Beavis and Butt-head, the slow-witted, lewd-minded, giggling, teenaged sofa reptiles from MTV, may be the most acquired taste in current pop culture--for adults, at least. At a quick glance, your reaction may be revulsion at the crude animation and the repetitive gags. But let the show's subtle rhythms work on you for a while and you may find that nothing on TV makes you laugh harder. Possibly, you'll even think you've found a TV classic--that Mike Judge, who draws the lads and provides both of their voices, has gone past the easy generational spoofery of Bill & Ted or Wayne and Garth, and has distilled the banality of the suburban male teenage soul to its most poignant torpor.
In person, Judge is only slightly less monosyllabic than his creations. In his deadpan way, he's an intensely funny man, and it's clear he's no dummy--his physics degree is from the University of California-San Diego--but he isn't overly articulate about his work. He's soft-spoken and laconic and sheepish, like he's playing dumb--charmingly--about playing dumb.
He claims he isn't being intentionally coy. "I'm kinda nervous and awkward. When I see myself on TV interviews, I think, gee, maybe I ought to be more lively. But I guess it works. I don't know, maybe subconsciously it is an act. I'm a big fan of Steven Wright."
For all his shucks-I-dunno manner, he concedes that the show isn't at all off-the-cuff: "It's very planned out. Some of the ideas, though, I'm not thinkin' about why they're funny. Like . . . Cornholio or something--I'm pretty confident that it's gonna be funny, and we get into these things where I'm sitting there with the engineer, and goin' okay, right about there, there should be another [Cornholio voice:] 'BUNGHOLE!' and I'll go record it: 'BUNGHOLE!'"
The Great Cornholio is an alternate personality that Beavis manifests when he's riding a sugar or caffeine buzz. His tee shirt yanked over the top of his head, he raises his arms in a peremptory gesture, and, eyes blazing like an Old Testament prophet, spews rantings both megalomaniacal and scatological: "I AM CORNHOLIO! I NEED TEEPEE FOR MY BUNGHOLE! ARE YOU THREATENING ME?"
Asked to explain the genesis of this weirdness, Judge offers a riddle wrapped in an enigma: "It just hit me like a ton of bricks one night when I was about to go to sleep--Beavis should pull his tee shirt over his head and start babbling. You know? I just thought, 'God, why haven't I thought of that yet?'
"I don't know where the word 'Cornholio' came from," he says. "I used to work taking tickets in a movie theater. I was just a grunt, and I had to tell people to wait outside. And this one Middle Eastern guy came up and said [outraged Middle Eastern accent:], 'No! I will not wait outside! I want to buy some pop-corn for my wife!' And I said I was sorry but those were the rules, and he said, 'Are you threatening me?' He kept saying it, and it stuck in my mind."
Judge's imitation of the Middle Eastern man demonstrates his striking gift for vocal mimicry. It's even more impressively displayed on the show, in the contrast between the low, breathy, lordly chuckle of Butt-head--marginally the more cunning and worldly of the duo--and the mindless, nervous, reactive tittering of Beavis. "I'm always trying to remember at what point I got the idea to have them just doing this dumb laugh all the time. I don't know where Butt-head's laugh came from, but I found a tape recently of myself trying different laughs out. I was listening to it, going, 'No, don't go with that one, that one doesn't work.'
"It was really scary hearing myself trying these different voices, 'cause I thought, boy, if I'd tried a different one, you know?" Judge pauses, considering the vagaries of pop-culture glory. "It's like the difference between huge success and a day job is, like, 'uh-huh-huh-huh . . .'"
Judge does the voices not only of our heroes but also of most of the show's other regular characters, including the boys' long-suffering VFW-member neighbor Tom Anderson, and Mr. Van Driessen, their eternally optimistic hippie teacher. The latter is both a tribute to the nobility of the teaching spirit and a devastating caricature of New Age smugness, with his oft-repeated verbal tic, a condescending "m'okay?"
"My wife's from the Bay Area, and I lived up there for a couple of years," says Judge of Van Driessen's origins. "I've heard that 'm'okay?' a lot. I was at this blues society thing, and Tomcat Courtney, this great old, like the real thing, blues guy was playin', and he does a couple songs, and there was also this woman dobro player, and this kinda folksy guy in the audience said [Van Driessen voice:], 'Maybe you should let the girl play one, m'okay?' And the blues guy was like, 'Maybe I oughta kick your ass.'"
That sort of flexibility of viewpoint is what makes Beavis and Butt-head's satire so good. The boys have two basic qualitative judgments--things either are "cool" or, more usually, they "suck" (if extremely cool, they may "rule" or "kick ass"). Some of what they think is cool seems misguided, but much of what they say sucks really does suck, and their status as idiots makes them perfect for skewering certain ripe targets, like sensitivity training or the men's movement. "You can make a point that if someone so simple-minded figured something out . . ." says Judge. The boys can also be used to give backhanded praise, as when Butt-head, assured by a documentary filmmaker that he won't be censored, remarks, "Censorship is cool. I like when they put those black lines over people's thingies."
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"I mean, you don't want Butt-head saying 'censorship sucks,'" notes Judge.
Judge will even admit that those of us who have seen a touch of pathos in Beavis and Butt-head's cultural and spiritual impoverishment aren't necessarily insane. "When you can see Butt-head just fail miserably in front of a girl, in his mind he's still this cool, smooth guy, but maybe you can see the laugh is a little cover-up for how pathetic it all is. But it's got to be real nondeliberate, it just has to happen kind of organically, for lack of a better word."
Judge likes some episodes more than others. "When we're doing scripts for a season, we'll do five in two or three days, and if it's one I really like, then I'll really pay a lot of attention to it," he says. "Like there's one coming up next year called 'Nosebleed' that I think's gonna be a classic, so I spent a lot of time on that.
"But some episodes, like 'Eating Contest' or 'Beavis, Can You Spare a Dime?', I'm not that into." Caught in this frankness, Judge hastens to add that in his sights the show's writers are all really good, "but lazy writing on my part or anybody's part happens, where you put in some scatological joke, and there's nothing other than the joke.
"An example of where it works well is in the movie, where the vultures are humping. It doesn't get a laugh because the vultures are humping; it's funny because Beavis and Butt-head are about to die, and Butt-head's like [weak Butt-head voice:], 'Beavis, look, uh-huh-huh-huh . . .' His mind still hasn't gotten out of the gutter even though he's about to die.