Itls hard to believe a cartoon could be called “dangerous to the democracy” of America, but “South Park” has been stoking the ire of seemingly every group in the nation — Left or Right — since its 1997 Comedy Central debut.
It has dared to viciously mock Scientology and the perpetual controversy over whether leading members Tom Cruise and John Travolta are gay. It has built an episode around Hillary Clinton having a bomb on her at a 2008 campaign rally. And it spent its entire 19th season last year in an extended plot that attacked political correctness more strongly than anyone else in America dared.
The show takes wild swings at any institution.
With its landmark 20th season launching tonight, the show and its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are earning kudos for setting an unflinchingly gutsy standard that no one person or group is above being satirized.
In a time when the Left and especially our national college campuses are declaring more and more topics off-limits for criticism or even discussion — it might be the best example we have today of the First Amendment’s importance in action.
Speaking recently at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, where they were honored for their accomplishments as part of the museum’s month-long tribute to the show’s two decades on air, Parker and Stone (who write and direct every episode) made it clear that they manage to take shots at both sides of the political fence. They do so because they’re not out to shove a lesson down viewers’ throats.
Rather, they and the show are generally considered to have a libertarian viewpoint that will take wild swings at any institution.
“We don’t try to make social commentary,” Parker said during the Paley Center Q&A, according to Variety. “We get into a room six days before we go on the air, and that’s why it ends up being somewhat relevant.”
Indeed, "South Park" has become known for its ability to have an even more rapid response to breaking news events than "Saturday Night Live," as multiple Wednesday night episodes have managed to have jokes about news events that took place just four days earlier.
Part of the key to that unprecedented speed is the show's unique visual style, in which the cartoon uses software design programs to look like it was made of cardboard cut-out art. That lowers viewers' expectations of artistic perfection in the name of up-to-the-minute verbal jokes.
- It was the first weekly TV program to be labeled TV-MA (for mature audiences).
- The show used the word "s***" 162 times in an episode satirizing the public outcry over former CBS series "Chicago Hope," which used the word just once.
- The show used the n-word 43 times in a Season 11 episode satirizing the black community's perpetual debate over the word.
Yet the show's value and reputation are not built on the use of profanity and slurs, or it wouldn't have had a worldwide cultural impact. TV Guide named it the tenth Greatest TV Cartoon of All Time in 2013, and it has also earned five primetime Emmy Awards and an even more prestigious Peabody Award, while spawning an Oscar-nominated feature film spinoff, "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" in 1999.
Parker and Stone first met at a University of Colorado film class in 1992 and soon created an animated short entitled "The Spirit of Christmas," which managed to be seen by their friend — and Fox network executive — Brian Graden.
Graden found it so entertaining he hired them to remake "Spirit," which features Jesus and Santa Claus in a "Mortal Kombat"-style battle royale over who should win the right to declaring the true meaning of Christmas, as a video Christmas card.
"Spirit" soon became one of the first viral sensations in the history of the internet, leading to its discovery by Comedy Central and the creation of "South Park." While some find the depiction of Jesus in "Spirit" to be offensive, the show has gone on to do similarly controversial depictions of Jesus and Mary as well as the Buddha and even Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
"South Park" actually managed to include a cartoon depiction of Muhammad in a first-season episode, despite the fact that most mainstream media cowers at violating the Islamic rule against any visual depiction of its founder.
When they depicted and satirized Muhammad again in two Season 14 episodes, the website for the New York-based radical Muslim organization Revolution Muslim even warned them that they could be killed, and posted the address of Comedy Central in New York and the "South Park" production company in Los Angeles.
Even in the face of such threats, Parker and Stone did not cower. Rather, their situation inspired an online movement for the creation of "Everybody Draw Muhammad" day, in which many supporters showed their solidarity by posting online drawings of Muhammad.
Along the way, "South Park" has nearly caused the closure of the Russian TV network that shows it, helped cause Facebook and YouTube to become banned in Pakistan, and sparked the government of New Zealand to throw 35 complaints about the show airing in that nation out of its court system.
While they've taken satirical stabs at Clinton and Trump in the past, Parker and Stone noted at their Paley Center event that they are striving not to get bogged down in election shenanigans this time around. Instead, they want to keep their eyes open to anyone and anything that needs to be knocked off their pedestals.
In other words — there are a lot more risks being taken here than in any Hanna-Barbera cartoon.