Has South Park's Humour Changed, Or Have We?

Eric Cartman as "The Coon."

This week on Kotaku Splitscreen, Jason and I take on South Park. We talk about the new game, The Fractured But Whole, as well as the show as a whole: its comedic sensibility, how its jokes function, and the baggage South Park has accumulated over the last 20 years on the air.

I've excerpted a section of that discussion below, though I'd definitely urge you to listen to the whole conversation. It's a complicated subject that we both have a lot of feelings about. Listen here:

After South Park, we tackled the news of the week (40:19), including EA's shutdown of Visceral Games, allegations of sexual harassment at Naughty Dog, and the state of Destiny 2 after the disappointing first Iron Banner and before the launch of the PC version.

We closed out by talking about a few games we're playing (1:08:33), including SteamWorld Dig 2, the terrifying addictiveness of Stardew Valley, and some additional thoughts on Middle Earth: Shadow Of War now that I've played more.

Some lightly edited excerpts from our South Park conversation:

Jason: One of the most classic South Park episodes is "Douche and Turd," which is about the 2004 election. And it was about Bush vs. [Kerry] at a time where both candidates were very uninspiring to people.

I actually didn't see this past season of South Park about the 2016 election, but what I gathered was that they were going in similar directions and just attacking both Hillary Clinton and Trump, who was Mr. Garrison in the show. And then I think they had kind of a come-to-Jesus moment, where after Trump won they were like, holy shit, what do we do now? How do we satirize this awful situation?

And I think with this most recent season of South Park, they have been staying away from that stuff except for one episode where they talked about North Korea, and that was actually the best episode of the season. Where they just went after Trump and have this song about putting your phone down if you're president of the United States of America.

But anyway, long story short, I think they are acknowledging in some ways that this reality is no longer possible in a way ... you can't do "Douche vs. Turd Sandwich" anymore because it's more like, Turd Sandwich vs. Apocalypse.

And that's the most recent election, right? A lot of people didn't think Hillary Clinton was a great, appetizing choice, but the other choice literally could be the end of America as we know it. So, in this new political reality, yes, that old South Park approach does feel like a bygone era.

Kirk: So, it's partly that. It's interesting to watch a show like this change, when it came to cultural significance during a different era. And has had to adjust with the way that culture has changed. Not just to be "politically correct" or to be more "right," or because its creators' views change, just because also, the entire conversation, the whole nature of comedy changes.

I think that part of this remove, part of the contradiction and the confusing-ness of South Park in general comes from the fact that it is really fundamentally straight white guy humour. It's this type of humour -- and I engage in this humour all the time, as a straight white guy -- where you can kind of just laugh at the whole situation. And you can say, "oh, look at how ridiculous everybody is."

And it's very core to the identity of South Park and always was. And it just played better, honestly, 15-20 years ago. […] I remember sitting there watching that prequel episode thinking man, this show has just lost a step.

Jason: Well, that was also a pretty bad episode.

Kirk: Also a weak episode. Another example of what I'm talking about with this type of humour, this very white dude humour, well, there are two examples. One is the guy who owns "Shitty Wok," the City Wok owner.

That's an example of the show adjusting, or trying to adjust, in a more conscious or less racist way. Where this guy started out as this egregious Chinese stereotype -- this is the guy who owns the [Chinese restaurant] in town for anyone who doesn't know this -- and he speaks in this exaggerated Asian accent.

He calls it the "Shitty Walk," which is how he pronounces it. And there's just all these ongoing jokes about Mongolians, and him. He was introduced a long time ago, very early on in the show.

And then many seasons later, it's revealed, suddenly, that he's actually a white guy who thinks he's Asian. It's kind of this retconning of the joke, saying, "OK, so now you know, it was a white guy, so maybe this joke isn't offensive anymore?" Even though that's bullshit, and that's a bullshity way to sort of "undo" a joke.

I think The Coon is another good example. The Coon is Cartman's superhero alter-ego. And he's a raccoon, but he's also "The Coon," and that's a well-known racial slur.

Jason: Well, is it well-known? I thought it was only…

Kirk: Absolutely. It's super well-known. It's outdated, I don't believe people use it now like the n-word, but it used to be like the n-word. It used to be constantly used. And there's no question in my mind that when The Coon was introduced, the fundamental underpinnings of this joke are: The Coon was introduced in an episode called "The Coon."

The whole joke is that the name is a racial slur but the character itself is in no way racist. He's a raccoon. And he does raccoon things and he wears a raccoon outfit. "The Human Raccoon" could've been the name, but by calling it "The Coon," the joke is sort of, "Ha ha, we used a racial slur, only it's actually not really there." Which is such a white person joke, because it's kind of fundamentally gaslight-y, right? The nature of that joke.

