'The Fractured But Whole' Has the Same Identity Crisis as Modern South Park


#1

In 1997, I was 12 years old. That same year, South Park debuted on Comedy Central. Almost immediately, it became a collective obsession among me and my friends. A 12-year-old is always looking for something parents wouldn't approve of, and South Park was perfect; it was loud, crude, and the characters were kids. South Park had quickly filled the immature void left behind by Beavis & Butthead: "Huh huh huh" and "shut up, Beavis" were swapped for "I'm not fat, I'm big-boned" and "oh, my god, they killed Kenny." The authority figures in my life hated South Park, and so, I loved South Park. (In fairness, my parents were remarkably lax about what I watched, but everyone had a friend whose parent loathed South Park, so it remained a rebellious act.)


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/wjg85m/the-fractured-but-whole-has-the-same-identity-crisis-as-modern-south-park

#2

I feel like South Parks biggest problem can be summized by saying that it doesn’t really have a lot of heart and really isn’t supposed to. It is intensely irreverent towards anything and that makes it extremely hard for it to ever actually say something. It is a show so focused on not taking anything seriously that I honestly don’t know if it even can at this point, where it might actually be good to do so. As much as Matt and Trey bitch about Family Guy, they are in the exact same boat as McFarlane in that regard, Both shows are defined by not giving a shit, and in todays climate that has turned out to be very limiting.

In the meantime you have shows like Bojack Horseman, Rick N Morty that manage to balance the same irreverence seen in South Park with genuine earnestness and even heart, and it just makes South Park seem dated and slow by comparison. What set it apart in it’s hayday is now holding it back.


#3

I remember one Christmas, we were all at my grandparent’s house on my mom’s side. Grandparents, aunts and uncles were all sitting in the back room chatting, while all the cousins were crowded around the little TV in the front room watching South Park, laughing our asses off. When the adults came in to get ready to go, they were curious about what everyone was laughing at, so they stood and watched for a bit. They all started grumbling their disapproval. “I can’t believe this is a cartoon.” “This is totally inappropriate for children.” “This is just terrible.” Except my mom, who was absolutely dying. [shocked] “Linda!” “What? It’s funny.”

Like Patrick, I have complicated feelings about South Park. On the one hand, they’ve given me some of my favorite episodes of TV ever, like The Simpsons Did It, Awesom-O, Casa Bonita and possibly the best 23 minutes in TV history, Good Times With Weapons (you might notice a common theme here).

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Then there are the episodes like I’m a Little Bit Country which make you realize that, for as smart as people give credit to Matt & Trey for being, there are times that they just really don’t get it. Or Butt Out, which is the episode that really drives home the point that there are only 3 unforgivable sins in South Park: caring, trying, and Being fat.

My biggest problem with modern South Park (ok, not biggest problem, but whatever) is that, particularly since the move to serial storytelling, they don’t even tell jokes anymore. They just set up a premise then elbow everyone in the ribs and say “Eh! Eh! Isn’t that a crazy premise! What? No, no. Nobody needs to actually say or do anything funny. Look how outlandish this is!”


#4

as a franchise, it was always rooted in and founded upon bad faith jokes. nothing about the writers or the show has changed over time (i mean it may very well have gotten worse over time but i think to argue that it’s “bad now” is missing the point completely), it’s just been much easier to see how glaringly wrong it is as the real world continues to shift.

it’s not fun to convince a bunch of dudes who grew up with it that it was always bad but it’s fundamental to understanding how much it sucks that it continues to be a cultural force of such magnitude.


#5

Politically they’re trash, but the gag with Saddam whipping out a fake penis in the movie is actually clever meta commentary and I will defend it.

edit: if anyone wants to feel ancient, I just googled and that movie is 18 freaking years ago


#6

Their (apparent) belief that it doesn’t matter who you vote for because they are equally terrible frustrates me. It might be a joke (ha ha, candidates are either douchbags or turd sandwiches) but there are people I actually know who think this way, contrary to evidence right in front of them. I worry that this way of thinking helped the latest election turn out the way it did.

