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Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Boy, talk about missing the point.

There are two really dumb things said in this article about South Park. Let's take them in turn.

Number one:

Formerly rebellious adults may be the biggest fans of "South Park," which is predicated on the hope that it continues to offend someone, somewhere. Really to savor the show, it still helps to imagine joyless souls ? repressive parents or balky advertisers, stupefied by political correctness or Christian moralism ? tsk-tsk-ing in a distant living room. (Advertisers have stood by the show, even when it pushes decency standards, and parents have never mounted a serious campaign against it.) As much as it offers new jokes, "South Park" also offers a chance to defy those fantasy scolds one more time.

In sum: South Park would not be as enjoyable if it didn't actually offend anyone, except it doesn't, so viewers' enjoyment of its humor is, in part, illegitimate.

This is one of those things you say when you dislike something and you don't really know why, so you try and ascribe it to other people's ungenuine reactions rather than your own subjective tastes. I can't know their intentions for sure, of course, but there's nothing about Trey and Matt that indicates they're honestly hoping to offend people with the show, and there's certainly nothing about the show that says that--aside, of course, from the disclaimer at the beginning, which was put there specifically at the request of the network, so if anyone's believing in those fantasy Margaret Dumonts, it's Comedy Central. (Which would not be that surprising, given the doubtful tone of their promos, etc.) If people are really taking this away from the show, well, that's their problem; I don't think it's necessarily catering to their egos, just as it's not catering to the egos of "preadolescents" by having poop jokes, because poop is (or should be) funny to pretty much everyone.

Look, if you're familiar with my point of view, you know that I'd be the first to make this argument if I thought it was valid. It would be a prime example of the whole art-under-repression mentality. But I think the argument here just totally misunderstands the nature of transgressive art. Something can be offensive without actually offending many people (and I think "many" is the crux of the argument being used--I can testify that my college-age friends were offended by Mr. Hanky, so there is indeed offense being taken), just as something can offend a lot of people without trying to be offensive. You can say offensive things in such a way that they actually mitigate the offense being taken. The fact is, "offensive" is in large part not a teleological thing. Sure, it has to be offensive to someone, but it doesn't have to actually offend you, and given the wide group of people this reaches, you have to acknowledge the contextuality of offensiveness (for instance, saying "gyp" would not raise an eyebrow for 99% of the population, but a gypsy would probably be incredibly offended by it) and grant that its frisson is not based on the idea of someone actually being offended so much as it is on transgressing the social mores. Offensiveness is contextual, but I think that fact should require us to give it a wider definition, not a smaller one.

Number two:

What's more, a chord of uplift sounds at the end of many episodes. The creators, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone, are regularly identified as libertarians and consider themselves singularly in touch with the wickedness of boyhood. But let's face it: there's learning, even hugs, on "South Park."

It's surprising, in fact, that in almost seven years viewers haven't bridled at the show's pedantry. In an episode this season crusaders in South Park lost sight of real danger when they focused on a trivial Janet Jackson-like flashing crisis. The show spelled it out: people get hung up on phony sex scandals and ignore the real problem of violence.

Two weeks ago a pedophile pop star named Michael Jefferson, who has a son named Blanket, came around to taking fatherhood seriously.

"I've been so obsessed with my childhood that I've forgotten about his," he says. "I thought having lots of rides and toys was enough, but Blanket doesn't need a playmate. He needs a father, and a normal life."

This sounds almost ingratiatingly sane. If "South Park" is one of television's great comedies, it's not great for being reckless; it's great for being a series of funny, topical parables.

In sum: the "I've learned something today" (or "ILST") bits at the end of every episode honestly state the point the show is trying to make.

Wow. This is the point where I pass my palm slowly over my head and make a whistling sound. How can you watch more than two episodes of South Park and not get that the ILST stuff is just a parody of those kind of things on regular sitcoms? It seems glaringly obvious to me, and, I think, almost everyone else. Sure, there's some seriousness there--I'm not saying they don't actually think that the Janet Jackson scandal was stupid--but they're not parables, because they're a long way from profound, and Matt and Trey know this. The humor is in the fact that they spell out the lame-ass message the show in question is conveying, and this is precisely why people haven't gotten tired of the "pedantry"--it's a friggin' parody of pedantry. I'm honestly unsure how you can miss this. There's even a few ILST segments in which they conclude they didn't learn anything, or what they thought they learned they didn't learn at all.

