingly sketched and individuated, and their running commentary was devastatingly telling about both MTV and the people who watch it.
Hence the charge of irony. But there isn’t, in fact, anything ironic about Beavis and Butthead. Beavis is incapable of saying anything he doesn’t mean and Butthead is occasionally sarcastic, but more usually blunt. (“You’re stupid, Beavis.”) Irony means saying one thing and meaning another: For TV viewers, it as often as not means “shows that know they’re stupid, making them smart,” and in practice is commonly used to describe such over-the-top productions as “Married With Children” or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
The confusion is typical of the ongoing attempt of Americans to come to grips with television. To talk about its meaning is like nailing jelly to the wall, and what Beavis and Butthead did was provide a way to frame TV as something to talk about. They showed up something that had claimed to be subversive and cutting-edge to be so banal and conventional that even two brainless pubescents couldn’t be surprised by it. They closed the circuit between TV and its audience.
None of that would have been possible if Beavis and Butthead were not funny and realistic, and interesting to watch. So in that, too, they point a direction out from television’s malaise. I, for one, will be sorry to see them go.