The Bad Boys of MTV 'Beavis': More, and worse, than cartoon?

September 18, 1993|By David Kronke | David Kronke,Contributing Writer

An 11-year-old student in a California elementary school 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, heavy-metal couch potatoes whose vocabulary has scarcely evolved beyond their ubiquitous muttering chuckles, initially followed "The Simpsons" and "Ren and Stimpy" in sending subversive messages through the medium of TV animation.

But they quickly blew right by their predecessors by indulging in cynical and black humor, often of a sexual or violent nature. The two are routinely depicted performing or discussing acts of violence -- many involving fire, small animals or both -- and occasionally shown employing quixotic, dangerous means to get stoned.

Their language, too, has come under increasing fire.

The cable program airs here as early as 7 p.m. weeknights -- a time slot heavily watched by children, its critics complain. However, MTV does air disclaimers at 7 p.m. pointing out that the twosome should not be construed in any fashion as role models. Earlier this month, MTV announced that four of the 35 original episodes would no longer air, and that several others would be shown only at 11 p.m.

Still, a chief problem is that to a parent's casual glance, the show just seems to be an innocuous cartoon, says Terry Rakolta, founder and director of the Detroit-based Americans for Responsible Television. "It's a dirty little secret that kids are hiding from parents," she says, admitting that she herself happened upon the program by accident.

"One afternoon, I walked in on 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 [a profanity]. . . . If you don't stop and really watch it, you don't know how really bad it is.

"It's just incredible that they're aiming this show at kids," Ms. Rakolta says. "Everybody knows that when [MTV says] they aim the show at high school kids, their younger brothers and sisters, aged 8, 9 and 10, are watching, too. . . . They're really a parent's worst nightmare, and they're 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."

Judy McGrath, creative director for MTV, concedes that some of the ne'er-do-wells' more, er, spirited adventures will be harder for younger audiences to find.

Among the banned episodes are two of the most notorious -- one in which the two inhale paint thinner, and another in which they sniff gas fumes from the kitchen stove and in the process blow up their house.

"We pay attention to those kinds of charges and don't want to be irresponsible, yet maintain that it's rock-and-roll humor with slapstick like 'The Three Stooges,' " Ms. McGrath says. "We're trying to remain true to [creator Mike Judge's] vision and show how blatantly awful these characters are, yet not encourage violence in the real world."

"This is exciting -- it indicates they're taking responsibility for the power of Beavis and Butt-Head," says Dick Zimmermann, a crusader against TV violence. "They're recognizing they created two icons that are turning out to be role models."

Nonetheless, don't expect Beavis and Butt-Head to mature any. Their mean-spirited stupidity is their chief appeal, Ms. McGrath says. "Last year we were politically correct to the max [with the "Rock the Vote"] campaign, and this was so politically incorrect it was refreshing.

"It entertains our core viewers and drives everybody else crazy, but this way people are more likely to pay attention when we do other things."

Mr. Zimmermann can already attest to the pair's persistent troublemaking. "In the first new episode, they stole a car, wrecked it, and set fire to another car. I'm delighted with the action they've taken, but they need to go quite a bit further."

"B&B" simply follows rock and roll, comic books and TV as the latest pop-culture scourge for fretful parents to assail, claims Carole Robinson, senior vice president of press relations for MTV.

"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," Ms. Robinson says.

Besides, points out Peggy Charren, spokeswoman for 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 gonna be so much stuff that'll be more unsuitable than 'Beavis and Butt-Head' that it will be a moot point.

"But if these people were smart, they wouldn't put in things that'll hurt kids when they imitate them," Ms. Charren says, 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 comeuppance than censorship."

In the meantime, Beavis and Butt-Head have become the world's most overachieving underachievers. A new season is premiering, a book is due in November, an album of the music heard on the show (along with a song written by its creator, Mr. Judge) is due at Christmas and a film (possibly with live-action characters) is expected late next summer.

And the two are even getting their own Christmas special. True to form, they won't learn anything whatsoever.

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