Pop Culture : Just Boys or Civilization Destroyers? : Kids think Beavis and Butt-head are cool. So do TV critics. But some outraged media watchdogs thing they just plain suck

An 11-year-old boy at Coldwater Canyon Elementary School in North Hollywood thought it was really funny when Beavis and Butt-head, the breathtakingly moronic duo whose animated series wins the highest ratings of any program on MTV, mooned their teacher.

So he tried it too.

"I got in trouble," he admits sheepishly. "I won't do anything else they do anymore."

"Beavis and Butt-head" followed "The Simpsons" and "Ren and Stimpy" in its efforts to send subversive messages through the medium of TV animation, but it quickly has blown right by its predecessors by indulging in cynical and black humor, often of a sexual or violent nature.

In doing so, the program has raised the hackles of a number of television watchdog groups, which charge that the cable network is acting irresponsibly in airing the series, especially in time slots heavily watched by children. The program airs weeknights at 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m. and on Saturday afternoons.

The program's champions--often found in tonier environs than one might expect--reply that it's all just a joke, an inspired commentary on our society, and that MTV does air disclaimers pointing out that the twosome are not supposed to be construed as role models.

Carole Robinson, senior vice president of press relations for MTV, maintains that the program poses no threat to Western civilization. "According to our research group, nine out of 10 people watching the show are over the age of 12," she says. "We believe the audience knows the difference between an animated, stupid cartoon that makes them laugh and something that is real and to be imitated.

"It's a cartoon . . . . Cartoons have gotten away with things for years that people can't--that's why they're funny. 'Beavis and Butt-head' are funny because they're not politically correct in a politically correct day and age."

Others are not convinced. Dick Zimmerman believes that "B&B;" has had more of an influence on young viewers than MTV would like to admit. Zimmerman, a former broadcast journalist from the Bay Area who won nearly $10 million in the lottery in 1988, has used his winnings to serve as a spokesman on a number of causes, particularly the issue of TV violence--he has even set up a nationwide hotline for concerned parents (415-485-2687).

"I was channel surfing and came upon 'Beavis and Butt-head,' an episode called 'Home Improvement,' " he recalls. "They were chatting with one another in their usual charming style, and one says, 'Let's go get Stuart's cat and light one in his butt.' The other says, 'I'm all out of M-80s, but I'd like to burn something.'

"Then, a few days later, I was watching the TV news, and there was a story about how someone in Santa Cruz inserted an M-80 in a cat's rectum and blew the cat up."

He adds, flatly, "It's inappropriate material for a country burning with violence."

"That's a horrible thing," Robinson concedes about the cat incident, "but it's a real reach to blame it on the show." Mike Judge, creator of "B&B;," was too busy working on the program to comment, according to Robinson.

Beavis and Butt-head, heavy-metal couch potatoes whose vocabulary has scarcely evolved beyond the words cool , sucks and their ubiquitous muttering chuckles, are routinely depicted performing or discussing acts of violence--many involving fire, small animals or both--and occasionally are shown employing quixotic, dangerous means to get stoned. Their language, too, has come under fire--they dismiss one another with mild obscenities and frequently discuss (and sometimes fiddle with) their genitalia.

"It's just incredible that they're aiming this show at kids," says Terry Rakolta, founder and director of the Detroit-based Americans for Responsible Television. "Everybody knows that when (MTV says) they aim the show at high school kids, that their younger brothers and sisters, aged 8, 9 and 10, are watching, too."

Rakolta, who came to national prominence with a 1989 letter-writing campaign protesting Fox's raunchy "Married . . . With Children," calls the characters of Beavis and Butt-head "a parent's worst nightmare--and they're (on) MTV. Anything MTV does, (kids) copy. Young kids are watching them sniff inhalants and light aerosol cans, and if they copy the laugh, they're copying other things."

A chief problem, Rakolta says, is that to a parent's casual glance, the show just seems to be an innocuous cartoon. "It's a dirty little secret that kids are hiding from parents," she says, admitting that she herself only happened upon the program by accident.

"One afternoon, I walked in on (my) kids watching TV, and they got very quiet, you know, like when you're caught doing something wrong," she says. "And I asked them what they were doing, and they said, 'We're just watching a cartoon.' Then, from the TV, I heard, 'You ass-wipe.' One of (the characters) was masturbating the other night. If you don't stop and really watch it, you don't know how really bad it is."

Most students questioned at Coldwater Canyon Elementary School don't think many kids would try to imitate Beavis and Butt-head's more dangerous stunts, though two admitted to mooning friends. Most found the language and the mooning funnier than the violence, though several said they thought it was "cool" when the twosome accidentally shot down an airplane.

Eduardo Rodriguez, 12, said he likes the show because "It's nasty. You get to see all their butts." He added that his parents "told me not to watch it, but I don't listen." His favorite episode was when the characters threw firecrackers in a toilet at a drive-in movie theater. "That's cool."

On the other hand, Diana Lopez, 10, simply likes their laughs and the way they slobber. She doesn't believe anyone would try to emulate the pair. She said she watches the program with her father. "He likes it," she said. "It makes him laugh."

Jasmine Fasheh, 11, says she likes the program because it has "stupid stuff I never saw on TV, like when they moon the TV and talk about people with bad words. It's stuff other cartoons don't do." She, too, doubts that many children would be inspired to copy the characters' antics. "Boys might, but not girls."

Helsin Ceballos, an instructional aid at the school, said she likes the show but doesn't feel it should be viewed by children that young. "I think they'll try to imitate them," she said. "They're anxious to do things they think are cool."

MTV's Robinson says that more than the negative reactions, "What really took us by surprise was the response from people who really love them. Time magazine ran an article that put them on this incredible high plane, regarded them as an art form. Then, in a column about TV and values, TV Guide praised them. That stuff surprises us more." (This summer, The Times' television critic, Howard Rosenberg, wrote, "Beavis and Butt-head are simply too exquisitely absurd and vacuous to be resisted." Rolling Stone recently featured the pair on its cover.) Robinson also points out that "B&B;" simply follows rock 'n' roll, comic books and TV as the latest pop-culture scourge for fretful parents to assail.

"This show, like everything on MTV, is for and of a very specific generation, and the younger generations have always been criticized and railed about by the older generations," Robinson says.

Besides, points out Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television, something worse probably lurks around the corner.

"Arguments about time slots used to be reasonable in the days of the three networks and PBS," she says, "but with 50, 100 and soon 500 channels, there's going to be so much stuff that'll be more unsuitable than 'Beavis and Butt-head' that it will be a moot point."

"If these people were smart, they wouldn't put in things that'll hurt kids when they imitate them," Charren continues, adding sardonically, "because, after all, in this litigious society, you might get sued. If people don't have better sense about copycats, lawsuits are a better place to get their comeuppance than censorship."

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