MTV Is Turning 40. Here's How Beavis, Butt-Head And Daria Upended TV Animation

Jul 30, 2021
Originally published on August 1, 2021 12:25 pm

Updated July 30, 2021 at 8:42 AM ET

From the moment MTV launched on Aug. 1, 1981, it was bound to rattle the nerves of parents and moral crusaders. In its first decade on air, provocative videos and performances from pop stars including Madonna and George Michael invited attention and ignited controversy.

Though it's fairly established by now that the cable channel-turned-entertainment brand stopped being the home of music videos some time ago, its contribution to the television landscape transcends music and reality TV. By the 1990s, the network's biggest stars also included its resident pair of animated knuckleheads: Beavis and Butt-Head.

Critic-proof, crudely drawn rebels go pop

The show about brain dead teens and their pubescent whims debuted on MTV in 1993 and was quick to catch flack for everything from its rougher animation style to the impulsive actions of its stars. Critics called the duo "crude," "ugly" and "self-destructive."

Kris Brown became the head writer of Beavis and Butt-Head in 1994. He says when he was assigned his first episode, he described the show to his own father as being "about these two 13-year-olds that are really stupid and they're just self-destructive. They're really into heavy metal, and I mean I don't think it's for you really, but I'm really excited about it." His dad paused and, as Brown recalls, said, "Well, do you plan on writing for anything else?"

But the show was critic-proof. Beavis and Butt-Head became MTV's highest rated show at one time and expanded into a 1996 feature film – Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. The movie got two thumbs up from critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert and featured multiple cameos, including one from super-fan David Letterman as a roadie who most certainly sired Butt-Head.

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A hub for experimentation and innovation

Beavis and Butt-Head may have been a cartoon, but it was also central to MTV's identity. Animation, it turns out, was baked into the network's foundation, says Fred Seibert, who helped develop MTV's initial branding campaigns.

"We kind of realized that in many ways cartoons, like Looney Tunes, were kind of like the kid equivalent of rock 'n' roll," Seibert explains.

For animators who wanted to work outside of TV conventions at the time, MTV became a destination and a laboratory. According to Maureen Furniss, who is an animation historian at the California Institute of the Arts, "[MTV] showed people in the public things they had never seen before in animation and gave opportunities to a lot of independent animators and experimental animators."

One of the most important of those experiments were shorts that served as the station's promotional IDs: the "M" of the MTV logo morphing into various forms, for example.

The freedom given to the creators of these promos by MTV's marketing teams helped serve as a prototype for how the network approached its longer animated shows, says Abby Terkuhle. He became head of the network's on-air promotions — and eventually oversaw MTV animation.

"MTV animation was truly an outgrowth and extension of MTV on-air promotion and MTV on-air promotion was incredible. It was a creative laboratory, " Terkuhle says. "We were not only allowed to take risks, but encouraged to take risks and the executives had our back."

Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge (left) and animation director Yvette Kaplan (center) work on the production of the 1996 motion picture, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. From its debut in the early 1980s, MTV proved itself to be a pioneer in adult animation.
Getty Images / Getty Images

That ethos of a creative laboratory that took risks drew show creators to pitch and push for ideas that wouldn't end up elsewhere on television.

MTV's first full animated program Liquid Television premiered in 1991 and was a free-flowing showcase of all kinds of animation. It included the cable debut of Beavis and Butt-Head in the short "Frog Baseball" – an animation festival favorite at the time — as well as parodies of existing TV genres such as game shows and soap operas.

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Liquid Television also included bold experiments in narrative storytelling — and introduced the visually sumptuous world of Aeon Flux — a spy who has since become a cult icon.

Peter Chung, who developed Aeon Flux for MTV, says, "It had to be something you could not see anywhere else. And so that really encouraged me to make something that was as loaded with as much innuendo, making it a point to make it as transgressive and as eye-catching as I could make it."

Self-aware '90s teen angst and claymation wars

From the the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, MTV also ran its own animation studio which produced multiple series — including a Beavis and Butt-Head spinoff that gave audiences another iconic character.

