The Power of South Park

BY ANDREW MOODY

In Trump’s America the hashtag #CancelSouthPark is sadly a thing.

I remember how it all started, back in 1998 on Channel 4 at midnight, when Channel 4 was hip and edgy, which seems a long time ago, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone were making their ascent to rock-star fame.

They were amongst the first to use the internet to make themselves rich and famous. Their anonymous, self-made cartoon The Spirit of Christmas, in that prehistoric online era, went viral, and they were offered a deal for South Park.

The cute, awkwardly-animated and foul-mouthed kids of South Park elementary were an instant success with viewers, and Parker and Stone did what they felt was the right thing to do: they sold out. Soon, shoppers couldn’t escape a lunch box or a T-shirt with Cartman’s face on it, and a tie-in movie: South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was released in 1999, a box office hit and an Oscar nominee for Best Song. In rock-star fashion, Parker and Stone dropped LSD and wore dresses to the Academy Awards ceremony which secretly upset a lot of nominees.

Now onto Season 21, South Park has developed in sophistication. Around the time of the Clinton/Trump election in 2016 they satirised proceedings by making pervert teacher Mr Garrison (who has been in the show since the pilot) run for President. When Trump won, they had a perfect opportunity to attack the President whenever they liked. They have a history of criticising all presidents, beginning with Clinton – even attacking President Obama, which confirmed rumours they were conservative at heart.

South Park is written and released very quickly. Often released – with the use of digital technology – on the same day. This makes South Park able to comment on current politics in a way that The Simpsons or Family Guy cannot.

Parker and Stone have experimented with film, starring in the comedy Baseketball to capitalise on their fame, and then became financially secure enough to make Team America: World Police, a puppet comedy which didn’t turn its focus onto the American military as many expected, but onto Liberal celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore, disappointing many viewers, but delighting just as many.

South Park – like Trump – has always divided audiences. It is less popular in America as it is in England and Australia; many of its barbs too close to home for the US. The English respect the show’s Monty Python influences and the intellectual fashion with which the creators approach each episode, and even though the show has always disturbed some, it has a devoted following, albeit a slightly smaller one than it did in its late 90’s heyday.

The success of the show is in part down to the multiple, complex plot developments and in-jokes that can confuse the uninitiated. But fans are fiercely loyal, and hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Facebook avatars are that of South Park characters, and they have developed many commercially successful computer games. Parker and Stone even had a west-end hit with the musical The Book of Mormon, making them members of the Hollywood elite and as creative-powerful as it’s possible to be.

Even though some in America might be threatened by South Park ending Trump’s presidency in 2020, South Park has always been commercially successful enough and cheap enough to make to continue producing through any public criticism. It retains a Generation X sense of humour, has always been ultra-violent, crude, rude and shocking, but constant viewers feel comfortable being in on the joke, and are attracted to the clever way it explains political situations in simple but effective terms. It is very hard to consistently produce accurate and funny satire, but South Park, always achieving this, has lasted twenty years, and will presumably continue until Parker and Stone decide otherwise.

The creators now have families of their own, and Trey Parker designs houses and builds complex Lego creations to unwind from the stresses of his job. They have approached Hollywood success with the correct mix of cynicism and fun – at the expense of the vain and untalented. Safe in LA, with no equivalent-sized predators around, they can pretty much do and say what they like. And – forget the Russians – these guys can genuinely sway an election.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction

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