[28 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Steve Irwin the late, lamented Crocodile Hunter would become, for the creators of Comedy Central’s long running hit South Park, a symbol of everything Season 10 had come to stand for. In wondering what it would take to finally push the seminal series over the edge into inexcusable controversy, the boys had experienced almost a full year of scandal.
First, Isaac Hayes shocked everyone by taking what was considered an amicable spilt up at the end of Season 9 and turning it into a name-calling case of religious bigotry. Then, the supposedly brazen network balked when a Family Guy-spoofing installment proposed to feature an image of Mohammed. Fearful of the maelstrom that erupted in the worldwide Islamic community when a Danish paper published an image of the prophet, the suits said “No”. Between constant criticism for their stance on Scientology to a swipe at a certain mega-superstar television personality’s private parts, it looked like the series had successfully pushed the envelope over the edge of satire and into excess.
And then Steve Irwin came along. Featured as part of the “Hell on Earth” installment, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone decided to use the recent death of the Discovery Channel champion as a slightly sick commentary on the state of the media and the notion of public distance. In the storyline, Satan decides to have a party, and in perfect MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 style, he demands an over-the-top, fame whore facilitating blow out. During the festivities, costumed revelers come up to Lucifer to offer their congratulations. One is dressed in a standard outback adventurer’s rig, complete with hat, and stingray barb sticking out of the chest. Everyone is stunned, stating to the partygoer that such an outfit, while clever and cutting, is “too soon”. The world is not ready to riff on this beloved TV host’s death quite yet. But the joke’s on everyone else. It actually is Irwin, fresh from his time in Hades and anxious to party with his Lord, master and host.
Tasteless? Perhaps. Hilarious? Definitely. The final straw for a series seemingly noted for going as far as they can before doubling their efforts at comic cruelty? Hardly. In fact, Season 10 (new to DVD from Paramount) shows that when it comes to subject matter, the South Park gang is constantly mining the mainstream for more and more ludicrous, lampoonable material. From 9/11 conspiracy theorists (in “Mystery of the Urinal Deuce”) to teachers having sex with their students –- in this case, the incredibly underage kindergartner Ike Broflovski (“Miss Teacher Bangs a Boy”). The two-part, seven installment sections that made up the 2006 run of the vital chaotic cartoon, illustrating that even when focusing away from its normal coming of age comedy, this is one of the few shows that’s actually improving, and innovating, as it grows older.
For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (their guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.
Outside the narrative itself, South Park has also developed a reputation of rejecting the notion of limits. No subject, from racism to religion, has avoided their caustic, critical eye. In fact, it was a Season 9 episode that really pushed the buttons of a lot of professional programmers and preachy pundits. In episode 137, Stan expresses an interest in alternative religions. Hooking up with Scientologists, he’s declared the living reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard, and asked to complete the famed founder (and sci-fi author’s) teachings. Initially, Stan balks, which leads to Tom Cruise arriving at his home to voice support. Unfortunately, our pint sized prophet bashes Mr. Top Gun’s acting, leading to the actors decision to crawl into the boy’s closet and pout. Among the inferences of homosexuality and nods to R. Kelly (the show was entitled “Trapped in the Closet”), South Park described the actual teachings of Scientology – at least those known to individuals outside the organization. Centering on evil alien overlords, displaced extraterrestrial souls, and outlandish cosmic contradictions, it sounded like the Battlefield Earth version of The Bible.
As part of the sole bonus feature offered on the new DVD release, Parker and Stone admit to becoming more aware of their show and its impact as a result of 137. Rumors swirled around Hollywood that Comedy Central actually pulled a rerun of the episode when Cruise’s people protested. They threatened to boycott the cable channel and all its corporate affiliates during the upcoming promotion of Mission: Impossible III if the offending show wasn’t censored. As they tell the story, the media circus surrounding the issue rubbed off here, causing the creators to take the offensive when arriving at new narratives and plot points. For example, in the tenth series opener “The Return of Chef”, Parker and Stone decided to hit back at Isaac Hayes, who they felt betrayed their trust after a strained yet friendly falling out. Thanks to the Scientology hoopla, they then tossed in yet another stab at the quasi-cult, thus killing two birds with one satiric stone.
