Thirty years on from when the iconic duo first graced our screens, it’s become a bit of a cliche to say that Beavis and Butt-Head was a lot smarter than we gave it credit for. Broadcast on MTV in the mid-90s, the show was intended to skewer the then-public stereotype of its channel’s viewing audience — a fact that its creator Mike Judge has made clear over the years. It should come as no surprise, then, that the characters of Beavis and Butt-Head were introduced to us as lazy, dumb teenage slackers who did nothing but watch music videos all day and who were easily amused by dirty jokes and bodily functions.
Beavis and Butt-Head was so rooted in the milieu of that era’s youth culture that it would’ve been impossible for the show to be renewed season after season in the way The Simpson, Family Guy, and South Park have been without significant changes to the core formula. But, unlike, say, Rugrats or Animaniacs, Beavis and Butt-Head hasn’t had fans crowding for newer content in the way other 90s animated phenomena have.
The 2011 reboot tried and failed to introduce Beavis and Butt-Head to a new generation of burnouts but the subtle satire that made it so funny in the first place was completely lost on us while at the time feeling out of place to those who actually grew up on the show. Even after retconning some of the characteristics that were typical of grunge-era metalheads to fit present-day trends (e.g., having the boys now be gamers), the social satire no longer made sense. Teenagers like Beavis and Butt-Head just didn’t exist in the late 2000s/early 2010s.
So what could Mike Judge have done to make it work?
Simple. They could’ve just aged up Beavis and Butt-Head, organically developing the satire that was always a core component of the show’s appeal. But that was unheard of in American animation at the time, and the few shows that attempted it (Rugrats), were met with a backlash that had them covering their tracks for years to come.
Even though it’s now commonplace to age up animated characters, that’s strangely not what Judge went for in Beavis and Butt-Head Do The Universe. True to his sensibilities, what we ended up with was a lot weirder, a lot funnier, and a lot more interesting.
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Beavis and Butt-Head Do The Universe has just about as perfect a setup for a fish-out-of-water story that you can come up with. Misunderstandings and antics land the duo in 2022 after being thrown into a wormhole while on a mission for NASA — you know, typical Beavis and Butt-Head shenanigans.
But as you prepare yourself for an onslaught of jokes about how you can take photos with your phone or how the internet exists and it’s full of porn, you realize…they don’t know they’re in the future!
And, of course, they don’t.
It makes perfect sense.
They are that fucking stupid.
And that’s what makes this film amazing.
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Fish-out-of-water stories are often written around one joke — the mismatch between the characters and their surroundings — and it’s a joke that’s running on empty by the time the first act is over. Your mileage may vary on how funny they are, but even the worst fish-out-of-water stories know that these jokes can’t carry the entire film.
Because when it comes down to it, the fish-out-of-water setup is simple (maybe too simple):
- A stranger finds himself in strange lands — the stranger is only considered “strange” with respect to where they’ve found themselves, as they are out of place in a new location or time.
- The stranger explores their new environment, amusingly misunderstanding anything and everything they come into contact with while getting into all kinds of hijinks as a result of said misunderstandings.
- We laugh our asses off…
In addition to the discrepancy between the stranger and the stranger lands, an added discrepancy can be established between us and the stranger or us and the strange lands in order to heighten the humor:
- To us, the strange lands are strange, but the stranger isn’t, e.g., a present-day teen travels back in time to the 1950s.
- To us, the stranger is strange, but the strange lands aren’t, e.g., a Norse god makes his way to present-day Earth.
Beavis and Butt-Head Do The Universe is an example of the latter type of story, where those (few) of us who streamed it the day it came out were more than familiar with the bizarre world of 2022. Here, the film’s inventiveness doesn’t come from a novel setup or from adding another layer of discrepancy but by nullifying the setup entirely. Doing this allows Judge to sidestep the plot beats that have grown so tired and stale in the last couple of decades, having been around for longer than any of us have been alive. Thank Judge, Beavis and Butt-Head don’t have to spend the minutes after their arrival confusing our time for theirs — only to discover that there in the future, then freak out, and then try to figure out a way back as they try to adjust to 2022 in the midst of all the HI-larious shenanigan and hijinks coming from their misunderstanding while racing against time to go back in time away from the future and into the past yada, yada, yada….
In the film, they don’t even bother going back because they never even realize they’re in the future by the time it ends. And, knowing Beavis and Butt-Head, probably never will.
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As humorous as following the traditional setup would have been, having Beavis and Butt-Head use their spasmodic mannerisms and limited diction to comment on what’s changed from the ‘90s would’ve gotten old fast. The first film was smart enough to drop the recurring Mystery Science Theater 3000-style segment of the show where the boys comment on music videos because those could only be funny for a couple of minutes at a time. Episodes were usually padded out with their duo’s sometimes related, sometimes unrelated zany adventures around their hometown, Highland. Judge knew that he had to have his features revolve around that, but not in a way where these were just extended episodes of the show.
The way Judge manages to pull this off is by having the duo out of Highland for most of these films. But whereas the first film expanded the scope of the duo’s mayhem by taking it cross-country, the second opened up new storytelling avenues with the introduction of speculative elements like multiverses and wormholes to vary the kind of adventures we expect Beavis and Butt-Head to embark on (fittingly, they also riff on what’s popular in mainstream SF today without having to resort to fish-out-of-water jokes in order to get that satire across).
Though the duo’s riffing could’ve been worked in seamlessly with the fish-out-of-water scenario, the fish-out-of-water jokes and their riffing in general were kept at a minimum, replaced with self-aware humor, bizarre (yet strangely heartwarming) character development, and the duo’s unique brand of mischief and mayhem. What little there is of this riffing and fish-out-of-water humor only exists to serve the story and move the narrative forward. None of them are throwaway gags, and in no way do they feel forced because the story isn’t built around them like you’d expect from this kind of film. There’s a lot more going on underneath the surface, and all of it comes together to…what else?
“Do the universe.”
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What this film proves is that Beavis and Butt-Head can be brought into the future without compromising on the 90s milieu that produced them. By introducing a speculative mechanism that allows them to show up in our time at the same age as they were introduced while not relying on fish-out-of-waters jokes as a crutch, we’re not confused as to why teenagers like this are walking around in 2022, nor are we put-off by this kind of humor when it pops up.
So should Beavis and Butt-Head have been aged up?
Going off the 2011 reboot, I would have said it was the only way.
But having seen Beavis and Butt-Head do the universe, I think some of that slacker sensibility is exactly what 2022 needs.