The late Steve Allen once told me that the mark of an untalented comedian is a reliance on jokes revolving around sex, drugs, or obscenities - in other words, shock.
I suspect Mr. Allen never met Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated cartoon "South Park." If he had, he would have revised his observations to state that whatever they come up with defines "comedy" at its most tasteless. It's impossible to overstate the damage these two have inflicted on American culture.
"South Park," which this month celebrates its fourth anniversary on the Comedy Central cable network, airs at 10 p.m. and is about the only series on television that carries the TV-MA rating. But there's nothing mature about either the show, which centers on the foul-mouthed, raunchy antics of a crew of fourth-grade boys, or its audience, primarily teenage boys attracted to the forbidden fruit of potty humor.
"South Park" kicked off its current season in June with an episode containing 162 uses of the word "s-t." Why the scatological barrage? Because Parker and Stone simply felt like it, and Comedy Central simply let them.
But when an "artist" (how inappropriate that term is!) relies on shock, he's obliged to produce ever more shocking material just to keep his audience.
Apparently Parker and Stone are up to that challenge. Nothing, but nothing, is too disgusting for this pair. And nothing, but nothing, is too shameless for the executives at Comedy Central.
The July 11 episode began with Cartman, the most clueless of the fourth-graders, informing his pals that he now had pubic hair. He reassures them that "this doesn't mean we can't still hang out. It just means that I matured faster than you."
It seems that Cartman, unaware that a person grows pubic hair when he or she's old enough, bought the hair in question from Scott, an unscrupulous ninth grader, for ten dollars. Once he realizes he's been taken, Cartman is furious ("I'm gonna get that son of a bitch!...That a-hole!") and plots his revenge. He tries to train a pony to bite Scott's penis off, but the pony won't cooperate, instead fellating the fake penis Cartman provides.
That, incredibly, brought to a close the more tasteful portion of the episode.
Cartman then devises a scheme which results in Scott's parents trespassing on land owned by a "crazy redneck." The landowner fatally shoots the parents. Cartman takes their bodies, saws them up, and makes them one of the ingredients in a chili which Scott eats at a cookoff. (The dismemberment isn't shown, but once Cartman tells Scott what he's done, Scott reaches into the chili and pulls out one of his mother's fingers, her engagement ring still on it.)
In the August 1 installment, fifth graders have told Cartman that dogs can be milked, so he demonstrates the process for his friends. Of course, he's actually masturbating the dog, to the point where the animal, yes, ejaculates in his face. Later, after Cartman's friend Stan likewise stimulates a dog in the same room where his parents' book club is meeting, the "South Park" grownups decide that fifth grade isn't soon enough to teach youngsters about sex.
What - a morality lesson here? Defenders of "South Park" (yes, our culture is sick enough that some critics actually do like this show) would suggest this episode satirizes adults who place impressionable children in situations for which they're nowhere near ready. But "South Park" delivers this lesson by giving children material for which they're nowhere near ready. Fine lesson, that.
Besides, that alleged satire is buried under rank exploitation of sexual topics, such as when kindergarteners recite the positions their teacher has taught them, starting with "missionary" and "doggie" and proceeding to "piledriver" and "the filthy Sanchez." There's also a subplot in which two other teachers prepare sex-ed lesson plans together and wind up having oral sex and intercourse on the floor.
Parker and Stone aren't stupid - "South Park" occasionally manifests real wit - but they almost always choose to stifle their intelligence, because they have to behave stupidly and raunchily. Once you've dealt "humorously" with pedophilia and abortion in the same episode, as "South Park" did last season, what to do next? Why, you deal "humorously" with murder.
But that's not the end of it. Next week will have to be even more offensive or "South Park" will die. That's life in the shock business, where neither producers nor networks nor sponsors give a damn how badly they're warping children, so long as they trigger those ratings, those all-important ratings.