*Feature image via McGarnagle
When Butters’ sought to leave his life as a pimp and start anew by handing his “kissing company” over to his employees in “Butters’ Bottom Bitch” (2009), we knew Matt Stone and Trey Parker were expressing more than the naivety of the show’s most innocent, beloved character or the raunchy, hilarious undertakings of Sergeant Yates, a sting operation cop-cum-prostitute. In “Butters’ Bottom Bitch,” the creators of South Park and their team of writers tackle sex worker rights and the 2009 ACORN scandal all the while dropping comedic gems in the form of one liners such as “Bitch you wanna make some motherfuckin’ money?” and “Aw hell dad, I got lots of girlfriends. Sally is just my bottom bitch!” Parker and Stone were succeeding the line of animated comedic greats, marking the second landmark in the genre after The Simpsons, which aired its first episode in 1989. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, and his team of writers were some of the first to tackle political, social and economic issues through animation and subversive humor on American network TV (the last animated comedy to be on prime time TV was The Flintstones in the ’60s). At the time of airing, episodes like “Homer’s Phobia” (1997), “The Simpsons VS The Bushes” (1996), “Bart VS Australia” (1995) and the “Cartridge Family” (1997) made The Simpsons one of the most controversial shows on TV. But if satirical animated classics like The Simpsons and South Park have taught us anything, it is that controversy is always accompanied by the presence of something divisive, and what could be more divisive than issues such as gay marriage, the right to bear arms, prostitution and medical marijuana? Through comedy and the use of animation, these shows take the same issues that divide our country, tear families apart and inspire hate in the form of heated rhetoric, strip them down to their simplest state and display them to a mass audience in digestible, palatable morsels to be laughed at, analyzed and discussed.
And yet, despite the public discourse they inspire, animated comedies are often dismissed as low-brow potty humor with little to offer in the way of lessons. In a meeting with National Religious Broadcasters in 1992, George H. W. Bush famously stated that he would strive to make American families “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” What George H. W. Bush failed to realize was that the Simpsons were one of the strongest, most cohesive families on TV, always learning to look past each other’s shortcomings and love one another as they were. In one of The Simpsons’ strongest episodes ever, “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily,” Maggie, Lisa and Bart get taken away from Homer and Marge by Child Protective Services and placed in the custody of the Flanders clan. As the episode nears its end, the Flanders family prepare to baptize the Simpsons children until their shamed parents show up–a bedraggled Homer first (whom Maggie hesitates to approach) and flawless, glorious Marge, her mother, second, whom she immediately calls to. This tear jerking moment shows that while family isn’t perfect, you accept and love them despite their imperfections and no family does that better than the Simpsons. Honoring their predecessors in the way of abuse received, the South Park‘s fifth season debut “It Hits the Fan” inspired one of the most creative insults to be used by a conservative group (the Parent Television Council) to date calling the show a “curdled, malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit that should have never been made.” As was the case with George H. W. Bush, if the Parent Television Council made even the slightest effort to look beyond the surface of expletives in “It Hits the Fan” to interpret the true message behind the profusion of ‘shits’ in the episode, they would have realized that by saying the word ‘shit’ 162 times (it was written 38 times) they were in fact devaluing its meaning, proving that the more a word is used, the less profane it becomes. This point was further proved by the fact that Comedy Central wouldn’t approve the original script which had 3 ‘shits’, but found no issue with Parker and Stone using the word around 200 times. Sausage Party, the most recent example of an animated comedy that uses absurdity and vulgarity to convey a deeper meaning, one that begs viewers to question everything, was slammed by Salon for being “committed to tastelessness” and “just plain offensive.” In the article, Nico Lang quotes Stephen Humphrey, film critic of the Portland Mercury, to further prove Sausage Party‘s seemingly pointless depravity: “And each food or drink product is assigned a personality based on race: A flatbread is given a stereotypical Middle Eastern makeover, while his enemy, a bagel, is a Jew with a heavy, Woody Allen-esque accent. Interestingly, neither actor voicing these characters is Middle Eastern or Jewish.” But to this we say, doesn’t the reductionist approach Sausage Party take to race, one that is based on appearances, mirror that of present day society’s? Whether you choose to admit it or not, we all harbor indoctrinated, often-times subconscious beliefs that find themselves rising like smoke on a clear day when approached by someone that looks, acts or speaks differently than ourselves–beliefs that depend entirely on external appearances. Sausage Party‘s simplistic categorization of cultures–one that relegates them to regions, quite literally aisles–is a human tendency and it is when these ugly tendencies are reflected back to use in their truest state that we begin to feel uncomfortable, squirm and then retreat.
More often than not, the creators of these shows aren’t intending to make a statement with their art, nor is it their responsibility to as artists. However, as viewers, it is our responsibility to critically examine, dissect and reconstruct our interpretation of works in every medium we consume, be it film, animated comedies, graphic novels, etc. Any living being with the ability to see and mentally process images can stare at a series of moving pictures on a screen and to a certain extent, enjoy them, if not feel some emotional trigger. But as beings with the ability to rationalize, we would not only be doing the artist a disservice, but ourselves if we failed to critically analyze works in order to gain a deeper understanding of what we are consuming, ourselves and our society. Unlike sad, sappy sitcoms that drive home the point that an important life lesson is being taught through dramatic music, family hugs and slow motion camera movements, the creators of satirical animated comedies aren’t saying you have to agree with everything they produce, but as long as you laugh a little, analyze and learn something about yourself and, hopefully, others, their work is done.