There are certain sounds that will forever evoke the 1990s in our collective sense memory. The opening guitar riff of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The chimes of a dial-up modem. The persistent, grating laughter of Beavis and Butt-Head.
The bigheaded cartoon slackers were a ubiquitous part of that decade, propelled to fame by MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-Head.” In the animated series, the two oblivious buddies would wander their suburban hometown, wreak havoc at school and watch real music videos on television, providing a constant stream of their dismissively comic commentary (punctuated by their distinctive giggles).
“Beavis and Butt-Head” was the creation of Mike Judge, a little-known animator at the time (with a background in math, physics and engineering). The series, for which he provided the voices of the title characters and many others, made its debut in 1993 and yielded the hit movie “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America,” in 1996. But Judge grew burned out by the relentless pace of the production; the series ended in 1997, and he moved onto make other TV shows like “King of the Hill” and movies like “Office Space.”
Now, after a long hiatus (and a short-lived, one-season revival in 2011), Judge has brought back “Beavis and Butt-Head.” The characters returned in the movie “Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe,” which was released in June on Paramount+. And new episodes of their TV series will be released on Aug. 4, some of which find them in their familiar teenage environs — and some that look at their life as older (but no wiser) middle-aged doofuses.
Though he has experienced a wide range of feelings about “Beavis and Butt-Head” over the years, Judge, now 59, has come to find the goofy characters endlessly resilient and entertaining. “The best episodes are the ones where you can just say what the situation is and people start laughing,” Judge said in a video interview last month. “With the best ones, you can explain it in like two or three sentences. It’s just about finding the opportunities for the characters to be funny.”
Judge spoke further about his grueling efforts to make the original “Beavis and Butt-Head,” reviving the show and his other plans for the characters. (Did someone say live-action “Beavis and Butt-Head” movie?) These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
“Beavis and Butt-Head” felt like a show that could have continued in perpetuity. Why did it its original run come to an end?
Sometimes I ask myself that same question. It was a bit of a strained relationship with MTV, and we were doing too many too fast. It started to get better toward the end. But when I agreed to do the movie, I had another season on my contract, and I said, “I’d do the movie if you let me out of that.” Maybe if we had done a slower pace, where we weren’t doing 70 episodes a year, I probably would’ve kept going longer. I wanted to quit the show before it got really bad and run into the ground. I feel like I did that, which made it feel OK coming back to it.
Was your appreciation for Beavis and Butt-Head as characters affected by the bad feeling at the end of the series?
I definitely had a bad taste in my mouth for a while after it was over. I was really glad to be done with it. I was doing “King of the Hill,” but especially after I’d done “Office Space,” there was a time where, every now and then, I’d either see a clip or something and I’d go, wow, those were actually some pretty good characters there, they pop. When it worked, I thought it worked really well. I was going to do a sequel to the movie around 2001 or ’02.
What would the sequel have looked like then?
I had a couple different ideas. One of them was sort of the beginning of this one, with the space camp. But I had another one, where somebody tries to recruit them on a suicide mission with a promise of 72 virgins. Thankfully, I didn’t do that one.
Thankfully, indeed. What convinced you to come back to “Beavis and Butt-Head” now?
I was done with “Silicon Valley,” and there was another show that was about to happen that didn’t. Like two or three years ago, I did a little “Beavis and Butt-Head” intro for the band Portugal. The Man, for their Coachella show that they then used for their tour. I hadn’t done those voices in many years, and I thought, oh, this still sounds like them. Maybe it will be fun to do again. Originally, it was just going to be a movie and possibly live-action, and then they said they wanted the series, too.
Wait, did you say “live-action”?
Yeah, a live-action “Beavis and Butt-Head” for Paramount, the movie studio, which still could happen. At one point, there was an idea that was Beavis and Butt-Head are animated in a live-action world. We went down that road for a little bit. And we had a casting session, like two years ago, for just doing like teenage Beavis and Butt-Head. Didn’t go as well as I had hoped.
You could do it “Boyhood”-style and check in with them every year for 10 or 12 years.
Oh, yeah, that could totally work.
Were you at all concerned that whatever “Beavis and Butt-Head” had managed to captured about the 1990s wouldn’t translate in the 2020s?
