'South Park' Reconsidered, Sort Of
by L. Brent Bozell III
February 11, 1998
Last August, after watching the premiere episode of Comedy Central's half-hour animated cartoon series "South Park" (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. Eastern), I used this space to call it "filth" and "toxic sewage," and suggested, "It doesn't just push the envelope; it knocks it off the table. It shouldn't have been made, period." A vehement denunciation, to be sure. Six months later, does the criticism still hold water? "South Park," which centers on Colorado third-graders Kyle, Stan, Cartman, and Kenny, made instant waves with violence, constant foul language, and infantile jokes about bodily emissions. But was it really that bad?
Well, to see how "South Park" has become a smash is to conclude that maybe yours truly made a fool out of himself. The show's been the subject of a major feature in TV Guide, which is about as mass-circulation as magazines get, and of a Rolling Stone cover story. Its main characters appeared in a "Tonight Show" sketch. Its merchandise is doing brisk business - $30 million in sales. Household names - Jerry Seinfeld, Tiger Woods - want to do guest voices, and George Clooney already has.
Recently, I began to wonder if I'd missed the "South Park" boat, so I looked at tapes of seven other episodes. I analyzed the series in two ways. First, as I would a typical 10 o'clock offering meant for adults. Conclusion: it's often grossly offensive by any standards, sometimes also very funny, and its implicit hostility to political correctness is refreshing. It's the Howard Stern of animated-cartoon cable programs.
But is it an adult audience that's watching the show? The question was put to a spokesman for Comedy Central, who roundly stated that "South Park" should not be watched by children but conceded children do make up a portion of the audience. What percentage? He would not divulge the answer, leaving me to believe it is more than Comedy Central would care to acknowledge.
So what are children getting out of "South Park"? As far as obscene language is concerned, Steven Bochco's police dramas "NYPD Blue" and "Brooklyn South" join "South Park" as contenders for TV's most foul-mouthed offering. Perhaps some cursing is defensible in the Bochco efforts, inasmuch as this language reflects the reality of the police world. But that's not true of "South Park," whose young viewers are treated to their cartoon counterparts swearing like sailors. Words like "ass," "bastard," "dick," "a-hole," and "son of a bitch" are used dozens of times in every episode. And to my knowledge "South Park" is the only non-pay-cable series that includes "goddamn" - and does so routinely.
Violence and sex also render "South Park" unsuitable for the young. Kenny dies gruesomely in virtually every episode; his corpse is usually nibbled by rats. Regarding sex, the chef at the kids' school frequently refers to his lovemaking skills, although, admittedly, some of this will go over the heads of young viewers.
Then there's the show's toilet humor, with storylines devoted to the sensation of passing gas, or the misery of diarrhea. ("I just gave birth to a black baby!" exclaims a white woman in a crowd who has just soiled her pants.) Rarely does the humor rise above this.
How offensive can the show's "humor" be? Enough, apparently, to infuriate the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which has denounced "South Park" over its February 4 installment, which contained a boxing match between "Jesus" and "Satan." A priest character shouts, "Jesus, you're gonna kick ass"; a boy coaching "Jesus" says, "Goddamn it, Jesus, snap out of it!" and another boy discusses how he stuck an envelope "up my ass." "Satan" winds up slamming "Jesus" around the ring and fakes losing the match.
Make no mistake: This episode, like every episode of "South Park," is designed to be offensive. One of its creators, Trey Parker, boasted last summer, "I can guarantee it's gonna be the raunchiest thing on TV and it's gonna piss a lot of people off."
William Donohue of the Catholic League asks an interesting question: If we were to substitute, in that February 4 episode, Martin Luther King for Jesus, and Bull Connor for Satan, would that storyline ever see the light of day? Heavens, no. That isn't funny.
So I stand by my earlier words. "South Park" should shape up. There are limits, and this show's gone too far.