They use frogs as baseballs. They tie firecrackers to insects. They urinate in pools. They love gory movies. They're into heavy metal. They watch music videos for hours on end, playing air guitar and banging their heads in rapt unison. They have nothing intelligent to say.
In other words, "they're perfect for MTV," said Abby Terkuhle, an MTV vice president. He's also the proud executive producer of the "Beavis and Butt-Head Show," an animated series that seems to have struck a responsive chord with MTV viewers since premiering last week.
"They fit attitudinally," Terkuhle said of the two crudely drawn, longhaired teen-agers who wear hard-rock T-shirts, say "really cool" a lot and drone in dull monotone laughter at their own banalities. "They like and respond to things that our audience finds humorous. Maybe our audience can see a little bit of themselves in Beavis and Butt-Head."
Their creator, Mike Judge, has only been doing animation for a short while. The one-time physics student spent the last several years as a rhythm-and-blues bassist for a group in Texas called Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. Less than three years ago, he sent away for some cheap equipment and taught himself to draw animation. Beavis and Butt-Head were two of his early creations, and he really hasn't had much time to perfect them.
"I read some reviews that said the animation was scrawled out," said Judge, 30, speaking in the slow, drawn-out manner of his characters, for whom he provides the voices. "Doesn't bother me that much."
Nor should it. From early indications, Beavis and Butt-Head are destined to become mindless mascots for the music-video masses. MTV bought the rights to the characters and ordered 65 four-minute cartoons after they appeared as a brief segment in the MTV series "Liquid Television," a sort of menagerie of animation.
The half-hour "Beavis and Butt-Head Show," which runs weekdays (6:30 a.m., 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.), features two cartoons, plus voice-overs of the teens as they comment on a bizarre assortment of outdated music videos--of which MTV has a library of 15,000--and old programs.
Beavis and Butt-Head will soon be featured in a music video with the rock group AC/DC. Eventually, MTV plans to merchandise the brain-dead duo and work them into other areas of the cable channel.
Last week, however, a hitch in the plans developed. Because of production problems and delays in animation, MTV was forced to mix and match the few cartoons that were available, so that viewers who watched the premiere week of "Beavis and Butt-Head" saw numerous repeats.
"There are certain bumps and grinds in the start-up of any animated production that sometimes take more time than what was promised," Terkuhle said. "We had some delivery problems with the actual animation. It's really not uncommon."
Indeed, the time-consuming process of animation often collides with the short patience of TV programmers, something MTV's sister channel Nickelodeon faced last year with the breakout "Ren & Stimpy Show." Rather than continue "Beavis and Butt-Head" half-baked, MTV has decided to temporarily pull the series after this week and bring it back in May with a full stable of fresh episodes.
Either way, Judge doesn't seem too concerned. He's not that well versed in the delivery deadlines of professional animation--although he did take a class once.
"When I was 9 or 10, my mom took me to the YMCA to take a cartoon class," he recalled. "There was this guy, probably a junkie or something, who was standing up there barely awake. Afterward, my mom was driving me home and we saw the guy hitchhiking on the side of the road. It was kind of depressing."
Ben Levy, who works for Expanded Animation, an international distributor of animated film shorts, said that Judge didn't really know what he was getting into with the MTV deal.
"Mike sent me the original contract that MTV drew up, and I told him things to look out for," Levy said. "One of his concerns was that he can't do this much animation. I said, 'If they do go after you and make a show, you won't do it alone. You'll have people working for you.' He said, 'Oh.' "
Most of Judge's experience came from doodling pictures in notebooks while in high school in New Mexico. "I would just kind of draw weird pictures," he said. "It was always faces. I'd usually draw a teacher or something, real unflattering pictures of teachers. It seemed like if I was mad at someone, or if they were irritating me, I could draw them better."
Judge, now living in New York and overseeing an animation studio to crank out his characters for a national audience, got the bug to draw three years ago when he attended an animation festival in Dallas. After talking to an artist who was displaying animation celluloids in the lobby, Judge spent $200 on a light box, a peg bar, some punched paper and ink and colored pencils. His first short, called "Office Space," was about Milton, a small spineless man getting pushed around by his boss.
After selling that film to the now defunct Comedy Channel for $2,000, Judge decided to forgo his plans to return to school to become a math teacher. Pretty soon, Beavis and Butt-Head were born in a short called "Frog Baseball." They were patterned after the metal-head kids he remembered from high school.
MTV's "Beavis and Butt-Head" has been criticized for being moronic, among other offenses. Associates of Judge recall a more subtle, sophisticated brand of humor in his one-man animated shorts. "Mike's films, the ones he did on his own, were a lot funnier," recalled Paul Claerhout, the filmmaker whom Judge first approached in the Dallas theater lobby. "I don't know, these don't seem to have the same wit that his own films have."
The two simple-minded characters are somewhat limited. During their music-video voice-overs, Beavis and Butt-Head are prevented from making truly inspired or sharp-edged comments because it would be out of character. Even Judge said that he really had no plans for the two beyond a couple of short films.
But Ron Diamond, the agent for ACME Filmworks who first acquired Beavis and Butt-Head for "Liquid Television," said that when opportunity knocks, a young animator has to take it.
"The people at MTV saw the film--'Hey, this is cool. Let's do more.' Whether he had other ideas he wanted to do or not, this is what they wanted to do, so you go with the flow. This is what gives you the recognition," Diamond said.