In my Research Writing course we’ve been focusing on comedies and how they use satire to discuss political and social topics. Typically our homework involves watching an episode of a comedy series and responding to it. The first half of the semester is based around South Park so here’s the first batch of my responses, which I’ll classify loosely as reviews.
South Park is a series that from the very start was given a bad rap. The initial response to the show from critics and the media was that it consisted of nothing more than fart jokes and crude, ugly animation. With the speed and ease of producing an episode of South Park, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote the episode “Death” in direct response to this criticism, thus making use of one of my favorite types of jokes: meta humor. By creating the show within a show Terrence and Phillip they are able to have the characters speak directly to the early critiques and defend themselves against it. The parents of South Park become enraged by the introduction of Terrence and Phillip, which actually consists of nothing but potty humor in addition to using even cruder animation as the top of the characters’ heads aren’t even connected to the bottom (a joke which would later be applied to all Canadians in the South Park universe). In this Terrence and Phillip become a representation of the type of show many-viewed South Park to be at first glance.
The parents decide to protest against the network that airs Terrence and Phillip, leaving their kids behind in an attempt to “save them” and with that the show directly attacks those who in real life protested South Park. It mocks the overly protective parents and points out that they pour all their energy into stopping “bad” TV shows rather than actually being involved in the child’s life. At one point Stan bluntly talks to the screen and points out how parents are offended by TV because they rely on it to keep their kids busy as a babysitter and use it as a main means of education rather than teach them morals themselves.
“Weight Gainer 4,000”
When South Park first aired it was a weird little show made out of cardboard cutouts, a writing team consisting of generally just two people, silly poop jokes, and inappropriate humor. Today the show is more popularly known for it’s political and social statements that typically are the foundation for each episode. While episodes today are more overtly topic based, old South Park episodes still contain that sense of social awareness. “Weight Gainer 4,000” is the second episode of the series ever and deals with a variety of topics such as society’s obsession with celebrities and to become celebrities themselves, along with a short comment on gun control. This would serve as the model for future episodes as the show began to find its hold as a biting social and political satire.
South Park exists as a small town in mountainous Colorado that at first appears to be boring and of unimportance, so when they get the news of having a celebrity come to visit it instantly becomes a huge deal. The mayor sees it as a great opportunity for her to show off what she’s done for the town and so they go into preparation mode and move everything else to the backburner. The show comments that we’re so obsessed with celebrities that the elementary school will put off teaching the third graders for the sake of making a cutesy play for the mild level celebrity. The fact that the celebrity being used is Kathie Lee Gifford only heightens the point as it’s not like she’s a big enough deal to truly make a difference. She isn’t a big political person or even movie star; rather she’s a daytime talk show host. After Wendy reveals that Cartman’s essay is really just a copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau everyone begins to walk away as Kathie Lee has already left. They don’t care about the actual point of the meeting; rather they just came because of the celebrity. As they leave Wendy proclaims, “They don’t even know what Walden is. I bet if Walden were a sitcom you would know!” This just further emphasizes our obsession with celebrities and pop culture in general. For sure they would recognize if it were something stolen from Seinfeld or Friends, but certainly not a book.
Cartman’s plot is used to show the lengths we’ll go to just to appear on television and be celebrities ourselves, even if they are minor ones. Cartman accepts the honor right away when finds out it means he’ll appear on TV, but knowing is his character if it involved simply reading his essay in front of the town normally, he would have had no desire to do it. But because it means he’ll be on TV he’s more than happy and willing to do it. When he sees the Weight Gainer 4,000 commercial he sees an opportunity to be seen even better on television by looking like a ”beefcake”, so he decides to have as much of it as he can before the event occurs. In his own deluded mind he thinks he’s gaining muscle and looks better than ever. He’s so effected by the advertising that he believes he’s gained muscle simply because the commercial said he would. Anything less than that wouldn’t make sense to the narrow minded Cartman. When Kathie Lee leaves early Cartman looses his chance to appear on TV, but as the very end shows us he continued to drink the Weight Gainer 4,000 in another attempt to appear on, but this time in a different light as it’s revealed he’s on a special about obesity. But Cartman is too blind to realize the seriousness of his issue, because he achieved his dream.
“Here Comes The Neighborhood”
“Here Comes The Neighborhood” falls neatly into what is my favorite type of South Park episode. It tackles an important social and political issue, but isn’t too preachy, contains obscure and seemingly random references, and clever yet blunt humor. Unlike more recent episodes this one is less specific in its focus and as such it comes off less preachy, as they the entire episode isn’t Matt Stone and Trey Parker trying to shove their opinion down your throat but rather bring up an often-uncomfortable issue in the case of race. The episode is part of what might be South Park’s best seasons (contains highlights such as “Scott Tennorman Must Die” and “Towlie”) as the show found the perfect balance between issue and humor. The episode mostly focuses on secondary character Token, who happens to be the only black child in the town. The success in the episode is that they never actually bring up race (that is until Mr. Garrison’s hysterical ending line). Rather they use a class issue of rich versus poor instead despite the issue clearly being between whites and blacks. When Mr. Garrison expresses his anger towards “those types” arriving in South Park Kyle’s dad questions what exactly Garrison is classifying them as. Garrison clarifies he means rich people and only then does Mr. Broflovski agree. It’s the total denial that the issue is about race that makes the episode not only funny but also powerful in its message. The town folks’ distaste of the “richers” is so inherent that they don’t even recognize the real root behind it. Most of the rich people that arrive in the town come in the form of celebrities, but the townspeople treat them opposite to the way they acted when white celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford visited.
The first time I saw this episode I was in elementary school as my older brother watched it frequently. I wasn’t “allowed” to watch the show, but occasionally I would sneak it in with him and this is one of the episode’s I remember most vividly. I thought the episode was funny and enjoyed it, but the race issue that’s the core of the episode went over my head completely. The last joke made no sense to me and I asked my brother to explain it. This is one of the first times I was taught about the issue of race as my brother explained in a general sense what the episode was trying to say. While I may not have gotten all of it at the time, looking back it’s intriguing to see how South Park not only comments on issues but in many cases may teach someone about an issue they knew about before. I was an idealistic little kid then and the topic of race never really crossed my mind, it wasn’t until I thought about the episode that I really began to think about the issue and recognize the differences in people. I was much more like the kids of South Park who made fun of Token not truly because he’s rich, but because he was their friend. To them there is no race or class issue, there’s just the issue of Token being a crybaby.
An interesting side note I picked up on is that the show makes a subtle stab at the stereotype that “all black people look the same” as if you look closely in the polo scene all the rich kids are wearing one of two uniforms, but otherwise almost all look in disguisable from each other. Token is the only character that actually stands out as his uniform still has his trademark “T” on it. If it weren’t for that one difference it would be almost impossible to tell the difference between Token and Will Smith’s eldest son he is talking to.