Making fun of pop culture, as Beavis and Butt-head did, wasn’t a new concept. But in the early 1990s — a golden era of snark that also introduced audiences to the smart alecks of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Talk Soup” — watching these two head-banging nimrods blast Madonna on the network that invented the music video was just daring enough to turn the animated series into a cult phenomenon.
Clearly times have changed significantly since then. Now we can watch people comment on what they’re watching at any hour of the day via online reaction clips on YouTube. We can live-blog our sarcastic insights about the latest Beyonce video whenever we choose. We can even create our own animated cut-ups online in mere minutes.
Yet here come Beavis and Butt-head, heavy-breathing their way back onto the cultural landscape with a return to MTV that begins this Thursday at 10 p.m. The new episodes of the show — now called “Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head,” to pay proper homage to the cartoon’s creator — drop the same boneheads (“She said bone . . . huh, huh, huh-huh-huh”) into ridiculous vignettes, as well as onto that familiar sofa from which they continue to lob verbal firebombs at current entertainment. Only now that entertainment includes both contemporary music videos and episodes of “Jersey Shore.”
The re-emergence of these paint-thinner-sniffing teens raises a borderline highbrow question about a series that — mistakenly, some might say — was often considered lowbrow. Can Beavis and Butt-head become trendy again in a digital age where, thanks to the endless opportunities for online snarkery, we are all, in a way, Beavis and Butt-head?
Chris Linn, executive vice president of MTV programming, says the oversaturation of entertainment options in 2011 made Beavis and Butt-head’s commentary necessary again.
“Our audience is so entrenched in media, and they have access to so much media and TV shows and movies, now just felt like a great time to bring Beavis and Butt-head’s sort of take on pop culture back,” he said during a recent phone interview.
“It feels very current and very timely,” he added, “but [Beavis and Butt-head] are still true to who they originally were.”
Judge— now 49 and known for creating Fox’s “King of the Hill” and directing movies such as “Office Space,” in addition to launching Beavis and Butt-head into the public consciousness — says he considers his slack-jawed alter egos timeless.
“Even when [the show] came out, I didn’t feel like they were really, specifically, of that time,” he said during a July interview at San Diego Comic-Con, the pop culture convention where he presented the first public sneak peak of “Beavis and Butt-head” 2.0. “And a lot of the stuff wasn’t even that topical, it was just — it really could have happened 100 years ago, some of it.”
Indeed, the “new” Beavis and Butt-head are making their bid for renewed relevancy with no upgrades. They still wear their respective AC/DC and Metallica T-shirts. They are still in high school, where they continue to take classes with hippy-dippy English teacher Mr. Van Drieesen. They still think “Hey, baby” is an effective pickup line and still giggle freakishly every two minutes. What’s different is the culture — or, to borrow the title of one of Judge’s movies, the idiocracy — that has evolved around them, and of which they seem selectively aware. They know about “Twilight” and MTV’s “16 and Pregnant,” for instance. But at least in the new season’s first episode, Beavis and Butt-head remain seemingly clueless about Twitter and the fact that music videos are more frequently viewed on laptops or iPads than old-fashioned TV sets.
Still, Linn and his MTV colleagues are betting that the teens of 2011 — the ones who were newborns when Beavis first overdosed on sugar and morphed into his gibberish-spouting alter-ego — will embrace that mix of timeliness and timelessness, which at certain moments in the premiere actually works quite well. (Butt-head scores some comedy points while observing“Jersey Shore” stars Snooki and JWoww drafting a chart to track all the reality show’s beach house hook-ups. “If they, like, did this chart long enough,” he dead pans, “they could find out where herpes began.”) And, as demonstrated by the success of Nickelodeon’s late-night block of ’90s shows that had a successful run this summer, it’s also possible that older viewers will seek out “Beavis and Butt-head” purely for the nostalgic value.
In other words, perhaps the best way for Beavis and Butt-head to regain pop cultural currency is to remain exactly as immature as they were during the Clinton years.
(30 minutes) debuts Thursday
at 10 p.m. on MTV.