Gaslighting is when you're doing something to someone and then telling them you're not doing it. [Ed: the full definition is a little more involved than that, but I was being brief.] And that's the very nature of the joke. "This is a racist word ... only it's not! Look! It's not actually! It's just a raccoon."

Jason: Right.

Kirk: And that, to me, is a kind of humour that I maybe would have chuckled at 20 or 15 years ago, but increasingly, I just don't like it. I don't like that kind of joke. I get it, I get how it's constructed, but it doesn't do much for me.

[...]

Jason: So, I have a very complicated relationship with South Park. I have been watching South Park since it first came on. I vividly remember the first season coming out when I was in fifth grade, watching it, being enthralled by it.

Being thrilled by this sense that I was getting away with something every time I watched it. But it wasn't just that, there was so much of it that appealed to me. I think one of the biggest things that appealed to me about it was that it would make all these Jewish jokes that felt like, I didn't feel like they were making fun.

It felt like the type of thing, as I mentioned in my review, that Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham were talking about on the Still Processing podcast, in their great episode about Chappelle's Show, where everybody can laugh together at something, rather than feeling like you're laughing at something.

It's more of a laughing with feeling. And to me, when I saw like, Kyle's mum being a stereotype of a Jewish mum, I felt like that was something I could relate to, because I knew people in my life who were like that. Or when Kyle was singing "It's hard to be a Jew on Christmas," which is one of the show's first songs, I loved that.

I was like, holy shit, finally a show I can relate to. That feels like it's speaking to me.

And then over time, the show changed a lot, it did a lot of interesting things, it always felt like it was hurling grenades. Full of racist stereotypes, and when it was at its best, it would create these characters that were racist stereotypes, but also felt like they were real characters to a point where laughing at them didn't feel like you were laughing at them. It felt like you were participating with them. I think over time, the show fired grenades and hit bad targets, or aimed for the wrong targets ...

Kirk: I like how far you're stretching this metaphor.

Jason: It's a good metaphor, because I feel like that's part of comedy. Aiming, and when you are doing subversive comedy, you're gonna have some misses. You're gonna fire at some things and make some mistakes, and I feel like we as critics and as fans have to allow for that. And allow for a show to make mistakes without being like "get that shit off the air!"

Kirk: Well and that comes to that question from before, right, of talking about enjoying or not enjoying something versus talking about whether or not it should exist.

[…]

Kirk: The podcast you were talking about, Still Processing, they had this really good conversation where the two hosts saw Dave Chappelle's standup and talked about his career, the lines he's crossed, the times he's been defensive, the way he's clearly working through it in public.

It's a really good discussion. And it gets a lot at the nature of humour and comedy. I think it's Wesley Morris, one of the hosts, who is talking about seeing Chappelle live, and he tells some joke that's a bad joke, it's not aimed correctly, and it's mean.

And he's laughing his arse off anyway, because Dave Chappelle is just so funny, and good at making people laugh.

And it makes me think, the thing you're saying about when everybody's laughing. We're all in on the joke. And I think that is true, and those are usually the bests kinds of jokes, when South Park does that really well.

That is a thing that I think some white people ... I've noticed, as a white person, over the last 20 years, there have been times where white people think everybody's in on the joke, and actually everybody isn't in on the joke. And I think South Park has definitely had that happen.

Jason: Right.

Kirk: Over the years, there have been times when they have been like, "Ha ha, look, everyone thinks this is funny," and if you asked nonwhite people in the room with you, "Do you think this is funny?" they might say, "Actually…"

I would have been surprised by the answers to those questions back when I was first watching that stuff, and now, I'm much more aware of that. Of the tendency to think, ok, this is cool, right? Everyone thinks this is funny? [Because] maybe everyone doesn't think this is funny. And I think because I'm more aware of that, it makes me more aware, just in general, of the way that South Park's humour operates.

[from earlier in the conversation]:

Kirk: And that's kind of the important thing in any of these conversations, right? The one person saying, "I don't see why you're offended by this," and the other person saying, "Isn't it enough that to me, it sends a very clear signal? That that's the joke that they're telling?"

And that's the kind of thing that comes back to this notion we're getting at, I think. That South Park has been on the air for a really long time, it's changed, its creators have changed. [But] some of the things about it, it just can't shake its fundamental legacy, in some ways that are really clear.

Jason: There's a whole season about that. You saw the season about that, right? About PC Principal, and the town changing, and them being like, maybe South Park can't exist anymore!

Kirk: Right, they're wrestling with this stuff in real time. Which is certainly interesting. Watching Trey Parker and Matt Stone trying to wrestle with this new age, it's a totally interesting and worthy thing for them to do.

The actual jokes on South Park, the way that that game (or the show) tells its jokes, just doesn't really make me laugh as much as it used to anymore. And it might be that the show itself is less funny, that I've changed ... it's probably all of those things combined.


