This article is a part of the Daily Arts “Canceled” b-sideFor a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.

Should “South Park” be canceled?

With debates spawned by controversial episodes raging across Twitter and echoing on Reddit subthreads, “South Park” remains as scandalous as it was back in 1997. Mocking Clinton’s sex scandals, Scientology and the Virgin Mary with equal vigor, the show has done double duty as a cultural touchstone and as an argument for why you shouldn’t let your kids watch Comedy Central. Yet over the past two years, many have called for the animated show to be canceled — claiming that South Park has raised a generation of trolls inspired by the racist, hate-fueled vitriol spewed by main character, Eric Cartman. With these considerations in mind, is there still a place for South Park in 2020? I rewatched some episodes to find out.  

By chance, the first episode I came across was the “Red Sleigh Down” from 2002. Written during the height of the war on terror, the episode follows Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Santa Claus as they attempt to bring Christmas to the downtrodden children of Iraq. Over the course of the episode, Santa’s sleigh gets shot down by an RPG over Baghdad, Saddam Hussein electrocutes Santa’s testicles and Jesus Christ is murdered by terrorists. Oh, and back in South Park, Colorado, Jimmy, the show’s resident child with a disability, stammers through a garbled version of a “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’s ludicrous, hilarious and utterly, blatantly offensive.  

But would the episode have aired today? In the age of “cancel culture,” where Lana Del Ray was “canceled” for wearing a mesh face mask, it seems unlikely that a show satirizing terrorism, making fun of children with disabilities and even going after Jesus Christ himself would be allowed to continue. Shows have been canceled for far less or at minimum altered to satisfy politically correct ideals. Even classic cartoons aren’t safe — Elmer Fudd, the rabbit-hunting denizen of “Looney Toons,” has had his iconic hunting rifle replaced by a scythe. “The Simpsons” have removed the character of Apu, who was said to perpetuate harmful Indian stereotypes. Yet, somewhat inexplicably, “South Park” has survived the media purges unscathed. The show is in its 24th season and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. So how has “South Park” been able to avoid cancellation?      

The answer lies in their even-handed satirization — of everything. The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, don’t single out one specific race, culture or religion. They rarely even taunt the same celebrities, preferring instead to lampoon hundreds of America’s most famous figures over the past two decades. “South Park” can’t be accused of discrimination; they ridicule everyone with equal glee. Not unlike the fool in the king’s court, the only person allowed to tell the truth without fearing retribution, “South Park” has played the role of America’s jester to a tee, revealing society’s hypocrisies and laughing giddily along the way. 

Notorious for their tongue-in-cheek humor, Parker and Stone are unafraid to self-satirize, too. This attitude was best exemplified by a video released on “South Park”’s official Twitter in 2018. With white words on a black background, a booming voice reads off the following text: “America has reached a crossroads. What will we do next? #CancelSouthPark.” Shortly thereafter, the hashtag #CancelSouthPark was trending. Many assumed the show’s creators finally gained a conscience — or that in Trump’s America, the comedy’s once-outrageous world of “South Park” now seemed tame. All speculation was moot; the hashtag was no more than a marketing gimmick. Never afraid to break the fourth wall, Parker and Stone were once again poking fun at themselves and an increasingly prevalent cancel-culture.    

If “South Park” was like “Family Guy,” it would be viewed anachronistically, like “Fuller House” or some other show that has been dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the 1990s. Yet more than any animated television show, “South Park” has remained remarkably relevant, due to their rapid production process. Each 30-minute episode is produced in six days (most animated television series have production periods of 3-6 months) allowing for timely humor and a degree of relevancy most other series can’t aspire to. More akin to “Saturday Night Live” than “The Simpsons,” South Park’s spur-of-the-moment humor has allowed them to stay one step ahead of cancellation.    

I ended my viewing spree by watching “The Pandemic Special,” the first episode of the show’s 24th season. Covering the impact of the coronavirus on the inhabitants of “South Park,” the town’s children are forced to quarantine at school under the guard of the district police force, implied to be unemployed due to their poor handling of the Black Lives Matter protests. The episode controversially features Token, the show’s only African American character, being shot by the town’s chief of police for coughing in the classroom. Was this a heartless attempt at a cheap laugh, or does it satirically raise awareness of police brutality? I’ll leave that for you to decide. Regardless, South Park’s unique timeliness, absurdity and pure, comic stupidity ensure it will remain a controversial cultural force for years to come.   

Daily Arts Writer Sam Mathisson can be reached at mathiss@umich.edu

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.