“South Park” Blinks

The once fearless comedy shies away from the biggest target of our age


Earlier this year, just days after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone told a reporter that the next season of their show wouldn’t take aim at Trump, because “satire has become reality.” After twenty years of skewering public figures from Steve Jobs to Donald Rumsfeld to Britney Spears, Parker and Stone seemed stumped. What happens when you flip off the principal, Stone mused in an interview in May, and he flips you off right back? “The comedian pushes the button,” Parker asserted. “That’s the natural order of things.”

He knows button pushing. Since 1997, Parker and Stone (but, let’s be honest, mostly Parker) have riled the world as proudly flippant “equal-opportunity offenders.’’ Last season, their twentieth, tracked the real-life events of the presidential election (the show produces new installments week by week), casting its two presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton and a Trump-like Mr. Garrison — as a choice between a “Turd Sandwich” and a “Giant Douche.” South Park’s early seasons, which premiered in the dawn of the internet and long before the existence of social media, worked political material around the cartoon’s main conceit of four potty-mouthed boys (Cartman, Kenny, Kyle, and Stan, voiced by Parker and Stone) growing up in small-town Colorado. Before algorithms gave TV writers the incentive to rip highly clickable stories from the headlines, and long before Trump triggered a never-ending global crisis that begs constant attention, South Park was largely a show about — and that reflected the sensibility of — white American boyhood.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been jubilantly controversial from the get-go. South Park is notorious for reveling in its naughtiness — Isaac Hayes, who voiced the character of Chef, famously quit in protest of a 2005 episode that lampooned his religion, Scientology. But the series oozed a fatuous resistance to soapbox statements, a pubescent reflex that reduced every vaguely political plot to jokes about shit and dicks. In the first episode to air after 9-11, titled “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants,” the takedown of America’s public enemy No. 1 starts with bin Laden’s pants coming down — and it takes half a dozen magnifying glasses to make out his penis.

There were political overtones before 9-11, of course; an episode from 2000, in which the town clashes over its racist flag — it depicts four white people hanging a black man, then it’s redesigned so that the four figures are multiethnic, with all five holding hands while, still, the black man hangs — is, per Parker, uncomfortably close to reality today. By the mid-2000s, the show had sharpened its focus on current events. In 2007, Cartman eyed the new Muslim kid in town suspiciously, convinced he’s a terrorist; because this is South Park and not 24 — whose countdown clock the episode parodies — Cartman tortures his new classmate’s parents by farting in their faces.

In that episode, which aired a couple of months after Hillary Clinton announced her intention to run in the 2008 presidential race, Cartman worries about a potential terrorist attack at a Hillary rally in South Park. Turns out Cartman is right: Terrorists have hidden a tiny nuclear device…in Hillary Clinton’s “snatch.” When one of her aides suggests they probe inside Senator Clinton — who’s drawn with exaggeratedly large hips — to see if they can defuse the nuke, a bomb expert declares, “I’m not sending any of my men in there.”

South Park’s laddish libertarian ethos shields it from complaints about insensitivity, of course; as many an alt-right acolyte could tell you, criticism slides off like milk on Teflon when you’re only in it for the lulz. And lest viewers worry that South Park had become too didactic, that episode ended with the revelation that it’s not the Muslim family that’s behind the attack; it’s America’s foundational enemy, the British, who are sailing toward the colonies in old-timey ships, clad in red coats and armed with muskets. It’s a textbook South Park twist, an expression of the show’s perennial anxiety about articulating, or appearing to articulate, a serious political critique. In the end, for better or worse, the show always pivots to fart in your face.

The fart in our face this season is the creators’ reluctance, at the halfway point at least, to take on Trump and his supporters. The season premiere, which aired a month after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, seemed poised to parody the specter of white nationalism, a topic the show has not shied away from in the past. But the episode dodges the issue of race almost entirely; angry white men screaming “They terk er jerbs” march through the town carrying tiki torches and Confederate flags, but even when they chant “You will not replace us,” they’re let off the hook — their target is corporate-backed automation.

The second episode, in which a panicked Tweek finds himself caught between North Korea’s nuclear arms program and the president’s tweets, is better; South Park has always been good at evoking the immediate aftermath of national tragedy, the slack-jawed, stunned stupor of people who have just realized something terrible has happened. In “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants,” Stan’s mom is comatose on the couch, where she’s been watching CNN for eight weeks straight; in 2016, Parker and Stone rewrote in a single day the post-election episode they’d been working on, which opened with a familiar scene: an election-night party steeped in sorrow and disbelief.

The relative absence of Trump is disappointing for a show that loves to shit on power — and especially questionable considering South Park has never had a problem shitting on Hillary Clinton, a woman who has never been in as comparably powerful a position as Trump’s. The nuke bit wasn’t the first time Hillary appeared on the show: In a 2002 episode, a newscaster shows a picture of her and announces, “Her ass just keeps getting bigger and bigger.” She makes a brief cameo in 2009’s “Eat, Pray, Queef,” in which the men and boys of South Park record a charity single advocating a woman’s right to queef.

And there she was in the episode that aired the day after the 2016 presidential election, “Oh, Jeez,” in which she schemes to stop the show’s Trump surrogate, Giant Douche, from taking office. “Oh, Jeez” also features a wizened Bill Clinton, who declares, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And trust me, my wife is a crazy bitch.” Even on November 9, 2016, South Park was harsher on Hillary Clinton than it was on Donald Trump. (Trump, incidentally, has appeared as himself only once, in 2001, as one of several celebrity investors brought in to view a machine invented by Mr. Garrison.)

It’s one thing to declare anyone and everyone fair game for the South Park treatment. But Parker and Stone never seem content just to make fun of women; they relish sexually humiliating them, too, all while shunting the show’s female characters, young and old, to the maddeningly familiar role of disapproving nag. It’s hard to think of two writers who better understand the power of humor to assert oneself, to dominate a conversation and even to win an election. On South Park, this is a power reserved for men and boys.

To be clear, I think Parker and Stone (or, being honest again, mostly Parker) are geniuses. Over the past twenty years, their work has delighted, horrified, and annoyed me, sometimes all at once, but it’s consistently made me laugh. I wish more comedies right now would take the kind of radical risks South Park has been taking for decades. And yet the one risk they seem unwilling to dare: to interrogate the overlap between South Park’s brand of humor and the ethos of the alt-right, a movement largely populated by disaffected young white men who delight in mercilessly mocking women and minorities.

In the absence of Trump this season, South Park has still produced some cutting cultural commentary. Last week, it cleverly took aim at the opioid epidemic, and the week before that it offered a funny bit about how Netflix will give a show to anyone. (The streaming service’s employees answer the phone, “Netflix, you’re greenlit.”) There was a so-so episode on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s facilitation of fake news. Mostly, though, the show has so far gestured toward the Trump administration by focusing on the atmosphere it has created in South Park. But this leaves Trump himself a blank entity, a negative, like all this stuff is just passively happening to America, the way sexual assault always just seems to happen to women.

You could argue whether this is a moral and ethical failure, but it’s certainly an artistic one. In a sense, we’re all living in a South Park world now. Think of the potential of Parker and Stone using their platform to seriously challenge the toxic strain of jocular white male contempt that Trump’s campaign and election has unleashed in this country and beyond. But unlike, say, Eminem, who released a new rap video in which he calls out fans of his who might support Trump, Parker and Stone don’t seem to have the will or the introspective nature to pull this off, or even to try. They’ll take aim at priests who molest children, serial killers, rapists, self-affected pop stars and cynical politicians. But they draw a line when it comes to examining themselves, and that’s white American manhood in a nutshell.