One major advantage that a show like South Park has over all other animated programs is each show’s hurried process of completion, taking only a week to finalize drawings, voice-overs, and animation. This haste makes it possible for the show to stay abreast of current issues that can be parodied in a timely manner—that is, while the events are relevant to contemporary American society.
In his essay “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow,” Jason Buel analyzes the temporal aspects used by the writers of South Park to challenge the expectations of sit-coms by defying episodic restrictions. After leaving the identity of Cartman’s father a mystery at the close of Season 1 (in the episode, “Cartman’s Mom is a Dirty Slut”), South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone jokingly decided to ignore the previous dilemma in favor of an episode featuring Terrence and Phillip, the boys’ favorite cartoon duo. The outrage of fans at Parker and Stone’s non-sequitur prank proves that it is not zany humor alone that attracts the fans of South Park, but also plot resolution.
One major reason Parker and Stone were able to solidify such a faithful fan base is their humorous allusions addressed to frequent viewers: the decision to reference the anger of fans caused by their previous prank, which they do by showing the South Park boys’ anger at an unresolved cliffhanger of Terrance and Phillip, and in “Professor Chaos,” when “a voice-over narration introduces three questions and strongly implies that the episode will be a cliffhanger,” only to quickly answer the questions at the end of the episode, abruptly ending it (290).
Because no one escapes the razor-sharp wit of Parker and Stone (Mormons, Scientologists, politicians, gentle woodland creatures, written as satanic fiends for a Christmas special, and the list goes on and on), viewers have become somewhat accustomed to the would-be shocking shenanigans of South Park. But what happens when “keepin’it real goes wrong,” when humor is viewed as finally crossing a serious boundary that entails more than just a lawsuit?
Both the 200 and 201st episode of South Park center on the demand to depict the character of Muhammad—who, according to Islam, is not to be illustrated under any circumstances—censored by a bear costume, and later, by a giant black censor. Comedy Central later cut several references to Muhammad and even censored his name after a group called Revolution Muslim criticized the use of their prophet and made a prediction that Parker and Stone would end up dead if they aired the episode. Ironically, the main themes of the episodes were a stand against fearful censorship and a rally behind free speech—in fact, in the 201st episode, Tom Cruise attempts to harvest Muhammad’s immunity from satire.
Buel states that fans cared more about the true identity of Cartman’s father than the Muhammad controversy, which is unsurprising, though the riots in Europe and the global protests and death threats that took place in 2005 following the publications of cartoons of Muhammad in European newspapers prove the seriousness of what is a very dire issue to orthodox Muslims.
South Park’s popularity does not simply stem from its freedom of genre restrictions, temporal shifts, or clever use of allusions, but from the fact that nothing is off limits and not one person, group, ideology, organization, etc. is excluded from the raw ridicule of its writers. While a number of episodes seem to be witlessly offensive to the point of eliciting grotesque unease, a large percentage of featured content places a mirror where we as a society/world do not wish it to be placed—at the heart of our fear-based, contradictory logic pertaining to race, immigration, arrogance, fame, etc. In short, we take ourselves much too seriously and need raw humor, whether SP is your cup o' tea or not, to show us how collectively ridiculous we truly are.