“I definitely had a chip on my shoulder about the mainstream entertainment world not understanding Texas,” Mike Judge says. His voice over the phone is thoughtful and unhurried, the opposite of his cartoon alter ids Beavis and Butt-head, although there’s no mistaking Butt-head’s zonked-out baritone lurking under Judge’s own. There’s even a hint of that laugh—the needling huh-huh-huh that once drove so many parents and teachers crazy—which creeps in as the Austin writer and animator explains how he channeled his resentments into two of his most famous characters: a couple of teenage dirtbags who spend their days passing snickering judgment on pop culture from the pulpit of their couch. “You just feel like you’re not connected to show business, so why not make fun of it?” Judge says. “They’re not going to welcome you in, anyway, so just sit there and take shots at it.”
From 1993 to 1997, Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head, which aired on MTV, didn’t just make fun of showbiz. The little creeps were arguably the two most influential critics in America, capable of making a band—they quintupled
record sales for White Zombie, whose videos they deemed “cool”—and stubbing out careers (sorry, Winger) with a point-blank “this sucks.” But their impact was felt beyond music. To their equally bored and alienated young viewers, Beavis and Butt-head became the guttural voices of a generation. They mocked all manner of authority, defying the touchy-feely political correctness of the Clinton era and deflating pretentious phonies like a couple of paint-huffing Holden Caulfields. Theirs was an awesome power, wielded bluntly and fearlessly. And it all derived from the fact that, like their creator, Beavis and Butt-head were outsiders with nothing to lose.
Judge’s most cherished cretins are back, returning June 23 for a new movie, Beavis and Butt-head Do the Universe, to be followed later this year by a fresh batch of episodes, all of which will stream exclusively on Paramount+. Judge has, of course, long since been lifted into that mainstream entertainment world he once so freely mocked. His movies Office Space and Idiocracy have become part of the pop culture lexicon. Two of his other TV series, King of the Hill and Silicon Valley, earned Judge the kind of critical esteem that few could have imagined back when Beavis and Butt-head was being blamed for hastening the decline of Western civilization. But while Judge is no longer the scrappy underdog, he remains relatively unfettered.
For one thing, he still prefers to work from Austin, where he settled sometime after Beavis and Butt-head’s fourth season. It allows him to maintain a comfortable distance from coastal media bubbles, which feeds into his distinctive point of view on so-called flyover country. And when Beavis and Butt-head return, Judge promises, their outlier perspective will be made even more specific: “There’s all kinds of Texas references,” he says. “They even say their address—which, you know, doesn’t exist. But Texas looms large in this new stuff.”
Beavis and Butt-head is rarely discussed as a Texas show, but it’s always been rooted here. Judge first developed its main characters while living on the outskirts of Richardson, about fifteen miles north of Dallas, in the early nineties. He was playing bass guitar for local bands at the time, including several years with blues legend Doyle Bramhall. But he was also taking graduate school classes in mathematics and contemplating a future as an actuary or community-college teacher. Judge’s showbiz aspirations seemed about as distant as North Texas is from Hollywood. Things changed when he attended a festival in Dallas and caught an animated short that had been created by a fellow local (though Judge is a little foggy on the details). He was inspired to buy a camera and try making his own cartoons, drawing everything by hand and doing all the voices himself.
One of Judge’s earliest efforts was a 1992 rough comic sketch about two chortling mouth-breathers who smack a frog around with a baseball bat. It caught the attention of MTV executives; by the very next year, Beavis and Butt-head had premiered on the network and become an instant phenomenon. The show went on to spawn seven seasons plus a movie, 1996’s Beavis and Butt-head Do America, and a shopping mall’s worth of merchandise. Although he briefly relocated to New York City during the show’s early years, Judge produced the bulk of Beavis and Butt-head from Austin, including a brief, single-season revival in 2011.
Although that most recent reboot simply dumped the teenage Beavis and Butt-head into the present day, fourteen years after they were last seen, without explanation, this new revival requires a bit more conceptual wrangling. Beavis and Butt-head Do the Universe returns to 1998, where the boys’ shenanigans have landed them in front of a “creative” judge who sentences them to attend space camp. They soon blunder their way onto a space shuttle and find themselves pulled into a black hole (huh-huh) that spits them out into our present. Adding to the time-bending trippiness, Judge says, both the movie and future episodes will also catch up with paunchy, middle-aged versions of Beavis and Butt-head. (“It will make more sense after you’ve seen the movie,” he promises.)
