Stan: Oh my God! They killed Kenny!
Kyle: You bastards!
From these now familiar lines, one can guess that the exploits of Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman—four Colorado elementary schoolers—are crude, in-your-face, and highly controversial. It’s Comedy Central’s animated hit South Park, and I wouldn’t have it any other way! But hidden behind the gore, the fart jokes, and the offensive stereotypes, does South Park have a real and meaningful message about society and religion? Hell yes, and it kicks ass dude!
As a cartoon, South Park has a substantial creative and comedic license to function as a brutally honest (or terribly biased, depending on your perspective) media outlet. Only a poorly drawn animation can get away with spoofing sexual abuse in the Catholic church, lambasting the President for poor decisions, criticizing anti-Semitic emotions in The Passion of the Christ, or insulting Muslim terrorist groups as jihad-crazed savages. You definitely won’t find this kind of remorseless commentary on the nightly news. Yet all are topics that have been dealt with by South Park in a serious, and seriously hilarious fashion.
As a recent example, South Park aired an episode (“Trapped in the Closet”) that attacked Scientology as a cultish, false religion based on irrational (and very bizarre) beliefs about ancient alien spirits. In the episode, Stan, falling under Scientology’s spell, is quickly hailed as the prophetic reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard by brainwashed Scientologists and a highly satirized Tom Cruise and John Travolta. When Stan puts all of his heart into improving the religion, Scientology’s president chides him for reasoning that “to really be a church, [they] can't charge money to help [others].” Disillusioned, Stan proclaims bluntly that “Scientology is just a big fat global scam.”
This episode quickly became the center of a media battle and called attention to the limits of tolerance on television. Isaac Hayes, the sultry voice of Chef, one of South Park’s most beloved characters, refused to participate in the episode based on his belief in Scientology. Hayes later quit the show amidst rumors of pressure from super-Scientologist Tom Cruise, who also forced Comedy Central to pull the “Trapped in the Closet” episode after threatening to halt promotion of his upcoming Paramount blockbuster, Mission Impossible 3 (Both Comedy Central and Paramount are subsidiary companies of Viacom). South Park responded by having the Chef character killed as a result of his brainwashing by a pedophilia-loving Super Adventure Club that bore a deliberate resemblance to the Church of Scientology.
While these episodes may appear silly and religiously discriminating, the messages contained within each show are significant. Just how far can we push freedom of speech and freedom of worship? Can Tom Cruise insult antidepression pill users on television based on his religious beliefs but Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park’s creators, not spoof Tom Cruise and his religion based on their beliefs? What is out of bounds when it comes to religion? In resisting Scientology’s pressure, Parker and Stone have taken a stand: freedom of speech must be protected at all costs. Their view is most clear in a recent episode on the Mohammed cartoon controversy in which Kyle tries to convince a Fox executive to air an episode of Family Guy that contains a depiction of Mohammed. Speaking on free speech, Kyle proclaims, “Either it’s all OK, or none of it is…do the right thing.”
It’s lines like these, with real social implications, that are the justification for South Park’s recent Peabody Award. At the ceremony, director Horace Newcomb said that the shows offensiveness “reminds us of the need for being tolerant.” While some might be confused by the strategy to promote tolerance through intolerance, an educated, attentive, and open-minded viewer will likely get the joke—not to mention all of the other valuable social lessons available from four Colorado kids that are wise beyond their years.