I’ve also been concerned lately about the normalization of casual racism, and asshole behavior being the norm in general, and maybe south park has inadvertently become a part of that.

It also rubs me the wrong way when the show dismisses environmental issues as being overblown or the product of elitist snobs… it’s hard to have a sense of humor about this kind of stuff.

Maybe that’s a big part of it, I don’t have a sense of humor about how shitty the world has gotten anymore? Maybe I feel like not taking it seriously has helped get us to his point. Like in a recent episode Trump is making insulting, provocative tweets to north korea, and he is actually doing that in real life (as surreal as that is) so I don’t feel like laughing about it.


#7

I was done about halfway through season 18, which ended up being them screaming “SEE KIDS, PEWDIEPIE, WE’RE STILL COOL, WE’RE STILL COOL.” What I’ve seen in seasons 19 and 20 have only cemented that Matt and Trey have officially become apart of the establishment and are completely unaware of it. Their rushed episode schedule makes any sort of personal or significant reflection impossible, so you just end up with stuff like confusingly commenting on the BLM protests with drones (???).

They remind me of Mike from Red Letter Media in that both have a massive blind spot when it comes to social issues and are unable to step out of their own mindset enough to understand why certain things are even occurring. The stranger thing is that even when Matt and Trey get it, they don’t know how to talk about it anymore. While their Big Gay Al intro episode had issues, that was a big deal at the time. They were one of the early voices outside the gay community on a network to outright argue for gay rights.

And here they are today, writing a joke where a trans woman assaults a handicapped child (TW sexual assault, pedophilia). My interest in this new game died the moment I saw the PC Principal, one of the worst characters that has ever existed. I’m not even sure they know what they’re parodying anymore besides the vague and increasingly weak concept of “political correctness.” The fact they’re doing an entire season about collective cultural anxiety without talking about the guy in office who lit the powder keg shows just how much they don’t even believe in their own ideals of offensive humor being used to speak truth to power.


#8

This post pretty much nails, what I think I was trying to say in my inital post. South Park as a show was designed from the beginning to be incapable of sincerity and while that may have been a strength at a certain point in time, it doesn’t fucking work in 2017. Your Big Gay Al analogy is a perfect example for as long as it has been, they are still stuck on that same level. Because they can’t speak with earnestness, heart or sincerity they have to try and tackle increasingly difficult subjects with the same sledgehammer mentality and it completely ruins the show for the most part.


#9

I feel like you’re right, but I still fondly remember a lot of South Park episodes, and I think there’s a Simpsons comparison in the gulf between what they were and what they are.

It’s not a perfect formula–there will always be exceptions–but the more their stories are driven by celebrities and current events (like the episodes about Kanye West and Caitlyn Jenner), the worse they are. Then, there’s an episode like The Losing Edge (from 12 years ago) that’s a fun character piece for Randy, a light parody of Rocky, and a look at how crappy youth sports can be.

Like The Simpsons, I don’t believe it’s the sort of decline that can be reversed.


#10

This year has been a bit of a Matt and Trey catch up for me - seeing The Book of Mormon live for the first time, rewatching the South Park movie and Team America, and also catching some more recent South Park episodes on TV. Also Baseketball, which doesn’t really count but I still love it and Cannibal: The musical.

There’s a lot of passion that’s gone in to their work over the years, and it’s clear that there’s an intelligence behind the crude jokes, that doesn’t seem to come from a place of intolerance or hatred necessarily, but I look at the impact of their work, South Park in particular and it’s hard to separate their intentions with the impact it’s had on a section of society, or at least people my age or younger who grew up watching their content. There are people who use the jokes, references and slurs from South Park in ways that go against the purpose or thought behind the joke - for every laugh I had at the Film Actors Guild in Team America, I worry that for some people this helped to normalise and validate their belief that such terms were O.K to use against others simply because “it’s funny - lighten up!”, or that the meaning behind such words can be changed simply because it’s said as “a joke”.

