December 26, 1996 -- As we near the end of the 20th Century, it might be a good time to look at American humor in the movies as it makes its transition from, say, Laurel and Hardy to Beavis and Butt-head.
"Beavis and Butt-head Do America" demonstrates some similarities and differences between the old and new comedy. Laurel and Hardy, like Beavis and Butt-head, rely heavily on slapstick comedy such as pratfalls and mock fighting. Both old and new comedy duos are virtual societal outcasts, ne'er do wells living on the fringes of poverty, much like Charlie Chaplin's famed "Little Tramp," but without the tramp's inherent nobility.
While Laurel and Hardy had their scrapes with the law, most were unintentional legal violations and they were basically good-hearted and honest, if bumbling, people.
Their modern counterparts, however, seem to reflect the amorality of their age. In the movie (which had a record December opening), thieves steal Beavis and Butt-head's television set, so they set out to get it back. In the old days the comedy might have come from trying to actually track down who took the TV set, or trying to buy a new one, or at least earn the money to buy another one.
Not these guys. After a few seconds of looking, they immediately try to steal a television set from the local high school. From there, they eventually fall into a mad scheme involving a top secret biological weapon. They go on a mad cross-country dash, pursued by body cavity-searching FBI and ATF agents.
Along the way, they cause millions of dollars of damage, including the destruction of a hydroelectric generator, but in the end are hailed as heroes, and the blame is placed on a hapless neighbor, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone by Beavis and Butt-head.
The coarseness of humor has increased over time. In the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello and Lewis and Martin, jokes about masturbation were not allowed. Sex was a topic of humor, but only in the most indirect and euphemistic ways. Comedians like Laurel, Lewis and Costello were always portrayed as being sexually inexperienced and powerless. They were often reduced to putty in the presence of women.
Beavis and Butt-head, although also inexperienced, have sex on the brain to such an extent that they are constantly talking about it, or picking up on plays on words that have sexual connotations. Their preoccupation with sex makes up nearly all of the humor of Beavis and Butt-head. It was a much smaller component of the humor content of earlier movies.
The world according to Beavis and Butt-head is fundamentally different. In the older movies, the rest of the world was relatively normal, while the comedians were misfits who existed in their own small zany zone.
The world of Beavis and Butt-head is full of hypocrites: a high school principal who expels them from school turns out to be a sexual deviant; government agents pursuing them run roughshod over people's constitutional rights. Since their world is amoral, Beavis and Butt-head's antics appear more normal in that context.
Although this is different, from Laurel and Hardy and others of the slapstick tradition, it isn't new. There are similarities between the humor of Beavis and Butt-head and that of Charlie Chaplain, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. They also skewered the hypocrisies of American life. Fields and the Marx brothers, along with Mae West didn't mind using jokes about sex and they certainly didn't mind breaking the law now and then if it suited them.
The big difference between the Marx Brothers, et. al., and Beavis and Butt-head is a vast chasm of intelligence. While those older comedians were smarter than everyone else in their films, Beavis and Butt-head are dumber than everyone else in their film. Beavis and Butt-head are almost a celebration of stupidity and ignorance. They make Bill and Ted look smart and well-educated.
While I did find the Beavis and Butt-head movie to be funny at times, there are, I think, inherent problems with a comic vehicle using characters who don't have the wit to appreciate the social satire around them and who aren't basically good natured. At least for me, it's hard to laugh at comic protagonists who are evil, stupid and ignorant. They are comic heroes only a poorly-schooled generation of MTV viewers could love. The film rates a C.
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