April 18, 2009

South Park: Making Stones Funny

The best satirists possess an almost superhuman ability to take a simple conceit and spin a long and elaborate narrative from something most people would take for granted. Witness the original satirists, writers like Swift, whose "A Modest Proposal" is based around a single joke that seems like it would get old quickly, but never does, and Pope, whose "Rape of the Lock" takes the most banal of social scandals and turns it into something epic (and epically funny).

This, I believe, is the greatest skill of the writers of South Park.

It may be difficult to imagine South Park in the same vein as Swift and Pope, but I wholly believe the show is a top-notch social satire, perhaps unlike anything else on television. Let’s look at some examples.

In last week's episode, "Fishsticks," the writers took a shot at Kanye West. I like Kanye, but I don't find him all that funny. Likewise, I know Kanye has a massive ego, but I also don't find that to be all that funny. The writers of the show, though, were able to take a simple idea—Kanye West has a big ego—and inflate it to the level of hilarity. In the episode (go ahead, click the link and leave me for South Park), Cartman and Jimmy create a joke that goes something like this: "Do you like fishsticks? Do you like to put fishsticks in your mouth? What are you, a gay fish?" The joke sweeps the country and Kanye just cannot figure out why he is being called a gay fish for liking fishsticks. The Kanye-bashing is kind of funny at first, but as it multiplies like cloistered rabbits, it gets funnier and funnier, culminating in the final scene of the episode, in which Kanye embraces his identity as a gay fish and dives into the ocean, "singing" (in auto-tune) a song about being a gay fish while Frenching a flounder.

This effort is slightly different than the literary ideal of defamiliarization (one poet once said that the goal of poetry was to "make stones stoney"). Instead of reimagining the familiar as the new, the great satirists repeat the familiar in a slightly altered way. This repetition is what creates the comedy of shows like South Park, which make stones funny in their stoniness.

Another example would be beneficial here. As any Seinfeld fan could attest, it's extremely difficult to choose a favorite episode in a long-running comedy. If pushed, though, I think my favorite episode of South Park would be "Grey Dawn," an episode from their seventh season. This episode again takes a familiar idea (old people driving are scary) and weaves an elaborate tale around that idea. The episode is essentially a horror movie spoof, in which the monsters are old people in cars. After the town tries to take away senior citizens' licenses, AARP airlifts in reinforcements, who hold the adults in the town hostage. Eventually, the boys stop the senior citizens by locking the doors of Country Kitchen, the South Park version of Cracker Barrel. The funniest moments of the episode (watch and you'll see what I mean) are the horror movie-esque parts, the parts that take the simple idea (old people driving are scary) and inflate it to ridiculous proportions.

I could list countless episodes that do the same thing. Just last season, "Elementary School Musical" reexamined the familiar idea that High School Musical is completely and utterly ridiculous. The episode I show in my writing class, "Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow" again takes a common assumption (people talk about global warming as if it were the end of the world) and inflates/repeats it to satirize it.

I'm not sure where I was going with this, other than to make an impassioned plea for you to start watching South Park, if you aren't already. Yes, there are far too many poop jokes and slapstick moments. Yes, the show can be uncomfortably bad or offensive at points. When the writers are on, though, when they take something familiar and blow it way out of proportion, then it's a satiric goldmine.

1 comment:

  1. You should have been at Paul Cantor's talk the other day.

    I like South Park fine enough, but sometimes it just makes me too uncomfortable. Does that make me a conservative? A gay fish?