Sunday, December 13, 2015

800 Words: South Park's Last Stand: Part 1

Critical accolades aside, it was a sad day when Trey Parker and Matt Stone started getting treated as public intellectuals. It’s bad enough that my generation trusts comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as our most reliable news sources, but when South Park’s creators decided that lifetime presidency of the dick-and-fart brigade wasn’t enough for them, it signaled that something in our society truly was truly amiss.

What made (makes) Stewart and Colbert work is that their politics worked as comedy first, politics second. Yes, Jon Stewart spent sixteen years cheerleading for his (our) team, but neither he nor we could help the fact that Republicans gave him so much good material. Unassailably progressive though they might be, they were comedians first. They had just enough reverence that they could dial down the comedy when it was appropriate.

On their least funny day, Matt Stone and Trey Parker are funnier than either Stewart or Colbert are on their best. South Park is, in my opinion, the funniest TV show ever aired. It's almost beyond question. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to sacrifice everything to a joke, your show can’t help but be nihilism central. It’s extremely seductive logic to say that every pretension is worth puncturing, every aspiration is worth making fun of. In a cosmic sense, perhaps they’re exactly right, but when you’ve decided to make fun of every single attitude that demonstrates dissatisfaction with the larger world, you create two enormous problems.

The first is that, by definition, if you make fun of everyone with aspirations, you become a powerful agent for anyone who wants to preserve the status quo. Furthermore, now that Parker and Stone have made a 20-year career upholding the status quo so lucratively, it stands to reason that they don’t just want to preserve the status quo; they’re deeply, deeply in love with it. The tasteless 'wrongness' of South Park is offset, and perhaps made palatable, by a bizarre wholesomeness - a deep love of and nostalgia for childhood in Middle America, where the screwedupness of everyday life is something accepted and often celebrated. Against the constant barrage of dirty jokes are gentle musical numbers and a deep trust in the wisdom of children (who with their unfiltered bullshit detectors always see through the messes their parents create). There are many moments when South Park can seem like the bizarrely wholesome spawn of Satan and The Waltons.  

Along with that wholesomeness comes a searing anger about how badly their way of life is under threat from coastal liberals and their trendy politically correct notions; and that leads us to the second, in some ways still larger, problem. By deciding that every aspiration that defies common sense is equally worthy of puncturing, the show becomes little more than a needle looking for bubbles to puncture. Whatever one’s opinion of South Park’s obviously libertarian politics, it’s still pretty obvious to most people that as a TV show, great as South Park still is, it never quite rose to the level of The Simpsons during its best years, or Seinfeld, or Cheers, or even Arrested Development. South Park offers laughter and not a little intelligence. Watching it can also be one of the most unpleasant experiences on television.

In a way that those other shows never quite were, South Park is truly merciless - usually in great ways, but sometimes in bad ones too. When Isaac Hayes quit because they made fun of Scientology, they could have spared Isaac Hayes the public hard feelings, since his involvement probably went a long way to getting them on the air in the first place. Instead, they went as far out of their way as humanly conceivable to publicly humiliate him. South Park raises immaturity to an artform, and because they do, they miss out on a lot of deeper ways in which they can be subversive and more exciting.

Nevertheless, in some ways, South Park is more miraculous than any of those shows. Seinfeld, a show about nothing and minutiae, would never have known what tone to take in an America changed by 9/11. Even the often brutal satire of The Simpsons, at its best the greatest show that ever was or will be, was still too gentle for the harshness of the 21st century, and 14 years later, the show still hasn’t recovered. Arrested Development was never allowed to blossom properly. We never saw what they could do with 6 or 7 consecutive seasons, let alone 19…

Among situation comedies, South Park stands absolutely alone - a 19 year old comedy which people with a brain still watch. No other show adapted so well to so many eras, and no other show could adapt so well, for the simple fact that South Park has one trump card no other show has. 

South Park has one or two kinds of jokes that they do extraordinarily well, and they simply do them over, and over, and over again. It’s a testament to how well they do it that after nearly 20 years, the joke stays this funny. Nevertheless, it would not surprise me if, when we go back to South Park episodes the age of sixty, these jokes are nowhere near as funny as we currently still think they are.

That trump card should be obvious - it’s the notion that every idea in America deserves to be made fun of to the fullest, most pulverizing extent to which the law allows. Week after week, South Park finds new sacred cows (no pun intended) to satirize. Inevitably, when you’ve sent up hundreds upon hundreds of pervasive ideas in American life, there will be something within that collection that every person disagrees with to a rage-inspiring extent. Even so, we all deserve our turn on the chopping block, and it’s all too easy to say that everything deserves to be made fun of when it isn’t your ox that’s being gored. So long as American life churns out new trends, there will be an endless amount of grist for South Park’s mill.

This is what makes South fantastically funny, it’s also the reason South Park has never been more than fantastically funny. South Park is one of the last cultural bastions of ‘Can Do American Optimism,’ it’s one of the few cultural products in America that still takes it as a given that the world’s problems can be solved by nothing but good old-fashioned common sense. But after the financial crisis in 2008, it’s plainly clear that our reliance on Common Sense very nearly brought the country to ruin. Our country can’t even agree upon what common sense is.

South Park has no real agenda beyond giving a nationally televised middle finger to anybody who tells us what we should care about. This would not be a problem if South Park didn’t want to be taken seriously. But in spite of its protestations to the contrary, the show clearly, clearly, CLEARLY wants to be taken very, very, VERY SERIOUSLY...

Far more than The Daily Show and its ilk, South Park takes pride in thinking independently and not sparing its audience conclusions that many people in its fan base would find incredibly objectionable. Over the years South Park compared Stem Cell research to Frankenstein (“Manbearpig”) it wrote off Wikileaks as a force corrosive to our privacy as TMZ and Twitter, it heavily implied that second-hand smoking is not something anyone should be concerned by, it conducted a debate about the Iraq War by making it seem as though characters representing both sides had equally legitimate points and grievances.

It’s a testament to how funny South Park truly was that it could have gotten so many things wrong (many more than just what’s above), and still be amazingly funny so often. If The Daily Show got it wrong half so often as South Park has, people would have tuned out long ago because The Daily Show is much more beholden to its political content. Unlike The Daily Show or Colbert, South Park not particularly beholden to any political movement. And yet, its their very lack of political commitment that makes South Park incredibly dogmatic in its anti-dogma.

For all the complexities of South Park’s many attempts to explain our political climate, the animating message can boil down to “everything would be fine if you all weren’t so busy trying to fuck it up.” Behind South Park’s facade of pulling no punches, it pulls the biggest punch of them all: “for all our ridiculousness,” it seems to say, “we’re all reasonable, rational people, and if we simply sit down and talk to one another, we can work out our differences.”

It’s a very late-20th century attitude to 21st century problems. In a manner which Stewart and Colbert never were, their attitude is a relic from an age when liberals and conservatives had roughly equal amounts of power and seemed equally irrational. In the era of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, there is something about South Park’s worldview that seems not only naive, but increasingly dinosaur-like.

After watching season 19, it’s impossible to not think that Stone and Parker know this. There was something valedictory about this whole run, as though the world they love has become so distant from them that the show no longer has a reason to exist except as a megaphone from which they can preach.

It’s not the worst reason to keep a show going. I agree with well over 50% of what they say, and comedians as gifted as they will always find every potential laugh - even if the ground is nowhere near as fertile as it once was.

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