South Park, which begins its tenth season on Comedy Central tonight, is now not only one of the longest-running TV hits but also part of political as well as pop culture; the phrase “South Park Conservatives” is now part of our vocabulary. Yet how conservative, really, are the guys behind South Park?
“I hate conservatives, but I really f***ing hate liberals,” said co-creator Matt Stone, in an oft-repeated quote from when Stone and partner Trey Parker accepted a People for the American Way award in 2001. But if the creative team’s spitballs are lobbed mostly at people like Rob Reiner and Sean Penn et al, that’s mostly because the liberal elites are the ones mostly in charge.
“Hollywood views regular people as children, and they think they’re the smart ones who need to tell the idiots out there how to be… South Park was based on our hatred and loathing for Hollywood,” Parker and Stone told Hollywood, Interrupted authors Andrew Breitbart and Mark Ebner.
“We still believe that all people are born bad and made good by society,” Parker told Time this spring. “Actually, I think that’s where we’re conservative,” added Stone.
South Park Conservatives author Brian Anderson has (correctly) called the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning show “the most hostile to liberalism in television history.” Not that South Park exactly promotes traditional values conservativism. Still, the show — about four eight-year-old boys who for some reason regularly encounter everyone from space aliens to Tom Cruise in their small Colorado town — isn’t out simply to shock, even if superficially it may seem that way.
“South Park has never been a cynical show… where we just want to throw gas on the fire and say, ‘F*** you all,’” said Parker at a Comedy Central press conference about the show’s tenth season this summer. “It’s always been trying to lighten things up.”
Probably the philosophy is best described as a sort of don’t-tread-on-me libertarianism rooted in the anti-establishment West. Parker and Stone like to describe themselves as just “two guys from Colorado,” which indeed they are: They met at the University of Colorado, not Harvard. They have no sacred cows, but don’t take themselves very seriously either. Maybe the most useful shorthand is to simply call Parker and Stone the anti-Aaron Sorkins of the TV business.
Sometimes their targets fight back, and the result isn’t very pretty. During the 2004 election, for instance, Sean Penn, offended at the South Park team’s mocking of youth-vote campaigns, sent them a letter explaining that they themselves are too young to know better: “You guys are talented young guys but, alas, primarily young guys.” Also, they haven’t personally visited Jordan and Iraq, the way Penn has. The actor signed his letter, “All the best, and a sincere f*** you.” That’s telling ‘em, Sean!
Parker and Stone often say that their favorite episodes (and probably about eight of their ten favorites on the new tenth-anniversary DVD) are about “kids just being kids” rather than the political shows that get all the attention. Recently these have been about Tom Cruise and Scientology (which Comedy Central pulled at the time Cruise was publicizing Mission Impossible: III but has since been rebroadcast), and also a 2006 episode that included an image of the prophet Mohammed. The cable network blocked that image, although a 2001 Mohammed episode has aired in syndication many times.
The Scientology episode meant the end of South Park’s relationship with Isaac Hayes, the voice of the cafeteria chef. “To be honest, Chef hasn’t been a big part of the show for five years,” said Parker, “so it wasn’t a devastating blow or anything, but then this press release came out, [saying] ‘Trey and Matt are bigots’ and all this stuff. That’s where we were like, ‘Wow, you really thought the show was fine until we did your religion.’”
The only thing they regret about the Scientology episode, which depicts an upset Tom Cruise locking himself in the closet after one of the South Park boys suggests he’s not the best actor in the world (“You’re not Gene Hackman or that guy who played Napoleon Dynamite, but you’re OK, I guess”) is “that Tom Cruise stink,” as Stone puts is. “Everyone’s sick of it. We really have this very strong philosophical position about the Mohammed cartoon controversy, and no one wants to talk about that. Everyone just wants to talk about Tom Cruise.”
Their philosophical position about the Mohammed cartoon is that a free society shouldn’t be cowed by threats from Islamofascists. “If you’re saying this is the one thing we can’t do — besides Tom Cruise — because they’re threatening violence,” said Parker, “Well, then, I guess that’s what everyone should do. If the Catholics don’t want us ripping on Jesus anymore, then they should just threaten violence. That’s why it’s such a slippery slope and such a dangerous path to go down.”
Are there any South Park episodes that, in retrospect, they felt went too far?
Possibly the one where Jared (of Subway Sandwiches fame) gets AIDS, only because they were trying to make the point that making jokes about AIDS is finally funny. But “it came off that AIDS was funny,” said Parker, which was not their intention.
They don’t regret the one about Christopher Reeve sucking stem cells out of fetuses, however, even though “that was one of the few where we came up with the idea and spent a whole season not doing it,” said Parker. Then they happened to catch Reeve on Larry King.
“He really was taking up this cause of ‘Everyone needs to help me out,’” Parker added. At that point, the paralyzed actor seemed so sanctimonious that even their church-going Catholic producer — who regularly warns them they’re going to far — said to go ahead and do the Reeve episode.
Still, they’re never afraid of “that random psycho” being so offended by a South Park episode that the psycho tracks them down and kills them. “We’re much more concerned with if the fans are going to like it or not,” said Stone.
“We’re always afraid,” clarified Parker. But it’s a fear born of procrastination and last-minute planning — they didn’t start working on this month’s tenth-anniversary season opener, for instance, until around September. “It’s always, ‘Oh my God, are we going to finish by Tuesday?’” Parker said. “Every week we’re about to call Comedy Central and go, ‘We didn’t get a show done this week.’ It’s never happened so far, but we’ve come so close.”
– Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.