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The rebooted Beavis and Butt-Head love ASMR and TikTok. We should probably be worried

The Independent
The Independent
 2022-08-08

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Nirvana had just dropped In Utero , the blistering third studio album that would turn out to be their last. A movie as wholesome and preposterous as Mrs Doubtfire was absolutely crushing it in cinemas. And people were dressed, well, honestly, exactly how they’re dressed right now: crop tops, torn denim and platform shoes in matchy-matchy colour combos. But perhaps nothing captures 1993 more evocatively than the launch of MTV ’s Beavis and Butt-head , a show with the nihilistic urge to prove that sitcoms need not centre on charismatic leading men to be successful. They barely even need jokes.

Launched a few years after The Simpsons , Beavis and Butt-head was one of the defining cartoons of the time, even as mothers across the US and UK forbid their kids from watching it. It was ruder than The Simpsons and also more senseless. Plus there was the matter of their obnoxious laugh, an unappealing guttural noise that was their automatic response to everything and nothing.

I suppose I should say “is” their automatic response. Yes, the beloved and abhorred animated duo Beavis and Butt-head have joined the ranks of characters rescued from the dark waters of TV history and rebooted because, well, that’s what we do now. In the new 12 episode series from Paramount +, the boys – dumb, unpleasant and teenaged as they ever were – wear the same band T-shirts (AC/DC and Metallica) and sit on the same tatty sofa hurling insults at the TV, now upgraded to a flatscreen.

It’s the world around Beavis and Butt-head that’s changed. They used to be amateur rock video pundits, but since we saw them last – there was another brief revival of the Mike Judge hit in 2011, plus two films – their cultural remit has expanded to include college acceptance videos (cringe), prison TikTok (strangely informative) and ASMR content from YouTube star Gibi (more later).

I didn’t watch the show often during its original seven-season run on MTV. My mother, who found cartoons made for adults unsettling, was among those who banned it – a lame choice that aged badly (sorry, mom). Along with The Simpsons and MTV’s sci-fi cartoon Aeon Flux , Beavis and Butt-head was part of an early wave of animated sitcoms that were mature enough to air in the prime-time block. The prolific Judge would go on to make King of the Hill , which premiered the same year as Family Guy and South Park . Before there was the heart-pinching pathos of Bojack Horseman or the acerbic wit of Archer , there were these two idiots talking – futilely – about how much they’d like to score with some “chicks”.

Judging by the first two episodes of the new series, I’m tempted to say Beavis and Butt-head were ahead of their time. They were internet trolls before the internet was available for public use. They were frustrated virgins before the invention of incels. They were the OG shitposters of real-life analogue conversation.

Never is this more clear than in the series’ interstices – the odd breaks between and within the two longer sketches that make up the bulk of a Beavis and Butt-head episode. In the most telling instalment to air so far, the pair sit down in Beavis’s living room to watch an ASMR video.

For the uninitiated, ASMR stands for autonomic sensory meridian response, and it refers to the pleasurable tingling sensation people can experience when they hear soft sounds like tapping, scratching and whispered plosives. The boys watch a video by a real-life ASMR artist called Gibi, who has more than 4 million subscribers on YouTube. In the decidedly unsexy clip, Gibi runs her painted nails down a plastic hairbrush and opens a chipboard box of children’s markers over and over again. To give you a sense of ASMR’s popularity, this one video – out of the 946 Gibi’s posted – runs 30 minutes long and has 1.3 million views. Beavis and Butt-head are instantly seduced by her actions. Their voices grow softer as they reflexively mirror Gibi’s. Their gratingly obnoxious laughter is downgraded to abrasive. Of course, Beavis ruins the moment by mentioning his “boner”.

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But it stands out because Beavis and Butt-head usually hate what they watch, from soppy country music videos to tacky clips of kids learning they got into Harvard. As a viewer, it generally feels OK to hate what Beavis and Butt-head hate. But what does it mean that this is the part of contemporary culture these two idiots like?

The original Beavis and Butt-head was (sometimes) lauded as intelligent satire, even if moms didn’t get it. To be fair, it was also called “crude”, “ugly”, “self-destructive” and “socially pernicious” – criticisms I doubt we’ll see repeated. Because when Beavis and Butt-head were hurling insults at Korn videos in the mid-90s, they seemed like ineffectual little punks. Who cares what they like? Certainly not the MTV programming exec deciding what band to put in rotation. But culture is directly democratic now: we vote with our clicks. Online, two virginal losers with dubious hygiene matter as much as anyone else.

For better or worse, the milieu in which we’re revisiting Beavis and Butt-head demands we pay more attention to the idle thoughts of teenage boys. Teenagers grew up on the internet, and now they make the internet. They decide what’s cool on TikTok, and if they spend half an hour watching a pretty stranger run her fingernails across plastic markers like she’s playing a barely audible harp, then that’s what we’ll get more of.

Who cares what Beavis and Butt-head like? In 2022, the answer is everybody .

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