Time flies when you’re having fun, or so they say, but whoever has been around for some time – and 20 years is certainly “some” and then some – knows that it neither flies nor crawls. Time moves at its own petty pace, impervious to anything you might have (fun or its opposite), or lack. Therefore, it is very much up to you – the speed time travels in and for you. For instance, take the creators of “South Park,” whose 20th (!!!) season premiered on Wednesday and in Israel on Thursday, on Hot Comedy Central). For Matt Stone and Trey Parker – both in their mid-forties now – it certainly looks like it’s been fun for two decades already. The first episode of the most politically incorrect animated TV series first aired on August 13, 1997 on Comedy Central (viewed by almost a million people), and the finale of season 19 on December 9, 2015 was viewed by twice as many fans.
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When it all started, Bill Clinton was still in the White House. Stone told Vanity Fair magazine in an interview prior to the 20th season’s premiere: “It was before the internet, which is a crazy thing. It’s before cellphones, much less social media, Facebook, and all that stuff. Before DVDs. That’s how long we’ve been on the air.” Politics was very much confined to newscasts, overflowing to the talk shows, but TV series were fictional, oriented to plot, character and formula, and animated series were considered kid stuff.
“South Park” came on the screen without an agenda, with its creators looking at the world – and the way it reflects itself and on itself on TV – through kids’ innocent, and therefore irreverent, eyes. The opening paragraph of the joint (word used advisedly here) interview with Stone and Parker in Vanity Fair sums up the show’s charm best: “Perhaps ‘South Park’’s most refreshing element is its refusal to take itself too seriously – no matter how seriously its fans take it. The series has effectively lampooned everything from Scientology to rain forest conservation to PC culture, but often manages to do so without any real agenda. The adults are crazy; the kids are profane and clueless; the situations they find themselves in are so ridiculous that one has to imagine their creators laughing at anyone looking too hard for a deeper meaning.”
In the 20 years and 267 episodes, the world and TV have changed a lot. Nowadays, TV news comes in 50 different shades of entertainment and the most and best political comment on TV can be found on comedy shows. The boundary between things as they are and the way they look through the most distorting mirror of satire has become blurry. And yet “South Park,” the blandest of all bland American small towns, peopled by animated cartoon characters of strictly one-dimensional kids and adults (no in-between ages) seems to be as fresh as it was at birth, and (hopefully) will be fresher and fresher.
The naked truth
Samuel Beckett wrote, “We are all born mad. Some remain so.” While one may question that statement (for instance, who gets to define “mad”?), it is certainly true that we are all kids first, and those of us who remain childish are looked down on from under risen highbrows. And yet, the way kids – as yet unbridled by prevalent norms – see the world is supposedly a straw at which we can grasp to correct the course our politics seems to be sailing on, toward the iceberg. Stone and Parker and their animated kids – Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Eric Cartman and Kenny McCormick of “South Park,” who aged one year during the 20 of their lives on screen – have much in common with the child who cries out that the emperor has no clothes in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story.
It is worthwhile to remind ourselves how that smart kid got into the emperor’s story in the first place. Andersen concluded his first version of the story with the king knowing full well that he is totally naked, marching “in the procession under the beautiful canopy, and all who saw him in the street and out of the windows exclaimed: ‘Indeed, the emperor’s new suit is incomparable! What a long train he has! How well it fits him!’ Nobody wished to let others know he saw nothing, for then he would have been unfit for his office or too stupid. Never emperor’s clothes were more admired.” The cloth of illusion is stripped away only in the reader’s mind, after the story has ended.
All seven full pages of the story’s original manuscript, with Andersen’s signature and a small drawing at the bottom of the last page, were sent to the printers. But Andersen used to “try out” his stories before publication, and he meanwhile read it to a child. And the child did not get it. So Andersen added a paragraph, on a separate, eighth, page. Now an innocent child calls out, “But he has nothing on at all!” and everyone repeats his words. “That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, ‘Now I must bear up to the end.’ And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist.” (The pages of the manuscript can be viewed at the website of the Odense Museum.)
Parker and Stone and the children of “South Park” insist that they still retain the healthy and unsullied-by-reality “childish” point of view on the way of the world and the foolish mortals that people it, and behave as though they are determined to end this, just to show their peers that they can. They know very well that even if they raise hell about nonexistent clothes, the procession will march on. They are, and have been for 20 years, the only scripted TV show that is made anew every week, keeping its fingers on the pulse, responding to evolving events and keeping up to date, or rather up to a constant “dare." They gladly rush in where wise men fear to tread – for instance, making all the fun they could muster of PC (political correctness, not personal computer), which was just beginning 20 years ago (and is a has-been already) or the wily ways of ads and sponsored content, the chief butts of the 19th season.
The eighth episode of “South Park” will be written and aired the day after the upcoming presidential elections. Parker and Stone have weathered a couple of elections already, making up the post-election episode, which airs on Wednesday, on election-day Tuesday itself. Digitized animation facilities production, and the fact that Parker and Stone don’t have an agenda and don’t plan ahead, but only want to have fun, helps a lot. Which brings us to one Donald Trump, who seems to be defying satire, and with whom Parker, Stone and “South Park” kids and adults will have to deal this season, like it or not.
They have dealt, and done with, Trump the candidate, in episode two of last season, which aired on September 23, 2015. There the Trump character is President of Canada, who is going to build a wall to stop American immigrants coming in and endangering its greatness. A troubled Canadian decides to flee his country and its elected president for the U.S., explaining: “There were several candidates during the Canadian elections. One of them was this brash asshole who just spoke his mind. He didn’t really offer any solutions, he just said outrageous things. We thought it was funny. Nobody really thought he’d ever be president. It was a joke! But we just let the joke go on for too long. He kept gaining momentum, and by the time we were ready to say, OK, let’s get serious now, who should really be president? he was already being sworn into office. We weren’t paying attention We weren’t paying attention!”
So, this is it, folks. The joke has gone too far indeed, and now “South Park” will have to try to make fun of it again, and make people pay attention. Only a kid can believe that it’s still a laughing matter. But laughing at it does help a bit.