Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
I was twelve years-old when I first saw South Park. I can even remember the first episode I watched: “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride.” In it, Stan, one of the main characters, goes to great lengths to “cure” his dog of homosexuality, until finally his dog is fed up and runs away to a mythical retreat where gay animals can live openly and in peace with their host, Big Gay Al. It was the first time I ever saw homosexuality explored as a topic in a television show (or anything, really), and it almost certainly had an impact on my lifelong support for gay rights.
For a long time, I thought South Park was the funniest, smartest, coolest show on television. I loved its endearingly cheesy animation. I loved its in-your-face vulgarities. I loved Trey Parker’s remarkable talents as a voice actor, playing the vast majority of the show’s cast of strange characters. I loved finding out how Kenny was going to die in some ridiculously over-the-top fashion in the next episode. When politicians and special interest groups started targeting the show as a moral affront, blaming it for seemingly every societal ill plaguing America including the Columbine massacre, that just made me love it more. Suddenly watching the show wasn’t just for laughs — it was an act of rebellion. I was stickin’ it to The Man by enjoying the crude adventures of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny. As the show progressed and became more involved in politics, I thought its stances on the most hotly-debated issues of the time were brilliant and subversive. And when Trey Parker and Matt Stone released their first and only theatrical film based on the show, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut? It was, no kidding, my favorite movie musical for a very long time.
Right now the show is in the middle of its 22nd season, a longevity which was unimaginable to even most fans back when it hit big in the late 90’s. Far from being the flash-in-the-pan novelty that would soon wear out its welcome in four or five years, tops, South Park has become as much an established animation behemoth as The Simpsons. Also unimaginable to a fan like me twenty years ago? That I would not only have no interest in watching the latest season, but actively resenting its continued existence. Because as an adult with the benefit of hindsight, I realize now that the politicians were right: South Park really did poison the minds of a generation. Just not in the way they kept telling us.
As the show went on, those messages that I thought were so brilliant and subversive back when I was a teenager very quickly boiled down to just one message. One overarching theme that dominated the show’s moral and political philosophy: “Whatever topical controversy we’re satirizing has two sides, and both sides suck equally, so anyone who takes a side on the issue or tries to effect change is stupid.” That’s oversimplifying it a little, but considering the broad caricatures they’ve painted, I’m not going to lose sleep over acting as a counterweight to critics who continue to praise the “boldness” of South Park.
The show that claimed sexual harassment is less damaging to our society than lawsuits. The show where a whole episode (written by able-bodied people, of course) was about how quadriplegics should “just play the hand they’re dealt” instead of advocating for medical research and policies that would improve their lives. The show that compared promoting tolerance of marginalized demographics to literal Nazi death camps. The show that went from “It’s okay to be gay” in 1997 to “Being transgender is gross and society shouldn’t acknowledge it” in 2005. The show that argued the real problem with hybrid cars and environmentally-responsible energy consumption is people being “too smug” about it. Yeah, people thought all of that was the height of sophisticated political and social satire in the early 2000’s. Including me.
South Park has targeted its fair share of both Republican and Democrat sacred cows, nearly every major religion, and pop culture institutions, but their ire, their most vitriolic knives, have always been reserved for anyone who believed in anything too strongly for their comfort. No single entertainment object in my lifetime did more to permeate the “Both Sides!” attitude as some catch-all personal philosophy than South Park, which has since metastasized from simply an annoyingly ill-defined, Gen-X brand of libertarianism to a meek doormat for the right-wing demagoguery we’re suffering through now. Don’t believe me? Shortly after the 2016 election, Parker and Stone announced that the show would be backing away from political satire and will avoid taking shots at Donald Trump going forward. A year later, that same President they claimed is “too difficult to mock” used their exact bothsidesism logic to defend murderous Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Remember how Republicans just loooooooved the ManBearPig episode for making fun of Al Gore’s stupid climate change activism? Not so funny now that the White House is literally arguing that climate change is real, but it’s too late to do anything so hey, why not roll back emissions standards and race to oblivion! “Satire has kinda become reality?” Yeah, no kidding, Trey. It might do you some good to think about how that happened at the same time your show ascended to the heights of pop culture ubiquity.
I’m tempted to blame this on Parker and Stone just getting older and richer, and that’s certainly part of it. Both of them had middle-class upbringings in rural Colorado and produced their first feature film right out of college for just over $100,000. The pilot episode of South Park was made in a tiny studio using traditional cut paper stop-motion animation. Today, both of them are Broadway darlings pushing fifty and enjoy a combined net worth of $500 million. I imagine most people with that kind of wealth and privilege eventually lose the ability to distinguish sincere criticism coming at them as entertainment industry titans from the bullies who tormented them when they were just regular college dorks without two pennies to rub together. When you reach a point in life where you don’t face actual problems faced by most people, agitating the status quo probably does seem like the most pressing issue.
On the other hand, Patton Oswalt is also in his late forties and his acts have only gotten sharper and more relevant with age. George Carlin continued to be genuinely edgy until the day he died. None of The Daily Show alums have ever sold apathy and cynicism as some act of rebellion (and I can’t help but wonder if Jon Stewart left arguably the only other show on Comedy Central with a larger cultural impact than South Park on his own accord at least in part to avoid becoming just another entrenched angry old man pundit). Not every initially boundary-breaking comedian ends up like Dennis Miller with age. Maybe some artists grow up while others just grow old.
But what frustrates me the most about that is, Trey Parker and Matt Stone aren’t hacks. They did not “luck into” their success. There is a reason why they’ve won Tonys, Emmys, a Grammy, and are one Academy Award away from achieving EGOT. It’s because they’re extremely talented and creative. When I said I thought South Park was funnier, smarter, and cooler than anything else on television, that’s because for a while it really was, and absolutely was ahead of its time when it first aired. Not just in applying adult-oriented sex and bodily function humor to a cartoon show, but how Parker and Stone evolved their characters and settings while still maintaining their specific comic tone paved the way for shows like Archer, The Venture Bros, Rick & Morty, and Family Guy to refine. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut still holds up as one of the best musicals of the last twenty years. They have made the kind of indelible mark that will guarantee them pop culture immortality even if they announced a permanent retirement tomorrow.
Mediocrity selling a noxious point of view is irritating, but when the exceptional do it? It’s heartbreaking, especially when an entire generation buys into it with real-world consequences.
Will the next generation finally be the one that gets over South Park? I hope so. I feel like I’m not the only one growing tired of their schtick, and maybe that gradual widespread realization that Parker and Stone are just another pair of well-off white dudes with an “Eff You, Got Mine” brand of Republicanism blessed with one-in-a-million music and comic gifts and not Great Minds Of Their Time feels like a dam breaking. I can see it in movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, all connected to a wider awareness that many of the people and ideas Generation X built up as novel or smart or meaningful was actually facile at best and actively damaging at worst. That being “equal-opportunity offenders,” as Isaac Hayes once described the show, just means you’re treating both the powerful and the powerless with the same sneering contempt. No kid who watched South Park had their minds corrupted by penis jokes or Kenny’s over-the-top death scenes. But Parker and Stone’s false equivalences and tediously self-regarding statements against “PC” strawmen? Those are things our own kids would be better off without.
Author: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert Hamer is CC2K’s resident opinion columnist. In addition to being a self-centered 30 year-old white man living in northeastern suburbia who obsesses over movies and nerd culture ephemera, he also works to ensure Donald Trump does not succeed in permanently destroying the United States.