Nostalgia is a tricky thing. Nothing is harder to recreate than a joke, not to mention that these days, practically every project feels like the spiritual equivalent of a corporate executive banging a ladle against the sides of the slop trough somewhere, expecting that the sound alone will be enough to get us running and squealing.
I’m not immune to the pull of nostalgia myself, but there are also entire genres of shows that I’ve specifically avoided for the simple reason that I don’t think I could look myself in the mirror the next morning if I ever found myself getting excited about something called a “Baby Yoda.” Something about that feels a little too calculated. I know I’m a piggy. At least grant me the illusion of being a free-range piggy.
So how the hell did a Beavis and Butt-head movie released straight to streaming in 2022 wind up feeling so refreshing?
Beavis and Butt-head (has “Butt-Head” always had a hyphen? I feel like I’m being Mandela Effected here) began airing on MTV when I was nearing the age of its protagonists. It’s been… (*leans back in easy chair, quietly yearns for the release of death*) 25 YEARS since their last film effort, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, in 1996.
And yet, almost from the first frames, Beavis and Butt-Head Do The Universe feels not only like logical product, but something that should exist. In a weird way, Beavis and Butt-Head Do The Universe feels even more timely than their last movie. If that was a way to capitalize on the cartoon while its popularity was peaking, Mike Judge’s latest effort is a reminder of how comedy can be.
In the decades since Beavis And Butt-Head and Beavis And Butt-Head Do America, studios and culture broadly have assumed that the solution to comedy was more — more plot, more characters, more cameos, more dialogue. The pace of jokes has attempted to keep pace with the flow of information. Characters have gotten smarter, or at least more manic in order to keep pace. Maybe Beavis and Butt-Head’s glazed chuckling is a periodic reminder that you don’t need all that — a cyclical, necessary reaction to comedy whenever it gets too fancy, or takes itself too seriously, like waves of punk rock.
Beavis and Butt-Head Do The Universe is a movie about two horny teen dumbasses and their quixotic quest to one day score. They chuckle at anything that reminds them of sex, which is most things. That’s it, that’s the entire joke (the setup for it this time around occasionally involves NASA, a lady astronaut, the deep state, and the multiverse, but the punchline remains the same). And the longer Mike Judge (who writes, directs, and voices the leads) maintains it, the more I laughed.
Why does it feel so good to laugh at two dumbasses giggling at the word “butt?” If I could venture a guess — and this part is pure pontification on my part, because the simple, salient fact is that I laughed a lot at the two dumbasses laughing at the word butt — I think it’s because it asks so little of us.
Self-righteousness has been infecting comedy for years now, mostly as a rational response to an increasingly context-denying populace. At a certain point, audiences decided that they needed to know where everyone stood in the culture wars before they could laugh. This led to a fear of being taken out of context, of having sarcasm, satire, and wordplay excised from jokes and read as earnest sentiments. And that seeming death of context, nuance, and subtext forced many joke tellers into self-preservation mode, leading them to write themselves and their protagonists as, essentially, the heroes of every joke, the bringers of wisdom. It’s hard to even write a thing like this without it becoming a referendum on the value of that wisdom itself, but if we can be agnostic about that for a moment, comedy isn’t a great tool for educating the masses. It’s a great tool for taking the piss out of the teacher.
Building a comedy around two horny dipshits is a great way to do that. To be sure, Gen X squeezed the juice out of “it’s cool to not care” until its desiccated corpse spewed dry grey powder, but these days it feels like we’ve been living in the backlash to that for decades. We’re asked to care about everything, and the stakes could never be higher. It’s exhausting. In that context, it’s easy to enjoy two guys whose only concern is eating nachos and getting laid. (Yes, the premiere after-party did include a nacho cheese fountain).
Still, a throwback’s refreshing qualities can easily sour if it feels too much like an appeal to base nostalgia, which almost everything is nowadays. While Beavis and Butt-Head Do The Universe is anchored in a familiar vernacular (fartknocker, buttmunch, and so forth) it doesn’t feel nearly so propelled by a pathological need to stage callbacks as say, Top Gun: Maverick. And even more so than that overdue sequel, it benefits from protagonists who don’t age. Being cartoons is even more effective at staving off Father Time than being an insanely rich Scientologist, turns out.
There is a Cornholio scene that seems based on the premise of “hey, remember Cornholio?” but it moves the plot along well enough that it doesn’t feel too desperate. Likewise, even in scenes I wasn’t entirely sold on, a well-timed chuckle always seemed to pull me back. Mike Judge gets credit for concept often enough, but he also wields those chortles like a surgeon’s scalpel. The man is an artisan.
You could hear a pin drop during a scene when Beavis and Butt-head bumble into a gender studies seminar (with Tig Notaro voicing the professor, one of those voices I felt proud to instantly recognize) as the audience held our collective breath — would Mike Judge have a hot take? Would he accidentally out himself as a crypto-fash or another preachy lib from Hollyweird? Nope. The laughs came like sweet relief when the scene turned out to be mostly about how these two characters were far too simple to be engaging with any big or divisive ideas. And maybe that should be a lesson for a lot of people online.
What can I say? I loved Beavis and Butt-Head once, and I normally hate having my childhood fed back to me. Beavis and Butt-Head Do The Universe somehow didn’t feel like that. It felt like a slice of pure moronic bliss.