Composer John Frizzell makes serious music out of silly heroes in ‘Beavis and Butt-Head: Do the Universe’ (Interview)

by | Jul 12, 2022

In Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, put-upon average Texan Tom Anderson in the film’s climax gets carted away by federal law enforcement officials after a device containing a deadly virus is found in his camper, left there by a neglectful Beavis. The moment is the grand final joke after a film’s worth of tormenting Anderson, Beavis and Butthead’s crotchety neighbor who makes his way to the nation’s capitol in the film on vacation at the same time the dopey teens’ first grand adventure.

“Terrible, terrible thing that’s happened to Mr. Anderson,” film composer John Frizzell says about the moment with a smile.

The moment is punctuated with the kind of music that would accompany melancholic tragedy in a serious drama, though you can’t help but laugh at Anderson’s plight. Not only because it’s just damn funny to watch that dude get framed as being a domestic terrorist, but because of the way Frizzell lets his music play it serious while something deliriously silly is going on.

Frizzell’s music is the secret weapon to both Beavis and Butt-Head‘s filmatic exploits, with their latest adventure Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe now streaming on Paramount+.

John Frizzell

Playing it Straight (heh, you said straight)

“I approach them as just the film that they are,” Frizzell says about his work on the movies, mentioning Do America‘s status as a “spy thriller” in essence, and Do the Universe‘s sci-fi backbone. “They happen to have Beavis and Butt-Head in both of them. So that’s just the thing I kind of ignore in the process. Who was cast in it? At the last minute, they decided to go with Beavis and Butt-Head, and then, I’m just sort of oblivious to that.”

Of course, nobody can really be oblivious to two of the most notable doofuses in pop culture history, and Frizzell has had his fair share. Frizzell has worked with Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge for nearly three decades now, having scored both Beavis and Butt-Head films, Judge’s live-action debut Office Space, the television series King of the Hill and Judge’s musically driven series Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus. He also has worked on major motion pictures like Alien: ResurrectionJosie and the Pussycats and Gods and Generals.

It’s been his long-working relationship with Judge, though, that’s led him back to the couch to eat nachos and make fun of music videos with Beavis and Butt-Head. To Frizzell, working with Judge allows for a creative freedom for his work to embed itself into the humor, rather than just support it.

“[There are] very few comedians or creators like Mike Judge where I can have that detachment from it, and I just simply know to play it straight; it works, it clicks,” Frizzell explained. “There’s just not a lot of opportunity like that where I, as a composer, I know that if I just go right down the middle, play it all serious, that it seems to infuse life in to it….I think Mike prepares these stories for me that way. It’s just perfectly laid out in front of me; it’s like putting a one-foot put. It’s really teed up for me just to do it.” (Heh, he said do it.)

John Frizzell

From Sakamoto to Beavis and Butt-Head Elder Stateman

A few years before his first adventure with the boys, Frizzell started his career off of working with composing legend Ryuichi Sakamoto (who Frizzell calls “an amazing artist”) doing synthestrations on the ABC limited series Wild Palms.

“I remember having discussions with [Sakamoto] about fashion and acting and art and literature and visual art and music and he was the first person that I ever met who just seemed to look at art and creativity as this one thing, and the medium you happen to work in was the thing you were working in,” Frizzell said of Sakamoto. “[Working on Wild Palms] was how I got excited to working to longform. That was like, ‘now I know what I want to do.’…Working with [Sakamoto] was a really important part of my career.”

He made his way through the industry at a time where Beavis and Butt-Head just weren’t chortling dorks who popped up on MTV a few times a day. Judge’s teenage wastelands were beginning to emerge as no-nonsense ombudsmen on the music scene itself. Primus guitarist Larry Lalonde commented in the late 1990’s that Beavis and Butt-Head were “the two greatest music critics who ever lived.”

Indeed, the duo kept the music video generation in check for a good chunk of the Nineties, with their quick “this rocks” or “this sucks” analyses buffeted by Judge’s whip-smart humor. While respected groups like Nirvana, Hole, the Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins made it out just fine, Beavis and Butt-Head were known to savage many of the era’s lesser angels like Milli Vanilli and Poison, just to name a few.

“They don’t mince their words; they get right to the point of whether something rocks or sucks,” Frizzell said about the characters and their ability to cut through the noise and brandish such a potent brand of music criticism. “They called out a lot of stuff going on in music that should’ve been called out a lot earlier, and I think brought rock back to a place of, I think, being more self-reflective and more about the music than your hairspray and where you got your leather pants.

“I think, if you really love and cherish rock, which I do, that [Beavis and Butt-Head] were really I think in a lot of ways, [saving] music, and really [pushing] us away from nonsense.”

In Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe, it becomes apparent how much we’ve missed Judge’s creations. In an age where we’ve gone from cable music video channels to everyone having their own social channels to share whatever they’re doing at any time, there really hasn’t been a sharp sense of satirical overwatch making comment on what’s going on (outside of everyone taking that role on themselves). Having Beavis and Butt-Head back in 2022, to Frizzell, gives pop culture the swift kick in the pants that it has probably needed for quite some time. The characters will return at a later date to Paramount+ for a new revival series, where they could lampoon everything from TikTok to reality television.

“There’s just so much room for them to critique as aggressively now as they did then,” Frizzell explained. “The idea that they’re going to start to look at social media, that they’re going to start to look at these ideas that we’ve grabbed onto and latched onto with such adoration is just really exciting to me.”

John Frizzell

2069: A Beavis and Butt-Head Odyssey?

Building on Do the Universe‘s futuristic themes of two teenagers from 1998 being zapped into a black hole after being mistakenly assumed as science geniuses at space camp and sent to space, Frizzell used a Theremin, a classic instrument used in the genre, to help give the film that sci-fi sound that it needed.

Outside of the film’s 69-piece orchestra in Vienna (yes, that was on purpose), Frizzell expanded on the film’s genre-influenced sound.

“I’m a fan of why the Theremin was used in science fiction,” Frizzell said. “When you think about it, it was the first instrument where you didn’t have to touch it. It was the first instrument that someone had the audacity of creating an instrument that you don’t physically touch. About 20 years ago, I got obsessed with this idea of trying to create…the ‘cerebraphone.’ I wanted to create an instrument you could play while thinking. I thought I could build it, but I couldn’t. It didn’t work, but I just thought it would be so cool if you could put this little cap on your head and you could think, and that you could create pitches from that. But, I don’t think the technology is there yet. It may be down the road.

“That’s the type of thing I really get into with science-fiction music,” Frizzell continued. “You have the orchestra, but you also have the idea of this new technology coming…I’ve always loved electronics in music and experimented a great deal since the days of the synclator, which I worked on extensively [and] was one of the first high-powered digital workstations. I learned a lot about frequency synthesis and analog synthesis and programmed these things quite a bit.”

Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe is streaming on Paramount+ now.