Daria premiered in 1997 and was a show unafraid to bite the hand that feeds it. Its incisive main character regularly went after the superficialities and commodification of teen life — a tendency MTV itself has long been accused of. But the show could also offer poignant coming-of-age moments.

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"We kind of just went with the typical stories that every show about teenagers covers, but because it was from the eyes of Daria, it ended up with a completely different tone, which was funny and deadpan kind of humor," says Daria co-creator Susie Lewis.

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MTV animation wasn't only hand-drawn images. The network also produced a hit claymation series called Celebrity Deathmatch in which mock-ups of celebrities took each other on in the wrestling ring and fought, well, to the death. The pilot episode aired at the same time as the Super Bowl halftime show in 1998.

In recent years, MTV hasn't had the same track record in animation. Other networks and streaming services have become home to even bolder cartoons intended for older audiences.

But MTV Entertainment president Chris McCarthy says you shouldn't count MTV out just yet. McCarthy — who is also Chief Creative Officer for Unscripted Entertainment and Adult Animation at Paramount+ — says MTV is developing new animated ideas as well as rebooting a few old favorites.

"Animation has been critical to the MTV brand from its inception, " says McCarthy.

Among the shows coming back are Beavis and Butt-Head (its second reboot for the record) as well as a series reimagining Daria character Jodie as a Gen Z college grad entering the workforce.

"We think the animation and its rebirth is just the beginning of a next great chapter of this legacy," says McCarthy.

: 7/29/21

A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the Daria character who will be in spinoff. Her name is Jodie, not Jody.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Here's some news that might make you feel a bit old - MTV turns 40 this weekend. The network launched on August 1, 1981, with this music video.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR")

THE BUGGLES: (Singing) Video killed the radio star. Video killed the radio star. In my mind and in my car.

MCCAMMON: That, of course, is the Buggles with "Video Killed The Radio Star." But MTV was more than just music. It also was a pioneering force in adult animation, as NPR's Jason Slotkin reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD")

MIKE JUDGE: (As Beavis) Hey, Butt-Head, I think I might throw up (laughter).

(As Butt-Head) Cool.

JASON SLOTKIN, BYLINE: "Beavis And Butt-Head," the show about brain-dead teens and their pubescent whims, debuted on MTV in 1993. It was quick to catch flack for everything, from its rougher animation style to the impulsive actions of its stars.

Here's just a sample of the outrage from the public affairs program "The McLaughlin Group."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MCLAUGHLIN GROUP")

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Previously, critics had railed against the duo as crude, dumb, ugly, thoughtless, sexist, self-destructive and foolish.

SLOTKIN: Kris Brown became the head writer of "Beavis And Butt-Head" in 1994. He says when he was assigned his first episode, this is how he described the show to his own father.

KRIS BROWN: It's about these two 13 year olds that are really stupid. And they're just self-destructive. They're really into heavy metal. And I mean, I don't think it's for you, really. But I'm excited about it. And there was a pause. And then my dad just said, well, do you plan on writing for anything else?

SLOTKIN: But the show is critic-proof. "Beavis And Butt-Head" became MTV's highest-rated show at one time and expanded into a 1996 feature film, "Beavis And Butt-Head Do America." "Beavis And Butt-Head" may have been a cartoon, but it was also central to MTV's identity.

Animation, it turns out, was baked into the network's foundation, says Fred Seibert, who helped develop MTV's initial branding campaigns.

FRED SEIBERT: Over time, we kind of realized that in many ways cartoons like "Looney Tunes" were kind of like the kid equivalent of rock ’n’ roll.

SLOTKIN: For animators who wanted to work outside of TV conventions at the time, MTV became home.

Maureen Furniss is an animation historian at the California Institute of Arts.

MAUREEN FURNISS: It showed people in the public things that they'd never had seen before in animation and gave opportunities to a lot of independent animators and experimental animators.

SLOTKIN: One of the most important of these experiments were shorts that served as the station's promotional IDs - the M of the MTV logo morphing into various forms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: M, mongrel - M, mom - MTV.

SLOTKIN: And the freedom given to the creators of these promos helped serve as a prototype for how MTV approached its longer animated shows, says Abby Terkuhle. He became head of the network's on-air promotions and eventually oversaw MTV Animation.

