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The Daring Satire of South Park

Comedian Bill Maher thinks its politically incorrect to call the Pope a Nazi. The merry minds behind Comedy Central’s South Park know it’s far more outrageous to attack Hollywood’s Holiness — former vice president Al Gore.

South Park cast Gore as a wannabe superhero, complete with an ill-fitting cape, during a three-part story arc dubbed “Imaginationland” which was recently packaged as a DVD release.

It’s just the latest example of how cutting edge South Park remains, despite being on the air for more than a decade. Shouldn’t any show broadcast that long be running on fumes by now?

The show’s creators — professional nuisances Trey Parker and Matt Stone — are on to something few of their comic peers often consider. They mock the whole ideological spectrum, both politically and culturally, while everyone else getting a paycheck in La La Land focuses most of their fire on the “right” targets.

The competition for the public’s entertainment dollar today is fierce, and too many comedy writers do themselves a disservice by hitting only one side of the culture wars with their best shots.

South Park really stepped up its social criticism with, ironically, a project that had nothing to do with Kenny, Kyle or Cartman.

Parker and Stone’s 2004 comedy Team America: World Police used the only medium sillier than crude, cutout-style animation — marionettes — to mock both jingoistic country crooners and blowhard celebrities. In the film, a squadron of Hollywood elites, including Sean Penn and Michael Moore, teamed up with North Korean’s Kim Jong Il to protest American imperialism. Penn wasn’t pleased – he even fired off an angry letter about his inclusion much to the duo’s delight.

That film’s success, and subsequent news headlines, only emboldened South Park’s creative team. In recent years, their show has ambushed environmentalism (a “smug” cloud develops over the town of South Park when too many self-righteous drivers opt for hybrid vehicles), the homeless, race hustlers and tolerance gone wild. The latter showcased what might happen when all cultural boundaries collapse, and it wasn’t pretty.

The homeless episode, which aired last year, employed the same zombie template director George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) has been using for decades to advance his progressive concerns. Instead, South Park used zombies to illustrate the wastefulness of buying the homeless off with spare change as well as the cultural pomposity that refuses to let them take part in our capitalistic system.

Try imagining Jon Stewart offering similar platitudes from the cozy confines of his Daily Show desk.

Arguably the boldest stance taken by the show came with 2006’s two-part Cartoon Wars storyline which was supposed to feature a cartoon representation of the prophet Muhammad. Comedy Central decided not to show that actual image, but the show carried on with its sharp commentary about the foolishness of such censorship.

South Park’s list of targets is nearly too long to list. Suffice to say it’s take-no-prisoners approach has tormented the Catholic Church, Scientology, Tom Cruise, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, the latter with such cruel abandon even the staunchest show supporter likely blushed. The show’s characters even uttered the N-word repeatedly last year during an episode inspired by Don Imus’s racially charged insults aimed at the Rutgers women’s basketball team. That installment, titled “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson,” took chances most other programs wouldn’t even try during a table read.

When South Park isn’t stomping down on hot-button issues it takes on more conventional targets with withering results. Michael Jackson has withstood just about every joke conceivable up until now, but it’s hard to think of him sitting through South Park’s takedown of his parental methods from several seasons back.

Just last week, South Park imagined a world without the Internet, delivering a clever smackdown of how reliant we’ve become on the Web. Naturally, plenty of Internet porn jokes peppered the episode – Parker and Stone can’t resist stuffing every other scene with some sort of vulgarity. The breadth of their profane streak will turn off some audiences, no matter how savvy the commentaries on display. But if that’s what it takes to keep these man-children interested in their South Park project, so be it.

Perhaps the show’s greatest weapon is the seeming innocence of its medium. Aw, it’s just cartoon characters, like Scooby Doo or Donald Duck. Hardly. But Parker and Stone leverage those assumptions with wicked results.

But let’s get back to Gore. Why haven’t more comedians riffed on his “Inconvenient” mission to save us from global warming? Even the best intentioned politicians deserve some ribbing now and then, and Gore’s hypocritical power consumption at his Tennessee home opened him to ridicule.

So why did it take a bunch of animated grade schoolers to chop Gore down to size?

Will South Park jump the proverbial shark, or will its creators exit, stage left, when they sense their creative well runneth dry? Hard to say, but with all the inspiration flooding their way via our two-party political system, a beauty-obsessed culture and a news cycle churning out daily updates on the likes of Lindsay Lohan, it’s possible South Park will keep us laughing, and thinking, indefinitely.

Christian Toto is a freelance writer and film critic for The Washington Times. His work has appeared in People magazine, MovieMaker Magazine, The Denver Post, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Scripps Howard News Service. He also contributes movie radio commentary to three stations as well as the nationally syndicated “Dennis Miller Show” and runs the blog What Would Toto Watch?