When the show started, MTV was so about youth and hipness, and I was already pushing 30, living in the suburbs, had a kid. I was not a hip person at all, and I remember thinking, I’m just not going to try to make these characters hip. Pauly Shore was all the rage on MTV and had every hip California phrase, and I was deliberately trying to not have catchphrases. There was talk about, “Their T-shirts say AC/DC and Metallica — shouldn’t it be like Nirvana and Pearl Jam or something newer?” I was not even going to try to compete with any of that.
Do you feel that philosophy has served you well on the new episodes?
It’s been fun to do these episodes where they’re middle-aged. When I was a teenager, “Caddyshack” came out. Rodney Dangerfield was popular, and he was almost 60. He wasn’t trying to be young and hip — he was just a funny old man, and there’s something about old Beavis and Butt-Head that I really like in that same way. They’re just these old dumbasses.
So there are episodes where we see them as adults?
Yes, there’s one where they do jury duty and they’re just the worst jurors ever. We bring Stewart [their young hanger-on] back as a middle-aged guy, too, because he’s a kidney donor to Beavis. It’s maybe one of my favorite “Beavis and Butt-Head”s I’ve ever done.
Does their relentless cynicism ever become wearying, after all these years?
Part of it is, they’re clearly two worthless guys just dumping all over other people’s accomplishments, and they’ve got nothing going for themselves at all. But there’s something funny about them putting themselves above all this. Sometimes I’m totally agreeing with what they have to say, and then, sometimes, the joke is taking it to a place that I completely disagree.
Does it take a moment for you to find their voices again, or do they reside in you permanently?
It took a little while. Doing Beavis, it’s not good for my voice. I probably have polyps or something from that. He screams a lot — it’s just: [growling Beavis “ehhhhh” noise]. I go through a lot of cough drops and tea with honey in it.
In addition to commenting on music videos, Beavis and Butt-Head now riff on TikTok videos and other clips of social-media commentary that feel like descendants from the original show. Did you invent the reaction video?
Well, your words, not mine. To be fair, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” came before “Beavis and Butt-Head.” Julie Brown also had a show on MTV [“Just Say Julie”] where she’d play a video and put a lawn chair down and sit in the background, talking over it. That did have something to do with sparking the idea for me. They wanted Beavis and Butt-Head to be V.J.s, and I thought them talking to a camera didn’t make sense, but what if they’re just watching it and talking to each other? That turned out to work really well.
Now that the show is on a streaming platform, did you ever consider using more explicit language or content?
We talked about it at the beginning. For one thing, it doesn’t seem like them anymore; it seems less innocent. But also, there’s something about them saying stupid things like “butt wagon.” They’re just really dumb and remind me of junior high. It’s not like everybody’s going, “Oh, I can hardly wait for Beavis and Butt-Head to say [expletive].”
There was a focus group they did in the ’90s. The moderator goes, “What would you like to see on ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’?” This one guy is just angry, he’s like, “I’d like to see them get on the first plane to Mexico, go to a strip joint, get drunk — you know, something creative.” And I’m standing there thinking there’s nothing funny about any of that, actually. Sometimes what people think they want is probably not what they want.
We’re nearly 30 years removed from a controversy where “Beavis and Butt-Head” was blamed in the death of a young child who died in a fire, and some content was removed from the show as a result. How does that all feel to you now?
It seems more ridiculous now, and when I’ll tell people of it, they’ve kind of forgotten and I’ll say, ‘No, this was like a big deal.’ A small group of people were very angry, but it was pretty crazy. “Beavis and Butt-Head” had landed right at a period when there wasn’t a lot going on in the world, and things were pretty good, and then suddenly, everything just turned — the problem is violence and television. Now, there’s so much worse if you’re going to really nitpick. That conversation seems to be a thing of the past.
In the same way that you get asked all the time about bringing back “Beavis and Butt-Head,” I presume there are similar conversations about “King of the Hill”?
We’re in the middle of exploring that possibility, too. I think we have an idea of how that could go. I get a lot of people saying they watch it before they go to bed. Maybe it puts people to sleep, but that doesn’t mean that it’s boring.
My younger daughter, about 10 years ago, would watch “Gilmore Girls,” and then I started watching it, and I’d go, oh, I like this — this has a similar Zen quality to it. Nothing too horrible happens. Fox, at the time, was pressuring us, like, “We want life-changing events. You won’t believe what happens on ‘King of the Hill’!” That’s not for every show, you know. I don’t think everyone comes home and goes, “OK, I want to be shocked tonight.” Sometimes, you just want comfort TV.