The man behind ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ knows why his beloved dimwits endure
Hellbent on “scoring,” the lewd animated duo Beavis and Butt-Head have equally amused and disgusted audiences since the early 1990s, when we first heard their nasal laughs and immature jokes on MTV. At the height of their fame, these witless pop culture icons even presented at the 1997 Academy Awards, just months after their first big-screen outing, “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America,” opened in theaters.
More than a decade after a short revival in 2011, the beloved dimwits, created and voiced by multifaceted storyteller Mike Judge, are back — this time on streaming service Paramount+. Earlier this summer a new full-length film, “Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe,” premiered on the platform, joined Thursday by the latest iteration of the TV series. Bringing the pair’s hilariously reprehensible antics fully into the 21st century, this “Beavis and Butt-Head” confronts the sex-obsessed teenage metalheads with escape rooms and farmers markets, both concepts that grew in mainstream popularity since the last time the pair was onscreen. It also touches upon subjects, Judge suggests, that the original might not have.
One upcoming episode shows Butt-Head under the effects of medication for his aggressive behavior. (His transformation into an affable guy upsets Beavis.) Another follows the duo as they’re diagnosed with depression — because they believe girls prefer downhearted guys. And the segments where they used to critique music videos now feature TikTok trends, ASMR and appreciation for K-pop superstars BTS.
“Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh.” --Beavis “Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.”
Although Judge has found remarkable success elsewhere as the director of cult films such as “Office Space” and “Idiocracy,” as well as the co-creator of the TV series “Silicon Valley” and “King of the Hill,” these two grotesquely shaped juveniles keep beckoning him back. And he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“At some point, if my voice doesn’t sound right, and the show is still going, I would think about that,” he says of delegating creative decisionmaking on “Beavis and Butt-Head.” “But I change so much of it as I go that I would probably want to be there anyway, if someone else was doing it. I never really thought about it.”
Judge spoke to The Times via video call about this new chapter in the storied life of his most resilient and timeless characters, who may finally grow old but will never mature.
Did you have any concerns about how Beavis and Butt-Head were going to fit in today’s world?
It’s a very different world than when I did the long run of the show in the ’90s. When it started to click for me was with the movie, the idea of actually having them travel through time from the ’90s and just be these characters from the ’90s interacting with the modern world. In the new series there are going to be episodes where they’re middle-aged. I liked doing those. There were a lot of ideas that we never did because they didn’t have a car and they were 15 or however old back in the day. We can do some of those now.
When you first conceived them back in the ’90s, did you imagine them ever getting old onscreen?
We did have some flash-forwards where they were old. I could always see them being middle-aged, over the hill, or the age that they are normally, 15 or 14, but not in between. I couldn’t really imagine them in their 20s. It didn’t seem like something I’d even want to see. It just seems like it would maybe be too sad. It raises more questions than funny answers, and also drawing them at that age isn’t as fun as just seeing them completely blown out and old.
Do you feel society has changed much since 2011, when the previous revival of the show aired? How would you describe your approach to the show a little more than a decade ago?
For the ones 10 years ago, we probably didn’t change it around enough. I suppose it hasn’t changed quite as much, but there weren’t TikTok videos. Social media was still in its infancy. Now there’s a lot weirder stuff for them to watch. Now when Beavis and Butt-Head are watching videos, they have a remote with the voice button and they just tell it what they want all day long. I suppose it hasn’t changed all that much since 2011 relative to the ’90s to now, or the ’90s to 2011.
Is it easy for you to tap back into the voices of Beavis and Butt-Head even after not doing them for many years, or do they live in your mind all the time?
I don’t ever do the voices when I’m not doing the show. But around 2018 the band Portugal. The Man asked me to do Beavis and Butt-Head introducing them at Coachella. We had used some of their music in “Silicon Valley” and I had met them, so I thought, “OK, I’ll give this a try.” I hadn’t done the voices in many years at that point. I recorded a thing and listened to it back and I thought, “Oh, that still sounds like them.” And when I started animating it and seeing it coming out of them, I thought, “This still seems like Beavis and Butt-Head.”
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Do you record each character separately or are you able to go back and forth between the two during the same recording session?
Very early on, when I was making my animated shorts in my house, I would record Butt-Head first and leave spaces and then go back on another track and listen and do Beavis. I did that on the first couple episodes at the beginning of the first series, then quickly switched to going back and forth, like I’m doing some weird puppet show.
Since watching music videos was a crucial part of the original series, did you feel it was a natural transition to now have them watch TikToks and YouTube content?
It seems like something they would do, just watching mindless stuff on TikTok. That seemed to fit right in. For the 2011 episodes, we had them watch “Jersey Shore,” which was a really good fit too. We’re having them watch one or two actual shows in this new series, but they’ll mostly be watching music videos and YouTube and TikTok videos.
How difficult is it to get the rights to use those videos with the express intention of satirizing them?