We cover a lot more ground on the show, so do check out the full episode. You can download an MP3 here. As always, you can find Splitscreen on Apple Podcasts and Google Play. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at [email protected] with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.

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Comments

    South Park should be enjoyed for its satire and poking fun at all and sundry. Not one gets a pass.

    Trying to psychoanalyse the potential meanings and pulling the PC card regarding the "the coon" etc is the exact reason this show exists.

      Trey Parker is on record as saying that as a Libertarian he just calls the BS as he sees it. Everyone is fair game.

      But ... that's kind of the problem, isn't it? It pokes fun 'equally' at people who use racist slurs and people who are offended by racist slurs as if they're equally bad people.

        Why is it a problem to make fun of both sides?

          It's like that quip where the law in all its majesty prevents rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges and begging for coins. Equal treatment isn't the same thing as fair treatment.

          Because racism is bad and opposition to racism is not bad? Do you really need this explained to you?

        Well they are equally bad - one cannot exist without the other.

      Southpark's Satire is piss poor most of the time.

      It creates false equivocation where there is none.

      It's a teenage-level humour show for teenage-level philosophy.

      It can be funny, but it has never been particularly deep or insightful.

      Last edited 20/10/17 2:48 pm

    The hysteria over Trump is absurd. "Hillary Clinton was a great, appetizing choice, but the other choice literally could be the end of America as we know it. "

    Trump's awful, but come on? He's just fucking around and getting shit all done. Hillary would have already destroyed what was left of the Syrian regime turning it into another failed state like Libya. The TPP didn't suddenly become a good thing once Trump opposed it.

    Paris Agreement, well the USA was never going to make the commitment anyway. The TPP was also bad for Climate Change action.

    You'd still have all these riots and divided american politics. Do you think people would not be protesting removing confederate statues if Hillary won?

    We're just living through one of the bad possible outcomes of the election. Both would be bad in different ways. Neither will destroy America or the World.

    As for South Park, they made it clear Trump's beyond parody because he's actually performing comedy.

      Yes people go very quiet when you mention that Hillary was the Butcher of Libya.... shhhhhh don’t mention the war....

        Bbbbbbbut.... Hilary.... Emails.....

          Still bombed Libya into a failed state DjFail

            clearly you didnt get my point. Hilary is not preseident, Replying to any criticism of drumpf with "But hilary...." is no longer relevant as she is not in the running. You are like a toddler who replies to criticism with "YOU ARE!"

            But hey, You want to go down that road, Ill raise your hilary clinton and libya (Believe it or not i agree with you, Libya was idiotic) with a Dubya and Iraq/ MIddle east pre/post 9/11.

    There's also the fact they wanted to stop doing the show a decade ago, but comedy central just keeps giving them more money.

    We need more shows like South Park that are willing to poke fun at everyone. Society has become too prudish thanks to a sheltered generation that gets “triggered” at every little thing. Not enough people who can tell the difference between an insult and a joke.

    Quite interesting, reading through the rest of these comments. Man, people get defensive when the thing they like is questioned. Be curious to see how many people here defending South Park and it's humour are white and male (seriously, listen to the full podcast! It'll make sense.)

    It's a nuanced discussion, and one worth having. I understand the desire for satirical humour, but it's kind of important to recognise that the world has changed yet the show hasn't. As more people come to that realisation, that the whole "both sides" thing has become unbalanced, the show and games will (continue to) lose its lustre. Should it evolve it's humour? Should it just die?

      Be curious to see how many people here defending South Park and it's humour are white and male

      yawn.
      you lot need some new material.
      i defend it and i'm lebanese.
      get at me.

      Last edited 21/10/17 11:44 am

      Be curious to see how many people here defending South Park and it's humour are white and male

      Oh yeh, let's just blanket statement every white person, that isn't racist at all... guarantee, in five to ten years time, we'll be looking back on this sort of open slather statement realising how disgusting it is to make.

      If you seriously think South Parks humour hasn't changed, it's you that hasn't changed, not the show.

        Lol my dude, it's in the words: "be curious". It's all about seeing the patterns, seeing where this stuff originates and why it turns out the way it does. Did you listen to the full podcast? It's like how Kirk says it - "I'm a white dude, so it's hard for me completely understand, the best I can do is listen to those who are effected."

        No accusations, not even any assumptions - just a question. No need to be so defensive about it / attacking me over it my dude.

      Im a white male and left wing and i love it when they lampoon liberals (US Liberals). The whole PC Principal saga/ Season was hilarious to me. You really need to do your research on matt and trey. They dont give a shit if someone is offended. In fact being offended makes them want to go after that topic more. The show has evolved. Anyone who is a fan/ Regular viewer of the show would easily know that.

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