Cynicism in Beavis and Butthead Do America

Beavis and Butthead Do America (1996) is probably one of the most grandiose examples of low culture in recent American history. Mike Judge, who has made a career of parodying contemporary America, uses the astoundingly one-dimensional title characters (whose only consistent goal is “scoring”) to undermine the pretensions not only of a supposedly civilized American society and critique the intense television culture of the nineties. (Beavis and Butthead, of course, famously centers around segments that feature the title characters sitting on a couch, commenting on what they see on television.)

The interesting thing about the way BaBDA is crafted is that it’s similar to a sketch show. In the above clip, you’ll notice the sudden jumps in narrative from one joke sequence to another. This format allows us to kind of suspend our disbelief as the grotesque Beavis and Butthead bumble around Washington seemingly without reproach. This contributes to the caricaturization of America – and its oblivious citizens – a surreal atmosphere that distances us enough so that we can laugh at it without feeling too uncomfortable. Note that it accomplishes this by parodying cinematic conventions with which we are all familiar (such as the sweeping score and use of zoom during Beavis’s “speech”). Of course, as I’m sure Mike Judge would be quick to point out, this means that BaBDA is playing into the TV culture that it seems to be critiquing, but in a way that’s always been the fun in watching Beavis and Butthead on television while they are watching television themselves.

The Beavis and Butthead show, along with this feature film, was made entirely during the Clinton administration. BaBDA‘s criticism is directed at the pretensions not only of the U.S. government but of an American society that trusts governmental authority. In the above clip, we see a shot of the U.S. Senate laughing in the same idiotic manner as the title characters. We also see the two villains, and the elderly bus tour, who paint a respectively terrible and ignorant picture of the American public. In a lot of ways, this film suggests that the supposed lovableness of our lawmakers is an entirely medial creation, carefully crafted to lull us into blissful ignorance – like that of, well, every character in this film (save for perhaps the villains). (Also see the clip in which Beavis and Butthead meet, and are rewarded by, a caricature of the affable President Clinton. “Cool, huh?” he says when he appoints our heroes as honorary agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabacco and Firearms [which, by the way, is an actual bureau].)

A couple of notes: 1. Interestingly, this film predates the Lewinsky scandal by two years. 2. The voice of the bus driver in the embedded clip is that of Richard Linklater, notable American slacker/filmmaker and director of Dazed and Confused (1993).


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