South Park: Respect Their Commentarah
After 19 seasons on the air, South Park is still going strong. It has evolved in many ways since its first episode “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” in its animation, storytelling and narrative structure and, of course, with its social commentary. The amount of social commentary seems to have shot through the roof in recent seasons of South Park and this has even received some criticism.
In his chapter in South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today, William W. Young III sums up most of the criticisms South Park has received using the first season episode “Death”. Young mentions the show’s vulgarity and its “drawing of fire for its obscene language, criticisms of religion and emphasis upon freedom of speech.” (Young, 2009: 5). Criticisms of shows like South Park perhaps “reflects the threat that people see in them”, especially from parents whose children watch the show and others like it (Family Guy and The Simpsons as just two other examples (Ezell, 2008:14). These more academic sources show that South Park has received more criticisms for it’s type of commentary and that maybe its social commentary is only criticised because people both disagree with what’s being said and that Matt Stone and Trey Parker make compelling arguments with the points they make.
In fact, much of the recent criticsim concerning South Park’s social commentary comes from its fan base. A quick look through the show’s subreddit (its specific section on the website reddit) shows a clear split in opinion as to whether the more recent examples of social commentary on the show are liked or not, with some arguing South Park was better in its earlier seasons with a small amount of social commentary. However, South Park has always been a satirical piece of comedy. There may be some episodes that don’t have context or subtext relating to greater issues in real life, but for the most part South Park has always offered a social, political, cultural commentary through four young boys and the rest of their town. The discussion surrounding social commentary on South Park has long occurred, both earning praise and criticism; there was even a book – South Park Conservatives (Brian C. Anderson, 2005) that looked into the political messages on the show as well as mass media biases. Yet there seems to have been more criticism towards the show’s commentary in recent seasons, especially from portions of fans.
South Park has certainly become more obvious with what (or who) it lambastes each episode and it may even be more prolific than previous seasons. But the point stands that this programme has always been a piece of commentary on an issue, great or small, one that affects a whole nation or that is personal to Matt Stone and Trey Parker (the show’s creators). Here are just a few select episodes that tackle matters of all shapes and sizes and mostly all occur over ten years ago.
Getting Gay With Kids is Here!
Season 3, episode 1: “Rainforest Shmainforest” – 1999.
The first piece of social commentary I’ll be delving into comes in the form of a children’s choir, Costa Rica and Jennifer Aniston. In the season 3 premiere Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny were recruited by G.G.W.K. (Getting Gay With Kids) and their leader Miss. Stevens, guest voiced by Aniston, the biggest “Friend” of the time. The group travels down to Costa Rica to perform a song and dance routine to educate those about the destruction of the rainforest, even though they’ve never been to the place before. Cartman is, as always, disrespectful about the country they’re visiting and is supposed to be a commentary on Trey Parker’s visit to the country itself.
The choir gets a brief tour of the rainforest wanting to see its “beauty” before performing the next day. Unfortunately, their guide is killed and eaten by a snake, leaving G.G.W.K. lost in the rainforest having to deal with huge insects, a people’s militia, the Yamagampa and, for a brief second, Tony Danza. Finally, after dealing with all this the choir (and specifically Miss. Stevens) profess their contempt towards the rainforest and are very duly saved by the incredibly heroic construction workers destroying the rainforest. The choir eventually returns to where they were meant to give their performance hours before and once again express their hatred of the rainforest through medium of song and dance, with some altered lyrics, of course. The episode ends on some “facts” declaring how truly dangerous the rainforest is while the G.G.W.K. sing us out.
This episode does take aim at those that support causes that want to preserve the rainforest and the creatures that inhabit it. But this does not just apply to rainforest preservation groups, but all the other countless charities that guilt trip one into donating money to helping whatever cause is popular that month. The rainforest is chosen for this episode to really show that we have no idea what we are saving. It’s a very small possibility that someone will have visited the rainforest, Africa or anywhere else that has a “noble” cause attached to it, so how are we supposed to know if somewhere is in need of, deserving of or wants help? “Rainforest Shmainforest” over-exaggerates to get its point across, which is no bad thing, and this is something South Park is very well-known for and exceedingly good at pulling off.
South Park Was There For You
Season 5, episode 9: “Osama bin Laden has Farty Pants” – 2001.
