About half way through its 12th season, South Park (Comedy Central, Wednesdays, 10 P.M. ET) has attacked, to take just the first five letters of the alphabet, AIDS research, Britney Spears, Canadians, drug-related social panics, and Eliot Spitzer. Indeed, it’s difficult to find an interest group, ideology, or big name celebrity the show hasn’t yet managed to mock.
South Park, of course, is an animated show about the often absurd adventures of four foul-mouthed fourth-graders—they aged in the fourth season but not since—living in the town of South Park, Colorado. Most stories revolve around antihero Eric Cartman, an enormously fat, scheming, and bigoted nine-year-old who counts Hitler as his hero and hippies as his primary enemies. Crudely animated—two shorts and the show’s initial pilot were created with paper cutouts, and today’s computer-animated version retains the same look—South Park’s uniquely stylized visual vocabulary gives it enormous freedom to offend. Past episodes have included “on camera” depictions of cannibalism, defecation, misshapen breasts that hang down to an unfortunate woman’s waist, and a nebbishy version of Jesus.
At least two books of academic essays, a full-length cultural study (Toni Johnson-Woods’s Blame Canada), and a perceptive book of media criticism (Brian Anderson’s South Park Conservatives) have dealt with the show at length. So far, indeed, extended essays have compared it to everything from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (convincing) to medieval carnival traditions (a stretch). But its real roots may go even deeper. In fact, more than any other piece of modern pop culture, South Park may borrow and even revive the forms, ideals, and purpose of the ancient Greek comic theater. At once, South Park manages to combine social relevance with absolutely absurd humor and does so, in part, through its enormously stylized presentation of the world.
Aristophanes’ The Frogs—recently issued in a new, funny, energetic, easy-to-read translation from Canadian academic Ian Johnston (Richer Resources, 108 pp., $9.95)—offers as good a point of departure as any.
First performed at a festival dedicated to the god Dionysus in 405 B.C., it tells the story of a foolish Dionysus as he journeys to the underworld with his smarter-than-he-is slave Xanthias. The two go to seek better authors of Greek tragedy because (Dionysus says) the more recent playwrights haven’t reached the levels of older ones. The two have a number of adventures, including an encounter with the legendary strongman Hercules, a trip across the River Styx that involves a croaking contest between Dionysus and an enormous number of frogs—hence the title—and finally, a long, slightly tedious in-joke-laden contest between the great tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides that was funnier to Greeks than to any modern audience. (Aeschylus wins.)
Although probably Aristophanes’ best play—it pulls off the task of being very funny while making intellectually interesting points about the nature of artistic creation and cultural change—The Frogs is not his funniest. That honor goes to the infamous story of an all-female multinational antiwar sex strike he recounts in Lysistrata (a play that, in Jeffrey Henderson’s popular translation, averages one penis joke per page while conveying a profound antiwar message).
When it comes to these Greek dramas, perfectly good translations like Johnston’s and Henderson’s—and, for that matter, the best modern performances—deliver a far different experience than Greeks would have enjoyed. Critic Toby Lester has remarked that today’s experience of any Greek play or poem is equivalent to watching a “play” by Richard Wagner or reading “poetry” by Stephen Sondheim (himself the creator of a musical based on The Frogs). In other words, simply reading the plays or watching them in modern performance gives viewers only part of the South Park-like experience the Athenians would have enjoyed.
Performed in front of free-male-only audiences, Athenian plays served public and private purposes simultaneously. For Athenian citizens, and some privileged Greek foreigners living in Athens, attendance at the theater—a public amenity sponsored by the wealthy—represented a key opportunity for alcohol-lubricated social bonding in public. On the other hand, the experience remained disassociated from daily life: All-male casts invariably wore masks and long robes to hide their body shapes and, when they played male roles, strap-on phalluses. Performances focused on annunciation, choral accompaniment, and occasional visual spectacles rather than any semblance of genuine, deep emotion. Plays brought people together in social settings but, at the same time, offered a spectacle that contained social criticism by means of disconnection from ordinary experience.
This oddly disassociated form created a license for social criticism that simply wasn’t available elsewhere in Athenian society. Tragedies like Aeschylus’ The Persians, the single oldest work of Western dramatic literature, could take the side of Greece’s sworn enemies; and comedies—well, comedies could and did offend the mighty gods and great strategoi alike.
South Park continues this tradition of disassociated, absurdist, satirical comedy that’s at once both deeply connected to modern politics and the product of an absurd counter-universe. Operating largely independent of any bureaucracy—show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone write all of the scripts, voice most of the characters, oversee the animation, and often finish episodes only hours before they air—South Park has unusual freedom to roll with the punches. And although Parker and Stone identify as moderate libertarians who support gay rights, hate big government, and have a soft spot for things like road building and the war on terror—the show really won’t consistently please anyone. Sanctimony and shrillness emanating from the right, even the libertarian right, gets just as much criticism as the same from the left. One episode even depicted the Republican party as the literal tool of demonic forces.
Just as The Frogs makes wonderful absurdist satire out of literary criticism and cultural change, recent episodes of South Park have attacked such esoteric topics as Bono’s work on Third World debt, the new-age Gaia hypothesis that Earth is actually one giant interconnected organism, and medical research fundraising. This season’s best episode to date—entitled “Major Boobage”—simultaneously skewers all sides in the war on drugs, media drug alarmism, the FCC’s inconsistent standards for depicting mammary glands on broadcast television, sanctimonious politicians in general (and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in particular), and, for good measure, the 1981 Canadian animated movie Heavy Metal.
Despite this almost-too-eclectic agenda, the result is a brilliant attack on all stripes of public hypocrisy.
In fact, the show’s dissociated world allows South Park to make light of topics that lack any intrinsic humor. As well as they might have done things, recent much-lauded TV comedies didn’t break any new ground when they found humor in the absurdity of everyday life (Seinfeld), sexual politics (Friends), or class tension (Cheers). These things are among the most ancient topics for comedy and, of course, South Park jokes about them all the time, too. No matter how well done—and the best sitcoms have shown flashes of brilliance—this is not quite as hard as creating genuinely funny humor concerned with Third World debt and literary criticism.
Through its uniquely warped worldview, South Park has managed to revive truly primeval traditions of Western satirical comedy and make continuously sharp political points at the same time. After a dozen seasons, South Park remains as pointed as ever. And it’s also a good source of breast jokes.