As an impressionable 16 year old, I was instantly hooked when South Park debuted in 1997 and have generally loved it ever since. Though my interest waned significantly from roughly 2009-2014, I’ve literally seen every episode. I had long since given up on the other long-running adult-oriented cartoons – Family Guy and The Simpsons (2007 for the former, 1999 for the latter), and was considering letting go of South Park. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone managed to inject new life into the show by introducing serialized episodes in 2015.
Attempting an analysis on 20 years worth of episodes is hard, especially for a show that has something to say about everything. To distill its ethos to it’s essence: both the left and right are full of shit , and PC-culture is abominable. The latter runs parallel to the stereotypical comedian’s belief that nothing should be off-limits, and any criticisms are the products of unwarranted hysteria. Moreover, it’s pretentious to care about things that don’t concern you, especially if you’re a celebrity.
This has served them well and ensures there’s something for everybody. Not so much from the perspective that one agrees with any specific character in any specific episode, but more to the extent that they will inevitably skewer ideologies and beliefs that one detests . Individual episodes have received favorable coverage all over the internet, from Salon, The Atlantic, and Slate, to dumpster fire websites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller (not linking to them). Whether their widespread appeal was intended with a diverse audience in mind or not misses the point – this is a pretty ingenious way to ensure a large amount of people across the political spectrum can laugh at the caricatured absurdities of those they disagree with.
Parker and Stone’s political beliefs can be best described as pre-Tea Party libertarianism, with an emphasis on free-market economics combined with a socially liberal live-and-let-live attitude. Parker described himself as one in 2001, while Stone has never, to my knowledge, claimed adherence to any political party. As an example of how this is manifested, consider Big Gay Al. Very early on (in 1998) they had the keen insight to allege that being gay is okay. However, a few years later Al makes an impassioned plea to respect the rights of private organizations to discriminate with impunity. The liberal elite, represented by Gloria Allred, predictably turn on him, calling him a homophobe, because of course those silly, stupid, hypocritical liberals would do that. Non-homophobes could cheer gay acceptance, while assholes could delight in the idea of keeping government out of where it doesn’t belong or, less charitably, legitimizing their bigotry.
Many times, what’s being made fun of and what, if anything, the creators are trying to say can be open to interpretation. For example in “The Jeffersons,” one of the main plot points used for comedic affect is South Park’s extremely racist police department trying to frame Michael Jackson. When it aired in 2004, I remember laughing at the cops because I generally think cops suck, and the show apparently agreed. But now I’m pretty sure that’s not the case – the racism and cruelty displayed by the police was too over-the-top. More likely, it should be interpreted as a critique of people who denigrate the hardworking, usually noble police and imagine wildly implausible race-based conspiracies. This theme can also be seen in a 2015 episode, “Naughty Ninjas“. Officer Barbrady, a relic from the earliest seasons, ineptly shoots a kid, leading to vehement anti-police actions. Later in the episode, the townspeople are forced to grovel to the now hated cops for help which is vindictively refused. Broadly, systematic racism and police violence is trivialized and the hypocrisy and stupidity of police-hating morons is emphasized.
The above examples are just two of countless issues tackled by Parker and Stone. Many characters say many different things and it’s damn near impossible to pin down what they actually think after 20 years of providing social commentary disguised as jokes. Therein lies the difficulty of gleaning insight into what the creators are trying to say. It certainly doesn’t help that they think all proponents of any issue, religion, and political belief is full of shit, pretentious, or both. That the characters are tethered to the plot means anyone at anytime can say or do something if the story calls for it.
For all the cruelty, nihilism (which I think the creators would object to), and gross-out humor, there is a heart to the show. Nothing, of course, is off limits, but themes of friendship and caring are abundant. Take Kenny’s interaction with his sister while in the guise of his superhero alter-ego Mysterion, after they had been placed in foster care:
Karen: Oh, it’s you. I was wondering when you’d appear. You always come when I’m sad.
Mysterion: You are going to be okay, Karen! You have to keep believing that!
Karen: Why did my mommy and daddy go to jail?
Mysterion: [thinks a moment] Sometimes, people do stupid things. Sometimes they don’t realize what should have come first. Until it’s too late.
Karen: But I’m all alone now.
Mysterion: You are not alone. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, I will always be here! Do you understand?
Karen: I’ll try, guardian angel.
Mysterion: Don’t try, Karen. Do.
It almost brings me to tears every time I see that part. As an aside, the perplexing depiction of the foster family as militant agnostics was a complete failure. One gets the idea that they were grasping at straws to find a group of people they had yet to satirize.
