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 [US] 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 satirise this awful situation?
And I think with this most recent season of South Park, they’ve 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, appetising 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, “Okay, 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 bullshitty 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.”
Kirk: And that, to me, is a kind of humour that I maybe would’ve 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 ass 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.
Kirk: Over the years, there have been times when they’ve 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, okay, 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.