Judge turns sixty this year, which he admits is partly why his eternal adolescents are finally being allowed to grow up—physically at least. For Judge, creating an older, if not exactly wiser, Beavis and Butt-head has been particularly reinvigorating. “I feel like if those episodes catch on, I could just keep doing those for a while,” he says. But he’s also had no problem tapping into his inner fifteen-year-old again. “I was talking to Nancy Cartwright [who voices Bart Simpson], who’s even older, playing a kid who’s even younger,” Judge says. “I figured, ‘Well, she’s still doing it. Maybe I can get away with it.’ But it’s really more of a mindset.”
Beavis and Butt-head’s bonehead worldview may be more or less unchanged, but it’s safe to say that the world they’re returning to isn’t. Things have arguably never sucked more—and people today seem less disposed than ever to just laugh it off. It remains to be seen whether Beavis and Butt-head can thrive in a climate where passionate sincerity has usurped ironic detachment and where most everyone has become far more guarded about the things they say and do. Newsweek wondered whether Beavis and Butt-head can “survive cancel culture.” Nevertheless, Judge believes that the duo’s appeal remains both viscerally pure and timeless.
“[South Park cocreator] Trey Parker said something once that I thought was a very high compliment, which is that Beavis and Butt-head is like the blues—it’s the same old thing over and over again, but it’s still good,” Judge says.
Besides, in the midst of such a fatally serious age, perhaps there is something to be said for retreating into juvenile mindlessness—if only for a little while. I tell Judge how I spent the early, panicky months of the COVID-19 pandemic rewatching old episodes of Beavis and Butt-head, calmed not only by nostalgia but also by the show’s giddy breed of nihilism. Nothing ever gets to Beavis and Butt-head; no matter what disasters befall them, they remain narrowly, narcissistically focused on their desires for girls, TV, and nachos. There’s something oddly comforting about that, I say to Judge, particularly when our own world seems perpetually on the verge of falling apart. Judge replies that “comforting” is exactly what he’d hoped his show would be. “I felt like, for those reasons, maybe it was a good time to release something that’s just fun to watch,” he says, “something about guys who are liberated by being completely stupid and therefore not really responsible for anything they say or do.”
The characters’ lack of inhibition and stubborn, harebrained resilience have made Beavis and Butt-head exceptionally enduring. These are also qualities that any Texan should recognize—maybe even admire. At long last, are we finally ready to claim Beavis and Butt-head as our own?
Judge never meant for Beavis and Butt-head to be Texans, exactly. In the beginning, he says, he envisioned their fictional hometown of Highland as an unspecified void somewhere “between Lubbock and Clovis,” vaguely nestled inside the overlapping plains of West Texas and eastern New Mexico. But during the production of Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Judge explains, “some background artist, without me seeing it, started putting Texas plates on the cars. So then I just gave in to saying, ‘Okay, it’s Texas.’ ”
It made a certain amount of sense. Judge was born in Ecuador and raised in Albuquerque. His dad, an archaeologist, worked for Southern Methodist University and often traveled between Dallas and New Mexico. Judge spent “a lot of time in Texas,” he says, before eventually settling in Richardson in the late eighties.
And while Beavis and Butt-head never wore its Texanness on its sleeve like King of the Hill did, there were subtle nods throughout that seemed as if they could only have come from someone who actually lived here. For example, the boys twice hire the ambulance-chasing lawyer Joe Adler, a thinly veiled parody of Houston’s own Jim Adler. They torment a cowboy hat–wearing redneck named Billy Bob, and they repeatedly fail to “score” with Lolita and Tanqueray, two trailer park vixens with flat Texas twangs. Beavis and Butt-head also showed an obvious taste for Texas music, endorsing artists such as Butthole Surfers, MC 900 Ft. Jesus, Pantera, and the Reverend Horton Heat, which gave some of them their widest national exposure. And especially in those early episodes, the heat maintains a subtle yet pervasive presence, the sun baking the acres of untamed scrub that the boys wander through in their immutable attire of T-shirts and shorts.
Beavis and Butt-head has a more spiritual connection to Texas too. The show premiered just a few years after Richard Linklater’s Austin opus Slacker and a year before the Houston-set Reality Bites. These were films that, along with Beavis and Butt-head, helped shape the Gen X psyche. They’re populated with characters who are alienated, overstimulated young people who spend their days snarking on pop culture and trying very hard not to work. That they all happen to be Texans may at first seem incidental. Yet in many ways their disaffection can be tied to the land.
