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Beavis and Butt-Head’s Dumbass Journey Through the Fast-Food Netherworld

How Mike Judge’s cartoon show influenced the way Americans viewed fast food

The suburban fast-food franchise may be an adjacent teenage ecosystem to the local high school. Depending on the context, its affordances differ. There may be more or less freedom from the high school hub for those within, relative to the location. Labels like geek, jock, weirdo, or preppy are shed at the door. They are replaced by a uniform and the uniformly grim act of flipping burgers or taking customer orders.

Teenage burger employees are part of a different kind of team, one without real athletic requirements. Heroes are made on the line, and the future leaders of America are developed from ground chuck to double patty with cheese. At least that’s what the training video tells you. The music swells. A flag waves proudly in the wind. A job in fast food is the beginning of greatness.

That is, unless you’re Beavis and Butt-Head, and you work at Burger World. Then you’re stuck in some middle-of-nowhere town in the Southwest, and you’re not going anywhere. All you can do is suck at your job, suck at school, and then go home and watch TV. That’s your life.

Beavis and Butt-Head, which ended its run on MTV 20 years ago this November (22 new episodes aired in 2011), landed in the news on several occasions for bringing out the worst in the kids who watched the show. In 1993, a 2-year-old Ohio girl died in a fire caused by her 5-year-old brother. This came after a number of other young, would-be suburban arsonists were caught setting fire to things. The cause, according to parents and fire officials, was Beavis yelling, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” A year later, conservative watchdog groups blamed the death of a baby in New Jersey, who was struck by a bowling ball thrown off of an overpass by an 18-year-old, on the show. For three years in the Clinton ’90s, these two dumbasses were the controversy du jour, and their influence stretched into many areas of pop culture, including the fast-food world.

MTV/Amazon Video

They were crude, nihilistic, dumb, and gross. Beavis and Butt-Head were health violations serving customers at Burger World. Of course, they didn’t hold the first crappy fast-food job in pop culture history. Judge Reinhold’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High had to deal with crabby customers, and Roseanne Barr suffered an annoying teenage manager on a power trip in one 1990 episode of Roseanne, long before this dumbass duo were tossing dead rats and grasshoppers into the fryer. Yet nobody justified our often-irrational fears of the nightmarish behind-the-scenes action of your local Burger King or Wendy’s quite like the controversial cartoon.

To be fair, Burger World is a horrible fast-food restaurant. Even by early-1990s standards, it looks like a throwback second-rate franchise a notch below Carl’s Jr., just off a nondescript suburb’s main drag. Burger World’s darkness is telegraphed through upside-down Golden Arches and what looks like a pretty sparse kitchen, devoid of stainless steel prep tables or state-of-the-art cooking equipment; nothing to ensure red-grey burger patties are cooked all the way through. With no heat lamp or warming cabinets, it can’t accommodate many customers at once. And with only two guys working at a time, pulling register, cooking, and drive-thru duties, one is led to believe Burger World has a shit reputation in a shit town. The drive-thru menu has been tampered with, now advertising items like “Butt Nuggets” ($2.69) and a “Hurl Burger,” that costs five bucks. Butt-Head is somehow an assistant manager. A health inspector once counted 37 violations in just one visit.

There are also the questions of why, exactly, these two work there, or how they got hired in the first place. What do they do with the little money they make? They never have enough to buy nachos or other junk food. Is Burger World bad because of Beavis and Butt-Head, or was the place already terrible? Is it the franchise that’s trash, or this specific location? In this greasy, fried ouroboros, where does the grime end, and where did it begin?

MTV/Amazon Video

The show’s creator, Mike Judge, would go on to explore the idea of whether it was the workplace or the workers: His 1999 film Office Space was a hilarious look at the day-to-day drudgery of working in offices and chain restaurants, while his current HBO show Silicon Valley dives into the world of lowly startups and tech behemoths. The latter is a show that many believe as an accurate piss take on the absurd world where new billionaires are made and broken all the time. Judge’s post-Beavis and Butt-Head animated series on Fox, King of the Hill, also featured a fast-food restaurant several times throughout its run. Interestingly, it’s the real-life Whataburger franchise, a beloved Texas staple, that the Hill family eats out at on occasion. In one episode, there’s something of a bizarro version of the popular chain, Want-A Burger; it pales in comparison to the original icon, but it’s hardly as disgusting as Judge’s other fictional fast-food creation.

Sure, The Simpsons’ Krusty Burger chain has long parodied the questionable items on fast-food menus (Deep Fried Krusty Burger, Bacon Balls, and the Krusty-Partially-Gelatinated-Non-Dairy-Gum-Based-Beverage) and the things they can do to a human body (The Clogger). But in December of 1994, in an episode described by TV Guide as “Beavis causes a situation at Burger World when he does not wash his hands,” the show tackled a subject that was still on the minds of plenty of Americans who pulled up to drive-thrus and ordered cheeseburgers: food contamination. The fast-food nightmare scenario.