There are also characters that are almost always treated with respect by the creators. Wendy Testaberger is the foremost example. Earlier depictions aside, before the shows characters crystallized into their current recognizable forms, she is shown to be intelligent, principled and caring – the feminist foil to Cartman. If she says something, it isn’t something to be mocked except by assholes, such as Cartman, with the joke always being on Cartman rather than Wendy. This season, Wendy led a group of cheerleaders sitting for the national anthem due to online bullying, obviously paralleling Colin Kaepernick. This ended up going nowhere (see below), but the girls at no point were portrayed as being in the wrong.
Another example is Butters who is exceptionally kind-hearted. While he is perpetually shit on, it is primarily due to his limitless gullibility coupled with the brutality of other characters, rather than for being a decent kid. That doesn’t mean he’s immune to acting out, as evidenced by becoming a Men’s Rights Activist after being dumped, and somewhat vindictively telling off his cruel and abusive grandmother:
Grandma? I did it, Grandma. I finally stood up for myself. I got real mean and I beat the snot outta Dr. Oz. I can’t lie, it felt kind of good. At first. But since then all I have is just… a kind of dark, empty feeling. Then I realized… that’s how you must feel. All the time. Poor old Grandma. You know, I’ve been gettin’ lots of advice how to deal with you. Stand up to you, tell on you… But I kind of realize there’s just people like you out there. All over the place. When you’re a kid, things seem like they’re gonna last forever. But they’re not. Life changes. Why you won’t always be around. Someday you’re gonna die. Someday pretty soon. And when you’re layin’ in that hospital bed, with tubes up your nose, and that little pan under your butt to pee in, well I’ll come visit ya. I’ll come just to show you that, that I’m still alive and I’m still happy. And you’ll die. Bein’ nothin’ but you. ‘Night Grandma.
Overall, Butters is a sympathetic character and serves as another moral anchor to the show. But the above quote is another typical South Park theme: there are horrible people in the world, and the onus is on you to stoically deal with it.
That South Park does have a heart should not be seen as an excuse for the many, many examples of cruel, offensive comedy. In no way am I insinuating that those offended by South Park are wrong. For example, body shaming, particularly towards females and transgender peoples, is rampant. Women are frequently mocked for personal appearance, from Jennifer Lopez’s ass, to Sarah Jessica Parker’s supposed equine features. Caitlyn Jenner is portrayed as a walking plastic surgery disaster. Why they felt the need to do this is beyond my comprehension, except perhaps to show they can still be offensive and “edgy.” Even more perplexing was that Jenner’s appearance occurred after their very well received episode that tackled the bathroom uproar in a fair and enlightened manner. Moreover it showed pretty substantial growth from their hit or miss (mostly miss) portrayals of Mr. Garrison’s continually evolving gender questioning and sexuality .
The point is, Jenner’s portrayal was completely unimaginative and gratuitously cruel. Perhaps more galling is that they refused to do the same with more odious figures like Chris Christie and Steve Bannon. All of that being said, I laughed pretty hard each time Jenner smashed her car into people. Such humor poked fun at something Jenner did, rather than fundamental aspects of her being. But I digress – if you are offended by anything on South Park, nothing I write should be construed as telling you to “get over it.”
This past season, the second of their serialization project, they fucked up. Broad, season-long plots failed to coalesce into anything resembling a coherent conclusion. By mixing real-world events of the previous week into the already existing plots they undertook a huge risk that relied on Clinton winning the election. That the election happened the day before episode 7 out of 10 certainly didn’t help , and the final episodes reflect a team of writers scrambling to adjust. Some plots were disregarded, and the final episode, appropriately titled “The End of Serialization as We Know It,” fell flat.
There was a very meta aspect to one of the plots, which is something I think South Park does extremely well . Briefly, Kyle’s dad Gerald is a secret online troll. His trolling leads to the suicide of a Danish citizen. The Danish are pissed and begin work on a system to reveal every persons’ online history – something that causes mass destruction as everyone’s anonymous internet persona is unmasked. It’s revealed the leader of the project is a master troll who, rather than giving a shit about outing trolls on moral grounds, undertook the project to cause mass chaos. Early on in the season, I felt that Gerald represented the decades of trolling that South Park has done and this is, more or less, confirmed with a final showdown between Gerald and the Danish troll. The Danish troll is the devil’s advocate for Parker and Stone’s entire career, as represented by Gerald:
Bedrager [the Danish troll]: What I’m doing is wrong? How is getting millions of people to kill themselves different from getting one person to?
Gerald: It’s completely heartless and malicious!
