Noah RotenstreichMonday, May 15, 2023
Image by Joel Ormsby, courtesy of Flickr
It is no secret that South Park is offensive. It’s been through many controversies in its twenty-six seasons, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be stopping anytime soon. Many people hate it and would like for it to be taken off of TV altogether. But just the fact that the show has been on air for so long shows it's brilliance and how it is misunderstood by cancel culture and by the people who will Tweet 'South Park is a racist and hateful show,' which is not true. South Park has mastered the art of satire like no other. South Park's satire is always executed perfectly in the right places at the right times.
The creative process of making and releasing each episode is not even comparable to shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons. South Park is so far ahead of other shows, with Family Guy and The Simpsons taking between six months to a year to make episodes, while South Park needs no more than six days. Because of this, South Park is always on top of current events. When Obama was elected in 2008, an episode about the election was released the very next day, with actual quotes from the president’s speech in the episode. This is essential because the topics they are dealing with are still on the viewers’ minds, so it creates a degree of relatability, which no other show captures. This short time frame is great for the creative process. By allowing themselves so little time, it doesn’t allow time to second guess things. It allows the unfiltered minds of the writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to be expressed in the show and forces them to work efficiently.
The effectiveness of the shows’ satire also comes down to how it’s executed, and they use a few different techniques. South Park uses hyperbole in every episode and the writers are masters at taking a point and pushing it to its absolute extreme. In the season 19 episode “You’re Not Yelping,” Eric Cartman becomes a Yelp reviewer in order to get better services at restaurants because he holds the possibility of a bad review over their heads. Many people in the town start doing the same and of course Cartman gets upset that so many people are doing the same thing. So he decides to form a sort of Yelp reviewing team and implies that he should be the leader, saying “We all know who the real food analyst of the town is.” They all happily agree, with everyone believing that Eric was talking about themselves. This was a perfect way for the writers to get their point across that Yelp reviewers think they are more important than they really are. Of course they don’t mean that all Yelp reviewers are this way; they are just making fun of those who are. Depicting groups as extreme versions of themselves is essential to the South Park formula. By overemphasizing their bad traits, they get their point across lightly and comically but still as an actual criticism of that group. This method makes it much easier for South Park to get away with things that many people would consider offensive. A great example of this is the character Lu Kim. The writers intentionally made him the most stereotypical Chinese man ever, with really squinty eyes and terrible English, and he owns a Chinese restaurant. He even starts a Mongolian revolution in one episode. The reason they are able to get away with what many would consider a racist depiction, is precisely because he is so stereotypical. If he just had a few of these traits, it arguably could be considered as more racist, but having all these ridiculous stereotypes creates a degree of absurdity. This absurdity and exaggeration is key to using satire successfully. Because this character is so absurd, it becomes clear that he isn’t there to make fun of Asians through stereotypes, but rather he is there to make fun of the stereotypes themselves. Another example is in the season six episode “Red Hot Catholic Love,” when South Park parodies the Catholic Church molestation scandal. The priest of South Park, Father Maxi, goes to the Vatican to see what he can do to stop this, but instead finds out that he is the only priest in the entire world that is not molesting children and the church’s only concern is making sure the rest of the world doesn’t find out. The absurdity of this episode is what makes it great satire. Once again, they use this degree of absurdity, this separation from reality, to keep it easy to laugh at, while still keeping it realistic enough to get their point across. This is the concept that great satire is built on.
Another technique is what many people would call “Flipping the script.” The whole idea of flipping the script is taking a story that everyone knows, most often with two conflicting sides, and putting one side in the position of the other. A great example of this is in the season seven episode “Red Man’s Greed,” when the local Native Americans want to tear down the town of South Park to build a superhighway directly from Denver straight to their casino. Their only motive for this is money, since the highway will bring in much more business for their casino. When the people of South Park refuse to leave, the Native Americans even go as far as poisoning them, hoping to kill them all off, just so they can build their highway. This is obviously mirroring the experience of Native Americans when the country was first colonized, and even later on. It’s about how the Native Americans had their land taken from them and the colonists spread foreign diseases throughout their population. In the season 11 episode “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson,” Randy, who is white, accidentally says the N-word on live television and he gets tormented for it, being called “N-word guy.” He talks about how being called that name makes him feel less human, that people refuse to recognize him as an actual person, but just as a name. He later talks about how hard it is to constantly be reminded of something terrible that happened in his past, and that every time someone calls him that name, they are bringing up a painful chapter in his life, and all the negativity that went along with it. At one point he is even chased by a bunch of gun-wielding Southerners who can’t stand intolerant people like him. How Randy feels after being called this nickname so many times, almost parallels the experience of the black population in the US who still feel the effects of racism today. The message that the writers are trying to convey is that the N-word has a history behind it and that no non-black person will ever understand what it is like to be called that word. Flipping the script allows the viewer to look at an issue through the perspective of the opposition, and while it is often a little absurd or exaggerated in the show, the general ideas of the issues are all very real. It’s a very effective way to get your point across using irony and satire, since it puts the oppressor in the shoes of the oppressed while making both sides laugh in the process.