“Dammit, Beavis, put that away. You’re not supposed to have your penis out while you’re cooking,” Butt-Head chides over the crackly drive-thru intercom. A woman is trying to order. Cut to Beavis standing over a grill, spatula in hand, a few patties sizzling. He’s scratching away below the belt. Butt-Head asks what the problem is. “My thingie itches,” Beavis tells him. “It’s like the wrong color or something.” A few minutes later, as a customer tries to order, we see Beavis using the spatula to try and scratch the itch, and then, to add to the offense, we see him picking up burger patties with his unwashed hand, something flaking off onto the burgers, then using the spatula to cook the burgers. A few seconds later, everybody in the restaurant is violently ill, throwing up, turning green, and passing out. For a show known for its gross-out humor tuned for teenage dumbasses, the “Tainted Meat” episode was maybe a little too real.

MTV/Amazon Video

As Adam Chandler, author of the forthcoming book Drive-Thru Dreams, points out, “the trope of the mischievous teenage service worker extends across all restaurant categories,” and there are real stories out there to prove it. “But there really is something about fast food that animates us to believe the absolute worst things in ourselves and others. After all, McDonald’s sells 75 hamburgers a second, but we tend not to hear about the burgers that go out into the world unblighted.”

Beavis and Butt-Head definitely played on our fears of what might happen as our burgers and chicken nuggets are being made.

The year Beavis and Butt-Head premiered on MTV was not a good one for the fast-food industry. The first reported case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, reported in North America, originated at a farm near Red Deer, Alberta. The cow — which was destroyed — was traced back to the U.K., where the country was dealing with an outbreak of over 120,000 cattle diagnosed with BSE. While a case of mad cow wouldn’t appear in a cow in the U.S. until 2003, Americans were still frightened. It was something out of a horror movie, a news story with splashy graphics: a terrifyingly named zoonotic bovine disease capable of causing dementia, memory loss, and personality changes. It comes from a family of diseases caused by cannibalism.

Mad cow would affect the finances of big burger companies, leading to sharp declines in beef consumption in Britain. Americans, in particular, were petrified. More serious than mad cow panic was the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, which infected 732 people at 73 restaurants across California, Nevada, Idaho, and Washington, killing four. It was one of the worst E. coli outbreaks in American history. The chain initially blamed its meat supplier, but it was revealed that the company had actually undercooked the “Monster Burger” patties, and the outbreak could have been prevented by following standard protocol.

MTV/Amazon Video

In some ways, it was the beginning of the end of the love affair between Americans and fast-food restaurants. As Chandler points out, the year Beavis and Butt-Head was available to kids with cable, the film Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas as an unemployed white man who snaps, featured another terrible fictional burger chain. Whammyburger, he says, “hits all the recognizable notes of indifference and disappointment.” By the start of the Clinton era, no longer were fast-food restaurants the clean, easy option for when you didn’t want to cook after a long day of work; instead, they were vile cesspools that could clog your arteries or infect you with a virus that would drive you mad. As one analyst put it in 2003, after another BSE-infected cow in Canada sent stocks plummeting for companies like McDonald’s: "You're not dealing in facts, you're dealing in perception."

And creator Mike Judge was more than willing to play around with the perception that fast-food restaurants are disgusting or even dangerous. At his fictional fast-food restaurant, Beavis does the unthinkable because he doesn’t think. He’s a dumbass. We find later in the episode that an outbreak of tainted meat has landed 15 customers in the hospital, “and, once again, raised the question about how meat should be handled.” Of course, Butt-Head finds this hilarious.

While the two big beef scares that took place around the time of Beavis and Butt-Head’s run were never linked back to an employee scratching his private parts, Judge had seen a coworker commit this cardinal sin of the food world and it inspired the show’s depiction. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Customers like me still nervously unwrap greasy paper around a Quarter Pounder with this very scene in mind. Judge, in a 1997 interview with Playboy, claims he witnessed such an act firsthand: “A friend of mine was working the grill. He hocked and — phwoot — spit a big loogie on the guy’s burger. Then he covered it in cheese.” Judge and his friend watched in horror as the former employee ate the “loogie burger.”

You know the story of what happened in the years after Beavis and Butt-Head went off the air: fast-food chains saw a decline; fast-casual places claiming to serve higher-quality products began to ascend. The show had nothing to do with that shift; rather, the duo were simply reflective of the reasons for that loss. Burger World is thankfully fictional and, god willing, so are the things that went on there. But if the erosion of public trust in the hands that flipped our Whoppers is to blame for the toppling of fast food’s moral supremacy, Beavis and Butt-Head was surely part of that betrayal — one spatula scratch at a time.

Jason Diamond is the author of Searching for John Hughes (William Morrow/HarperCollins) and founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Editor: Greg Morabito


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