Comedy gone 'South': four views

You had to be there

By Steve Schneider

The South Park most of America knows is not the one I fell in love with.

A couple of years ago, a friend popped a copy of the widely bootlegged short "The Spirit of Christmas" into his VCR, his eyes gleaming mischievously as he urged me to "just watch." I vaguely recall my jaw hitting the floor as a quartet of crudely drawn tykes made unspeakably profane references to each other's weight problems, sexual habits and religious affiliations. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing, but I had no trouble believing my pal when he told me he had spent the better part of a week playing it over and over again. We did the same over the ensuing five days, all but abandoning the Los Angeles scenery that called to us from outside. Melrose would have to wait; this was cultural history in the making.

When word came that our blasphemous discovery was being reconfigured into a weekly TV series for Comedy Central, I was suspicious. How could such an unrestrained flight of political incorrectness be made to conform to the ever-narrowing strictures of the tube?

The answer: Serviceably at best. The mutant "South Park" replaced the original's lacerating wit with gross-out scatological gags and bawdy jingles tailor-made for replay on FM radio's morning zoos. At first, I was hugely disappointed. After watching the four imps curse each other out in verbiage that would make Roseanne blush, a simple "Screw you!" would not do. But I soon learned to lower my expectations. It was funny enough -- occasionally even hilarious -- and I consoled myself that even a hand-me-down Cartman was better than none.

Hope was renewed by the news that a big-screen spin-off was in the offing. Freed from the shackles of TV-MA censorship, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would be at liberty to reinstate the expletive-laden invective and wholesale ethnic slurs that I still considered the foundations of the franchise.

I should have been careful what I wished for. Cuss words abound in "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," but their use is more reactionary than inspired. So intent are Parker and Stone on upping the series' relatively meager ante that they let the barroom jargon fly without regard to pacing or proper motivation. Taken in two-hour dollops, the effect is numbing, not shocking -- like a kid who gets one laugh by making an off-color remark at his parents' cocktail party and then repeats it until he's sent to his room. Maybe "South Park" works better as a short, after all.

It doesn't help that the film's plot is overdrawn in the extreme, reaching far past the saga's humble playground origins into an apocalyptic fantasy that posits a war between the United States and Canada as the wake-up call for Satan's ascension to earth. Over the course of the wrongheaded narrative, the doomed Kenny is sent to rot in a computer-generated hell; the interminable subplot that follows is as intrusive as the "peyote vision" sequence in "Beavis and Butt-head Do America" (another animated gem that lost its focus on its way to the movies).

Those missteps would be easier to excuse if the film stayed true to its characters. But Parker and Stone even drop that ball, making Kyle and company the unwitting, innocent victims of media overload. After sneaking into an R-rated movie, the impressionable scamps emerge with a an expanded vocabulary of learned obscenities. Wrong, wrong, WRONG! The "South Park" kids are foul simply because they ARE; any attempt to explain or apologize for their behavior is barking up the wrong tree. Such a conceit also reinforces their status as children, which they were never meant to be. Vulgar, homophobic and constantly at each other's throats, the stars of "The Spirit of Christmas" were pint-sized adults, not potty-mouthed prepubes. That satirical awareness is what made the joke work, and it's now missed its last chance for resurrection.

Steve Schneider is Orlando Weekly's assistant arts editor.

Tastelessness. Get it?

By Liz Langley

There's nothing more humiliating that someone can say to you than, "If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you." Those 10 little words relegate you to the dunce corner. "If you don't know" means you're so dumb the other person isn't going waste the air it might take to explain a concept that's going to fall on your brain like seeds on asphalt. And ever since the first human appeared, nothing galls humans more than a joke no one will let them in on.

"If you don't know" should be reserved for break-ups. But in explaining why "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" is funny, and why "South Park" was ever funny in the first place, it's almost called for.

