It’s 2022 and Jackass and Beavis and Butt-Head are the two most resonant pieces of nostalgic culture we have. How weird! We’ve come around on what was actually funny, what was really entertaining, and are finally celebrating the works that represented who we really are, works that expose and examine what we watch and why we watch it.
How acutely has our intrinsic need for schadenfreude developed around a national suffering, so that seeing someone get kicked in the groin has become a relatable cultural touchstone, something we all feel every day, living in America.
Perhaps these were never examples of “low culture” but were masterfully ahead of their time and plugged into something more intrinsically true about us. Our need burgeoning need for escape is fulfilled not by the high minded movies of the day (what even are those movies any more, and does it mean anything to chase them?) but by simpler times and ideas that work because they have always worked, that channel something so particularly good about television and cinema (both properties taking the same route from MTV to movies) that we can now realize and canonize them among works that were more self-evidently justified.
Both shows are artifacts of MTV’s drive for alternative programming. In the case of Mike Judge’s adult cartoon, it was built out of something the network so desperately needed: a kind of counter-programming, wherein the subject eluded the Billboards-driven formats and music video clip shows, but was also totally justified by being paired with those ideas on the network.
Yes, Beavis and Butt-Head were our choicest music critics of the ‘90s: they laid into gimmicky hair metal acts with barbarous mockery. When they loved something, that work was enshrined in the canon of Immature Rock Dude culture forever. When they sat on the couch and watched Layne Staley in Alice in Chain’s “Man in the Box” they head banged and said the same thing we all did, “this is cool huhuhu, YEAH, IT RULES, IT RULES,” and they’d shut down another act in the same process, “he must’ve seen something so terrible he sewed his eyes shut,” they opined, “yeah, he must have seen that Winger video.” They always got it right, even when they were so wrong.
What it meant then, that they wore their Metallica and AC/DC shirts, means something different now. Those are the music shirts you buy at Walmart now. What was, in your day, a fragment of near-outsider culture, is bound to become the central culture of the next generation. Those shirts hang next to Nirvana ones now. Anyone wearing any of these shirts today, are actually Beavis and Butt-Head, they just don’t know it yet.
And what else has changed? Just so much. Politically, culturally, musically, and this expansion of the B&B mythology, also updated to play nice in a new era of multiversal, time-traveling storytelling, revels in putting its characters in the midst of major social change, and examining them under such a refined microscope. The way the characters are represented has not changed but the comedy beats have, the comedy derived outside their antics is of the moment, socially conscious, and outwardly commentating on our lifetimes of technological and social upheaval. And it’s funny the whole way through.
The boys haven’t been gone since the ‘90s. They came back for an eighth season about ten years ago. And it totally ruled, of course, because Mike Judge has always used this series as the total expression of his personal views and comedy, and it didn’t draw ratings but if you know, you know: it was still awesome and had developed with the times.
And yet here we are again. A big comeback tour. Nicely budgeted and released to streaming where a new audience is possible and weekly releases wouldn’t be the suitable format anymore. It’s so damn funny, and clever, finding the boys poised to go to space in a misadventure where they just want to “score,” and are misinterpreted as at risk youth, who are then flung into the future where they are more correctly interpreted as “privileged white men,” a label they embrace to cause total chaos without a mind for consequences. As the show says, they are sex positive. What they are really saying is something else than what they are saying. It’s not their fault if the people who identify with them, who the show is either sending up or making a total mockery of, can also like the show.
I imagine my Dad every year pulling out his Christmas tree topper, a Beavis angel, the center of the most important day of the year. A force to be reckoned with, a sign of irreverence so near and dear to our hearts than the Beavis angel was our holiday centerpiece. And now, finally, it’s justified, as his character is given room for internal growth and expression beyond his stymied arrested adolescence.
Because Beavis and Butt-head are for everyone. Always have been. But never have they been more for everyone than now. That is worthy of celebration, as we realize that our ‘90s nostalgia is overdue and has arrived fully formed, the MTV generation projected back to us, now with greater sentiment and emotional resonance, heightened for a generation finally ready to receive what these shows always were.