South Park says things other shows won’t. That’s always been its schtick. 300 episodes in, it’s still able to shock, as the most recent season showed through Band In China and Board Girls, which tackled Chinese censorship and trans women in sport. Both important issues of our time, and South Park handled then in a typical South Park way. We’ll […]
South Park says things other shows won’t. That’s always been its schtick. 300 episodes in, it’s still able to shock, as the most recent season showed through Band In China and Board Girls, which tackled Chinese censorship and trans women in sport. Both important issues of our time, and South Park handled then in a typical South Park way.
We’ll get to what exactly that means, but first we need look at how South Park operates.
South Park’s simplistic animation style was made of genuine cutouts for the pilot, but every other episode uses computer software to mimic this look and speed up episode creation. Shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy take around eight months from script to air, as they have far more sophisticated animation and go through South Korean animation companies. South Park is created in house, and each episode only takes one week; sometimes less. This means the show can react to trends far quicker, and can practically guarantee topical relevance, though as we’ll see, they squander this unique position through their own ethos.
Let’s zoom in on Board Girls as our example. For the record, I’m transgender, but I also believe that comedy is inherent in every situation, you just have to find it. I do not believe Board Girls found it.
Comedy is obviously subjective, but certainly there is something very ‘South Park’ in how Board Girls draws in broad strokes. The ‘trans woman’ in question is a hairy, bearded, muscle bound Bret The Hitman Hart parody. It’s lazy, low hanging fruit, and doesn’t actually have anything substantive to say. Futurama did a similar plot point in 2003’s Bend Her, well before the ‘trans debate’, whatever that means, had even entered the sporting world. That episode poked fun at gender stereotypes and had the same punchlines as Board Girls, but Bend Her was actually funny, and didn’t just rely on “haha transgender” to land a laugh.
Where Bend Her sought to tell a story, Board Girls sought to tell a joke. It told it, but then… what else was it supposed to do for 22 minutes?
Again, it’s subjective. Board Girls was well received by fans, but that’s really the point; South Park continues to preach to the choir, and they haven’t even got anything to say.
Family Guy has taken potshots at trans people too. While the recent Trans Fat, in which Peter accidentally gets a sex change, seemed to pull its punches, Family Guy has made Ida Quagmire the butt of jokes since her introduction. Brian’s long vomit take was a little tiresome, though drawn out gags that were never too funny to begin with are vintage Family Guy anyway. Brian telling Quagmire “I fucked your dad,” or Lois telling Ida “you may use the yard,” when she asks for the bathroom are still punching down on trans people, but at least they’re actually jokes.
I struggle to balance my tolerant, inclusive world view and my love of Family Guy at times, but I figure being able to laugh at jokes which make me the punchline is at least the start. And Family Guy’s jokes are jokes. They’re quick, they speak to a real experience, they let the story move on and they make a clear point. South Park just picks a thing to laugh at, and while people might be happy to laugh at… whatever they’re pointing at this week, that’s not the same thing as telling a joke.
South Park fans will tell you that the show doesn’t care who it offends, and they’re right. It doesn’t care. And when it doesn’t matter to you who the target is, you’ll pick the easiest one every time.
Matt Stone, one of the creators of South Park, is on the record saying “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.” This stressing on liberals is important; South Park hates people who care about things. They go after conservatives who say dumb things and liberals who believe in causes. There are some exceptions to this; some liberals say and indeed believe dumb things, while there are conservatives who genuinely believe in causes, albeit usually with blinkers on to block out the suffering of poor people.
Nine times out of ten though, it’s liberals South Park will body slam, because the easy target is the person who cares about things. That’s why they laugh about things like global warming, trans people, gun control, or, ironically, safe spaces; other people care about them, so they’re easy to laugh at.
This is where South Park’s unique development style comes in. With a much faster turnaround than any other cartoon, South Park are placed to get involved in issues as they’re actually happening, rather than referencing them months after the debate has cooled and the lines have been drawn.
South Park rarely takes this opportunity though. Sure, they pick up on what’s in the news, and even build episodes around it. But they never get involved in the debate, they never take a side. They just point and laugh at those that do. Sometimes they focus on one side to mock, other times it’s both sides, but the message is consistent; caring about things is dumb.
This is how South Park has grown into a safe space.
There are people out there who genuinely believe your life experience is pretty much the same, whether you’re a straight, white, cisgender male or anything else. And they’re not bad people, even if they are a little naive.
Sure, they call their buddies ‘faggots’ if they won’t stay for another beer, but they don’t hate gay people. And they’ve got nothing against women, they’d just prefer if their doctor was a dude, that’s all. These people whose default humour is the ‘I’m going to hell for this’ kind, this is who South Park is a safe space for.
These people feel like they’re being pushed out of popular culture. The ‘I’m not racist, but’ types. The ‘let’s not make this political’ types. South Park tells them that’s it’s okay to not care about things, in fact it’s great! Those people care about things and look at them! They’re dumb!
South Park is a troll in cartoon form. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying, what matters is that they get a reaction. They aim for controversy, not because they have anything important to say, any challenges to make to the status quo, but because controversy means they won. They made someone mad, so they won. There’s an innate smugness to South Park, something deeply uncritical about its satire. People who care are just white knighting or virtue signalling; it couldn’t possibly be that they actually give a shit.
South Park can be funny, even downright hilarious at times. We don’t like to admit it, but trolls can be pretty funny too. Trolls frequently get likes/upvotes/retweets because the truth is, most people like laughing at others as long as no one is laughing at them.
Nothing is off the table in South Park, except perspective, introspection or jokes about straight white guys. You don’t have to think, you don’t have to care, you don’t have to worry and you don’t have to know. You don’t have to do anything, you just have to laugh at everyone else from your very own safe space.