Explaining humor is like explaining beauty. Once you've said "LOOK at it ... " and the other person just stares like they do at the elevator door, there just isn't much more to say. But comedy is better for you than beauty, so the charm of "South Park" deserves at least an attempted explanation. Why is it funny when cartoon kids cuss out each other in the snow?

If you haven't seen "South Park," that mostly sums it up. Four kids in a "podunk, white-trash, redneck" Colorado town are made to deal with adults who are rifle-toting, alcoholic, rabidly PC, transsexual, corrupt and stupid. The only pleasant characters are the womanizing school chef and a talking turd.

Imagine if the Little Rascals had watched "Cops" and Springer instead of "Laurel and Hardy." Then suppose Spanky told the gang, "Screw you guys, I'm going home," Alfalfa thought if he could find the clitoris, Darla would like him, and Porky met a violent death every show. That's "South Park." And since they're kids, most jokes involve body parts and functions. If butt humor is unappealing to you, just forget it and go rent "The Apple Dumpling Gang."

So why is it funny? Because:

  • Cartoons have a head start on funny because they make everyone look more ridiculous than they do even in real life.
  • Kids cursing is funny. Their voices are angelic and when they come out with "assmaster," it's funny.
  • Kids talking about gay dogs, flaming farts and picking on classmates is funny. It was funny when you did it. It's twice as funny in cartoon form.
  • Illiterate, amoral, unfortunate, repressed and crazy people are funny because they're way worse off than we are and we don't live next door to them.
  • Watching people be blatantly vicious is funny because they are acting on impulses we have but that we never act on.

That's the crux of "South Park's" popularity and, interestingly, the point of the movie, which hinges on the town's parents seeking scapegoats for their children's language -- language that could choke a dung beetle. If you're looking for something to blame for "South Park," look at "Donna Reed," "Father Knows Best" and "The Flying Nun." With few exceptions we had 40 years of TV that was free of standard human ugliness, and all of it unfunny. No wonder kids who talk like Scarface are getting laughs. We were deprived of tastelessness for so long, it's come back with four heads, all of them wearing snow hats.

Liz Langley writes Orlando Weekly's Juice column.

Bland and bourgeois

By R.A. Bell

Following the 1774 publication of Goethe's novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," rumors of young people dressing like the central character and committing suicide as portrayed in the book swept Europe. Swift critical denunciations were followed by legal actions; in places it was forbidden to sell the book or for anyone to wear the "Werther costume." Censorship, dress codes and the trampling of individual freedoms often have been the response from a civilization spinning out of control, and so only a fool would join the current breast-beating from the left and brow-beating from the right concerning the pop culture phenomenon of "South Park."

"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" occasions none of the above. But it should come as no surprise that Paramount, which has made a cash cow out of "Star Trek," would attempt to capitalize on the cult following and merchandising potential of Stan, Cartman, Kyle and Kenny.

The disingenuous duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone vacillate between advancing their creation as satire (it is not) or dismissing it as sheer entertainment (it has become less so). Twin facts -- that viewership of their TV show has dropped 50 percent this season, and that the movie is an opportunity to increase viewers and earning potential -- reflect the nature of their beast as a pop-culture commodity. That it is a pop-culture commodity that makes fun of pop culture reflects the self-referent humor of arrested development.

Voice cameos by celebrities (George Clooney, Eric Idle, Minnie Driver), references to pop culture ("Star Trek," "Star Wars," Disney movie music), and repetitive self-referent humor ("the animation is crappy" and character Mole's "Third Act countdown watch") suggest the low-brow comedy of burlesque, defined as a ludicrous imitation or representation; broad caricature; travesty. Although apologists might argue otherwise, "South Park" does not rise to the level of parody (a literary composition imitating and ridiculing some serious work). Much less does it aspire to the level of satire, which through keen wit, irony and sarcasm challenges the dominant beliefs, values and culture of a society. Robert Altman makes film satire; Stone and Parker do not. "South Park's" scatological humor and profanity do little more than outrage the middle class, while at the same time perpetuate the ongoing class war from the outset of its first song ("red neck, po-dunk, white trash") to its regular minority bashing.

