Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of “South Park,” never apologize. Even after getting banned in Chinalastweek for satirizing Chinese censorship on the episode “Band In China,” the duotweeteda mock apology. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy,” the statement reads. “We good now, China?” (South Park and China are currently not good).
The humor in “South Park” usually falls on a spectrum from woke and relevant to kind of fucked up. Still, the show and its creators always stand by their sometimes-shitty message. But once — and onlyonce, as far as my research shows — did “South Park” go back on their word. In 2018, they reversed their stance on a topic they had once laughed off: climate change.
In the 2006 episode “ManBearPig” where Parker and Stone first took a stance, Al Gore presents to South Park Elementary: “There is something out there which threatens our very existence … I’m talking of course, about ManBearPig. ManBearPig doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done. ManBearPig simply wants to get you.”
The euphemism of a “half-man, half-bear, half-pig” boogie monster speaks to Parker and Stone’s impression of global warming: Climate change is something silly and unrealistic, a childish fear, even an impossibility. The duo doubles down on that impression in show’s 2007 “Imaginationland” arc — ManBearPig appears as a character in Imaginationland, a world full of made-up characters, suggesting climate change is imaginary.
While palpable and perceptible today, especially among the activism of Ann Arbor, this impression of climate change as something absurd wasn’t uncommon in the 2000s. In a 2009reportby Yale University, only 18 percent of Americans were taking action about climate change. Another 33 percent believed in it but did not feel personally threatened by the issue; the remaining 49 percent ranged from flimsy belief to total dismissal.
Today “South Park” is a clear criticism of American culture and politics, but earlier seasons were less satire, more juvenile humor. By the time “ManBearPig” aired in ’06, the show was full-fledged commentary, and the episode accuses Al Gore of being alarmist and self-serving. It especially mocks “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary chronicling his global warming awareness campaign. The end of the episode makes the show’s position clear when Stan has an angry outburst at Gore: “You just use ManBearPig as a way to get attention for yourself because you’re a loser!”
Twelve years later, “South Park” revisits climate change on season 22’s “Nobody Got Cereal?” and “Time to Get Cereal.” In 2018, it would turn out that the smug Al Gore was right all along, when the two-episode special opened with an attack from a realManBearPig.
In a telling scene, a father speaks to his wife while his family enjoys dinner at Red Lobster. “There’s no scientific proof, no real evidence of a ManBearPig,” he says over a glass of wine. Just as he begins to explain, ManBearPig itself bursts into the restaurant window. As the father continues to deny ManBearPig’s existence, the monster wreaks havoc in the background, destroying everything in its reach and killing all bystanders. When his wife points to the pandemonium behind him, he simply observes, “OK, ManBearPig is real … what are we gonna do that’s gonna make any difference now, Susan?” The monster devours him just as he begins to blame ManBearPig on China. Parker and Stone’s new target in 2018 is not an alarmist Al Gore, but the delusional climate change denier. In a total flip of opinion from “South Park,” the climate change denier is depicted as more smug and self-absorbed than Al Gore was twelve years earlier.
The everyday ambivalence toward climate change held by society at large is maybe the most mocked. As fires rage in South Park and citizens scream with terror throughout the town, the community center hosts a presentation titled “When should I start to worry?” One character asks, “I’m pretty sure there’s a ManBearPig and I’m fairly certain that he’s eaten two of my children and destroyed our home. When should I start to worry?” Another character says, “I don’t know if I believe in ManBearPig or not, but I do know that I am open to the idea of starting to worry,” earning proud applause from the audience for his bravery. In a local TV talk show discussion, one character declares, “I don’t think there’s any more room for not considering underestimating the importance of beginning to start the process of mulling over the conceptualization of starting to worry. And the time to do it is very soon.”
Baby Boomers are blamed for climate change when Stan confronts his grandpa in the senior home, accusing the older generation of making a deal with ManBearPig. One old lady says, “We thought we’d be dead by now! We didn’t think we’d have to live to see the consequences!” Stan accuses them of signing his future away, to which his grandpa admits they traded the present joy of cars and ice cream in exchange for ManBearPig’s inevitable return. The show mocks a generation of people who greedily chose to enjoy frivolous luxuries without thought for the future.
In classic “South Park” fashion, the show makes a prediction of sorts. Stan enters negotiations with ManBearPig, who offers to never return so long as the town gives up two things: soy sauce and “Red Dead Redemption 2.” But those luxuries are too much to sacrifice, so in order to keep them, Stan signs away the lives of all children in third world countries, putting off ManBearPig’s return for five more years, during which the carnage will be a thousandfold higher.
This is the most grim assessment made by “South Park”: Action to prevent climate change will only be put off again. Swap soy sauce and “Red Dead Redemption 2” for beef and fossil fuels, and the reality of climate change is depicted perfectly. As I fuel up my car at the gas station and pick up burgers to grill, I wonder if I should start to worry.