A few months after the tragedy on September 11th, 2001 South Park aired an episode that dealt directly with the consequences of the event and how the populace dealt with it. This episode was not only the first episode of South Park to air after 9/11, but also one of the first television programmes or films to address the subject matter.
After months away from South Park we are reintroduced to the four main boys standing at the bus stop, wearing gas masks, as are the rest of the townspeople. Extreme precautions have been made in South Park to ensure the safety of its citizens and if you aren’t wearing a mask the only reasonable course of action is to stop breathing altogether (poor Butters…). However, other people overreact in different ways. Stan’s mother Sharon, for instance, has been in a vegetative state on her couch for 8 weeks watching the news, too afraid to move or watch anything else in case of another attack. This overreaction of the citizens of South Park is meant to reflect the overall reaction the general public had to 9/11 and then it juices it up for the comedic factor. This is meant to be an over the top representation to show how ridiculous the public’s reaction and to somewhat calm it down. Much is the same for how the show looks at the rise in patriotism during that time.
Around the town a huge amount of American flags can be seen decorated on houses, shops, post offices, war planes, pretty much everywhere. This is coupled with an unwavering support of the U.S.A. by most American citizens, labelling all of Afghanistan as terrorists. But South Park still manages to defuse this blind support somehow and rather than using Stan et al. Stone and Parker use four new boys purely for this episode… and they just so happen to live in Afghanistan. The Afghan versions of the South Park kids remind us that it was America that started the war, that their country is not just full of terrorists (and is not the only country to hate America) as well as proving the terrorist stigma wrong. The Afghanistan kids send the South Park boys a gift in return for the money they received, of course the whole town believes this to be a bomb and the military is called in to defuse the situation, but all they find is that a goat has been sent by the Afghans as a gesture of good faith and pride. South Park does somewhat tone down this overly patriotic nature the country obtained after 9/11 by not just showing how our boys care, but by showing the other side to the story with the kids from Afghanistan.
This overreaction to 9/11, the overly patriotic nature and parodying of bin Laden is played out hilariously in South Park and is done so to try and cheer everyone up. In fact this whole episode is meant to act as catharsis, to try and help the country feel better, have a laugh and begin to move on. There is no overly racist remark made during the episode, but a clever piece of television that shows the entire situation and how both sides suffer. To this day, “Osama bin Laden has Farty Pants” still remains one of the best episodes of South Park, due to both its cathartic nature and its social and political commentary.
Bush vs Kerry
Season 8, episode 8: “Douche and Turd” – 2004.
While the two previous episodes have had very specific representations of their commentaries (it is obvious what the discourse is), “Douche and Turd” disguises an obvious commentary with the use of ridiculous characterisations.
After the organisation PETA attacks South Park Elementary (for the 47th time) the school finally gives in to them and starts up an election process to select a new school mascot, although the two frontrunners are not what you would expect. Going up for the honour of becoming the new mascot are a “giant douche” and a “turd sandwich.” Both of these candidates are so ridiculous and terrible that Stan sees no point in even voting, much to the horror of the rest of the town. Head of the “Vote or Die” campaign, P. Diddy, is brought in to scare Stan into voting, but he is still reluctant to do so and is brutally banished from the town. Stan eventually finds refuge (ironically) with PETA whose head tells Stan he’ll always have to choose between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. Stan eventually returns to South Park and finally casts his vote for turd sandwich, which loses although Randy tells his son his vote still matters, until the cow is reinstated (thanks to Puff Daddy and his men murdering the members of PETA) and Stan’s vote didn’t matter after all.
The personifications of the giant douche and turd sandwich represent John Kerry and George W. Bush respectively. Although this episode doesn’t really make a commentary on the 2004 presidential election itself (Colorado even voted in majority for Bush, going against the giant douche decision in the episode) these characterisations are used to show how terrible both Bush and Kerry were as candidates, with Stan’s disillusionment with voting for either shows the countries general realisation that both candidates were poor choices. It really and truly was a choice between a douche and a turd.
