South Park returns to our screens for a landmark 20th season this month.
For a show to celebrate two decades on television is an achievement by any standard – but it’s perhaps especially impressive when you consider the controversy that has often engulfed the cartoon’s gleefully crude toilet humour, and widespread mockery of public figures.
However, underneath the vulgarity, ‘Mecha Streisands’ and talking excrement, there’s something actually quite profound about South Park.
Philosopher and writer Robert Arp, who has edited a book about the show, understands that the show’s satirical power runs far deeper than its puerile image.
“Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo drew me in. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen,” Arp says.
“But when I started actually watching the show, I realised there were a lot of big issues there.”
Equal opportunity offending
Arp, editor of the successful book South Park and Philosophy, found himself increasingly impressed by the show’s willingness and ability to address complex and relevant topics.
“It’s probably one of the only television shows in history to consciously tackle the major areas of western philosophy, from metaphysical questions to ethical issues,” he explains.
“On every show, they point out some crazy reasoning process that leads you to some false conclusions that has unwanted results.
“Every kind of major ethical issue – they’ve done it. Abortion. Gun control. Capital punishment.
“One of its powers is that it attacks both sides equally. Eventually everyone will be offended by an episode. Eventually you’re going to get hit!”
Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone describe themselves as ‘equal opportunity offenders’, and they have certainly not been afraid to target all manner of divisive topics during the show’s extensive run.
South Park has tackled religion and belief systems (including Scientology), prejudice of all kinds, and the absurdity of political elections. Each episode is, somewhat astonishingly, made during the same week it’s aired – allowing for an ultra-relevant take on current events.
It has dealt with exploitative TV psychics, media harassment of vulnerable celebrities, and even lampooned nervous pandering to religious extremists (in the multi-episode ‘Cartoon Wars’, people avoid dealing with Family Guy’s planned depiction of the Prophet Muhammad by literally burying their heads in the sand).
The previous nineteenth season, the first to feature a continuous running narrative, tackled everything from the populist outrage politics of Donald Trump, to the rise of adverts disguised as content, to the growing spread of urban gentrification.
In many respects, South Park is the go-to home of topical, hilarious and on-the-nose satire.
Arp believes it does this by following the noble tradition, and technique, of satire.
“Satire has been used as a tool of critical thought in entertainment for centuries, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks.
“Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels was the South Park of its day. He was lampooning both sides, and extremes. They all want the same thing: for you to be moved to consider yourself and the world around you.”
But how did this happen? How did a shamelessly juvenile animated TV show about a bunch of potty mouthed kids and their small Colorado town evolve into the entertainment world’s most essential satirical outlet?
A shift in emphasis
It’s important to note that the show was unafraid to skewer controversial topics from the beginning.
The very first season featured an episode about homophobia (‘Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride’) and a commentary on offensiveness and tradition in the Christmas special (where the town’s children end up performing a bizarre avant-garde alternative to the nativity, scored by Philip Glass).
However, while the first few seasons featured overt satire on occasion, it was the turn-of-the-millennium that really saw the topical commentary shift into a whole other gear.
Arp agrees that this change had occurred “definitely by the fourth or fifth season”, and only became more pronounced in the following years.
“It’s not just funny potty humour any more. It’s funny cognitive dissonance. It’s people doing crazy things.”
Arp notes that the events of September 11 are almost certain to have had a bearing.
“The extremes of 9/11 might have done it. They must have looked, and thought: ‘Jesus, I can’t believe this level of extremism’.”
But the shift had actually begun to occur before this. And Arp speculates that a much more personal tragedy could have had a bearing on the new, scathing sense of direction.
On the night of November 11, 1999, talented voice artist Mary Kay Bergman – who provided the voices for most of South Park’s female cast over the first few seasons – committed suicide.
The death of their friend clearly affected Parker and Stone deeply.
“I just wonder if something like that sobers you. Was this a crystallising moment where they thought ‘f*** it – everything I think about this crazy world, and this life, I’m going to attack it?'”
‘I’ve learned something today’
While Parker and Stone tend to avoid preaching directly to their audience, instead using comedy to attack all sides of political and personal belief, and pop culture trends, there are some general messages perpetuated by South Park which are hard to ignore.
The clueless, swift-to-outrage adults of the town are often used as a vehicle to represent the general stupidity and petty prejudices of the world at large.
They force Big Gay Al out of his job as a boy scout leader due to fears over his ‘lifestyle’, only for a sleazy paedophile to take his place. They don’t bat an eyelid when a boy turns up with a throwing star jammed in his eye, but are outraged when one appears naked in public (a neat pot-shot at America’s bizarre tolerance of violence, but prudishness over sex and nudity).
“The parents are idiots and some of the children have wisdom,” agrees Arp. “It’s saying: ‘Hey, don’t rest on the laurels of tradition and the old ways – you need to be open to a new way, or a different way’.
“Children have the capacity to ask the kinds of questions that older people don’t care about. To challenge the status quo.”
Arp also views the show’s skewering of liberals and conservatives alike, as well bashing militant atheists like Richard Dawkins alongside religious demagogues, as emphasising that extremes of belief, and intolerance of all kinds, is equally worthy of ridicule.
“They are always lampooning the extreme positions on an issue. Religion vs secularism. Right-wing vs left-wing. They show what can happen when you take an extreme position.
“The overall message of South Park is don’t go to the extreme. Be a good critical thinker. Be skeptical.”
South Park returns on September 14. The Ultimate South Park and Philosophy, edited by Robert Arp, is available now.