The Zen of Butt-Head

Beavis and Butt-Head are the 90s answer to Warhol’s soup cans: culture so absurdly stripped-down that at first it looks like an insult.

Oct 28, 2011 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

image

There are a lot of things that suck about being 31 in 2011. Grunge is Muzak now, they let just anyone on the Internet, and they’re still making “90210” but now the actors are actually our age instead of pretending to be. On the other hand, “The State” is on Netflix, and “Beavis and Butt-Head” is back on TV. Hallelujah!

By all rights I should probably hate these guys, right? They’re puerile and gross and wilfully stupid and their idea of gender relations is a cross between Charlie Sheen and Ugg, the First Homo Erectus. (Huh-huh. Erectus.) But there’s something about their feral-child approach to the world that not only delights me, but makes everything in my life seem less complicated. Have you ever tried just clearing your mind and going “huh-huh, huh-huh, eh-huh-huh”? It’s like extremely stupid meditation.

I’m no stranger to the Zen of Butt-Head. Back when it was on TV the first time, my friends and I were all too-clever-for-our-own-good teenagers with (and I only speak for myself here) very noisy brains. We latched on to “Beavis and Butt-Head” as a way of cutting through all the “smart” stuff we usually favored. The show is very smart in its own way, but it’s also single-minded and artless, totally the opposite of a kid who’s trying to think about everything all the time.

I remember being in downtown DC with my best friend, surrounded by traffic noise and high on being loose in the city, waiting for the “walk” sign to make the whizzing cars stop for us, looking at an ambulance shrieking its way through the snarls of Dupont Circle and saying to it (imagine Butt-Head voice) “Uhhhhh.... don’t walk.” That’s the power of Beavis and Butt-Head: All of the noise of the world reduced to one very dumb joke.

And that’s not just personally compelling -- it’s also culturally significant. Beavis and Butt-Head are the 90s answer to Warhol’s soup cans: culture so absurdly stripped-down that at first it looks like an insult. But it's by paring it down to the basics that you understand what culture really is -- which is probably the most damning form of satire.

Since the show’s first run, parody and snark have gotten so layered that it becomes exhausting to follow who’s mocking who. You might have, for instance, a comedian making fun of a real person by interviewing him as though he’s a comedian who interviews real people as though he’s not a comedian. That’s a breathtaking feat of irony, but it also makes your head spin. The aggressive dumbness of Beavis and Butt-Head allows them to rise above -- or sink below, but in some way give the slip to -- the complex machinations of satire. They’re like a reductio ad absurdum on literally everything.

Last night’s episode starts with the boys going to see "Twilight," for some godforsaken reason that’s never explained. They get kicked out, but not before concluding that chicks dig all kinds of undead things and they should get bitten by one. "Twilight" has been parodied by pretty much everyone over the age of two, and yet I don’t think I’ve seen the “guys set out to get bitten by a vampire/zombie/werewolf in order to become irresistible to ladies” plot. Why? Because nobody else is stupid enough to strip "Twilight" down to its essential elements: Undead dudes get chicks.

Now, I don’t want to pretend like I was thinking through all this while I was watching. I was just going “hahahahahah, ‘Being a werewolf hurts my bones’!” And then, probably, “huh-huh, 'Bone.'” But then the show was over and the noise in my head came back on and I had to start thinking “Why the hell do I love these guys?”
 
The short answer is, they’re so simple they’re funny. But the long answer is, they’re so funny they’re simple. We could all use a little more simplicity.