One of the reliable joys in entertainment during the Bush years was knowing that despite the relentless, insipid hate passed off as comedy about our President, every week South Park would serve up truly independent, politically incorrect satire which skewered actual sacred cows. When virtually all players in the film and TV industry were brown nosing Al Gore as though they were born without lungs, Trey Parker and Matt Stone mercilessly mocked him. When Hurrican Katrina was the cause du’jour for leftist hatemongers, fictional 4th graders Kyle and Stan called them out for exploiting the tragedy. And, even early on in the show, the hyperventilating, totalitarian dark side of the green movement and multicultural “tolerance” received scathing send ups.
Yet since Obama’s election, their aim has tilted right. While they revisited the nonpartisan issue of censorship over fear of jihadist violence in their 200th episode, the only overtly political targets of the past two seasons have been Glenn Beck in “Dances with Smurfs” and the Tea Party in last week’s episode, “TMI.” In “Smurfs,” Cartman starts to do the school’s morning announcements, quickly transforming into a conspiratorial nut who accuses the school president of murdering the titular cartoon characters. Now, Glenn Beck’s TV show is certainly ripe for parody (not a fan myself), but the episode plays as though Parker & Stone have only seen second-hand accounts of the program (which they’ve admitted regarding other episodes’ source material), and the satire, because it’s only mocking a straw man version of Beck, lacks the bite of their previous work.
In the same way, on “TMI” (spoilers ahead), South Park rips on the Tea Party– which, again, could be a source of truly funny jokes, even mean-spirited ones– with recycled second-hand stereotypes. Cartman’s principal sends him to a counselor when he measures his and his classmates’ penis sizes. Eventually, the counselor recommends an anger management session, wherein a Tea Party member complains about “stupid-ass blind liberals” while wearing tea bags draped over a tri-corner hat. The counselor quickly surmises that all the anger management attendees act out because of insecurity over their penis sizes.
This first meeting isn’t actually that annoying yet, as the Tea Partier is just one of many mocked characters. However, when staple character Randy Marsh gets sent to anger management, he begins to parrot the Tea Party complaints about big government and socialism (which is uncharacteristic of Randy– historically, he’s been rather liberal) and starts a riot. In an attempt to stick it to the federal government, all the characters in the meeting attack Federal Express, American Apparel, and other private businesses that seem nominally connected to the feds. In a hostage situation, the Tea Party character pipes up that he demands to see “Obama’s real birth certificate.”
From that summary, one might assume that I didn’t find the episode funny, which is false. No matter what the setup is, when the punchline is Cartman or Randy flipping out, South Park remains one of the best comedies on television. “TMI” is an episode full of great gags and outrageous performances, but I can’t help but be disillusioned at how safe and politically correct the jokes about the Tea Party are. Since its inception, comedians have picked on the Tea Party with virtually identical insults. “Hey, look at those silly costumes!” “They’re angry white men sublimating their insecurities!” “Crazy birthers, every one of them!” There’s a word for comedians who just repackage other people’s jokes: hacks. And I have a hard time defending Matt and Trey when I think about whether that charge can apply to their Beck/Tea Party jokes.
I have no beef with South Park making fun of what I believe; “Goobacks” and “Christian Rock Hard” are two examples of standout episodes that mock Christians and anti-illegal immigration sentiments. They work far better than “TMI” and “Smurfs” because they send up the actual follies of those ideas; they don’t just rinse and repeat straw men representations of the satire’s subject. Also, they weren’t just piling on ridicule for a much-maligned object. Whereas South Park is best known for being politically incorrect and unabashedly skewering that which no one else dare touch with a ten-foot pole, attacking Beck and the Tea Party when everyone else is already doing just that places the show in the back of the herd. It takes courage to stick your neck out against someone powerful and popular, but it doesn’t to be the last guy in line kicking some kid on the ground. Hopefully, Parker & Stone will turn things around soon, because this could be the point where South Park loses its edge– and therefore its appeal.