MTV Is Turning 40. Here's How Beavis, Butt-Head And Daria Upended TV Animation
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.