April 28, 2004


What? Morals in 'South Park'? (VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN, 4/28/04, NY Times)

[T]he real strength of "South Park" is that it flatters freethinkers by mocking Christians and Jews, including Jesus himself (a resident), along with the stand-out holy figures Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna and Laotzu. (They form a clique called Super Best Friends.)

But that stylized freethinking carries, of course, some dogma of its own. True, the boys of "South Park" — Cartman and Kyle, together with a schmo called Stan Marsh and some hangers-on — are unaffected by whatever spiritual troubles used to depress the "Peanuts" gang.

They have a more specific problem: American hypocrisy, the combination of greed and sanctimony that lets religion and would-be spirituality provide cover for rapacity. Where the "Peanuts" children were sad, the kids in "South Park" are furious and vengeful.

No wonder. They're surrounded by frauds. Cartman has a doting single mother, a Christian and hermaphrodite, who sleeps around for favors. She's indulgent and ineffectual. ("Eric is still supposed to be grounded for trying to exterminate the Jews two weeks ago.") Kyle's mother is carping, anxious, lethally meddlesome; she takes a stand to raise awareness of conjoined twins, which seems intended just to mortify the person it's supposed to help, a school nurse who has a dead fetus attached to her head. Bland Stan has a grandfather who is presented as the picture of happy longevity but begs Stan to kill him.

"South Park" consolidates the rage and humor of preadolescents, kissing up to them with gags about gas, fat and vomit. (And jokes about jokes about gas, as on "Terrance and Phillip," the long-running show within a show.) Then, armed with little more than judiciously applied censor's bleeps, permissible words like sphincter and anus and a willingness to look into digestion, the show musters an air of anarchy. Perfect for the young at heart: anarchy — but a jolly cartoon — and on basic cable.

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.

But in spite of this pose, "South Park" does not lay claim to bad-boy television's principle of "no learning, no hugs," the mandate Larry David laid out for "Seinfeld." "South Park" can even be overtly pious. Theology may come off as myth on it, and bigotry and self-righteousness as broadly terrible, but religion here is also a decent sweetener and civilizer.

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.

Not parables but jeremiads, summoning the faithful back to the true ideals of the religion.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2004 2:24 PM

The show spelled it out: people get hung up on phony sex scandals and ignore the real problem of violence.

I love it when people bring up that false dichotomy, as if sex is always good, and violence is always evil. What should be compared are those cases where both are dehumanizing. In particular, the offensive part wasn't the sight of Janet Jackson's baby food dispenser, but rather the manipulative, insulting and exploitive atmosphere in which it was presented and then rationalized by her supporters and co-conspirators. In other words, "If sex is so great, then why does it only seem capable of being presenting in such a cheap fashion?"

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 28, 2004 4:42 PM

I'm not at all surprised that the author didn't bring up the funniest part of the Cartman parentage episode -- the fact that Ms. Cartman (which the author had to have seen to know Ms. Cartman was a hermaphrodite) slept her way all the way up to Clinton in an attempt to get approval for an abortion in the 35th trimester (Eric was 8). It was her body after all.

Posted by: AML at April 28, 2004 6:41 PM

AML -- Exactly. The author is cherry picking only the story lines that would appear to make fun of Red State "sacred cows", like religion and puritanism. I watch South Park for the other 75% of the storylines that skewer Blue State "phobias and philias" -- the environment, femenism, tobacco, guns, homosexuals, Rob Reiner, Babs, Saddam, Canadians....Can't believe he could not recall any of these spoofs. (Also, kudos to South Park for bridging the unbridgeable. A show liberals and conservatives can appear to like.)

Posted by: MG at April 28, 2004 6:49 PM

I agree with the above and with OJ's comment.
But there is one question I have. And I know I'm a little dense, but bear with me please. How exactly is a F*rt joke conservative.

Thank you.

Posted by: h-man at April 28, 2004 8:25 PM


To a conservative the flaws and foibles of humanity are funny, to a liberal they are tragic.

Posted by: oj at April 28, 2004 9:04 PM

It's also worth noting that when Parker and Stone did their collaberation with Norman Lear two years ago, it produced the Founding Fathers episode, which should have had a cameo appearance by Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons" wearing his 'Worst Episode Ever" T-shirt.

Posted by: John at April 28, 2004 11:08 PM
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