Much has been made about South Park’s influential style of humor. In the words of the show’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, there are no sacred cows. Their motto is that “if you make fun of something, you have to make fun of everything”. This has been known as being “equal opportunity offenders” in the world of comedy. This is an approach that has been glorified and emulated by generations of comedians and comedy writers as the truest approach of using comedy to satirize society and speak truth to power in a way that’s subversive. Not to mention it allows many practitioners of this to make society proves that it truly stands for freedom of speech.
This is one of the forefathers of South Park’s approach to comedy, stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce. He is not only seen as a forefather of this subversive type of comedy, but as a martyr too. The type of jokes that Lenny Bruce was making in his time, whether mocking religion, directly addressing hypocrisies in politics and racial issues, or simply using certain four-letter words in public, were taboo enough to get him arrested and dragged into obscenity trials over and over again. The controversy surrounding Lenny Bruce was enough for nightclubs to become to scared to book him again which effectively put an end to Bruce’s career and livelihood. As a result, he died tragically and in destitution.
Lenny Bruce’s sacrifice opened the door for new generations of subversive comedians to continue in his tradition. George Carlin was perhaps the most direct descendant of Lenny Bruce. He broke open taboos with his highly influential “Seven Dirty Words” routine and his increasingly more acerbic view of how those in power shape our society in order to subjugate the rest of society, be it through politics, religion, or linguistics.
As a young talented black comedian as a part of the different sects of 1960s counterculture (Black Power movement, sexual revolution, drug culture, etc.), Richard Pryor emerged as a star in the ’70s through sharply honed comedy that addressed what it was really like to be a black man in the white man’s America in a way that was as emotionally revealing as it was brutally honest.
Bill Hicks was a cult phenomenon during his career in the ’80s and early ’90s, but his controversial material that targeted the hypocrisies and depravity within Ronald Reagan’s conservative vision of America and the finger-wagging, moralizing Religious Right kept him from crossing over into a household name in the United States. His comedy sets were banned numerous times on late night talk shows, most infamously his last appearance on David Letterman’s show before he died was axed at the last minute before broadcast. Not unlike Vincent Van Gogh, Bill Hicks’ fame and influence grew to major heights after his death.
The narrative around the French magazine Charlie Hebdo from earlier this year was that the victims of the shooting by Islamic extremists quite literally gave their lives to defend their right to make jokes about sensitive subject matter. They had been on the radar of Islamic extremists for years due to their mockery of Islam and the prophet Mohammed which unfortunately culminated in the deaths of several people involved.
I bring these examples up to illustrate the allure and glory of maintaining your comedic integrity of addressing society’s taboos as a way of clearing the smokescreen set up come hell or high water. It’s an image that’s similar to the stereotypical tortured genius rock star that lived fast and died young. South Park is almost 20 years deep and still going strong, but over that history it’s had numerous brushes with controversy (as just one example, there are the banned episodes “200” and “201”). Through it all, South Park maintained its mantra of being “equal opportunity offenders” towards everyone and everything and in the end they always came out winning.
But I’m going to suggest something here. I think South Park’s reputation as being “equal opportunity offenders” is mostly marketing. I don’t think it actually plays out in practice. Do they send up a lot of different ethnic groups, religious groups, political sects, communities, etc.? Of course they do, but they don’t approach everything with the same level of venom.
For example, I’ve always felt that South Park has largely been deferential to the black community. Most of their racial jokes towards black people have been at the expense of white racism/ignorance rather than at black people (and not done in that lazy “ironic” hipster racism-style either). “There Goes the Neighborhood” is an episode that shows a “reverse” gentrification as a way of trying to show white people how it would feel if their neighborhood was populated by outsiders that would force them out of a community they have been in for years if not generations. After Randy uses the N-word in “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, Stan’s eventual understanding of that word lead him to realize that he doesn’t understand it. This is Stone and Parker acknowledging that as white men, they don’t have the same long, ugly history of the word with black people, so it’s not their place to dictate how black people should feel about that word.
