South Park has been on the air longer than some of its viewers have been alive. For twenty years, the satirical antics of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as seen through the eyes of the most profane pre-teens on TV, have inspired shock and awe, and influenced a generation of comedy before Adult Swim ever existed. The show’s ethos of “everyone and everything is fair game” has been much debated, and sent Comedy Central’s lawyers scrambling for protection on more than one occasion. Yet that’s now changing, as Parker and Stone have found something they either can’t or won’t mock. It only makes sense that such a thing would be President Trump.
The 20th season of the show was a mixed bag in terms of structure and content. The show, which prides itself on its lightning-fast response to the week’s events thanks to its 6 day production cycle, took on the Presidential election with a season long arc that replaced Trump with Mr. Garrison. This was one of the season’s bright spots, as the character served to highlight the exhausting contradictions of Trump: Pathetic yet wildly dangerous, immensely stupid but always able to cling to power. As the news cycle became more ludicrous and everyone struggled to keep up, you could practically feel Parker and Stone straining to stay ahead of the game, a feat they were previously so used to. Their politics have always been questioned, but you often sensed that they wanted Hillary Clinton to win solely because it would take the pressure off them. Of course, we all know how it ended. Now, Parker and Stone have said that season 21 of the show will simply skip over Donald Trump altogether, allowing the show to get back to having the kids simply be kids.
On one level, I completely sympathise with Parker and Stone. While my interest in South Park has its ebbs and flows depending on the target and execution, I’ve always appreciated the series when it hits up and reduces the powerful to the puerile. The Scientology episode is still hilarious, the Lance Armstrong pastiche made me laugh so hard I almost choked, and the specificity of their genre parodies is second to none, particularly in arcs like the Coon and Friends stories. The pair’s talents with musical comedy saw them dominate Broadway, but they were always obvious to those of us who delighted in their first watching of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, only to realise that the film was a musical. The talent is undeniable, and the pace they’ve set themselves with such a short production turnaround is merciless to the point where it would crush even the most gifted comedians.
It’s also true that the incessant news cycle of Trump’s terrors and the obligation comedians often face to tackle it must be tiring. Saturday Night Live have seen a minor renaissance under Trump’s gaze, but that’s partially inspired by the man himself being obsessed with them and the fuel that provides for satirical fun. Late-night talk shows have fared well - except for Jimmy Fallon - with viewers turning to the mostly white male bastion of comfort for laughs and reassurances that no, none of this is normal. Even The Simpsons has gotten in some sharp digs as its latter seasons bring new life to the long-running series. South Park, by design, has functioned as a weekly update of the news through a no-holds-barred lens of fair-game targeting and poop jokes. That provides freedom but also an immense degree of pressure, so dropping that requirement to return to what made the show so famous isn’t a terrible idea.
The politics of Parker and Stone can be succinctly summed up with, “but both sides suck”. It’s a particularly nihilistic brand of libertarianism that could only have come out of a period of relative ease. The Clinton years were hardly scandal-free, nor were they a walk in the park for the most under-served of American society, but for two straight white college kids, times were good. Their rise to the top was a truly stratospheric climb that put Comedy Central on the map and encouraged a generation of kids convince their parents to let them stay up late and watch this cool cartoon where everyone said “fuck”. As the show became more controversial, tackling sex, religion and pop culture, Parker and Stone seemed to revel in the anger they caused parents’ complaints groups and The Catholic League. That was part of the fun - watching groups of influence get pissed off over some pieces of paper moved around to stimulate blood pouring out of a statue’s arse.
The show’s targets were big - The Catholic Church, the FCC, Scientology, even the Prophet Muhammad, which proved too far for Comedy Central. Some targets are obvious and deserve the energy required to truly make them such, but South Park has always had a lop-sided view of what makes a fair target, and as the series went on, this manifested in some unusual and creatively questionable ways.
“PC culture”, however that vaguely defined term takes form, may be an easy thing to mock, but doing so infers much about your own point of view. When the show started taking digs at the concept of safe spaces and the Tumblr culture of progressive activism, it wasn’t especially satisfying to watch because on top of being unfunny, it was the same rhetoric we all saw on Reddit regurgitated through a cartoon scope. It didn’t feel fresh, nor did it add much to the discourse, and it just didn’t make us laugh. Instead, it felt like two middle-aged men yelling at us about the state of society.
That’s not new for South Park. Check out their take on voting with the Giant Douche Versus Turd Sandwich approach, returning to the falsehood that everyone on each side is the same so why bother engaging at all. Matt Stone has noted that his philosophy is closer to his own politics than anything represented by Republicans, Democrats or even Libertarians (which both Parker and Stone describe themselves as such). Stone summed up his views in an interview:
“What we’re sick of—and it’s getting even worse—is: you either like Michael Moore or you wanna fuckin’ go overseas and shoot Iraqis. There can’t be a middle ground. Basically, if you think Michael Moore’s full of shit, then you are a super-Christian right-wing whatever. And we’re both just pretty middle-ground guys. We find just as many things to rip on on the left as we do on the right. People on the far left and the far right are the same exact person to us.”
