South Park and satire, and our strange-but-sadly-understandable inability to address modern society’s absurdity

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Satan fights Climate Change (in the metaphorical guise of ManBearPig) in the newest season of South Park. Courtesy of South Park, Comedy Central.

Hope you’re still with me after that pretentious headline.

It’s something that begins to register, with increasing intensity, as you watch your twenties drip away (that’s age, not $$$, although come to think of it, in my case they have a habit of going down together). That big, awful 3 0 staring you down. I look away each time.

Pink Floyd’s song Time takes on added significance. Then, you return to that James Murphy lyric from the song that propelled LCD Soundsystem to fame; as we bid youth adieu, our edge—that propulsive element so vital to dissidence—tends to die along with it.

This sparks introspection. And you begin to realize that, wait a tick, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. At least, it hasn’t been so with South Park. Don’t the great satirists get better with age? Jonathan Swift was pushing 60 when Gulliver’s Travels entered into the world and set many pampered, pompous wigs a-tizzy.

More life experience, (hopefully) coupled with a bit of wisdom and amassed skill to convey your work in an engaging manner. This is the sort of equation that allows the likes of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, now in their forties, to pick apart society’s inconsistencies with aplomb. When they settle upon a target, they never seem to miss.

That they show no sign of slowing down, now into their third decade running the show, only speaks to their brilliance. In a celebrity-obsessed age, they have made a conscious decision to eschew it, realizing that there is no added benefit to notoriety should you hope to maintain an accurate scope of society. Living within a bubble inevitably sees one’s message distorted upon entry into the “real world”.

They are well aware of a worrisome trend: say you are of some renown, or repute: you go out on a limb, and, for the sake of argument, make a point. Half the country erupts in joy; the other smears you with derision. What was said is immediately of secondary importance—by next week, it’ll have been forgotten. What matters is which political “side” can squeeze the most benefit from it. It’s all about power, baby.

This is what celebrity amounts to: mere currency to be used by someone, or some group. You, yourself, are simply stashed away until you are needed again.

It smacks of a musing by Slavoj Zizek, in his book on Hegel, about Jack London’s tale Martin Eden: namely, the sharp disconnect between a person and the aura of celebrity emanating around him. Moths flock to this flame, hoping to bask in its glory. Benevolent celebrities, retweeting humble citizens. This is what dreams are made of.

But the celebrity quickly realizes that this acclaim is in no way reflective of his own personality, or indicative of his inner worth. Rather, it is as if a switch were flicked on, once he attained the rank of celebrity. Nobody cares about what he did before; what brought him to this point. Now, he is invited places by people who before wouldn’t have deigned to look at him previously. There’s a really good Notorious B.I.G. lyric about this. (See: Juicy)

Hard not to become a cynic. But it is possible to respond like George Carlin, a worthy forerunner to the South Park mentality. The moment you sense one side of the aisle getting too cozy—arm round your shoulder, calling you one of their own; slide out from under it. Immediately.

As Jim Norton put it in one of his books, the satirist does not choose sides, because he has already chosen one: opposition to the cancerous qualities that become revealed by anyone who attains power. That’s a good lesson for those of us paralyzed by political polarization. The “game” doesn’t end once your “side” wins—whatever that means. Power corrupts, no matter how honest your intentions might have been upon assuming your mantle.

And this is where the brilliance of any great satirist becomes most evident. They remain in the public eye, but as a gadfly. A constant irritant, a valve that releases pressure for a frustrated populace. One that reminds us that it is OK to poke fun at the rich and powerful. To throw the metaphorical egg at the metaphorical red carpet walk, as was displayed so brilliantly with Mugatu in the first Zoolander movie.

The South Park guys realize that even the most noble idea—one that could save humanity—immediately becomes bastardized upon contact with a human mind. Take those San Franciscans in the Smug Alert episode who cut down on smog by buying Toyota Priuses, only to usher in an even greater ecological disaster as they begin emitting unsustainable amounts of…smug.

Or Parker/Stone’s take on Al Gore more than a decade ago, when South Park brilliantly translated the former vice president’s crusade against climate change into the fearsome, and totally nonexistent, ManBearPig. Even when they revisited that theme in this year’s season, offering a mea culpa of sorts to Gore that, while they may no longer be skeptics about a changing climate, the fact remains that Gore’s crusade has mostly been about…Gore.

Society is plagued by an inability to perform even the most rudimentary introspection. One, it’s hard, two, it’s time-consuming, and three, it’s messy. South Park has preyed upon it brilliantly.

But just when you think they’ve cha’ cha’d and…slid to the left, they’ll punch you right in the mouth—from the right. Which is all just to prove a point. A satirist appears to dance from both sides of the aisle, because a satirist knows that the only appropriate approach is to navigate the tightrope in between.

The one thing you should be true to is a total devotion to protecting the first amendment. As Parker and Stone are fond of saying, it’s either all OK, or nothing is OK. To begin quibbling over what can and can’t be said, or what groups can or can’t be made fun of is the first step down a really, really stupid and slippery slope.

It’s a slope that consists of what I can only describe as vast swaths of the population donning invi(nc)ibility cloaks: as we ascribe to the “correct” set of values proffered by the powers that be, culturally, we are informed that this makes us exempt from any form of criticism.

It’s one of the reasons Jim Norton remains an indispensable component of modern society. He’ll go on any show, he’ll talk to anybody—regardless of personal belief or political affiliation. He’ll step up to defend any comic taking heat for what gets perceived as an inappropriate joke. Because Norton understands the importance of standing behind a principle—herein, free speech—rather than changing his mind based upon the situation. Like, if someone on “our side” does it, then it’s OK; they had a good reason. But if someone on the other side…I don’t even want to go into how evil that would be.

Which is what South Park understands so well. If you’re a human, you’re a walking, talking mass of contradiction. Should you attain some semblance of power or fame, you’re likely to abuse it in some way. It’s nothing against you; it’s just your human nature.

There was Santa Claus’s descent upon South Park in the recent season finale, ready to save Christmas…only to have second thoughts upon learning of Mr. Hankey’s fate, at which point he bid the town adieu—but not before uttering a choice word. Which, of course, was what each and every blog that recapped the show zeroed in upon. The fact that South Park had Santa Claus use c — t.

It was the season’s coup de grace; Parker, who writes the episodes, knew full well what he was doing. The running gag the whole season had been #CancelSouthPark. He knew that these episodes wouldn’t register in our consciousness. We wouldn’t mull over their meaning, we wouldn’t wrestle with difficult ideas. This unsettling feeling would pass with the next incendiary headline we’d click upon. But not before we’d logged onto Twitter and begun a petition to remove South Park from television. All in the name of improving society by removing any last semblance of filth.

Which is perhaps the most brilliant point they came up with. A naughty joke can be a surprisingly good way of arriving at a pertinent point. Many of the best stand-up sets have been littered with the like. Scrubbing South Park away would be a cataclysmic error.

But it’s one I wouldn’t be surprised to read about, in the near future.

Sigh.

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