South Park launched its eighth season this week with an episode that parodied Japanese anime, mocked the crackdown on “indecency,” and showed a kid getting a ninja throwing star stuck in his eye. At this point, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s cartoon is almost as old as its boy protagonists, but it hasn’t lost its impudent appeal. That is an impressive achievement, all the more so now that the show has withstood two blows that might have sunk a lesser program: popularity and respectability.
The popularity came quickly after the cartoon’s debut, stuck around for a year or two, then inevitably faded. South Park survived the transformation from buzz magnet to old news by revising its formula, reasserting Parker and Stone’s creative control, and aiming more at maintaining its cult following than at reaching for a mass audience. This evidently worked, given that the show not only is still on the air but is arguably funnier than it was in its most popular period.
The respectability was slower to come, and it didn’t really descend until the South Park movie hit theaters in 1999. Mainstream film critics, forced to sit through 90 minutes of this filth, gradually realized that they were watching a clever, daring satire filled with brilliant musical parodies. By 2002, the cartoon was respectable enough that a fellow named Stephen W. Stanton was declaring the existence of the “South Park Republican,” a new breed of GOPer who doesn’t fit the old stereotype of “stodgy white guys with money.”
Writing in TechCentralStation, Stanton briefly noted that South Park “communicates the Republican position on many issues” — which is true — then went on to list such purported South Park Republicans as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and (“if he were alive today”) John F. Kennedy. In other words, the South Park Republican is a not-so-stodgy white guy with money.
No — sorry — actually, the South Park Republicans are supposed to be a hodgepodge of libertarian-leaning, pop-savvy, socially tolerant, and/or nonwhite Republicans who, as Stanton noted in a follow-up article, don’t even have to like South Park. You know you’re respectable when you’re a harmless mascot for a poorly defined political tendency. And if there’s anything that could destroy South Park‘s appeal, it’s turning tame.
FORTUNATELY, THERE’S LITTLE chance that Parker and Stone are going to be asked to address any mainstream political conventions this summer. As the new season begins, they’ve maintained all the essential elements of the show: an unusually realistic portrait of the politically incorrect ways that kids actually talk to each other, a much less realistic penchant for surreal and fantastic plots, a generally libertarian political stance, a distaste for celebrities, and — this is the important part — a rich current of bad taste.
It’s the bad taste that made South Park‘s reputation, it’s the bad taste that allowed it to slip under most intellectuals’ radar screen for so long, and it’s the bad taste that will keep it from ever growing too respectable. The show has made jokes about cannibalism, child molestation, and every excretory function. It giggles about sex and drugs; it plays footsie with forbidden stereotypes. It has devoted several Christmas episodes — Christmas episodes! — to the adventures of a singing turd. In its early years, every installment included the death of one of its central characters, who would then return, like Prometheus, to die another horrible death the next day. This is what the program is famous for, especially among those who never watch it.
But there’s smart bad taste, and there’s dumb bad taste. Dumb bad taste is a morning shock jock doing a skit about Shaggy from Scooby-Doo becoming a crack whore. Smart bad taste is South Park‘s Eric Cartman tricking a bully into eating a chili made from his parents, in a revenge lifted (sort of) from Titus Andronicus.
If you just blanched, you’re the reason why no winning presidential candidate will ever identify himself as a South Park fan. Keep it up; the show needs it.