In a world of constant war, endless “economic recoveries,” and only two years left of Joe Biden gaffes, it’s hard to be upbeat about the future. I mean, what kind of joyless world are we leaving for our children?
So thank Xenu—or Richard Dawkins—for South Park, which starts its 18th incredible season tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern Time on Comedy Central. What’s more, original episodes of the show will continue through at least 2016, meaning the next presidential election will be covered the way it should be: with scabrous humor.
However great they might have been, classic TV shows such as I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies, Cheers, and even the path-breaking Seinfeld all provoked laughs that made the world disappear for a half-hour. South Park is not just funnier than any of those shows—it refuses to let us escape the god-forsaken world in which we live. Indeed, episode after episode (glorious, full list here) rubs our noses in the ugliness of our world, whether it be caused by terrorists, legally elected politicians, insufferable atheists, ultra-pious and delusional businessmen, idiot celebrities, or our own love of fast food and video games.
Even better, South Park not only allows us to laugh at the darkness rising all around us—it also teaches us to navigate the endless slurry of bullshit firehosed at our faces in the so-called Information Age. God help us all, but South Park is more educational than all the endless hours of Sesame Street or Between the Lions that ever aired or will ever air on PBS. It teaches us all real media literacy, how to identify and spot phony philosophizing, moral panics, and self-interested crusades a mile way. In this sense, Kyle, Stan, Kenny, Cartman and the other inhabitants of the show’s eponymous fictional Colorado town aren’t just characters on a sitcom. They’re nothing less than a bracing shot of an after-dinner digestif, a wonderfully burning dose of calvados that cuts through every heaping course of bullshit we’re served up on a daily basis from every possible source of power and authority (or as Cartman might put it, authoritah).
From jackbooted, armed government thugs who steal kids Elian Gonzalez-style to Steve Jobs’ obsession with creating a “HumancentiPad” via literally airtight user-license agreements, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have taken no prisoners and kept nothing off the table. In a world in which a Nobel Peace Prize winner maintains a secret kill list, it’s somehow comforting to know that there are creative people out there who are able to simultaneously make fun of the National Security Agency, Twitter, the Department of Motor Vehicles, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Alec Baldwin all in a single 30-minute episode (watch “Let Go, Let Gov,” from Season 17). If they can pull off stunts like that for nearly two decades, surely we’ll be able to figure our way out of the mess we’re in.
The trailer for this season’s opener features Eric Cartman commandeering the Washington Redskins non-renewed trademark for a new company and thus pissing off team owner Dan Snyder, who whines, “Don’t you see that when you call your organization the ‘Washington Redskins,’ it’s offensive to us?” That the trailer aired during Sunday’s Redskins-Eagles game is evidence that Parker and Stone are still as confrontational as ever.
And if past is prologue, Redskins fans aren’t the only ones who will be feeling aggrieved. Part of the genius of the show is that it takes on everyone—whether you’re a Giant Douche or a Turd Sandwich, and we’re all one or the other or both. Despite copping to various libertarianish leanings over the years—Stone has supported the Reason Foundation, which publishes the website I edit—they are never slow to slay sacred beasts. “At first I was happy to be learning to read,” explains the hapless adult illiterate Office Barbrady in an early episode. “It seemed exciting and magical, but then I read this: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of its garbage, and because of this piece of shit, I’m never reading again.”
Yet South Park isn’t great simply because it takes no prisoners. Yes, the equanimity with which McCain and Obama supporters were figuratively beheaded in 2008’s “About Last Night” episode was brutal and brilliant. So was the way that Parker and Stone implicated the makers of Family Guy in the series’ most controversial episode, one that would have shown Mohammed had it not been censored by Comedy Central. And the ending of 2003’s “All About Mormons” is the sort of reversal that Shakespeare might have dreamed up.
After Stan confronts a new Mormon friend named Gary about what he considers the falsity and silliness of his faith, Gary points out that he and his family are happy and kind. “All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan,” explains Gary, sounding a theme that would be amplified in Parker and Stone’s Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, “but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.”
But the show is great because it’s true parody and satire not simply of particular people and causes, but the very way we tell stories, and the media forms we use to delude ourselves. It has this in common with Parker and Stone’s Team America: World Police (2004), the R-rated, all-puppet movie that holds up long after most of us have forgotten exactly who Janeane Garofalo, Helen Hunt, and Hans Blix ever were. Team America targets buddy movies, Broadway musicals, United Nations gatherings and self-important celebrities, and so much more that it deconstructs virtually all popular forms of persuasion.
So it is with South Park, which edifies as it offends—or maybe edifies because it offends. Curiously, back in 1997, South Park was the very first show to get a dreaded “MA” rating when networks started rating their shows to forestall legal action from Bill Clinton’s Justice Department. That means it’s for “mature audiences” only.
Yet South Park is actually the perfect show for kids and not simply because it takes seriously all the travails of grammar school and traffics in obsessions of childhood. Virtually every episode explains how people in charge wield power by whipping up hysteria over nothing, or try to force all of us into the same social or political straitjacket. Yes, there’s a lot of cursing and blue material, but there’s no better classroom for kids to learn the entwined lessons of skepticism toward authority and respecting true diversity of opinion.