I don’t believe this falls on the creators as a damning criticism, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised the way I laugh at those types of jokes is not the same way some other person laughs at it. Where I see absurdity or intention to think about why such things are offensive, other people see it as a green light to hide behind the humour while still embracing the negative or hurtful aspects.

Sorry for the ramble.


#11

Yeah this is very close to how I feel about it. I have friends that love South Park, but I’ve met so many people that parrot their political beliefs from South Park and don’t really dive any deeper. That bugs me.

Consuming it as a part of a world view is I think fine, but most discussion I see about it just boils down to quoting the show and getting mad of others question in. That’s anecdotally my experience, and I have a hard time loving SP and their work because the fanbase is so bad about conversation. My friends don’t really get that and want to view it in a vacuum, but I watch and will admit faults 100% while still occasionally laughing. Like Patrick said in this article, it’s about 50/50.


#12

I thought the PewDePie stuff, at the time, was more about not turning into an old jaded person who has to complain when suddenly you’re not the target market for something anymore and that kids get into something different that’s not for you.

I didn’t like PDP at that time but that episode helped me see that it wasn’t meant for me and that there was nothing wrong with that.


#13

I doubt it because the following season was absolutely nothing but pointing at kids and screaming “AREN’T THEY WEIRD”


#14

Minor point, but this is maybe the second professional piece I’ve read on the game that called out that “the Coon” is a slur, so kudos patrick


#15

Whenever you encounter a microaggression, you’re contacted by P.C. Principal with an explanation about how one of the words or phrases they used was hurtful to another human being. The joke being that empathy for people’s reactions to our words and their unintended consequences is somehow a bad thing.

I don’t think this is the joke. It sounds like what South Park has always done. Teach a nuanced progressive issues while making fun of those who would use that issue to feed their own self serving narcissism. They often take on the hypocrisy of a vocal public figure of social causes, while in the end endorsing those social causes as just.

The game rewards players for identifying microaggressions. Players must internalize this progressive concept in order to succeed at this game mechanic. This is an endorsement of empathy. Just because South Park often makes fun of “the messenger” does’t mean it isn’t siding with the social justice of the message.


#16

Here’s the problem: They never, NEVER, show someone who genuinely cares about something in a good light almost ever. This results in most every issue they bring up an endless mocking of people who care. There are a few exceptions, like Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride and Naggers, but episodes like these have become rarer and rarer as the duo are making entire seasons just to make fun of people who care too much.

There’s a reason a lot of genuinely terrible people still latch onto this show. Their messaging is an absolute mess and it’s only gotten worse as they’ve started tackling more complicated topics. Seriously, the PC Principal is the most worthless character they’ve ever made. They’re still rallying against the boogeyman of “political correctness” as literal nazis are taking power.


#17

As a practicing Catholic, I’ve definitely been the butt of a South Park episode or two. I still find the jokes funny, and the commentary is at least thought out, even if I don’t always agree with it.


#18

Don’t you think they portray Kyle and Stan as caring? They always have their “I learned something today” moments at the end of the episodes…


#19

For me, I have loved and enjoyed South Park for as long as the original author here, I was 15 when South Park first exploded on TVs with aliens, 8 year old kids and Isaac Hayes and it was the talk of the schoolyard the next day.

Today I still watch South Park on premiere days, for different reasons and some things I do cringe at, in The Stick of Truth I actually found the depiction of homeless to be offensive. The status of South Park holds a similar memory for me as The Simpsons did roughly 2-3 years before I completely stopped watching it, in those 2-3 years it stopped being relevant, my social identity had shifted to where I could not find it not only relatable but also not funny, is South Park headed towards the same direction? Maybe. Will there be a new vehicle for the extreme, thread-lining, border-line offensive nature that many people enjoy, definitely.


#20

Those are usually jabs at by the numbers sitcoms, and they’ve stopped doing it a long time ago.