Bedrager: You can honestly stand there, as a troll, and tell me that what I’m doing isn’t hilarious?
Gerald: No! Its not! Hacking the world to show that most people act differently online isn’t even technically satirical.
Bedrager: How is not satirical?
Gerald: Okay, okay, look. What you’re doing is just trying to prove that everyone is either a bad person or a snoop, right? So how is that funny?
Bedrager: That’s not what I’m doing. I’m showing everyone that all this stuff that they freak out over doesn’t even matter.
Gerald: No, but see, that’s just nihilism.
Bedrager: Oh, come on!
Gerald: That is!
Bedrager: So–so wait! If you do some big, outrageous, offensive thing with a positive attitude, you’re a satirist, but if you’re cynical about it, then you’re a nihilist? That’s fucking ridiculous
Gerald: You’re trying to get people to go to war and kill each other.
Bedrager: So maybe this is like the new post-funny era of satire. 
At this point, Gerald kicks Bedrager in the nuts and exclaims: “Ha! Fuck you! What I do is fucking funny, bitch!”
Humor is the highest ideal, and is differentiated from nihilism by actually being, you know, funny. Or, humor that causes actual real world destruction is the line they will not cross, at least intentionally. While I agree that the show’s trolling can and has been funny, the showdown’s conclusion came off as hollow. Gerald’s trolling was extremely vicious and not even remotely satirical. He received no tangible comeuppance. To the show’s credit, however, when Gerald is reunited with his family, Kyle and his brother Ike give him withering stares: they know he’s an asshole who’s full of shit. That he’s acknowledged as such is quintessential South Park – the creators allow that they too are not immune from the criticisms they’ve dispensed over the years.
Recently Parker and Stone discussed scrapping serialization completely and have deemed Trump to be beyond satire. In an interview with ABC Australia, Stone said:
People say to us all the time, ‘Oh, you guys are getting all this good material,’ like we’re happy about some of the stuff that’s happening. But I don’t know if that’s true. It doesn’t feel that way. It feels like they’re going to be more difficult. We’re having our head blown off, like everybody else.”
Watching the interview, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that he is more upset about Trump’s presidency, rather than the death of political satire . But then, of course, I may be hearing something that isn’t there.
It bears noting that in 16 years of Bush and Obama, they’ve largely resisted making fun of them. Both appeared in episodes, but were almost never the butt of any jokes . Now they’re faced again with the choice to pick a side. Only at this point in time one side has mutated into a cesspool of bigotry, anti-intellectual fervor, and a shameful disregard for human suffering. Despite the above quote, I don’t think they’ll be able to resist political commentary. And if I’m right, I wonder if they’ll incorporate unfavorable depictions of Trump opposition. I could see the kids joining a black bloc – I don’t believe anarchists have been mocked yet. This is not surprising since they’ve been invisible in the US since the “Battle of Seattle.” Or maybe Kyle will punch Cartman, the literal Nazi, causing an uproar (as opposed to the many times he’s done it in the past). I cringe at the thought of the mockery of, in Stone and Parker’s mind, outrageous Trump/Hitler comparisons taken to absurd levels. Or alleging Nazi-punchers are as bad as Nazis. Hopefully they’ve evolved since 2004, when Parker stated:
[p]eople on the far-left and the far-right are the same exact person to us.
That is fantastically douchey. The more I think about it the more I think they’ll stay the course, while perhaps dumping the serialized format. This may prove to be unfortunate, as some of the best episodes are apolitical and only tangentially related to any specific social or political issues, if at all. So getting rid of politics shouldn’t be seen as necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, their injection of social commentary has enabled their relevance for much longer than their contemporaries. I don’t think many people give a shit what The Simpsons or Family Guy is trying to say. If they do, they shouldn’t, because they both blow.
Underlying all of this, I find the show consistently funny in tons of different ways. The show is watched by millions and is an indelible part of our culture, for better or worse. It’s generated ample material that warrants analysis. For some, it’s just humor. For others, it reinforces worldviews, primarily through negative portrayals of people and ideas one doesn’t agree with. And that is the big question heading into Season 21 – will they maintain the status quo by negatively depicting the rich panoply of Trump-haters, all in the interest of maintaining their “both sides are bad” ideology? If so, it will only give unneeded ammunition to the aforementioned cesspool denizens. I’d like to think Parker and Stone wouldn’t want any part of that.
 Parker infamously stated
I hate conservatives but I really fucking hate liberals.
 In an interview with The Huffington Post in 2010, Parker said
everyone sees their own thing in it. A lot of our shows where even we think we’ve taken a very deliberate stand, liberals say, ‘That’s awesome, you took on the conservatives’ [and for the] same show conservatives say ‘That’s awesome, you took on liberals.’