For some reason, the notion that taking the middle ground on every issue is a sign of intellectual maturity has taken root in cultural discourse. Centrism is not an inherently bad ethos to adopt, but there are times when it’s clear that there’s no middle ground to take, and that one side is most definitely in the right. South Park has never understood that, nor do they seem interested in doing so. Mocking the Catholic Church isn’t equivalent to ragging on the concept of safe spaces. To draw an equivalence between two wildly differing concepts and pretend they’re both at fault may make comedy easier, but it punctures any prescient point you want to make because society just doesn’t work like that. The middle ground is a false reality, and it’s one only the most cushioned of us can inhabit.
On some level, I’m sure Parker and Stone understand who their fan-base is, and that deciding to exclude Trump from the narrative is probably a good choice from a business point of view. They may see themselves as outside of the pressing debates of our time, but by taking the decisive stance of determining all of it to be bullshit is to engage with a harsh and often dangerous status quo. Voting doesn’t count for anything so why bother, they say? Well, we all know which side of the aisle apathy benefits. They see this ethos as being opinion-less: In reality, it’s pushing simply opposing change. The show certainly has its conservative detractors - notably in the aftermath of their episode parodying the Terri Schiavo case - but a sizeable portion of its long-time fanbase celebrate the show’s mocking of liberal media, celebrity culture and the icons of both. Andrew Sullivan talked of the “South Park Republicans” phenomenon to describe a brand of young voters who are “extremely skeptical of political correctness but also are socially liberal on many issues”. They may vote Democrat, if they vote at all, and support issues like equal marriage, but they can’t wait to tell you about how everyone’s so easily offended these days. Parker and Stone rejected Sullivan’s label, along with any attempt to label their political leanings, but as the show gets old enough to drink, that philosophy holds less water. It’s hard to say, as Stone did, “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals”, when it’s the conservatives stripping democracy to the bone. A bunch of over-zealous teenagers on Tumblr demanding trigger warnings on everything is hardly comparable, nor does it need an equal level of satirical scorn directed at it.
Season 20, as middling as it was, suggested that the pair understood their role in this hoopla and the self-reflection it encouraged. The show was decidedly anti-Trump and didn’t rely so heavily on the “but both sides” laziness of previous political episodes. They even tried to deconstruct their own hand in making men like Trump, although the efforts soon crumble under their own weight as the season wraps up. There’s ambition in that season, which makes the Trump U-turn all the more disappointing, especially as it makes them seem as though they’re running away from a problem they created.
The satire paradox, as discussed on an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, posits the inherent problem of the medium: Sometimes, the intended target either doesn’t get the satire or they just don’t care and embrace it all the same. The example used on the podcast comes from British comedian Harry Enfield’s attempt to mock the nouveau riche Thatcherite self-interest of the 80s, which in turn was lapped up by those who were being mocked. Stephen Colbert and his alter-ego on The Colbert Report faced similar confusion from conservatives, and Parker and Stone have the problems of this paradox etched all over the show thanks to one pre-pubescent bully named Eric Cartman.
Cartman is a misogynistic, anti-Semitic, racist homophobe who thinks Hitler is cool and sings maudlin melodies over Mexicans filling up the swimming pool. You’re not supposed to like him, but plenty of people do. Hell, Parker and Stone admittedly love him, and while the show isn’t pro-Nazi, it often does little to refute Cartman’s bigotry because they clearly have too much fun letting him be the winner. South Park has milked a lot of goodwill from viewers who assume that the show isn’t bigoted because it says it isn’t, and does little to question that. I don’t think Parker and Stone are endorsing Nazism through Cartman, but simply saying “it’s just a joke” does little to negate the implications.
Perhaps South Park will see a resurgence in the Trump age as the only major American comedy of its mould to explicitly avoid discussing him. The show is certainly at its funniest when it’s about four foul-mouthed teen boys and the ridiculous games they play to stave away boredom. Trey Parker says he just “doesn’t care” anymore, which is ironic given that he’s spent two decades pretending he’s never cared about anything. Obviously, he does care, but he and Stone have decided to truly expose the falsehood of their “all acceptable targets” philosophy. There’s no power in it, nor are they the voices of the furious zeitgeist anymore: Now, they’re just yelling at the clouds and wondering why the kids don’t appreciate their brand of honesty anymore.
The culture has changed, which Parker notes, claiming a “witch hunt is coming” for the show. The team who once revelled in pushing buttons are now crying foul over the possibility of people being offended. Of course, such a problem would require South Park to put a little effort into its offence, and while I’m sure it flatters Trey Parker to think he’s still leading the zeitgeist, it would be more accurate to say that the rest of us just don’t care anymore either.