“Douche and Turd” is really about this disenchantment with the voting during the 2004 presidential election, with Stan taking the place of the American public. While the episode does poke a lot of fun at those who overreact to those who choose not to vote, its main vent is at “Citizen Change”, headed by P. Diddy. The aim of the organisation was to encourage young people to vote and it thought using the slogan “Vote or Die!” would work. South Park shows the ridiculousness of this political service group and how overly violent its slogan was with Diddy and his crew threatening to murder Stan (via medium of a music video).
South Park does not shy away from episodes about presidential elections having done more recent episodes concerning Obama’s wins (“About Last Night” and “Obama Wins!”). But this episode perhaps shows the most commentary about a single election with its variety (the disillusionment with voting, the terrible candidates and appalling voting campaign groups), all this without even getting into its views on PETA.
Although these three episodes have used its satirical nature to mock, to re-educate and even help those work through horrible things, South Park from time to time does a commentary that is very personal to themselves.
Chef Gets Brainwashed
Season 10, episode 1: “The Return of Chef” – 2006.
During its 19 season run South Park has managed to get under the skin of many people. Sometimes so much so that an episode will be banned. All the episodes that are banned/are of limited availability/are not permitted to be shown on television are all strangely linked. “Super Best Friends” has limited availability because of its depiction of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, who along with the Super Best Friends (which includes other religious figures, such as Jesus and Buddha) defeats David Blaine and dismantles his cult, Blaintology. This was an obvious rip on Scientology, around which the episode “Trapped in the Closet” has controversy, but this time due to Comedy Central being owned by the same company that made the Mission Impossible films, starring Tom Cruise. It was reported that Cruise would not do any of the promotional work if this episode was shown and the episode was, of course, duly pulled from the schedule. This particular episode was pulled a couple of times, but has since been shown on Comedy Central several times (however, I have yet to see a re-broadcast of an episode here in Britain…).
Finally, the two landmark episodes of “200” and “201” are largely unavailable once again due to the controversy around the depiction of Muhammad, although his form and name is censored throughout the second episode of the two-parter. What is the link to “Trapped in the Closet” you ask? Tom Cruise. He is the leader of the celebrity group trying to teach South Park a lesson and to obtain Muhammad’s goo (along with Rob Reiner).
Strangely enough, episodes that are closely linked to these, such as “Cartoon Wars” and “The Return of Chef” are still regularly available and viewable on Comedy Central.
“The Return of Chef” aptly tells the story of how Chef and his voice actor Isaac Hayes left South Park. Chef returns home after some time away, but he has changed significantly, most notably he tries to seduce the boys. While the boys do successfully help Chef snap out of his trance, the club that originally brainwashed him manage to persuade him once again to join their club. However, as Chef returns to the SAC (Super Adventure Club), the bridge he is crossing is struck by lightning and dies gruesomely (with help from a grizzly bear and a mountain lion). Back in South Park a funeral is held for Chef and Kyle gives a speech urging everyone to remember Chef as the good person he was, not what he had become and that they should be mad at that “fruity little club for scrambling his brains.” The episode ends though with the SAC resurrecting Chef in a robotic suit resembling Darth Vader’s. And thus Darth Chef was born.
This entire episode is a commentary on the departure of Isaac Hayes from the show. Chef’s dialogue is used from previous recordings to make him sound even crazier. There was a lot of controversy surrounding Hayes’ departure, with the musician/actor/Scientologist citing the episode “Trapped in the Closet” and being offended by its depiction of Scientology. But while that episode was surrounded by a lot of controversy (mainly regarding Scientology) “The Return of Chef” doesn’t, even though it also attacks the religion.
The SAC is obviously satirising Scientology and Stone and Parker are not subtle in how they do so. There is a part in the episode where the head of the SAC recounts the tale of the SAC was founded and why they molest children, accompanied by the subtitle “This is what Super Adventure Club actually believes.” A similar scene addressing the Scientology creation myth had with a similar subtitle. This episode is still as much an(other) attack on Scientology as it is a showing of Stone’s and Parker’s discontent at Hayes’ departure, although their true feelings on Hayes ultimately shine through with Kyle’s speech.
The criticism that all South Park does now is social commentary is completely unfounded as the programme, by definition, is a commentary piece. South Park is and has always been a satirical comedy that takes (current and not so current) social, cultural, political, religious (and so many more) subjects and uses them for its plot to create a discourse on them. Even there being a criticism that the show is too blunt with its commentary now is not valid, as I have proven (albeit with a small number of episodes) South Park has always been quite “on the nose” with its satirical punches. However, for those of you who need more proof I have decided to make a quick list showing the first season episodes of South Park, showing what it comments on and what connotation it applies to.
