Gazing into abyssal television history

Charles Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities with one of the most memorable lines in literature: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

It speaks to the duality of humankind and the ongoing, immutable struggle between good and evil. It reminds us to take everything — seemingly good or bad — in proper context. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

Today we commemorate the inaugural showing of an equally beloved and despised television program. Twenty years ago today, MTV launched the vulgar animated romp, Bevis and Butthead. Long after its run ended, it remains MTV’s highest-rated show.

The show was an outgrowth of a short film made by Mike Judge. As describes the show, “Beavis and Butthead offered audiences rude and crude buddy humor in the tradition of The Three Stooges, Cheech and Chong, and Wayne and Garth of Saturday Night Live and the Wayne’s World movies. The titular main characters were two teenage boys living in the fictional town of Highland; they attended Highland High… but spent most of their time eating junk food, talking about girls and—most importantly—watching music videos.”

The most significant novelty of the format was the interspersing of music videos and other clips with sophomoric comments from the main characters. While something similar had been done with the science fiction-oriented, Mystery Science Theater 3000, that show’s running commentary was arguably of a slightly higher footing.

One brief passage makes the point:

Butthead, “Whoa! It’s the president of England!”

Beavis, “Yeah, she jams!” (referring to Queen Elizabeth II).

When not providing derisive and profane narration, the pair were shown engaged in innumerable feats of moronic, destructive and hormone-fueled behavior. The twined interests of adolescent sexual fantasy and pyromania were consistent themes.

As one might imagine, Beavis and Butthead provoked an immediate and highly vocal rebuke. Such filth was clearly a sign of the end times — at least that’s how it seemed to some.

In 1993, Hanover College professor, Daniel Murphy, delivered a lecture in which he attempted to assess the cultural merit of the show: “Beavis and Butthead, to put it mildly, possess no redeeming social value, nor are they politically correct… (they) can not be dismissed as a disturbing curiosity because they are not alone. Indeed, they are merely the latest, and frankly relatively benign, phase in a trend towards pop barbarism and nihilism.”

Comparing the pair to other popular television characters of the day, Murphy went on to say that “Al and Peg Bundy on Married With Children, and Homer and Bart Simpson on The Simpsons (are all) anarchic idiots through whom we celebrated the thrill of the abyss. All these popular characters, intended as parodies of middle American stereotypes, exist in a dystopian American landscape drained of order or meaning… Beneath the superficial goofiness of these programs lies an only partially concealed existential terror.”

Of course, all this harkens a point made by Friedrich Neitzsche, “… if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.”

Ironically, looking down into a deep dark hole is exactly the kind of thing Beavis and Butthead would enjoy.