I recently rediscovered “Beavis and Butt-head” as part of a quest to scour for some good MTV original programming (“spoiler” alert: there’s not much). The eponymous characters are two socially impaired, stupid high schoolers who spend their time commenting on music videos and wreaking havoc in their hometown. The boys are as dumb and senseless as their names imply.
The show dances between portraits of teenage ennui and the boys’ thoughtless remarks laid over music videos from the ’90s. The scenes of the boys out in the world are absolutely senseless. In one episode, the boys dramatically kill an ant, then decide to take a piss, only to forget how to piss. The show then jumps to Beavis and Butt-head watching a Michael Bolton pop ballad on MTV, which causes Beavis to spazz out until the television is switched to a more appropriate psychobilly music video from Reverend Horton Heat (Who?). In the same episode, the boys watch The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” video and then Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss.” If anything, the show is a chronicle of rock music across multiple subgenres.
I don’t watch the show for the music (they get it right sometimes with Sonic Youth, Talking Heads and Nirvana), though. “Beavis and Butt-head” gives me an opportunity to relax. The boys are such nincompoops that they dilute everything to its very essence, and by watching I am able to take part. One second I’m giggling like a middle schooler at the word “penis” and the next I’m seriously considering Beavis’s idea of only clothing our faces. An hour later I go to class to deconstruct a passage from a Hemingway novel or to analyze artistic canon formation in the Western tradition. It’s a typical Thursday.
Over the years, I’ve become a big fan of jokes that insult, gross out, or shock — in a phrase, low-brow humor. In a larger sense, I’ve grown to be appreciative of “lower” forms of entertainment, particularly comedy. “Beavis and Butt-head” is a pinnacle of this. From the mouths of two uneducated teenagers come social commentary over music videos that were once broadcast across America. That is about as general (“low”) as it gets.
I’m grateful to have “Beavis and Butt-head” in my life, especially at college. While I do love the University (Go Blue!), academia can be a little stifling. I tire of listening to contrived criticism and analysis of books or films that I could care less about. If I have to hear “put these two texts in conversation,” “how do these works complicate one another” or the vague “anyone have any comments,” I’m going to explode. My time with the two dolts reminds me that the world isn’t as rigid and formal as school makes it to be.
I didn’t expect that my exploration of MTV’s series would give me so much insight. As I delved deeper, looking for programs that I genuinely enjoyed in their library, I found the sardonic yet hopeful “Daria” and the best reality show competition, like, ever, in “Silent Library.” Neither of these programs are award-winning masterpieces, but they have value in their own rights. While I may have to study “The Great Gatsby” (again?) or “Sense and Sensibility,” I come home to my MTV originals. Being knowledgeable and cultured isn’t always cool, but being enthusiastic and genuine is. So, go ahead, crack open that romance novel or put on “Transformers.” Unless you’re looking for a viewing partner, I’ll look the other way.