A city bus, carrying the expected cross-section of people, is making its way through the concrete canyons en route to the next stop. As is often the case with city buses, most of the people riding are minding their own business unobtrusively (or trying to), while others are not.
In particular, in the seats toward the rear, a small baby is screaming inconsolably. Maybe it’s teething, maybe it has an ear infection, maybe it’s simply hungry. No one can really discern much beyond the ear-splitting pitch of the shrieks and the flat familiarity on the face of the child’s exhausted mother. Mostly, they’re just trying to ignore it.
Near the front, another source of copious din. A man of exceptional size (he could be 6’5 easily, with a profile and musculature better suited to a Neanderthal than a modern man. His manners, though, are similarly retrograde: He bellows profanely into his cell phone, heaving all manner of curses and scatology out loud in an argument with his girlfriend – the other passengers can tell it’s his girlfriend, because he has helpfully placed her on speaker-phone for the entertainment of everyone else. The mix between all this and the baby is, you can imagine, quite obnoxious.
Suddenly, a passenger leaps to his feet. He’s a young man, possessed of a cocky swagger that suggests he has done very little to earn it – which in turn suggests that his dumpy thrift-store attire is being warn more out of affect than economic necessity. (If only there was a simple one-word shorthand with which to describe such a man…) In any case, he has clearly risen to offer some kind of solution to the noise problem. He strides confidently to the back of the bus, looks down at the wailing child…
…a slaps it – hard – clear across the face.
The baby is stunned into silence (or maybe into a coma, I mean… that’s kind of why adults don’t generally go around slapping babies, right?) and, needless to say, so is the rest of the bus. It’s so quiet, you can hear the aura of self-satisfaction emanating from the young man as he stands arms akimbo over his accomplishment. Finally, one incredulous fellow passenger rises to confront him:
“What the hell is wrong with you, man? You can’t hit a baby!”
“Oh! No, no…” laughs the young man, holding up his index finger to indicate that he’ll elaborate further once he’s done shaking his head with amusement at the passengers’ misunderstanding, “It’s cool, it’s cool. Watch.”
He strides, confidently, to the front of the bus, stopping in front of the imposing cell-phone shouter. He draws back his arm, flattens his palm, and delivers a swift slap to the large man’s face. As you would expect, the same strike which was devastating to an infant is barely noticed by a full grown (over-grown, if we’re being honest) man.
The young man who delivered both slaps, however, stands confidently – smugly, even – among the still incredulous passengers.
“See? It’s totally okay – I attack both sides equally!“
I’m kind of fascinated with how fascinated I am by the evolution of my perspective on Comedy Central’s South Park, which just entered its 17th Season (after a nearly year-long hiatus) with an extended riff about NSA monitoring… which, because it was South Park, saved some its sharpest elbows for actor Alec Baldwin re: his recent issues with social media., capping the routine by suggesting that Baldwin’s upcoming cable news show for MSNBC be titled Free Pass with Alex Baldwin.
It’s a funny bit, to be sure – particularly since, yes, the idea of Baldwin becoming a TV pundit sounds like self parody on MSNBC’s part already. But, really now; South Park, which has been wielding the “equal-opportunity bashing” card (and the façade of post-political hipness that comes with it) as a shield against critique for almost two decades, deciding to be self-righteous about someone else getting a “free pass” on bad behavior?
I think I dwell so much on “South Park” (and its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone) because, from the beginning, it’s felt like the mood-ring of late-period Gen-X comedy writing. Parker and Stone’s greatest gift is the speed at which they can ply their trade, famously turning in completed episodes with exceptional speed in order to stay current with buzzworthy talking-points. Starting off as filled with oddball pop-reference (remember Scuzzabutt, the monster with Patrick Duffy for a leg?) and nothing-sacred irreverence – the foundational setup, after all, being an exploding of the idea of children as innately good beings – before transitioning into social commentary and political haymaking.
In a way, Generation X, and its comedy, had cynicism thrust upon them: The leftover rebellious music and pop-culture relics of our parents’ generation
informed us that the repressive values of grandma and grandpa’s age had been triumphed over; but it was hard to look at our Reagan-electing, suburbia-worshipping parents and see ourselves as sons and daughters of rebels.
Cynicism was our third-way, a rejection of both conservative stodginess and liberal peity. And at its zenith, South Park fit that mold better than any other show on TV; able to slap the Boy Scouts around for their anti-gay policies and dress-down attorneys like Gloria Allred for jumping onto civil-rights cases for ego-feeding in the same episode. Do-gooders and butt-inskies were the targets of choice, regardless of affiliation; giving the show and its creators a sheen of snark-fueled libertarianism, back when that word called to mind something other than bitcoin-hoarding Silicon Valley delusionals, that led columnist Andrew Sullivan to approvingly dub fans “South Park Republicans.”
South Park‘s ethos, though, is hardly conservative. If the series can be said to have an overlying message, it’s a plea to calm down – about politics, about controversies, about everything. Parker & Stones humor consistently positions them and their heroes (well, okay, really just Stan and Kyle) as the sole rational actor amid battles where everyone else is wrong. To quote another famous cartoon character: “Everyone is stupid but me.”
Hence its embrace of the above-metaphor’d “attack everyone equally” fallacy; which is a fallacy precisely because it presumes that everyone is both deserving of attack and deserving of the same attack. It’s the same introverted, reductive reasoning employed by the guy who really, really wants to know why black people can say The N-Word and he cannot. “Park’s” present-day issue, though, is with the P-Word: Privilege. The pleas for civility and middle-ground sound, as the series trudges on, less like “a pox on both your houses!” directed at squabbling special interests and closer to “will you damn kids keep that racket down?” directed at anyone who thinks anything is worth fighting over.
This was first seen most dramatically during the 2004 Presidential Campaign, when Parker & Stone made waves for mocking the “Vote or Die!” campaign organized by various celebrities of the moment and aimed at younger voters. Like any good professional cynics, their position was that voting wasn’t really that important – especially since the candidates (George W. Bush and John Kerry) were supposedly so similar. On the show, the scenario was visualized as a mascot-choosing competition staged between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich. Ha.
Now, I’m certainly not looking to re-litigate that now settled election (the real one, not the turd thing) in this column. But I will point out how it nicely illustrates the disconnect of Privilege that began right around that moment to slowly transform South Park (though not necessarily making it “less funny,” I stress) from the vital truth-telling youngster of TV animation to the grouchy grandpa old before its time: “Calm down! Life will go on! Things won’t be all that different no matter who wins!” Well, sure, that was absolutely true… providing you’re lucky enough to be a wealthy straight dude with reliable employment like Parker and Stone. But various other folks who might stand to benefit from this policy or suffer under another? Of course there was a “difference” for them – to suggest otherwise is ludicrous.
South Park is still funny. Occasionally, it’s also still brilliant – though I feel like The Coon Saga might have been the point where the wave finally crested. But I do think that its moment as a meaningful cultural force has passed. It’s been a long time since I watched a news event and anticipated what South Park might have to say about it… other than to groan. “Ugh. Can’t wait to see Parker and Stone willfully miss the point on THIS in order to prove how much cooler than their reflexively-liberal Hollywood colleagues they still are!” That title was taken away awhile ago by The Daily Show, which evolved in the opposite direction; starting as scattershot “the news media is stupid” but growing up into a kind of weaponized political-comedy – activist-journalism with a clown nose.
Not that I really expect South Park to have some kind of epiphany over that, or any of this. It doesn’t “need” to, and neither do it’s creators.
After all, they have a free pass.
Editor’s Note: An error caused this column to release late. Our apologies for the wait.