Family Guy, the familiar Fox animated albatross, was also a mandatory target. In their discussion, the guys make it clear they have “no respect” for the show, and used their platform to ridicule the writing and lack of effort. After the first part of the two episode storyline aired, Parker and Stone started getting attention from inside the industry. They got a call from some staff members from The Simpsons, who expressed an emotion that many had suppressed for a very long time – several established shows really hate Seth MacFarlane’s mediocrity. People from King of the Hill even complimented them on doing “God’s work”. The reason nods to both series appear in Part 2 is as a direct result of these off the record reactions. Yet, by the time Oprah Winfrey and her holier than thou lady bits became the latest tripwire target (during an episode mocking the whole James Fry imbroglio), the duo began to recognize a troubling trend. The show was spending so much time being self-referential and aware, it had forgotten what made it funny in the first place; that is, boys being dumb, stupid boys.
The rest of Season 10 then would try and balance both positions. Al Gore’s pro-environmental rant is given a surreal sheen as he hunts the elusive ecological menace, “Manbearpig” while Cartman’s multiple behavioral issues have him dressing like Dog the Bounty Hunter (in the episode involving female to toddler ‘intimacy’) and testing the patience of TV’s Cesar Milan (in “Tsst”). By the time the second half of the series was ready to air, the balance was back and things were in alignment. Brilliant installments like “Make Love, Not Warcraft” mixed the standard schoolboy sentiments with a wonderful swipe on all fat, slovenly role playing putzes. Steve Irwin aside, South Park’s sensational send-up of Sweet 16’s spoiled little rich witch privilege party planning argues for Parker and Stone’s recognizable status as kings of irony (after all, who else would relate to such an inherently evil excuse for entertainment than the mangoat himself).
But near the end, another issue generated outside the show would come to cloud the crew’s creativity. After appearing on Nightline (discussing the Scientology issue, once again), Parker dismissed charges by the host that the he and Stone were atheists. Suggesting he believed in something, but that it would take a long time to explain it, the comment was inconclusive and left at that. Days later, the duo received an email from good friend (and well known denier) Penn Gillette, of “…and Teller” fame. Angry that the pair didn’t support his ‘No God’ view, he asked them to read a book by Richard Dawkins. It was the difficulty in deciphering what the British ethologist was one about, plus the impending release of the Nintendo Wii, that drove the series to tackle the subject of belief in yet another two part plotline (“Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII”). The commentary suggests a dissatisfaction with such an approach, an ideal that South Park would again use to retool the series for Season 11 (the initial seven episodes having aired in March-April 2007).
And yet the quality remains as high as ever. The series, never short on laughs, found so much fresh material in Season 10 that there are episodes of masterpiece quality mirth. When the boys turn into bloated, blemished computer nerds to outwit their World of Warcraft foe, the visual is enough to fuel an unfathomable amount of bellylaughs. Similarly, Cartman carrying on about the latest Japanese gaming system is only matched in hilarity by his subservience at the verbal reprimands of Milan’s Dog Whisperer. From Satan’s whining bitchiness over a Ferrari cake to Chef’s death, and rebirth as a certain Star Wars supervillian (complete with light saber spatula), South Park is one of those rare enterprises that shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, every time they find themselves confronted with criticism or controversy, Trey Parker and Matt Stone simply man up and prepare another collection of cold-blooded cracks.
So maybe Steve Irwin won’t be the fabled final straw. After all, the series shook down Paris Hilton, so Lindsay Lohan and that hillbilly Brit brat can’t be far behind. Michael Vick seems like a perfect punching bag, what with his callous crime and status as an untouchable iconic athlete, and don’t be surprised if a certain selection of Summer blockbusters become ripe sources of send-ups. As Season 10 showed, anything – from self-satisfaction and smugness resulting from “going green” to The Mighty Ducks – has the potential to embarrass as well as entertain. In a society growing more conformist and confounding everyday, South Park stands as a beacon of belittling light. Anyone who is blinded by its glare deserves to have such critical illumination focused on them. It’s the only way to see the truth, no matter how tasteless, or terrific.