Beavis and Butt-head live in a remote Texas sprawl, a suburban stretch of ranch houses and mini-marts surrounded by unincorporated dirt. They’re restless and without purpose, and they’re bombarded by Hollywood fantasies that leave them feeling unfulfilled. It’s a common theme that can be traced all the way back to 1971’s The Last Picture Show. Who are Beavis and Butt-head anyway but a crude distillation of that film’s Sonny and Duane—just two more bored, oversexed Texas teens delaying their dead-end futures while they stare at screens?
“Oh, I like the sound of that,” Judge says. “I mean, I wouldn’t put myself on the level of that movie, but I see the similarity. Albuquerque, on the outskirts, there’s a similar feel to The Last Picture Show, where you can ride your bike to the end of the city, and then it’s just a vast nothing, going on and on. I always imagined [Highland] being a town like that.”
Like a lot of classically Texan stories, Beavis and Butt-head also deals with the modern world’s intrusion on—and its corruption of—an old-fashioned way of life. Judge would go on to explore this subject more overtly in King of the Hill, whose protagonist, Hank Hill, battles the encroachment of hippies and hipsters into his small Texas town and frets over his own lazy, TV-fed adolescent son Bobby. But Hank also had an early prototype in Beavis and Butt-head’s Tom Anderson, another beer-drinking good ol’ boy who believes in honesty, hard work, and a well-kept lawn, I tell you what—all of which Beavis and Butt-head gleefully, repeatedly trash. At one point, Judge says, he even considered having Hill be Anderson’s son, but Fox shot him down. Still, the two characters clearly share a philosophy and significance—along with an unmistakable drawl.
“[Anderson’s] voice is based on a few different people that I knew in Albuquerque, and one of them was on the paper route I had growing up,” Judge says. “It just seemed like, when I was a kid, older people had Texas accents. The governor at the time, Bruce King, is from eastern New Mexico, and he sounded like a Texan. [That voice], to me, represented the older culture.”
There’s a clear generational divide that separates Hank Hill and Tom Anderson from their teenage foils. But their beliefs and traditions are also entwined with a sense of place. Both Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill deal, in their own ways, with the notion of cultural flattening—how cable TV and the internet have chipped away at our regional identities, creating myriad Beavises, Butt-heads, and Bobbys who are far more influenced by celebrities than by their own communities. In Beavis and Butt-head’s case, this disconnect has turned them into budding sociopaths, irreverent toward everything except Metallica and their own manic impulses.
On the other hand, they are also, as Judge points out, quite uninhibited—again, perhaps this is the most Texan thing about them. Beavis and Butt-head is ultimately a show about two characters with the freedom to behave however they want—and what a terrifying prospect that can be. “It’s a dangerous combination of too much time on your hands and teenagers exploding with hormones and being stupid,” Judge says of the largely unsupervised world where the boys celebrate their autonomy by chainsawing grasshoppers and blowing up bowling balls. That’s the kind of wild self-rule you’re most likely to find in a vast, rolling nothing like Highland, Texas.
Doubtless there are some Tom Anderson types who would prefer that Texas not lay claim to Beavis and Butt-head—particularly if they, like the astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, believe that the show’s popularity heralds the incipient “dumbing down of America.” During its initial run, after all, Judge’s series was often treated less as a mildly transgressive work of satire than as some collective moral failing, denounced by parents’ groups and U.S. senators alike. Even MTV tried distancing itself, appending a disclaimer to early episodes that the show was “completely made up by this Texas guy who we hardly even know,” as if that explained it. Yet regardless of whether you find them hilarious or horrifying or comforting, as Judge himself points out, Beavis and Butt-head have long embodied the same maverick independence that has always distinguished this place.
“Everybody here is the descendant of people who moved to Texas because they were escaping something, and that spirit of just going somewhere to do your own thing is still lingering around,” Judge says. It’s the defiance of the outsider, and it lives on in Beavis and Butt-head. And while you definitely shouldn’t try their antics at home, there’s nothing wrong with reveling in them—or at least laughing at them. To believe otherwise would be antithetical to everything Texas holds dear. Put another way: it would totally suck.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Deep in the Heart of Beavis.” Subscribe today.