When South Park aired on Comedy Central in 1997, its crudeness and profanity earned it TV’s adults only MA rating. Twenty-three years and more than 300 episodes later, it continues to be the cable network’s most viewed show, especially among male and Republican viewers. In 2019, it was viewed for 30 billion minutes on Comedy Central and received millions of additional views on Hulu’s streaming services.
South Park’s success may be the result of its anti-elitist and anti-authority slant. It celebrates the triumph of the commonsensical common man over an elite characterized as condescending zealots.
While some right-wingers object to South Park’s crude representations of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Dick Cheney, immigration opponents and Donald Trump, some left-winger viewers have objected to its parodies of the contradictions within liberal thought. This political ambiguity may be another key to its popularity. Parker and Stone see themselves as “Equal Opportunity Offenders.” “I would never want the show to be a Democrat show or Republican show,” Parker has explained. “It’s so much more fun for us to rip on liberals only because nobody else does it, and not because we think liberals are worse than Republicans but, just because it’s like fresh snow.”
They parody everything from celebrities like Tom Cruise (in SE9E12, “Trapped in the Closet”) to environmental virtue signalling (SE10E2 “Smug Alert!” features a hybrid car called the Pious.)
South Park’s animation is much simpler than that of many prime-time cartoons. This allows Stone and Parker to spend as little as a week producing each episode, letting them respond quickly to current events.
Their medium allows Stone and Parker certain freedoms. Animated cartoons for an adult audience, like King of the Hill, Futurama, Family Guy, Beavis and Butthead and South Park are the heirs of the nursery rhyme. They can get away with things that would provoke more backlash in more serious cultural forms.
Cartoon characters are not expected to suffer the consequences of their actions—think of the numerous injuries Wile E. Coyote and Tom suffer at the hands of the Road Runner and Jerry. Kenny dies multiple times in South Park.
When tackling such politically sensitive topics as hate crimes, compelled diversity training, political correctness and education, Parker, Stone and their team often allow children and other marginalized minorities to challenge socially dominant perspectives and to parody the ideological rigidity that prevents adult characters—especially authority figures like judges, prosecutors, television personalities, teachers, diversity trainers, politicians and activist parents—from viewing events clearly and treating people humanely.
In SE1E9 “Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo,” Mrs Broflovski complains that the school nativity play “isn’t being sensitive to the Jewish community!” The teacher Mr Garrison points out that she is simply talking about herself: “You are the Jewish Community!” Soon the conflicting demands of the perpetually offended begin to multiply. The priest believes that, “The Nativity is what Christmas is all about. If you remove Christ, you must remove Santa and Frosty and all of that garbage too!” A hippie exclaims, “And we must put a stop to the cutting down of Christmas trees!” A liberal is “deeply offended by the Nativity scene in front of the capital office,” since “church and state are separate.” In response the mayor promises to “put together a crack team of my best workers to make sure this’ll be the most non-offensive Christmas ever.” The school removes the show’s lights because they “offend people with epilepsy” and the star because it might offend non-Christians. The result is “South Park Elementary presents the happy, non-offensive, non-denominational Christmas Play, with music and lyrics by New York minimalist composer, Philip Glass!” When Mrs Broflovski complains, “What the hell is this? This is horrible” and the priest exclaims that, “This is the most God-awful piece of crap I’ve ever seen!,” Mr Garrison rightly points out, “You’re the ones who made it this way.”
Finally, everyone is united by the non-denominational mascot Mr Hankey, The Christmas Poo, who “comes out of the toilet every year and gives presents to everybody who has a lot of fibre in their diet.” This scatological mascot exhorts everyone to keep up the Christmas spirit:
Come on gang, don’t fight. You people focus so hard on the things wrong with Christmas that you’ve forgotten what’s so right about it. … This is the one time of year we’re supposed to forget all the bad stuff, to stop worrying and being sad about the state of the world, and for just one day say, ‘Aw, the heck with it! Let’s sing and dance and bake cookies.’
