30 Years Ago: ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ Ignites Controversy
The MTV animated series had been under scrutiny since it premiered in March of that year. Many onlookers bemoaned what they saw as crude humor. Critics often called the titular characters – who were generally obsessed with sex, rock music and vandalism – poor role models who didn’t belong on television. Most of these opinions came from older observers, but young Generation Xers loved Beavis and Butt-Head and helped turn it into a pop culture phenomenon.
READ MORE: Top 40 'Beavis and Butt-Head' One-Liners
In terms of the formula, "Comedians" differed very little from any other Beavis and Butt-Head episode. Inspired by a rich comedian they’d seen on TV, the characters ventured to their local comedy club to try their hands at stand-up. They failed. Butt-Head’s jokes were met with boos and caused the audience to storm out. Amazingly, Beavis’ set went worse. With only Butt-Head in the crowd, the teenager lit newspapers on fire and tried to juggle them onstage. He ended up burning down the comedy club.
The fire was nothing new in Beavis and Butt-Head. It had already been established that Beavis enjoyed playing with a lighter and setting things ablaze. It’s possible that "Comedians" would have been largely forgotten in history had a tragedy not occurred.
'Beavis and Butt-Head' Was Blamed for a Deadly Fire
On Oct. 6, 1993 – one month after the "Comedians" episode aired – 5-year-old Austin Messner of Moraine, Ohio, set fire to his family’s mobile home with a cigarette lighter, killing his 2-year-old sister, Jessica.
The heartbreaking incident grabbed national headlines when Austin’s mother, Darcy Burk, claimed her son had been inspired to play with fire after watching Beavis and Butt-Head.
"When you take a child in the formative years and you get these cartoon characters saying it's fun to play with fire," declared the town’s Fire Chief, Harold Sigler. "This is going to stick in that kid's mind and it's going to be with him for a long time.”
National media immediately pointed the finger at Beavis and Butt-Head. The outcry echoed throughout MTV.
What Was MTV’s Response to the 'Beavis and Butt-Head' Controversy?
“Beavis and Butt-Head is made for teenagers and young adults, who make up the overwhelming majority of its audience,” Carole Robinson, MTV’s senior vice president, said at the time. “These viewers see the cartoon for what it is - an exaggerated parody of two teenage misfits whose antics take place in a cartoon world, antics they know are obviously unacceptable and not to be emulated in real life.”
In response to the tragedy, the network agreed to remove all references to fire from its episodes. They also pushed the popular series back to a late-night time slot.
“While we do not believe the Beavis and Butt-Head cartoon was responsible,” Robinson said, “we feel the steps we are taking are the proper ones.”
Was 'Beavis and Butt-Head' Really to Blame?
After the initial controversy died down, questions surrounding the deadly fire began to arise. Notably, it was revealed that the mobile home did not have a cable hookup, meaning young Austin Messner couldn't have constantly watched Beavis and Butt-Head as his mother had implied. There also appeared to be inconsistencies in the story: Was the mother home sleeping when the house caught on fire or was she out on a date having left her children unattended?
In 2008, Austin allegedly confirmed that he’d never seen Beavis and Butt-Head. Still, his mother stuck to her story. In a 2011 interview conducted shortly before the show’s first revival, Burk insisted, “The girl that I had babysitting was allowing the kids to watch [Beavis and Butt-Head],” adding that her son would mimic the characters’ laughter.
Show creator Mike Judge always insisted the series was unjustly blamed. "First of all, I don't agree with any of that [kind of criticism] and I don't take any responsibility for any of it at all," the TV veteran explained during an interview with The Spokesman-Review. "The fire was obviously a very horrible, sad tragedy. But it had nothing to do with Beavis and Butt-Head."