Western civilization has taken its fair share of direct blows over the ages, but never before was it so threatened with destruction by such markedly unempowered foes until Beavis and Butt-head hit MTV in 1993. How unempowered? Consider that those who have every right to be offended by the doltish duo--namely, stupid white-trash teenage boys--are so dimwitted that it has never even occurred to them to rise up and protest their unflatteringly stereotypical portrayal on the notorious MTV series.
And now, Beavis and Butt-head have risen to the rank of celluloid stars. It will no doubt strike many as something of a sorry statement on Hollywood that Beavis and Butt-head Do America is one of the most flat-out funny American comedies of 1996. Further cause for wonder: Of the other delirious yuckfests of the year (Fargo, Flirting with Disaster, Bottle Rocket, and Mars Attacks!), only Flirting with Disaster is not strewn wall to wall with abject cretins.
To the uninitiated, of course, Beavis and Butt-head are the imbeciles responsible for inspiring a generation of kids to imitate their annoying chortles; they're intellectually stunted pyromaniacs who do and say mean and stupid things and never learn their lesson. On the other hand, there are a lot of people like series creator Mike Judge--who co-wrote and directed the movie in addition to providing the voices of the main characters--who encountered a Beavis or a Butt-head in their miserable years in school and realized that these dimwits are a pristine reflection of a scarily pervasive subculture only cockeyed optimists refuse to acknowledge exists. Beavis and Butt-head's appeal lies in the fact that they have absorbed--so very poorly--television and pop culture; they reflect those values in a fractured way, yet with a perverse purity that should frighten and disturb those who define those cultures. That, and they make a lot of fart and jerk-off jokes.
As is often said of movies based on stage plays, Do America "opens up" Beavis and Butt-head's rather restricted world of their sofa, school, and the ptomaine-fest fast-food joint from which they're routinely fired. The film opens with an only nominally amusing dream sequence before seguing into its titles, played against a clever amalgam of Aaron Spelling-esque '70s cop show and blaxploitation film cliches. The story that follows is characteristically rickety: Beavis and Butt-head, discovering their TV stolen, try to find it or a suitable replacement and thereby stumble upon a drunken redneck (voiced, with no credit, by Bruce Willis) who hires them to "do" his opportunistic sleazoid wife (Demi Moore, also uncredited) in Las Vegas. They, of course, get the wrong idea of what he means by "do."
In Vegas, the wife offers them twice as much money to "do" her husband (Beavis considers the proposition, momentarily), and they're soon made witless accomplices in some international intrigue, pursued with maniacal zeal by an ATF agent (Robert Stack) with a righteous predilection for cavity searches. They bop fecklessly around the country (at the Grand Canyon, they're distracted from the awesome scenic vistas by the sight of a burro taking a dump) and end up in Washington, D.C., where they still hope against hope to score (Butt-head comes on, unsuccessfully, to Chelsea Clinton). Beavis momentarily commandeers the House of Representatives' public address system, and his puerile pronouncement inspires all of Congress to join in a very familiar chuckle (so that's what becomes of their kind when they grow up). Shortly afterward, as his wacky-on-sugar counterpart, Cornholio ("I need TP for my bunghole," he demands), Beavis even joins a contingent of international diplomats--all of whom speak his indecipherable caffeinated language.
Beavis and Butt-head's value system remains endearingly and relentlessly misdirected. Even when they're about to perish of exposure in the desert ("The sun sucks," Butt-head grouses before watching his life flash before his eyes--a montage of him at various ages sitting on his sofa watching TV with Beavis--then he brightens: "My life was cool!"), they can be distracted from their impending doom by a couple of buzzards doing it. If you don't get them, just chalk this off as another blow to the Republic and keep storing your firearms in your fallout shelter.
It's all the same to Judge, who created the boorish boys in a crudely animated short at his tract home in Richardson, Texas (he has since moved to Austin), moonlighting from his job playing bass for a Dallas blues band. Even though many critics and seemingly intelligent folks have embraced his two boys, Judge is nonetheless used to getting an earful from people who believe he has single-handedly lowered America's collective I.Q.