Everyone agrees, ending the episode on a rare positive note. This is the only episode in the first season of South Park in which Kenny does not die.
A similar message of tolerance is conveyed in SE4E2 “Cartman’s Silly Hate Crime.” Cartman, fed up of being mercilessly teased for being fat by fellow pupil Token, hits him with a rock. The guidance counsellor Mr Mackey initially punishes Cartman with two weeks’ detention, but then FBI agents bust into the office and explain that, “since the victim in this case is African-American, this is considered at hate crime.”
A TV presenter asks, “What turns a normal, fat little eight-year-old boy into a vicious, hate-crime-committing racist?” The judge at Cartman’s conviction tells him, “I am making an example of you, to send a message out to people everywhere, that if you want to hurt another human being, you’d better make damn sure they’re the same colour as you are!” Ironically, the TV presenter, prosecutor and judge are just as childishly prejudiced against Cartman for being fat as Token is.
Token’s own father agrees that hate crime laws are unfair, but that, ironically, the governor, “won’t listen to me, because I’m black.”
The boys are the rational voices here. Cartman’s fellow pupil Stan pleads:
Mayor, it is time to stop splitting people into groups. All hate crimes do is support the idea that blacks are different from whites, that homosexuals need to be treated differently from non-homos, that we aren’t the same.
The episode reveals that in protesting one injustice, we may be perpetrating another. The comic irony encourages the audience to view their fellow humans with empathy, rather than enmity.
In SE6E14 “The Death Camp of Tolerance,” Mr Garrison learns that a teacher in another community has been awarded $20 million after being fired because of his sexual orientation. In the hopes of getting hold of similar compensation himself, he makes effort to offend his students, even bringing in a new classroom assistant: Mr Slave, a burly man dressed in leather chaps and a vest, who obeys Mr Garrison’s every command—even inserting the classroom gerbil, Lemmiwinks, into his anus. When Chef, who is often a confidant to the children, complains to the principal about this, he is sent to tolerance camp.
When the children begin boycotting classes, the school counsellor calls in the parents to explain, “your boys have refused to attend class with their homosexual teacher, m’kay?” Because they are committed to appearing open-minded and tolerant, the parents force their children to return to school.
Meanwhile, Mr Garrison—dumbfounded to find that his behaviour brings no repercussions—becomes ever more outrageous:
Mr Garrison: [now at the podium, with Mr Slave standing to his right. He’s wearing a purple belt with a shiny purple dildo hanging from it] Say, Mr Slave.
Mr Slave: Yes, Mr Garrison?
Mr Garrison: I had a dream last night that you were a real dick.
Mr Slave: Really? Why would you dream that I was being an asshole?
Mr Garrison: No, no, I was the asshole. [a moment of silence, and more applause]
Man 2: [brown hair and mustache] Ogh, that is so courageous.
Man 3: [gray hair] What an amazing human being!
He is subsequently presented with the Courageous Teacher award.
Meanwhile, the children are sent to a tolerance camp, in which a warden instructs them in a thick German accent,
Today we will be using the fingerpaint! You will make a painting that shows people of different races and sexual orientations getting along. Fingerpaint! Fingerpaint! You will not make any distinction between people of different colours! People with different sexual preferences! You will accept everyone!
The Camp Warden holds a gun to Kyle’s head for painting a bear, which has nothing to do with the theme of tolerance. Terrorised, Kyle finally produces “A picture of people of all colours and creeds holding hands beneath a rainbow.”
At the Tolerance Museum, the tour guide introduces the children to “the Hall of Stereotypes,” a woke Madame Tussauds, with wax models of a black person eating chicken and watermelon, an Arab terrorist, an East Asian with a calculator and—as Cartman points out—“a covetous Jew!” Randy discovers a Mexican sleeping next to a bucket and states, “It’s the stereotypical ‘sleepy Mexican’”—but it’s actually the Mexican janitor who has fallen asleep in the middle of the museum. And the tour guide himself seems less than tolerant of difference: he calls Cartman “Fat Tits” and addresses Token as “Fat Ass”—comments that receive no criticism.
