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The Beavis And Butt-Head Fire Controversy Explained

"Beavis and Butthead Do The Universe" premieres today, June 23, 2022, exclusively on Paramount +. However, before the audience even got a chance to see it, the film was already shaping up to be one of the best-reviewed films of the year. Critical response for "Beavis and Butthead Do The Universe" has been overwhelmingly positive.

That's not always how the critics have felt about "Beavis and Butthead." When the show premiered on MTV in 1993, the critical response was mixed at best.

Despite critics' hand-wringing, the show still went on to become MTV's highest-rated program. It was a massive hit among kids and teens in 1993, and now that generation has grown up to become today's movie and TV reviewers.

Now, nearly everyone can agree that "Beavis and Butthead" is great, but plenty of older fans remember how controversial the show once was — like the time it was blamed for a tragedy in Ohio. Here's what happened when "Beavis and Butthead" played with fire.

A lot of people didn't get Beavis and Butthead when it came out

Today, most critics and TV viewers understand the point of "Beavis and Butthead." Yes, the characters as both dumb as bags of rocks. Both of them are obsessed with sex, have juvenile senses of humor, and engage in all kinds of destructive behavior. Everyone understands that creator Mike Judge doesn't endorse these shenanigans. The show is a satire, one that poked fun at adults' perceptions of Generation Xers who watched MTV.

However, at the time, many critics completely missed the point. For just one example, "The McLaughlin Group" spent an entire segment bashing the show and complaining that it represented the decline of American television (via YouTube).

The generational divide was also a factor. In 1993, San Diego Union-Tribune critic Brenda Brissette-Mata summed it up best. "I tried to like [Beavis and Butthead], I really did," she wrote. "In fact, it actually bothered me that I didn't like them. I always wanted to be a cool parent. I don't want to be part of another 'older generation.' But I can't help it: I really, really hate these guys" (via The Los Angeles Times).

Strangely, many of these critics thought that Mike Judge was just as dumb as the characters he created. As Mike Judge later put it, they really should have connected the dots. How could someone be capable of producing a professional-level piece of animation and still be as dumb as Beavis and Butthead are? (via The Spokesman-Review).

Still, given the overall reception, plenty of parents in 1993 thought that "Beavis and Butthead" was too dangerous for TV.

The fire controversy, explained

In October 1993, a five-year-old in Moraine, Ohio named Austin Messner allegedly started a fire that resulted in the death of his two-year-old sister, Jessica. His mother, Darcy Burk, then claimed that her son had watched "Beavis and Butthead," and that the show inspired him to play with fire. The local fire chief, Harold Sigler, then called for TV programmers to eliminate all shows that "might encourage playing with fire" (via the Associated Press).

MTV didn't go that far, but the network did make several adjustments in an attempt to head off the criticism. It banned the characters from saying the word "fire," removed four episodes from the rerun schedule, and moved the show from 10:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. (via History).

In a 2011 interview with The Spokesman-Review, Judge denied that "Beavis and Butthead" had such an influence on children. "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," Judge said. "The fire was obviously a very horrible, sad tragedy. But it had nothing to do with Beavis and Butthead."

The controversy ultimately didn't stop "Beavis and Butthead" from becoming the cultural icon that it is today. It would go on to spawn the 1996 film "Beavis and Butthead Do America," a 2011 reboot on MTV, and the most recent feature-length offering. Not bad for a show that many condemned.