The funny thing about “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” is that within that same season they came to this epiphany about the N-word, they had another episode in which they attempted to dictate what a certain ubiquitous homophobic slur (a slur that the show has used flippantly throughout its tenure) should mean to the gay community by arguing (in vain, in my opinion) that the word these days has lost its connotation to gay people. This disconnect is another example is within a long tradition of spotty relations with the LGBT community. South Park showed support towards the gay community early on with their first season episode “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride”, but looking at it in context with their other episodes surrounding the gay community, it looks to me like that episode was the setup for a consistent point of view from Stone and Parker that says “we don’t hate gay people but we like using gay slurs, so we argue that we’re not being offensive when we use gay slurs because we’re not talking about gay people (most of the time)”. South Park’s primary LGBT+ representation is through the teacher Mr. Garrison, who is highly depraved, outrageous, and offensive. I read arguments saying that Mr. Garrison’s depravity reinforces negative stereotypes about gay men (particularly as sexual deviants, which is a stereotype that many in the community I grew up with had about gay men) and I’ve read other arguments that Mr. Garrison’s behavior is an extreme manifestation of self-loathing and the journey one goes through to figure out who they are if they don’t fit into society’s imposed heteronormativity, which is unfortunately common among LGBT+ people. I think both points of view are correct. Let’s not forget “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina”, which is a straight up transphobic episode. Garrison’s transition into a woman is played (unsympathetically) for laughs and its comparison to a Kyle’s getting surgery to be black and his dad Gerald getting surgery to be a dolphin is meant to highlight the presumed silliness of transgender identities. Not to mention that the live action footage of his surgery was meant to gross out viewers and highlight how “wrong” this process is. With all of this said, I think Stone and Parker have evolved a bit over the years. I’ve noticed their most recent episodes use gay slurs less frequently and the episode “The Cissy” represents a change in perspective on transgender issues.
As for other ethnic groups, South Park has had very little representations of Hispanic people (their episode “Goobacks” was an allegory for the US ongoing immigration debate, but they didn’t actually use Hispanic characters for it). South Park’s primary Asian representation has been the extremely stereotypical owner of the City Wok restaurant, Mr. Lu Kim, whose only source of humor is his “Engrish” pronunciation of words. The only representation of Native Americans I can think of in South Park was in “Red Man’s Greed” (I’m not counting “Cherokee Hair Tampons” because Cheech and Chong aren’t Native American), which reverses the historical roles of Native Americans and white people. But unlike “There Goes the Neighborhood”, I don’t know what the point of reserving the roles was outside of casting the Native Americans as antagonists and making fun of them.
South Park doesn’t make fun of all religious groups equally either. “Red Hot Catholic Love” is an unambiguous indictment of the Catholic Church, but it’s an indictment through the lens of the Catholic everyman (Father Maxi’s the protagonist in this episode). The episode is actually quite sympathetic towards the Catholic populace. It’s surprisingly a much more brutal send up of atheists. For outsiders, many heavily atheist pockets of the internet are unpleasant circle-jerks full of people going on and on about how stupid religious people are because they believe in “fairy tales” and “sky daddies” or whatever. When all of the Catholic parents in South Park convert to atheism, all they did as atheists was get together and talk about how silly it was being religious, all while sticking food up their anuses and defecating out of their mouths. As atheists they are literally just “talking shit”. It’s no coincidence that when they decided to go back to church, Sharon says “I don’t want to eat with my butt anymore”.
To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to be an “equal opportunity offenders”. Everybody has their own biases, so that’s always going to color their perspective on things. Even if it was possible to be 100% even-handed in critiquing everyone, I don’t think it’s something necessarily worth aspiring for. It’s such a libertarian view of the world (which I suppose fits South Park, given their politics most of the time) that falls apart in my opinion because it doesn’t acknowledge the systems and structures that make up our society. Different groups in our society have more systemic privilege than other groups, so simply making fun of everything and everyone equally is simply a continuation of society’s power structures rather than being the supposed subversion of the elite. This is why so much comedy that’s influenced by South Park completely falls apart, whether its Carlos Mencia, Daniel Tosh, and even the aforementioned Charlie Hebdo. A comedian who is building a name for herself these days is Amy Schumer. Her jokes about the way patriarchy influences our society, whether its the impossible beauty standards reinforced in pop culture, rape culture, and hyper-masculinity are spot on because they address the fact that women are subjugated in our society to the benefit of men. Her jokes about Hispanic people, however (“I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual”, “Nothing works 100 percent of the time, except Mexicans.”) don’t work at all because they reinforces oppressive points of view about a group of people that is always subjugated in our society. Does anybody really think mocking an institution like the Vatican that has wielded power and influence over populations for centuries and then mocking a group of people that has subjugated for centuries like Native Americans is true egalitarianism?