ABBY TERKUHLE: MTV Animation was truly a outgrowth and extension of MTV on-air promotion. It was a creative laboratory.

SLOTKIN: That ethos drew show creators to pitch and push for ideas that wouldn't end up elsewhere on television.

SOUNDBITE OF MARK MOTHERSBAUGH SONG, “LIQUID TELEVISION THEME”

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Liquid television.

SLOTKIN: This is the theme from "Liquid Television," a show that premiered in 1991. It was a free-flowing showcase of all kinds of animation. It included the cable debut of "Beavis And Butt-Head," as well as parodies of existing TV genres, like a soap opera starring actual soap products.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Just like I thought, consorting with a liquid half her age.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Laughter).

SLOTKIN: "Liquid TV" (ph) also included bold experiments in narrative storytelling and introduced the visually sumptuous world of "Aeon Flux," a spy who has since become a cult icon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AEON FLUX")

DENISE POIRIER: (As Aeon Flux) You can't give it, can't even buy it. And you just don't get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SLOTKIN: Peter Chung developed "Aeon Flux" for MTV.

PETER CHUNG: It had to be something that you could not see anywhere else. And so that really encouraged me to make something that was as loaded with as much innuendo, making it a point to make it as transgressive and as eye-catching as I could make it.

SLOTKIN: For the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, MTV ran its own animation studio. It produced multiple series, including a "Beavis And Butt-Head" spinoff that gave audiences another iconic character.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DARIA")

MARC THOMPSON: (As Mr. Timothy O'Neill) Right here and now let's pledge to make Daria's dream a reality.

TRACY GRANDSTAFF: (As Daria) You mean the one where people walking down the street burst into flames?

SLOTKIN: "Daria" premiered in 1997 and was a show unafraid to bite the hand that feeds. Its incisive main character regularly went after the superficialities and commodification of teen life, a tendency MTV itself has long been accused of.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DARIA")

STACY BASS: (As Val) Yeah, Daria, tell your dad what edgy is.

GRANDSTAFF: (As Daria) As far as I can make out, edgy occurs when middlebrow middle-aged profiteers are looking to suck the energy, not to mention spending money, out of the quote, unquote, "youth culture."

SLOTKIN: But "Daria" could also offer poignant coming-of-age moments. Take, for example, this season 4 conversation Daria has with her mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DARIA")

GRANDSTAFF: (As Daria) You know, I had everything more or less under control. I'm not saying it was great. But I could deal with school. I could deal with home. And now nothing's under control.

WENDY HOOPES: (As Helen) It never is, sweetie. We just tell ourselves otherwise we can function.

GRANDSTAFF: (As Daria) Who came up with that stupid arrangement?

HOOPES: (As Helen) It's called life.

SLOTKIN: "Daria" co-creator Susie Lewis.

SUSIE LEWIS: We kind of just went with the typical stories that every show about teenagers covers. But because it was from the eyes of Daria, it ended up with a completely different tone.

SLOTKIN: It wasn't just hand-drawn animation, though. MTV also produced a hit Claymation series called "Celebrity Deathmatch," in which mock-ups of celebrities took each other on in the wrestling ring and fought, well, to the death. The pilot episode aired at the same time as the Super Bowl halftime show in 1998.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Scary Spice is putting the Louisville Slugger on little Zac.

SLOTKIN: In recent years, MTV hasn't had the same track record in animation. Other networks and streaming services have become home to even bolder cartoons intended for older audiences. But MTV Entertainment President Chris McCarthy says you shouldn't count MTV out just yet. McCarthy says MTV is developing new series, as well as rebooting a few old favorites.

CHRIS MCCARTHY: We think the animation and its rebirth is just the beginning of a next great chapter of this legacy.

SLOTKIN: Among the shows coming back are "Beavis And Butt-Head" and a new series reimagining Daria side character Jodie as a Gen Zer fresh out of college.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE STANDING ON MY NECK")

SPLENDORA: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la.

SLOTKIN: Jason Slotkin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE STANDING ON MY NECK")

SPLENDORA: (Singing) Got to get off. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.