"It's always been amazing to me how many people are willing to say that in front of me," Judge marvels during a lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel, a place to which his antiheroes would never be admitted entrance. He recalls those who worked on the movie who would often complain, "I'm too good to be working on this, but what the hell." He remembers another acquaintance who told him, "I watched an episode, and I was not impressed." He repeats the immortal words of the immigration agent at the Canadian border who, on discovering Judge's identity, observed, "It's amazing what American society will go for, eh?"
Judge, obviously, has had the last laugh, but even after the series enjoyed its success on MTV, he found Hollywood skeptical--if not downright uncomprehending. Although the idea of a Beavis and Butt-head movie was broached the week the show hit the air, the initial concept was to make it live-action with unknowns portraying the animated asswipes. Judge, reasonably, resisted. "If you had a guy who really looked like Butt-head who was a real person, it might be a little scary," he notes.
Since Judge handles a majority of the show's voices, from the title characters to their New Age hippie teacher Mr. Van Driessen to next-door neighbor Tom Anderson (who often discovers Beavis masturbating in the woodshed), the next step was casting the other characters. "The first meeting I had with this casting woman at Paramount, I have to say, was really awful," he admits. "She had never seen the show, apparently, and she was saying, 'Find the hugest, most bankable star and try to cram him in.' There were characters that were on the show that I've been doing the voices for four years, [but she was saying], 'What about Tom Cruise for the hippie teacher?' It was just ridiculous. I came out of there thinking, Oh, God.
"Patrick Stewart's a big fan, so she was saying, 'What about Patrick Stewart for the ATF man?' And I said, 'I don't really have a British character in this movie,' and she said, 'Oh, but Patrick Stewart can do an American accent.' I'm thinking, What's the value in having Patrick Stewart's voice where he's disguising his voice so you can't tell it's him? I have to say, the woman was an idiot."
Then Judge had to convince the studio he wasn't an idiot. "We'd have to pitch ideas to executives, and we'd say, 'Um, we had the idea that there was this jack in the trunk of the car, and so Butt-head says, "I'm jacking off, huh-huh-huh,'" and there'd be this stony silence," he recalls. "It's so hard sometimes to pitch these ideas. By the end of it I think they became fans, and they were great, but at times it was like re-educating people as to what Beavis and Butt-head are. Some things that get really big laughs in the movie, like Beavis with the guy at Hoover Dam: 'Is this a God dam?' In the script, it doesn't read as funny.
"I found myself a lot of times having to turn into a jerk. They'd say, 'Well, Mike, none of us are laughing,' and I'd have to say, 'Hey, I got those guys on the cover of Rolling Stone without your help.' But it's been really good compared to what some people's movie experiences have been."
Judge concedes that Beavis and Butt-head's shelf-life may be nearing its end; after all, he now admits he didn't see the show living on past its initial 35 episodes. "And at the end of season two, I was just"--and he groans. "I caught a second wind during season three that's lasted all the way to now, but I don't think the show should go on much longer."
Last question: Hearing people imitate Beavis and Butt-head's "huh-huh-huh" sure gets annoying. Might you regret creating that, at least? "I was the last person on the show to overhear someone in public doing it," he says. "People around the office didn't do it around me. I was introduced at a college screening of the film, and a few people began, [as Beavis] 'Heh-heh, you suck!' I was walking on a college campus, and I hear this guy behind me, and he goes, 'Dammit, Beavis!' He was 10 feet behind me, and I turned around and waved to him. He looks at me like, 'What the hell are you looking at?' He just happened to be doing it with his friend. "If I was a person who got recognized a lot," he concedes, "it would start to bother me."
Beavis and Butt-head Do America. Mike Judge, Cloris Leachman, Robert Stack, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis. Written by Mike Judge and Joe Stillman. Directed by Mike Judge. Opens Friday.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.