At a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of social inclusiveness, political correctness, and the importance of representation, we are forced to re-examine the media of older eras in a new light.
Shows, movies, books, and songs from “simpler times” are often equipped with thorns. “Oof, I don’t know about that character.” “Ouch, maybe that storyline wasn’t the best idea.” “Yikes, that lyric is pretty ignorant.” It’s a sign of progress that we can recognize the way that things have changed, but there’s also something discouraging about the idea of older pieces of entertainment being this minefield of awkward agendas.
Then you have South Park. It’s one of the most overtly offensive shows ever made. It has targeted nearly every race, gender, political party, and agenda with the kind of venom that causes us to casually block and mute people on social media. Yet it remains a cultural staple at a time when nearly everything it does should, in theory, make it the ultimate target of nearly everyone.
Then again, what would you expect from the last surviving member of the shock era of television?
I Want My Shock TV
Much like how Nirvana represented the desire of many music fans to move away from the pop music of the ‘80s and toward something with a little more grit to it, a select group of television shows in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s began to emerge that reflected a growing want for something a little more shocking.
Married…With Children twisted the standard family television drama by showcasing a broken family that reflected the modern home. Beavis and Butthead made heroes out of a generation of teenage dropouts. Ren and Stimpy advertised itself as a kids show but featured more sexual innuendo and toilet humor than most prime-time programs. Tales From The Crypt…well Tales From The Crypt simply showcased everything that you supposedly couldn’t do on television.
Now, these weren’t the first controversial television shows by any means, but they were far raunchier than what had come before. Rather than save their filthy elements for “very special episodes” or merely use them to wink at the audience, these shows actually glorified the sex, violence, cursing, and immaturity that we were all supposed to be protected from.
While there were certainly social reasons that these shows became so popular with audiences, you also have to consider that this was an era when networks like FOX, HBO, Nickelodeon, and MTV were trying to establish themselves in a rapidly expanding television market. Like any small upstart trying to get their name out there, these companies all realized they had to do something that nobody else in the market was doing. They had to provide a product that could not be found anywhere else.
The result was a sort of shock television arms race that really started to heat up in the mid-nineties. Nearly every network had at least one show that was pushing the boundaries of television decency, while other already existing shows like Monday Night Raw changed their product to accommodate the lucrative audience that this more outlandish content attracted. So far as anyone could tell, we had reached a point where TV would never be able to go back to the way it was. Networks were going to keep escalating this kind of content until someone won the war.
In the midst of this all, two students in Colorado were making a construction paper cartoon.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 1992 student film Jesus vs. Frosty (a.k.a The Spirit of Christmas) was – for all intents and purposes – the first South Park episode. It may have gone completely unnoticed beyond its 1992 University of Colorado student screening, had the short not caught the attention of FOX executive Brian Graden who asked the pair to make a video Christmas card for him in the same style. The result was a short called Jesus vs. Santa that Graden reportedly gave to around eighty friends.
From there, Jesus Vs. Santa became one of the world’s first viral videos. Along with the bootleg copies of the VHS those initial eighty friends began to pass around, the video also made its way to the internet where its low-tech presentation and small file size proved to be an advantage. It wasn’t long before Stone and Parker became the hottest free agents in entertainment.
However, most of the studios that interviewed Parker and Stone didn’t want them to make a show like that resembled the short that made them famous. Everyone agreed it was brilliant, but the general consensus was that it would never be allowed on television. Even Comedy Central president Doug Herzog – who eventually picked up the show – recalls waking up in a cold sweat before they aired the first episode thinking, “Can I get arrested for this?”
So what was it about South Park that made it so much more dangerous than every other shock television show out there? Well, it was certainly as obscene as any other show – oftentimes much more obscene – but the big sticking point back then was that South Park starred children characters. Children who were involved in shocking storylines involving starving Ethiopian children and Christmas-themed feces that sang. Worst of all, they were children that cursed.
By basing such an already controversial show around such young characters, Parker and Stone had finally found a line that people weren’t sure should be crossed. Corruption of youth had long been a sticking point with this kind of content, and South Park was a show that directly showcased incredibly young characters who were as corrupted as they could possibly be.
Of course, what even the show’s supporters didn’t quite realize back then was that South Park was much more than it appeared to be.
“You Know, I Think We All Learned Something Today…”
While the first Spirit of Christmas short only vaguely resembled South Park as we know it today, the one aspect of the show that Stone and Parker established early was having a character end each episode with what they learned that day. In the case of the initial short, it was that Christmas is indeed all about the presents.
This seemingly unimportant throwaway joke would evolve into the series’ longest-running tradition and greatest weapon. The chance to end each episode with a reflection on what the characters learned grounded South Park to the real world in a way that those who only knew it by reputation would have never suspected was possible. It also lent the show an element of morality that often superseded whatever madness occurred before. It didn’t matter that the kids had spent the entire episode watching religious figures battle like Power Rangers, because at the end of the episode, they were able to share a heartfelt message religious tolerance.
That one simple device revealed South Park’s true status as a modern-day political cartoon engineered by two men that were much cleverer than anyone had anticipated. Parker and Stone were college students just as interested in Broadway as they were bathroom humor, and their wide cultural scope allowed them to identify a variety of hot-button topics and turn them into premises.
Their intellect combined with the quick turnaround time of the average South Park episode allowed the show to be relevant in a way that only the nightly news was. Unlike the news, though, South Park had the advantage of being able to skirt past the social barriers we assign to the most sensitive topics to help make them palpable, and simply deliver the blunt truth of the matter in the way that only children the age of the show’s main characters ever could.
It’s a good thing that South Park knew how to stay relevant with the times because the kingdom that it became the ratings king of was about to crumble.
Much like how the rise of the shock era can’t be attributed to one factor, the era’s fall isn’t due to any lone element. Some will point to the rise of reality television as the world’s new entertainment vice, while others suspect the final straw was the effect that 9/11 had on more risqué entertainment in the lucrative American market. Then you have people who say the era simply ran its course. That shock entertainment was simply a fad.
That last one is the only one I have a problem with. While some individual pieces of shock entertainment may have run their course by losing their way (like Married…With Children) or simply finally running into a wall with their networks and sponsors (Jackass and Monday Night Raw), it’s too simple to merely write off the shock era as a teenage stupor from which we would all suffer an inevitable hangover.
The continued success and relevancy of South Park proves that. To this day, every new episode of South Park comes with a sense of anticipation regarding just who is going to get it next and how bad. We crave for this show to shock us with its twisted little world because that shock allows us to come back to our senses and appreciate that sometimes the most awful things in the world have an underlying absurdity to them that can only be properly exposed when they are presented without a moral filter.
We often crave that shock element in our entertainment, and the reason that South Park outlasted them all is that it was the only program that never made us feel guilty for that desire. Through the voices of cursing children, it sat as down and talked to us about the most sensitive topics like we were adults. Anyone or anything that treats you in that manner tends to become a tremendous influence in your life, and those that grew up with South Park kept the show in their lives because of it; while South Park’s relevance and intelligence ensured that it would last long enough to exert that same influence on new generations.
South Park will continue to survive changing social times no matter what they bring because it is, at its core, a show that cuts through whatever ideas we clothe the essential human experience in. It finds the universal message in the most divisive of topics and uses comedy as a megaphone to ensure we never forget that being shocked is a pretty good indication that we never cease being aware of the absurdity that we so often create for ourselves.
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