Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Dominick Suzanne-Mayer looks back at Beavis and Butt-Head’s grand arrival on the theatrical stage and how Do America managed to foreground the unspoken sadness beneath the show’s barrage of dong jokes.
December 20th, 1996. Bill Clinton had recently been re-elected, grunge was either dying or already dead depending on who you ask, and “alternative” was the latest counterculture buzzword on its way to being commodified. And it was on that day, and over the ensuing weekend following it, when a movie about two perpetually tittering dopes raised on obnoxious television and heavy metal had the highest-grossing December debut for an American movie up to that point. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America only kept that record until the following year, and that feels appropriate given the film’s story of hapless triumph: bursting out to succeed beyond all logic for just a second, before returning back to the status quo.
That Do America was so successful still seems unlikely; it grossed $63 million on a production budget of $12 million, and still pops up on cable television to this day as a reminder of what a strange moment in the ‘90s zeitgeist Mike Judge’s series really was. On paper, Beavis and Butt-Head was a perfect interstitial show for MTV at the time, as the network transitioned between its early identity as a tastemaker and haven for an array of popular genres and the pop-fueled TRL-era MTV of the decade’s later years. At the center were a pair of latchkey teenagers who passed their days in front of the TV, cracking the simplest possible dick jokes and waiting for the day when they might score, occasionally voyaging out into the world to aggravate friends, neighbors, and authority figures alike. In its deliberately obnoxious, barely-funny-on-purpose way, it tapped into something, becoming an inescapable calling card of the decade’s youth for alt-rockers and concerned suburban parents alike.
Beavis and Butt-Head always fired on a mildly smarter level than was acknowledged, but the slapdash stupidity of it was not only the crux of most of its comedy, but also the only way that the show could have ever worked as well as it did. If it were any more aware of its winking subversion, it would’ve felt disingenuous to the satiric purpose of its subjects. If it were any dumber, it would’ve ended at sophomoric, and there would’ve been no essays on its populist modern cultural criticism or feature interviews in Rolling Stone. Beavis and Butt-Head was simply this weird, inexplicable show that seemingly only appealed to viewers of a certain age, shortly before Adult Swim would make that kind of thing a cornerstone of modern comedy.
What’s interesting about the eventual success of Do America, then, is how strongly it foregrounds the themes that always ran under the show’s quarter-hour skits: that these latchkey kids are the future, whether we like it or not. And that there’s a chance that by hook or crook or total oblivious accident, they might be able to handle it. Judge’s feature-length movie, which turns 20 this week, is in so many ways a relic of its time, from the ska-and-rock soundtrack (best remembered for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover of “Love Rollercoaster”) to the half-vulgar, half-idiotic insults and onward. Both the show and Do America exist at an odd intersection in modern American history, as moral outrages over vulgarity were hitting a fever pitch right before the Internet would redefine “vulgarity” for the world in radically new ways. It wasn’t that long ago at all, and yet the idea of parents being worried about their children lighting themselves on fire and calling each other assmonkeys almost feels quaint today.
Judge’s film follows Beavis and Butt-Head on an inadvertent road trip after their beloved TV is stolen. In pursuing it, they end up on an old-fashioned road movie adventure. Soon they’re tied up with Muddy Grimes (Bruce Willis), a contract killer, and his estranged wife, Dallas (Demi Moore), who the boys are hired to “do” and interpret that in exactly the way you think they would. Convinced that the long-withheld promise of sex will finally be delivered to them if they get to Las Vegas, they end up on a bus full of elderly American tourists, and they amble their way around the country. Also, Butt-Head ends up in possession of a highly volatile chemical weapon without knowing it, so the ATF and half of the federal government are after the boys. Yet their goals remain simple. They’d like to get laid, and maybe get their TV back if that’s a possibility.
As with the show, Judge’s knack for great throwaway lines is on full display in Do America, and it’s what keeps the feature-length enjoyable even when the “huh-huh” laughing starts to become grating after a while. (One highlight: “Bork, you’re a federal agent. You represent the United States government. Never end a sentence with a preposition!”) But then, Beavis and Butt-Head was always built on fertile comic ground: watch two morons react to the world around them as passive observers. They’re always a constant in their universe; it’s the world around them that’s going insane, all the time. When faced with a massive highway pileup, Butt-Head offers the best review either of them can: “This kicks ass.” When dying of dehydration in the desert: “The sun sucks.” Most of the world either kicks ass or sucks, and these simple principles guide them from Vegas to the middle of the desert to, ultimately, the White House.
Though it’s hard to take Do America too seriously, and it’s probably the intention of all involved that people don’t after a point, Judge manages a handful of oddly poignant moments in the movie, even if they’re covered in bad double entendres most of the time. If the bigger joke was always that they were raised by TV, Do America has them encounter their deadbeat, absent dads in the desert and shades in the pathos underneath the couch potatoes. Beavis and Butt-Head are merely products of the world around them, generally lonely and antisocial kids whose best ideas of adulthood and the future mostly involve seeing and/or touching breasts and drinking beers. At one point, Butt-Head’s entire life flashes before his eyes, and it’s just a cycling image of the two boys, from infancy to present, giggling together on their couch. They don’t have much (the show always made it clear that they’re not well off, to say the least), but they have each other, even if Beavis getting his ass beat usually just makes Butt-Head laugh.
But again (huh-huh, butt), Do America doesn’t try to offer some kind of high-minded reading on the show, and it’s all the better for it. Those interpretations exist, but the cycle is simple: after saving America from domestic terrorism, the boys still end up walking home, albeit with their TV and into the sunset for a change. They’ll be who they are, and if their roadie dads are any indication, it won’t be all that much different from who they are now. But there’ll always be more music videos and more face-melting riffs and more babes for them, even if those base Proustian joys are all they’ll ever want out of life. Put another way: Beavis and Butt-Head were born from and raised by irreverence, and who are the rest of us to deny them the world they know and love?
Where Judge’s Idiocracy takes a much bleaker and more nihilistic stance on the dumbing down of culture, Do America functions as a more open-minded, empathetic counterpoint. They’re dorks, and kind of gross, but the world around them recognizes this. And they sometimes get a win out of life anyway. Judge doesn’t condone or condemn them so much as he just passively observes them in their natural habitats, forces of chaos that chip away at the boring rigors of everyday life. Do America doesn’t actually see them changing anything, but it proves something absolutely: when given the right opportunities, any young person can do great things in America, no matter who they are or where they came from.
Huh-huh. You said “came.”