Nor does the group’s tolerance extend to smokers:
Tour Guide: We have to accept people for who they are and what they like to do. [Notices man smoking outside.] What the hell are you doing?
Smoker: Oh I was just uh …
Tour Guide: There’s no smoking in the museum!
Smoker: But I’m not in the museum.
Tour Guide: Get out of here you filthy smoker!
Gerald: Yeah, dirty lungs!
Sharon: Go ahead and kill yourself, stupid tar-breath!
Richard: Get out of here!
Mr Garrison finally provides the voice of reason at the end of the episode. Speaking of his own antics, he says, “Look, this kind of behaviour should not be acceptable from a teacher!” But “the museum tells us to be tolerant,” his audience erupts. He replies,
Tolerant, but not stupid! Look, just because you have to tolerate something, doesn’t mean you have to approve of it! If you had to like it, it’d be called the Museum of Acceptance! Tolerate means you’re just putting up with it! You tolerate a crying child sitting next to you on the airplane or you tolerate a bad cold. It can still piss you off!
South Park applauds those who express humility and tolerance for human limitations, while also expressing faith in our ability to resolve our differences rationally. The series allows the children, Chef (a black man), Mr Hankey (an imaginary turd) and Mr Garrison (a gay teacher) to act as the agents of common sense and to demonstrate the courage to object to antisocial behaviour. They often bluntly state what characters on conventional sitcoms cannot, while, at the same time, never calling for the punishment of offenders.
As Paul Cantor has commented,
Comedy is a social safety valve. We laugh precisely because comedians momentarily liberate us from the restrictions that conventional society imposes on us. We applaud comedians because they say right out in front of an audience what, supposedly, nobody is allowed to say in public.
South Park’s characters act as mouthpieces for the views its primarily young, male viewers are personally unable to express. The show provides them with plausible deniability—they can laugh at the comedy without having those views attributed to them. As Nathan Harden has commented,
sometimes it feels like the safest thing to do is just to stay silent. And that seems to be the approach more students are taking these days. A massive new survey of 37,000 college students reveals that more than 80 percent of them self-censor in the classroom, on campus and online.
As Douglas Bruce has pointed out, parodic cartoons can criticize social norms without offending the audience because viewers see themselves as informed insiders who get the joke, rather than ignorant outsiders. For many, South Park may meet a private need by thumbing its nose at the cautious speech so many are required to parrot to maintain their professional status. As Melissa Hart puts it,
My generation has been schooled, and in turn schools others, to be on guard against prejudice and hate. We’ve taken political correctness to a level mimicking Orwell’s thought police, where as much as an upward turn of the lips at an off-color joke becomes suspect. South Park allows us to blow off steam.
Parker and Stone also frequently illustrate how people can exploit power to act unethically—even when, like the diversity monitor, they are viewed as agents of positive social change.
South Park parodies those impassioned advocates, on both left and right, who believe that their expertise and superior sensibilities give them the right to impose their views on those they regard as misguided. It reminds us that people react not only to facts but to the manner in which arguments are presented and the attitudes that manner conveys. The patent fictitiousness of the cartoon genre allows it to criticise people’s shortcomings at a safe distance from the viewers’ “lived experience.” It often depicts reconciliations between adversaries.
South Park’s parodic cartoon form allows it to question authority, elitism and punitive culture. Its writers privilege tolerance of human foibles over vindictiveness. Their iconic closing monologues convey a sympathetic view of a flawed humanity—one that accepts our tendencies toward self-interest, resentfulness, greed, lust, vanity, unthinking conformity and envy as sources of comedy, a comedy that builds awareness of and forgiveness for our imperfect human natures.