Burlesque was a dominant humorous form of the 19th century, whose values and viciousness we clearly duplicate in the millennial madness and neo-Victorianism of today. The main motive behind the easily written burlesque was to cash in on a current fad. The talented Stone and Parker are guilty of the same, but who knows? When the "South Park" phenomenon burns out, maybe they will have made enough money to abandon their position as Bad Boys of the Bourgeoisie, and set their sights on something worthy.

R.A. Bell reviews theater for Orlando Weekly.

Sold out? So what?

By Richard J. Grula

This trend should be over by now. Like bored relatives waiting for a terminally ill uncle to shut up and die, longtime "South Park" fans have been grumbling for months: Those foul-mouth tykes aren't funny anymore ... Parker and Stone sold their souls for T-shirt sales ... the pair's witless live-action features ("Cannibal The Musical," "Orgazmo" and "BASEketball") were worse than bad, they were dull. A steady drone of critical backlash has been building, and it's sure to peak with the movie release of "South Park," when disgruntled devotees will take to the Internet and spew, "IT IS TIME FOR SOUTH PARK TO BE SHOT AND BURIED!"

Not so fast.

Not so fast.

"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" is rude, crude and magnificently offensive. From a penis-clenching Saddam Hussein to Cartman's mom appearing on the Internet in a German scat film to Bill Gates getting shot for the bug-ridden operating system known as Windows 98, "South Park" delivers the goods frame after frame. It's the funniest slab of animation in years and a dazzling satire on two American obsessions: enforcement of a public morality and the need to blame someone for every problem we have. "South Park" zooms through plot like a crackhead rifling purses in the guest room during a dinner party. And as with any roller coaster, it makes you laugh and gasp in blinding succession then ends just before you get sick. In this post-"Beavis and Butt-head" world, all things either suck or rock. "South Park" rocks hard.

So what do we make of the folks who accuse "South Park" of selling out? How about ignorance? The bona fide joy of "South Park" always has come from knowing that Parker and Stone sold out on day one. The initial five-minute short was a shotgun blast of shocking comic adrenaline so pure that audiences were left speechless or howling with laughter. Do you try and top that? No! You take the money and run!

Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman are no more than cute shills with big eyes (a trick pilfered from "E.T."). The show's real stars are the two 20-something jokesters who gleefully skewer grade-school clichés, showbiz blowhards and First Amendment debates while expecting to be fired or sued for libel. At its core, "South Park" is an inside joke about the great American dream: getting paid to be comic jerks.

Lately, Parker and Stone have dropped any pretense that their job is creating a ground-breaking cartoon. Now they play the roles of insanely demanding egos whose jobs appear to be sleeping with porn stars, emptying the mini bar and abusing Hollywood celebrities.

Of course it's a goof. Parker and Stone know that in a media-obsessed world, artists are the art, and they've opted to portray the most cliché of Hollywood sellouts. Who knows what they're like in real life -- and who but People magazine cares? On its worst night, "South Park" is better than 99 percent of everything on cable. Most important, it proves morality is a function of economics. Each week, "South Park" challenges network execs to kick the show off the air. Each week, those executives count ad revenues and thank the good Lord that Parker and Stone crawled out from beneath whatever rock they were hiding under.

Of course "South Park" will one day be canceled for no longer shocking anyone. Parker and Stone likely will engineer their own fall for maximum effect. They'll pick up a nasty drug habit just so they have a reason to go to Betty Ford and then shed a tear on a very special Barbara Walters show. Judging from their hapless live-action films, I doubt the duo will ever taste such success again. But for now, give credit where credit is due. Comedy rarely comes any better than "South Park," so stop whining and enjoy it while you can.

Richard J. Grula, marketing director for the Enzian Theater, has a Cartman doll that speaks when you squeeze its hand.

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