South Park conveys other good messages, and one of them is about religious inclusivity. In the season one episode “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo,” the kids all have to put on a Christmas school play and Kyle, a Jewish kid, has to play Joseph. Kyle feels very left out when all his friends say that it’s illegal for Kyle to eat snow on the playground, calling it “Christmas snow,” because he is Jewish. Later, they all leave him to go to the mall to meet Santa, and they don’t let him come with them. They use satire in the episode to make fun of overreacting, when later on in the episode they try to be inclusive, but instead do the opposite. They remove anything that has to do with Christmas from the Christmas play itself because it could be seen as offensive. You would never even know that the play had anything to do with Christmas if it weren’t for the sign out front of the school. This was a great way that the writers used satire to push out two different messages, one about religious inclusivity, and the other about over-inclusivity.
South Park also has great disability representation. In the season four episode “Timmy 2000,” there is a new student at school, Timmy, who has cerebral palsy. Everyone treats him with the same amount of respect that they would for someone who isn’t disabled. Timmy even joins a band at one point, and they play at multiple concerts, and people love him. Some people thought that Timmy was being taken advantage of and they thought that it was cruel that he was up on stage while people were laughing at him. But they weren’t making fun of Timmy, they were just laughing because Timmy is funny when he screams his own name while rock music plays behind it. Another great example of disability representation is in the season 11 episode “Le Petit Tourette,” which features multiple characters with Tourette’s Syndrome, most notably Thomas. Thomas talks about how hard it is to live with Tourette’s every day, being embarrassed when he goes out in public, and knowing that he is embarrassing his mom. He talks about how his parents got a divorce. He barely ever sees his father anymore, and he thinks that that’s his fault. This episode had great representation of Tourette’s Syndrome and it was very informative about the condition. Many people with Tourette’s have said that this episode represented Tourette’s very well and that it was a great way for people to be more informed about this disability.
Over the years, South Park has earned a reputation for being very offensive, and for good reason. The amount of major controversies this show has sparked is likely way more than any other show to ever air on TV. Though it’s gained a reputation for causing controversy, it has been on air for 26 seasons with no sign of stopping. But how has it survived so many controversies and been running for so long? In my opinion, it’s because of their unwillingness to pick sides. They are often ruthless with their stereotypes and parodies, but the key to getting away with it is being equally ruthless to everyone. South Park chooses no sides when it comes to making fun of groups, often making fun of both sides of an issue. They’ve made fun of both atheists and religious people, Republicans and Democrats, gay people and homophobic people, rich and poor people, and many more. The writers go by a motto, “Either it’s all okay, or none of it is.” And when asked if there is a line that they won’t cross, they responded, “We haven’t found one yet.” This idea that nothing is off limits is a definite strong suit of the show. It makes it so it doesn’t seem like it’s preachy or that they’re pushing an agenda like so much of the media is nowadays. Because this show will attack anyone and everyone, it makes this show so appealing to such a huge audience, assuming of course that they are willing to take a joke at their expense. Though the show can be offensive when making fun of groups or people, the core message of every episode is rarely offensive, and almost always the opposite of that. South Park has garnered so many controversies due to the fact that many people might just hear bad things about an episode in the media that could lead people to believe that South Park is purely a racist and hateful show pushing bad messages out to kids. Or people might just watch one scene, missing huge plot points and missing the whole message, one they would likely agree with. This is why South Park has gotten such a controversial reputation. The media takes things that seem offensive out of context, things that wouldn’t be nearly as offensive with context. But these controversies show how South Park is great at taking a concept or idea that would be very controversial on its own, and using satire to turn it into a hilarious take that almost always has a positive message behind it.
South Park truly is a show like no other. A show that is willing to go to places and tackle topics that no others would. A show that has handled controversy better than any other show. A show that has managed to be extremely offensive and inoffensive at the same time. A show that proves that when done correctly, satire can be one of the most effective ways to deal with tough issues. A show that has never folded in a society that keeps pushing it to fold.
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