Friday, April 23, 2010

Time For South Park To Move On

[WARNING: this post contains strong language and depicts scenes some closeminded, uptight, sensitive people are likely to find offensive. Trust me though: they're really really funny.]

In the wake of the latest French Maneuver by South Park network Comedy Central, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have shown none of the willingness to forgive that they did after their first controversial episode in which the Muslim prophet Muhammed was censored by executive decree.
“In the 14 years we’ve been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn’t some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle’s customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn’t mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We’ll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we’ll see what happens to it.”
What was all the fuss about? Well, if you're unfamiliar with South Park consider yourself a poorer person now than you were when you started this sentence. It's a show that uses crude animation to tell the adventures of four young boys in South Park, Colorado. They are crude, rude, profane and endlessly funny. It's the type of show you either love or hate, depending on your ability to laugh at sacred cows. In a world where shows like Fox and Friends and The Daily Show claim to be equal opportunity offenders but are really ideological shills, Parker and Stone truly go out of their way to offend every sacred cow on every side of every aisle.

You like watching Republicans get lampooned? One episode referred to a conservative talk show guest on The O'Reilly Factor as a "pissed-off white-trash redneck conservative". If you're the type that thinks making fun of the Right is funny, but the Left isn't to be mocked, you wouldn't like South Park. The other guest was identified only by "aging hippie liberal douche".

South Park makes fun of the handicapped. It has not one but two handicapped characters. The first, named Timmy, can only communicate by saying his name in different cadences and volumes. The second, Jimmy, needs crutches to walk and has a severe stutter. Naturally, Jimmy was introduced in an episode where he challenges Timmy's status as primary crippled character in an episode called "Cripple Fight". The halves of a two-part episode were titled, "Do The Handicapped Go To Hell" and "Probably".

Celebrities have taken more than their share of punishment from Rob Reiner (anti-smoking crusader who constantly has a cheeseburger in his hand) to Sally Struthers (African adoption advocate who looks and talks like Jabba the Hutt) to Barbra Streisand (depicted as a 100-foot-tall mechanized Godzilla-like creature who tries to destroy the town). Tom Cruise-bashing is practically a subplot on the show. Originally questioning his sexuality in an episode called "Trapped In The Closet", in which the actor literally spent almost the entire episode in a closet, refusing to come out, the show fired shots in his direction sporadically, culminating in the show's 200th episode (titled "200") in which Cruise leads all the celebrities lampooned over the years first in an effort to sue the town and later in a plot that set off the latest controversy.

Cruise realizes that there's one person who is absolutely untouchable when it comes to satire -- the prophet Muhammed. He agrees to drop the lawsuit against the town if the citizens will deliver Muhammed to him. His plan is to use a device (built by Rob Reiner) to steal Muhammed's "goo", a magical substance that will make Tom Cruise untouchable.

While you may think the plot is silly (and it is -- that Parker and Stone can make such a ridiculous plot not only funny but expected is part of their peculiar genius), it doesn't sound like anything to get up in arms about. You would be wrong. After "200" aired, a Muslim group made a statement warning the creators that they were walking a dangerous path.
"We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show," Al-Amrikee wrote. "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."
I especially like the covering statement at the end. Hey we're not threatening you. We're just saying that if you keep doing what you're doing, you're likely to end up shot and stabbed to death in the street. Just telling it like it is, man. Riiiiight.

The singular saving grace that keeps South Park relevant and fresh is the fact that they skewer every religion (as well as everything else). Not equally. Truth be told, Christianity has taken by far the most abuse. From a town priest that's been caught "giving a blessing" to a nun in the confessional to depicting the Pope as a dessicated old man who can only speak in grunts, the show has been absolutely brutal to the sensibilites of Christians of more delicate constitutions. In one episode ("Bloody Mary"), a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary is originally identified as miraculous but is later disavowed when a visiting Cardinal realizes it is bleeding from its, um, ladyparts, declaring "A chick bleeding out her vagina is no miracle. Chicks bleed out their vaginas all the time." If you like your Christian satire to be more Ned Flanders and less a show where Satan's boyfriend is Sadam Hussein, than you're likely to be offended by South Park.

And that's okay. You don't have to like it. But you should support it's right to exist and to "do what it does". Because the show doesn't just skewer Christianity. One of the shows regular characters, Chef (voiced by Shaft signer Isaac Hayes) was killed off after the actor voiced displeasure with the show's treatment of his religion, Scientology. Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Christians -- poking fun with the sharpest stick possible didn't present a problem. When the stick got pointed at his own sacred cow, Hayes got mad. Parker and Stone got their "revenge" with the biggest "f--k you" episode in television history. The point they were trying to make was obvious: this show makes fun of everything. If anything is off the table, then it all has to be off the table. And with one exception, Comedy Central has laughed at protesters, threats and boycotts all the way to the bank.

Comedy Central's cowardice was excused by Parker and Stone the first time around, because, the network was honest about their motivation -- they were "scared of getting blown up". In that episode, the creators wanted to depict Muhammed in a non-satirical manner. He was to be shown handing a football helmet to Family Guy's Peter Griffin. That's it. When the scene was supposed to air, viewers instead saw a black screen with the words, "Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network". To show just how cowardly the network was and how willing they were to kowtow to any group who threatened violence (as opposed to boycotts and protests), the end of the episode depicted Jesus Christ and then-President George Bush defecating all over each other and an American flag. It was a disgusting image. The only thing more disgusting was the rank hypocrisy Comedy Central displayed in greenlighting it while censoring a cartoon image of Muhammed holding a football helmet. Let me be clear here: the network had a choice, allow both the Muhammed depiction and the Christ/Bush scene, or allow neither. I personally would vote for "allow both". The more squeamish among us might say "allow neither". Comedy Central chose the most cowardly path: greenlighting angering groups they knew would pose no physical threat while caving in to a group from whom they feared violence.

This time though, Parker and Stone are genuinely mad. They're getting tired of the network standing behind them on every controversy that comes along except for this one thing. It's clear that Comedy Central is too skittish to do what's right. I'm not privy to the inner workings of their contract with the network. I do know that South Park is too dedicated to free speech to remain on a cowardly network like Comedy Central. I think Parker and Stone should look for a new home. Free speech isn't easy to live with. It requires you to put up with hearing things you don't like. I'll let this exchange from the episode "Cartoon Wars (part 1)", in which the townspeople mull over how to repsond to the threat of Muslim violence, serve as the last word:
Professor Thomas: "We bury our heads. In sand. We take twenty to twenty-five dump trucks, fill them with sand from Monarch Lake, and then dump the sand along South Park Avenue. By using approximately eighteen dozen shovels, we can each dig a hole in the sand, stick our heads in the holes, and then have the person to our left bury them. If we can manage to get every person's head buried deep, deep in sand before the Muhammad episode airs, we could avoid looking like we're responsible for any part of this at all."

Stephen: "No, no, wait a minute, it's ridiculous. What we need to do is just the opposite. Freedom of speech is at stake here, don't you all see? If anything, we should ALL make cartoons of Muhammad, and show the terrorists and the extremists that we are all united in the belief that every person has a right to say what they want! Look, people, it's... been real easy for us to stand up for free speech lately. For the past few decades we haven't had to risk anything to defend it. But those times are going to come! And one of those times is right now. And if we aren't willing to risk what we have, then we just believe in free speech, but we don't defend it.
And then you're Canada. Nobody wants that.

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