Comedy vs Satire: How Beavis and Butt-head Assert Themselves as Satirical

Last Thursday, Beavis and Butt-head aired its first two episodes since 1997, premiering “Werewolves of Highland” and “Crying.” And while a lot has changed in the world since then, Beavis and Butt-head maintain their satirical charm. The first episode of the new series provided a strong example of the overarching differences between comedy and satire.

Like South Park and The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head has transitioned into topical episodes rather than episodes revolving strictly around the main characters’ dilemmas. The first episode jumps straight into the 21st century by introducing pop culture in forms like Twilight, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore and True Life. In the first of the new episodes, Beavis and Butt-head try to pick up girls by turning themselves into werewolves, particularly after seeing the girls’ positive reactions during Eclipse.

Here lies one of the bigger moments in Beavis and Butt-head‘s satirical jeering: although Beavis and Butt-head are clearly being immature, the world does not encourage them. When put in a real-world setting like a movie theater, Beavis and Butt-head are exposed for just how mature they are; rather than becoming a show about fart jokes and violence, the show becomes a show about two guys trapped thinking these things are funny, and the rest of the world reacting. Similarly, in “Crying,” Butt-head calls attention to the whole cafeteria just to announce that he saw Beavis cry during The Bachelor. At no point does the audience laugh during his speech, nor do they partake in his jeers. Other shows on the air right now like The Office have the foils or straight men to reflect the crazy antics — but in the world of Beavis and Butt-head, virtually everyone foils the dynamic duo’s immaturity and simple-mindedness.

With this in mind, there are certain satirical gold moments in the show where the audience is forced to acknowledge that even Beavis and Butt-head, simple as they are, can understand something. In the revived music video section of the show — the part where they watch MTV and comment on videos — the duo make a number of comments reflecting both the style and concept of MGMT’s “Kids,” noting:

“She made this little kid cry just so he could be in this video. … Okay, son, now there’s gonna be some scary monsters, and some creepy people putting their hands on you. But you can handle it, because you’re one and a half.”

Of course, there are other moments where their mere support of something can reflect poorly on the content as well. When watching LMFAO’s “Champagne Showers” music video, they replied:

[Butt-head:] “This is the same dance they did in ‘Party Rock Anthem’ except they’re pretending they’re choking their chickens while they’re doing it….”
[Beavis] “Yeah you know. They’re, like, growing as artists, or something.”
[laughter]
[Beavis] “You know, I thought this economy sucks and, like, nobody has a job, and these guys are just spraying expensive champagne everywhere.”

It is worth noting that the downturn of the economy is not lost on even these two. Just like the moment where they criticized MGMT’s regard for the child, there are moments where their basic understanding of the world reflects just how far topical events can reach.

But one of the key factors of Beavis and Butt-head satire is the difference between laughing with them and laughing at them. Getting back to “Werewolves in Highland,” there is a classic moment where, on their deathbed, a nurse helps them with their catheters. Despite being in a coma, they still chuckle at the thought of a girl touching their penises. Similarly, the old Beavis and Butt-head movie had a scene where they were dying in the desert, and their last conscious moment was lived by laughing at vultures humping. In both of these scenes, the audience does not laugh because vultures are humping or because a woman touches their penis; rather, the comedy lies in the fact that, even in the most serious of situations, Beavis will still be Beavis and Butt-head will still be Butt-head.

So in some ways, the satire lies in their chracters never breaking character, even in untimely situations. In other ways, the satire lies in the fact that they don’t understand something obvious. In other ways still, it lies in the fact that even they understand something—which forces us to wonder why not everyone does. But with all these different and sometimes contradicting ways to point out satire, what separates this from comedy is that the comedy comes from observing their comedy. In satire, comedy is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

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