1.01 – “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” – At the very least this discusses whether there is alien life (Science).
1.02 – “Weight Gain 4000” – Creates a discourse about obesity and who’s truly responsible; the media or the obese people themselves (Cultural).
1.03 – “Volcano” – Possibly a commentary on strict hunting laws, especially in Colorado, however this is still a stretch (Social/Political)
1.04 – “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boatride” – Homosexuality and how homosexuals are treated differently just because of their sexual orientation (Social).
1.05 – “An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig” – The cloning of Dolly the sheep and its repercussions (Science).
1.06 – “Death” – Assisted suicide and whether it is (at all) acceptable and how much of a “touchy” subject it is. They also satirise those who have criticised them for their “toliet humour” while more pressing issues are afoot, something that would become the main plot device for their film, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. (Moral/Social).
1.07 – “Pinkeye” – Nothing specific, there are plenty of popular culture references however.
1.08 – “Starvin’ Marvin” – Commentary on those adverts that guilt you into giving money to charities, which are usually headed by celebrities, who could easily pay a large sum to help those in need (Social/Cultural).
1.09 – “Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo” – There really isn’t much social commentary that involves a talking poo…
1.10 – “Damien” – Possibly how people use their religions as excuses and how hypocritical they are about it; a stretch I know but maybe not entirely invalid (Religion).
1.11 – “Tom’s Rhinoplasty” – Not much here, some parodying of Knight Rider, potentially comments on plastic surgery, although “Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society” and “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina” look more deeply into this (Social).
1.12 – “Mecha-Streisand” – A personnel rife Stone and Parker had with Streisand after she insulted the state of Colorado; possibly speaks about the huge egos and influences of celebrities too (Social).
1.13 – “Cartman’s Mom is a Dirty Slut” – Like a few others in season one, there isn’t any social commentary as such, just a smattering of popular culture references.
Although not all episodes in South Park’s first season is conveying a commentary, for the most part it does show how well the show can meld it’s absurd characters (Scuzzlebutt, Mr. Hankey) and plot lines (four battling celebrity Kaiju in “Mecha-Streisand”) and its ability to satirise anything socially, culturally or politically relevant.
This shows that right from its conception (excluding the shorts made prior to the show itself) that South Park has always been a commentary on many varying aspects (both relevant to the time of airing and not) and this is what makes the show so good. For every 8 or 9 episodes out of 10, there will be something satirised during the episode and it will be integral to the plot. This does not mean necessarily that an episode that doesn’t satirise something will be a poor episode; neither does it mean that an episode that does indeed comment on something is good. “I should Never Have Gone Ziplining”, for example, parodies certain documentary programmes and creates a discourse around that. However, the plot has a slow pace, there are very few moments in the episode where you would think that this show is a comedy and even though the live-action sequence satirises re-enactments in actual documentaries, even with its commentary, it feels unnecessary. Likewise, episodes that feature little social commentary like “Scott Tenorman Must Die” is one of the first episodes that took on one central plot line and is lauded for doing so along with its plot twists and character studies, especially on Cartman.
Those who call for South Park to go back to what it used to be, an outrageous, non-sensical comedy programme need to look at the earlier episodes in detail again. Even though many of South Park’s earlier episodes are utterly bonkers and ridiculous with what it actually shows, there’s a good chance that it is satirising something and is indeed relaying a message to its audience that may even have not been picked up before. There is barely any differentiation between the “commentary” episodes or the “bizarre” episodes that make no sense, not really. They both run alongside each other. Yes, one aspect may be more noticeable in an episode, but they are both integral to South Park. We should not be criticising their commentary, but celebrating it.
Ezell, S. 2008.Ripping on People: The Traditional and Postmodern Satire of “South Park”. Ann Arbor, Michigan. Proquest.
Young III, W.W. 2009. “Flatulence and Philosophy: A Lot of Hot Air, or the Corruption of Youth?” In: R. Arp. South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today. Oxford. Blackwell, pp.5-16.
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