Moreover, the argument doesn't even make any sense. Who needs to hear that you shouldn't buy your kid a carousel besides, I dunno, Michael Jackson? Maybe a few ultra-rich parents, but are they going to be getting moral guidance from South Park anyway? I'm insisting that we judge it by its effects here (as opposed to the offensiveness thing above) because the show does hew to a pretty unified standard of what's offensive, whereas saying something is a series of parables only works if it's trying to convey a reasonably coherent worldview, otherwise it's just a bunch of moral-sounding things that make no sense. The article makes a half-hearted attempt at ascribing it to an ideology (pro-free thinking, kinda touchy-feely liberal), but it's about as convincing as that article that tried to say that South Park is conservative[1]. It's anti-religion, except when it thinks religion is nice.[2] It's anti-violence, except when it's incredibly violent. I'm sure if I wasn't in a haze right now I could pick out a bunch of totally contradictory ILST morals, and I'm sure Trey and Matt are fully aware of this. The fact is, you can say South Park fits into a range of moderate ideologies, because you can't read South Park as anything other than reactive, and the whole point of being reactive is that you just criticize what you see as wrong, but because you believe in "common sense," you don't have a coherent worldview. Aesop and the Talmud did. South Park doesn't.

But the dumb thing about trying to ascribe it one is that this completely misses the point of what the show is trying to do. South Park is not trying to make points, it is trying to be comedic, and if it makes a point, it is purely in the service of the comedy, not the other way around, and this is precisely why it can espouse contradictory morals from one show to another. But just as the author here cannot see how something can be offensive without offending, neither can she see how something being rigorously comedic is as valid as something being consistently moral, and for precisely the same reason: these are both ambiguous, and we are loathe to accept ambiguity unless it is explicitly spelled out for us (think the endings of the last two Lynch movies). South Park actually points out its ambiguity by pretending to be unambiguous, but apparently this went over the author's head. See the motion at the beginning of this section.

It's drastically short-changing the show to reduce it to the kind of bland, obvious morals the article offers up. The comedic project is disruption, and that's something that South Park is very good at. Its particular technique of addressing social questions with a reductio ad absurdum doesn't actually result in valid conclusions necessarily (the rainforest episode, for example, concluded that the rainforest sucked ass and should be torn down, which is sorta true but not really), but it does provide very interesting paths to those conclusions.

If I had a beef with the show, it wouldn't be with the straw men it sets up (which are inevitably caricatures that improve the comedy at the expense of the logic, and that's dandy) so much as with the fact that it bothers to tear down the straw men at all. Kyle is a less interesting character than Cartman because Kyle's role is merely to say "Dude, what the fuck?" and then do nothing, remaining a passive complainant, whereas Cartman always goes with the joke. He's just as capable as Kyle, in the world of South Park, of realizing when people are acting (intentionally?) ridiculous, but Cartman chooses, far more often than the other main kids, of going with the joke, not just participating, but in taking it even farther. A great example of this is the Civil War episode, where Cartman takes command of the Confederates in a Civil War reenactment, gets them drunk, and convinces them to win the battle, and then go on and try to win the war. It's hilarious and not exactly unrealistic, but the best part is when, at the end, Stan and Kyle realize that the only way to end the joke is to play into it, to provide a punchline by dressing up like Jefferson Davis and Abe Lincoln and declaring that the South loses. Usually Matt and Trey let the manias run their course, but when there's an end like this that plays into the joke rather than simply cutting it off with an ironic moral, I think those are the episodes that really work.

It's unsurprising to hear that they consider themselves libertarians.[3] Aside from the fact that comedians seem to feel required to at least act libertarian (as I noted in my Chris Rock post), the superficial South Park ideology is very much based in criticizing but not proposing anything new. And that's OK, because while it may lack a coherent moral code, it does firmly take a position for at least one episode and truly explores it. They're not parables, they're thought experiments, and ultimately there's nothing lurking behind them except a very particular logical argument that they're attempting to fully explore in as honest a way as possible, via the rules of comedy that form the other source. And I like that. There's an interesting opposition to be set up between this and the Simpsons, but that's enough meaningless cultural criticism for one day, yes?

[1] I just wanted to footnote this to repeat just how fucking retarded that article is. It's really, really, really amazingly retarded. Really.
[2] Actually, on this measure, it does conform nicely to Matt's likely worldview, that of a non-religious Jew, but the fact that there are two creators here can't be ignored. The push and pull between arguments in the best episodes is a welcome outcome of this setup, as opposed to the oddly unitary (or wholly diffuse) points of view you get in committee-written shows. Er, Matt is Jewish, right?
[3] Somewhat unrelated point: everyone seemed to like the 9/11 episode, but I found it annoyingly un-funny and wishy-washy. Still, it represented the tenor of the times, where the enemy wasn't the left or the right, but extremism on either side--leftist conspiracy theorists, righty god-wranglers, etc. It's fair to say that we're no longer at that point, but I don't think that was the way it had to be. It was certainly in the interests of the administration to make extremism a valid position again, and I think we've all suffered for it.