Image by Joel Ormsby
My introduction to South Park came in second grade. The episode was “It Hits the Fan,” in which the citizens of South Park began to overuse a certain scatological four-letter word until a plague descends upon the town: as it turns out, curse words are actual curses and their overuse summons demons and diseases from the underworld.
Perhaps the idea of a second-grader watching such smut would distress many parents, yet I credit that episode with helping me develop a more mature attitude towards vulgarity. I was already well acquainted with swear words: this was the time I had been not just told, but shown the need for restraint. Overuse will make you grow bored of an otherwise fun word.
Recently, South Park’s humor has come under fire from feminist Dana Schwartz who criticizes it as a show, “whose message is: both sides are equally terrible so the only correct thing to do is nothing, while mocking it all from your position of intellectual superiority.”
In retrospect, it seems impossible to overstate the cultural damage done by SOUTH PARK, the show that portrayed earnestness as the only sin and taught that mockery is the ultimate inoculation against all criticism
— Dana Schwartz (@DanaSchwartzzz) February 13, 2020
In other words, by criticizing all, none are held responsible. However, it is the universal nature of South Park’s targets that makes it such a worthy modern satire.
Two weeks after 9/11, the Onion did the unthinkable: published an issue dedicated to satirizing the event. Even today, many people rope off the events of that day—along with slavery and the holocaust—as too sacred to provide material for comedy.
Yet, the 9/11 issue has become a classic. During a time of turmoil, Americans found that they could laugh at their overwhelming sense of impotence, expressed in the headline “Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” and look for some sense of meaning in the almost philosophical “God Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.”
After two weeks of fear and confusion, the sheer enormity of the event suffocated the individual capacity to process and make sense of the horror. With its humor, The Onion provided new emotional pathways to explore. Though it retained an air of reverence. The final line of one article reads: “then, witnesses reported, God’s shoulders began to shake, and he wept.”
In his Poetics, Aristotle discusses the utilitarian benefits of tragedies and comedies. Tragedies allow the audience a safe means to vent emotions and comedies a sympathetic character to delight in. Expertly combining the two, the Onion produced tragic catharsis through comedy.
At a time of heightened political vitriol, South Park provides that same service. One cannot take oneself or one’s politics too seriously after watching one’s presidential candidates reduced to “giant douche” and “turd sandwich.” Who can maintain complete trust in her party’s platitudes after watching a mob of blue-collar workers start a movement, shouting “they took our jobs?”
During a short-lived right-wing spat over whether poor whites should move in search of better opportunities, South Park released the episode “White People Renovating Houses,” in which dopey father Randy Marsh renovates the homes of some of the town’s blue-collar workers, replacing their carpets and wallpaper with open-concept spaces and Zen gardens. The conceit exposed the condescension underlying the idea that the problems of poor whites would be fixed if they could just let go of their culture and act more like the middle classes.
Despite Schwartz’s contention, South Park doesn’t encourage “intellectual superiority”: it forces each side to reflect and encourages humility—a quality especially needed today, when polarization is at an all-time high.
Comedy often comes under attack for its profanity. While people are justifiably wary of profanity for profanity’s sake, many esteemed artists and thinkers have indulged in juvenile humor. Mozart wrote a beautiful a capella piece entitled “Leck Mich im Arsch” (lick my arsehole) and Benjamin Franklin wrote a satirical letter to the Royal Academy arguing that one should “fart proudly.”
One can’t help but giggle to see bawdy topics treated with such reverence. I challenge any reader to peruse Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale”—which involves a red-hot poker and a man’s bare behind—and not at least smirk a little.
Sometimes outlandish and even scatological comparisons provide the only figurative language worthy of a subject. During the Irish famine, Jonathan Swift recommended cooking the infants of the poor: perhaps the only analogy that could adequately lambast the flippancy of an uncaring aristocracy, faced with a starving people. How many Americans can relate to South Park’s reduction of US elections to the choice between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich?
If we condemn South Park for its obscenity or silliness, then, we must then also condemn the canon of satire that precedes it—a daunting task.