It’s harder than I thought. [Laughs]. In general, YouTubers will say, “How much can you pay?” And it’s a fraction of what they get just by being a YouTube star. But a lot of times they think it would be fun to see their stuff on the show. That’s usually what it is, because the amount of money that the company can offer doesn’t usually mean that much to them. If they are already YouTube stars, they don’t need to be on some other show.
Do you recall the origin of the idea for the new movie that takes Beavis and Butt-Head into space and across time and space?
I think it was John Frizzell, the music composer, who said, “You should have them travel through time.” And then I thought, “That’s the way to do it: Start it in ’98 when the original show was around and pretend the 2011 ones weren’t there.” That’s how it started. I like when you take a really dumb premise and take it really far, like in “The Beverly Hillbillies,” one of my favorite shows of all time. I worked with some writers, kicked it around, and it kept evolving. At one point Paramount Pictures really wanted it as a live-action movie. I was open to it. We did some casting sessions, and it didn’t seem right for this. So I said, “Let’s just do this animated and have it kick off the series. If there’s an idea for a live-action one later, we could try that.”
Do you still believe that “Beavis and Butt-Head” can work in live-action?
It might. It’s hard to say. You just have to find the right people. Maybe it’ll be a middle-aged Beavis and Butt-Head. We didn’t do a very extensive casting search. My movie “Office Space” originally started as animated shorts I had done. It didn’t really click for me as live-action until we started casting. When Gary Cole read for the character of [Bill] Lumbergh and then Steven Root as Milton, I just thought, “Wow, this could really work.”
How has the animation of the show changed since the original series? Did the technological advancements in the medium transform how “Beavis and Butt-Head” is made?
Not as much as people think. … Maybe there are more shortcuts, and you can make changes easier now than you used to, but it still comes down to building the timing and the lip-sync one frame at a time. The process doesn’t seem faster, but I guess it is. I try to keep Beavis and Butt-Head themselves looking the way they did then and just improve things around them. I don’t draw that well to begin with, but when I first animated them, I wanted them to look like they were drawn by a 14-year-old in his high school notebook. I almost wanted it to look like it was animated by a deranged person. Anytime that we’ve tried to improve them, it stops being as funny or doesn’t look like them. I figure, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Today, society is challenging outdated views on masculinity. When you first created these hilariously crass adolescents, were you questioning some of those behaviors?
From the beginning, “Beavis and Butt-Head” wasn’t celebrating masculinity. It was making fun of it. Butt-Head always reminded me of guys I knew. He’s got absolutely nothing going for him. He’s ugly. And yet he’s still arrogant and thinks he’s cool. Just unshakable. Beavis doesn’t know any better and looks to Butt-Head for guidance.
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Why do you think that in 2022 we still find penis jokes so funny when they come from characters like Beavis and Butt-Head?
It must be a primal evolutionary thing that I haven’t figured out yet. I asked the writer Jared Diamond about that at one point and we never really got to the bottom of it. When you think about why laughter evolved, some people say when we were hunter-gatherers it was a way to know that danger was gone. But I don’t know why making penis jokes or kicking someone in the testicles indicates that danger is gone. Our brains are hardwired to laugh at certain dumb things, and that’s kind of interesting to me. There was a guy at my first engineering job who was a draftsman, but he just thought it was funny anytime he worked the number 69 into something. I never thought it was funny, but I thought it was funny that he thought it was funny. It would make me laugh but not for the reasons he thought. [Laughs.] To me, what’s funny is that most of the time those jokes are not clever but Beavis and Butt-Head still think they are funny.
What would you say are their redeeming or endearing qualities?
I’d say they are weirdly optimistic. Butt-Head still manages to be cocky even when he gets shut down time and time again. That might be a likable quality. [Laughs.] Also, they are pretty innocent. They’re not necessarily malicious. I don’t think they’re hateful or mean — sometimes to each other, but that’s because they have this sadomasochistic relationship. … People who haven’t seen the show or saw the wrong episodes are often surprised that they’re not as mean as people think. They do stupid things that may have bad consequences, but they’re not deliberately trying to hurt anybody.
After nearly 30 years and hundreds of wild adventures on screens big and small, what keeps you interested in revisiting Beavis and Butt-Head?
These characters are a state of mind not pertinent to one particular era. David Felton, a writer who worked early on in the show, said, “You go to that place in your mind where thoughts begin and then just stay there.” I thought that was a good description of the state of mind that is “Beavis and Butt-Head.” I’ve done a lot of other stuff and I come back to them because I like them, and it’s not always easy to describe why, but they’re very pure, they’re fairly unique and really relatable. Whenever I hadn’t done “Beavis and Butt-Head” for many years, I’ll see it and go, “Those were some pretty good characters. Instead of starting over and trying to invent characters again, maybe it’d be fun to just revisit those.” I didn’t quite run them into the ground in the past. Maybe this time I will. But probably not.
‘Mike Judge's Beavis and Butt-Head’
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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