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"The Cult of Cartman": Preach It, Brother!

After reading Scott Summers’ review of The Cult of Cartman: Revelations, which contains some of the best episodes from the past few years, I felt compelled to write a riposte in defense of South Park. But first a quick qualification: I know the review is concerned with the Cult of Cartman set but this should be treated as defense of the show in general rather than the set itself. That is to say, I’m talking about content here, the worth of actual episodes, rather than whether or not this particular DVD is worth getting. Of the set itself, I’d only suggest that the episode selection is a bit random. There are a few real corkers here but many more (which strongly feature Cartman) that aren’t, which, considering the price and lavish packaging, makes it seem a little pointless. I’d say it would make an ideal gift for someone who you think might like South Park but who has never seen it, or for a completist, but it doesn’t really fill a need for anyone in the middle. You’re better off getting the Season box sets.

South Park has always been about 40% social and political comment/ satire, 20% shock, 20% characters, 10% inventive, meandering and surreal plotlines, and 10% fishiness. What do I mean by “fishiness”? It’s hard to put my finger on it but it’s that idiosyncratic quality that makes one laugh at little quirks—such things as the fact that Mr. Mackay says “m’kay” a lot, or that Canadians in the world of South Park look like this. It’s inexplicable but it’s funny. Humour is very difficult to quantify and it is uniquely resistant to analysis. You’ll either laugh or you won’t. I suspect the people who do laugh at such things (myself included) will furrow their brows at such criticisms as “South Park itself seems ideally crafted to defeat criticism, with its deliberately simplistic and clumsy animation and barely distinguishable voice talent”. With respect to Scott, it seems a little dour to point these things out in the face of je ne sais quoi fishiness.

But the success of South Park does not rest on “fishiness”, but on those much bigger percentages I’ve attributed up there. One of the amazing things about the show is that it has retained the capacity to shock and awe. I don’t know what everyday life is like in the USA, but here in the UK I’d say the average teenagers and adults of 2008 are more difficult to shock than their 80s or 90s counterparts. But South Park just keeps the hits coming hard. I’ve sat there open-mouthed in the past at episodes such as “Red Hot Catholic Love” (not on this set), in which Priest Maxi reports wide spread child molestation to the Vatican only to be told “Yes, we’ve got to stop these boys from goin’ to the public!” What do you do when faced with stuff like that? It’s so irreverent and so insensitive that you’ve just got to laugh—it’s like a gag-reflex.

Almost every episode on the Cult of Cartman set has a moment or two like that. Just to pick a couple at random: in “Tonsil Trouble”, after having his tonsils removed Cartman contracts HIV (!), when Kyle finds out he has to leave the room because he can’t help laughing (!) and then Cartman holds an AIDS benefit concert only to find that no one turns up because “it was more of an 80s or 90s thing, it’s all cancer now”. And in “Up the Down Steroids” the mentally disabled duo Timmy and Jimmy take part in the “Special Olympics”; Jimmy quickly becomes hooked on steroids which eventually causes him to brutally beat up his girlfriend (!!!) and Cartman hatches a plan to win $1000 by pretending to be “retarded”. I have to admit that I laughed quite loudly during the completely unexpected sequence in which Cartman carefully prepares his “handicapped” disguise as “Push It To the Limit” blares on the soundtrack. Why did I laugh? It’s a combination of factors: on one level it’s shock and disbelief at what I’m seeing (“Are they really doing this?”), on another it’s the sheer audacity of Cartman’s plan (made a little funnier by the fact that it is Cartman and this is the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from him), on another it’s the snide parody of similar sequences in 80s “believe-in-yourself-you-can-do-it” movies like Karate Kid. But the show is also making some sort of basic point about cheating at the Olympics. I did say it was difficult to analyse humour.

Some episodes will do the satire better than others (see, for example, Imaginationland or, from this set, the season 10 highlight “Cartoon Wars”), some will do the shocking stuff better (see above), some will focus on characters (from this set: “Cartmanland” and, one of the all-time great episodes, “Scott Tenorman Must Die”), and so on. But if there’s one thing South Park can guarantee it’s that each and every episode will have a little bit of each of these ingredients to create a mixture that somehow refuses to go stale and that eschews the sorts of predictable formulas one finds in stuff like Family Guy (which, incidentally, is superbly deconstructed by Matt Parker and Trey Stone in “Cartoon Wars Part II”).

“But!” I hear you object, “Scott’s main criticism was that the show has become smug and self-satisfied and that such smugness hides an ‘ugly underside, a pride in crudeness for its own sake, a belief that this plays an important part in our First Amendment freedoms, and simultaneously, the cynical counterbelief that those critics and fans who thrive on this loutishness have been conned.’” I’m not sure this is necessarily true. Sure, Matt and Trey are smug insomuch as they have a habit of viciously attacking things they don’t like or disagree with, but I do not think this compromises their social satire. I’ve said it before, there are very few shows that take shots at the reactionary right and equally reactionary, borderline hysterical, left as successfully as South Park. The show retains a capacity to cut through self-congratulatory, hypocritical, middle-class values with incisor-like vision, while at the same time making fun of Kenny’s trailer-trash parents and lampooning some appalling attitudes through the despicable and morally bankrupt Cartman. South Park does something special: it holds the world up and makes it strange and, somehow, gives you a glimpse of how things really are, it teases out the latent dark matter of modern life, it speaks the unspeakable. Why is it that when the great modern playwrights—Miller, Beckett, Stoppard, Pinter, Mamet—do stuff like that they are nominated for Nobel prizes, but when a cartoon show does it, it is accused of smugness?

Read Scott Summers’ review for an opposing viewpoint on The Cult of Cartman.

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