That’s Mr. Beavis and Butt-head to You : Mike Judge Thought His MTV Twits Would Create a Buzz -- ‘but Never This Big’
He’s hardly the guy you would pick out as the star amid the glittery-glam of the MTV offices in Times Square. The clothes are strictly Gap Outlet. The face is only one shade short of ultra-pasty. The hairline (gasp!) is receding.
Yet despite all this lack of hipness, Mike Judge is one of those folks who creates what those in the business call “noise” for MTV. If there is “noise,” that means people are talking about you and not about someone else. And Mike Judge created the “noise” for MTV called “Beavis and Butt-head.”
Surprisingly enough, at a network where longevity is usually measured in minutes, Judge’s “Beavis and Butt-head” cartoon remains a cult hit more than a year and a half after the dull-witted duo from Buttmunch City first breathed their “heh-heh-hehs” to an adoring MTV multitude.
“It’s funny--I used to sit and watch MTV, and it made me feel old and like a complete dork,” said Judge, 32, who created “Beavis and Butt-head” and still supervises its animation and does most of the male voices. “If you look at it, everyone is super-good-looking, super-hip, really fashionable and has a nice body. I still come here and most people don’t recognize me, and I get dirty looks from these hip production assistants in leather jackets who whisper, ‘Who’s this old guy?’ I still watch MTV and think, ‘I’m over the hill.’ ”
“Beavis and Butt-head,” which certifies Judge as clearly not over the hill, is an animated half-hour centered around two of the most uncool 14-year-olds you can imagine. Much of the show is taken up with the T-shirted Beavis and Butt-head talking over or criticizing, in adolescent language, bad rock videos. In between, there are cartoons with a vague story line, most of which end up with Beavis and Butt-head grinning dimly and looking stupid.
Judge had taken up animation only three years before when he presented the first “Beavis and Butt-head” cartoon, “Frog Baseball,” to the International Festival of Animation. The main action in “Frog Baseball” was the two giggling idiots bashing frogs with baseball bats. MTV bought the episode for its late video melange, “Liquid Television,” and from there brought Judge in to make a series, which debuted in March, 1993.
It was firmly established as a cult show by two things. First, parents and school officials hated it, calling it inane and insensitive. That hooked teen-agers right off. And then, in October, 1993, a 5-year-old boy set fire to his home in Ohio, killing his 2-year-old sister. The mother blamed “Beavis and Butt-head,” and MTV quickly reacted by canceling the show’s early-evening airing and confining it to late night.
Judge stayed away from interviews for months after the latter incident, but he was clearly torn up about it.
“When I heard about that I thought, ‘That’s awful.’ I have kids myself,” said Judge, the father of a 3-year-old daughter and another born in June. “That’s the worst thing in the world, that a kid died.
“But then I thought, ‘Wait a minute! Kids started fires in my neighborhood. Kids have been starting fires forever.’ ” And some news outlets distorted the story, he contended, failing to question what sort of supervision the mother had provided if the boy was able to get hold of a cigarette lighter.
“I think when a kid dies it’s such an awful thing that you’re grasping, looking for something. I know I wouldn’t be thinking clearly if something like that had happened to me,” he said.
Judge thinks much of the controversy stemmed from “Beavis & Butt-head” airing on MTV, which has had more than its share of criticism. Nonetheless, he said he likes the fact that “Beavis & Butt-head” is on cable, because parents who don’t approve of his brand of humor can keep their children away from it.
“You have to order cable. You have to say, ‘I’m paying 30 bucks a month for these 51 extra channels,’ ” he said. “If you complain, it’s like going out and buying Hustler and leaving it on your coffee table and complaining to the publisher that your kid is seeing pictures of nasty stuff. You can lock out MTV. Raising kids isn’t easy, but it is easy to lock cable TV out of your house.”
This spring, Judge and his family moved to Austin, home of Texas blues and Texas hip. They had been living outside Dallas--he working as a musician, his wife in an electronics firm--when MTV asked them to relocate to New York so he could work on “Beavis and Butt-head” at the company’s main animation studio. But he’d grown up in Albuquerque, and said he is far more comfortable in the small cities of the Southwest.
“I almost never get recognized, so I can do the same old things I always did,” he said. “We just know a lot of people there (in Austin), and it’s one of my favorite towns anyway. It has everything I want in a city and it’s still small. I don’t want to paint too nice a picture because there are too many people moving there as it is.”
Judge makes occasional trips to New York to approve the music videos that will be used in the series and to take care of other business, but generally works by fax, FedEx and video conferencing from Austin. The boys seem happier about it, too.
“You know, actually, for a while, I was thinking, ‘God, I don’t know how much more of this I can do!’ ” he said. “Then something happened around January. I caught a second wind, with Howard Stern as inspiration. Not like you’d think. It’s just that Howard Stern fills five hours a morning just talking. I started to think that rather than coming up with something to say about each video, to have them just talking. Beavis has developed a bit more lately, but, in any case, they are still just 14 forever.”
MTV is also not done exploiting them just yet. There is a new Beavis and Butt-head video game to go along with shirts, hats and other paraphernalia. And the “Beavis & Butt-head Ensucklopedia,” in which the boys pontificate on just about everything in their world, has just been published. (Sample excerpt under “J Is for Jobs”: “Doctor--This guy operates on you and gives you shots and stuff. But it’s not as much fun as it sounds, ‘cause like you have to go to school extra for it. On the other hand, you also get to see chicks naked, which is as much fun as it sounds, huh-huh.”)
A “Beavis and Butt-head” movie is in the talking stages. The collected episodes will eventually be released on home video.
Judge, though, mainly works on the cartoon. “I was at the first meeting for the video game and then I said, ‘Do what you want,’ ” he said. He hopes to use the series as a springboard to get out of animation--he actually thinks he’s not very good at it--and into writing comic live-action screenplays.
“This will definitely be the only 14-year-old thing I ever do,” he said.
Judge said he always thought there would be a “buzz, but never this big” about the boys, but he is still surprised their fame came on the flashiest of all networks, MTV.
“Beavis and Butt-head are not hipsters. They’re not cool,” he said. “They’re awkward and ugly and dorky. After a while, you could get tired of them. For anything else, you could watch MTV and get this impression that the message is: ‘You will never be this cool, so don’t even try.’
“I’m just happy they gave this old, uncool guy a chance.”
* “Beavis and Butt-head” airs weekdays at 11 p.m. and weekends at 10 p.m. on MTV.