 He has been portrayed at varying lengths of time as heterosexual cisgender male, homosexual cisgender male, heterosexual transgender female and homosexual transgender female. In earlier seasons he attempts to meet a young child on the internet (Cartman, unbeknownst to him), fucks a pig, and is extremely distraught that his father didn’t rape him as a child. He is currently the show’s literal stand-in for Donald Trump who wants to “fuck them all to death.”
 The episode was titled “First Gentleman,” referring to Bill Clinton, and remained the title displayed on my cable information screen.
 One of the most poignant meta moments has Cartman, defeated by PC Principal (a funny but nonsensical character whom deserves a level of scrutiny I don’t feel like doing) saying: “We’re two privileged, straight white boys who have their laughs about things we never had to deal with.” I mean, it FEELS meta, but it very well may not be – after all, it’s coming from Cartman. It’s usually not wise to rely on Cartman as the show’s conscience. For example, MRA type shitheads crowed about Cartman supposedly lampooning Amy Schumer’s vagina jokes, when it’s pretty obvious she is not what’s being made fun of. If that interpretation is incorrect, it’d be especially galling, seeing as South Park has a rich history of genital-related humor.
 This is a great and chilling line. I’m very tempted to believe that this is a shot at the destructive troll-humor of 4chan (i.e. Pizzagate) and Milo Yiannopoulos-types, but I’m not sure.
 Overall, Garrison/Trump is almost always shown in a negative light, somewhat hilariously leading to Reddit discussions with titles like “Is it just me or has South Park gone full cuck?” In a 2015 episode, a Trump-like figure was elected in Canada which proved to be prophetic and, in retrospect, terrifying:
Nobody ever thought he’d be president! It was a joke! We just let the joke go on for too long. He kept gaining momentum, and by the time we were all ready to say, ‘Okay, let’s get serious now, who should really be president?’ he was already being sworn into office.
 I only recall one instance of Bush being unambiguously mocked for his poor speech habits. For Obama, any humor related to him derived from Cartman or others saying racist things – in other words, Obama is not the joke, racism is. Clinton, on the other hand, was mocked early on (and recently) for being a sexual deviant.
And that, when all’s said and done, is their ultimate genius.
sssss sssssss says
Ya… No. Just no. Having spent literally half my life listening to obnoxious bigoted dudebros compare me being trans to Randy being a dolphin I have utter contempt for that show and it’s two shithead creators.
That show is made by obnoxious libertarian shitheads, for obnoxious libertarian shitheads. You know who I’m talking about. The guy who totally for reals supports equal rights, but when ever presented with any case of a minority standing up for themselves they start screeching about political correctness and SJWs. The totally-not-misogynists dude who spends several hours a day in a frothing at the mouth rage toward those “Feminazi *c-word*s!”. The guy who would never ever agree with the alt-right in any way, he just thinks that maybe we should hear Milo out and ya know sometimes they make good points on Breitbart…
It exists to pat that type of asshole on the back and congratulate him for being so cool and edgy and above petty bullshit like “Advocating for equal rights” or “Behaving like a decent human being”. Which is why it’ll probably be getting new episodes for decades, god knows there’s no end to the market of obnoxious condescending white dudes who need to be reassured that they are indeed cooler and smarter than everyone else.
I Have Forgiven Jesus says
Yea, that dolphin episode was cruel and indefensible. I doubt they ever considered the harm it would cause, though it probably wouldn’t have mattered to them.
“[p]eople on the far-left and the far-right are the same exact person to us.”
I couldn’t agree more with this statement. If you cannot see this, then you are bias. There is a cultist element to each side, and the people who are trying to be rational and ask tough questions are unable to do so if it does not fit a narrow agenda. For example, there is an emotional appeal to make for immigrants and refugees; however, there is also a responsibility to ask if this can be detrimental to society without being labeled a Nazi.
Joseph Zowghi says
I was also 16 when South Park premiered, and I found it mildly enjoyable but not exactly a side-splitter. I think their mockery of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was the last episode that I genuinely enjoyed. I pretty much stopped caring about the show after that.
I was much more into Futurama, and I still tune into the Simpsons sometimes, especially their Halloween specials. I’ll always watch those. And I really liked the recent episode about Lisa and Marge making a comic book together. The guest stars included Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi. Squee!
I Have Forgiven Jesus says
That ALMOST makes me want to watch. Persepolis (movie and comics) is one of my favorites and she should be way more prominent than she is.