Why South Park is Cancel Exempt

In my celebration of All in the Family I thought about South Park and how it’s managed so incredibly to survive the era of cancel culture. Some have suggested that, like Family Guy, the animation has something to do with it. Perhaps to a small degree. People could be more receptive to offense when the world is a cartoon and “doesn’t look real”. But last year’s furor over Dr. Seuss makes me doubt very seriously that this is a significant reason.

There’s a big difference between South Park and Family Guy in any case, and it’s one that makes Family Guy not a good example of a show that has “survived cancellation”. Seth MacFarlane has actually succumbed to a significant amount of woke pressure. Family Guy doesn’t joke about the same things it did back in 2005, especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues. MacFarlane has even recast actors to match the skin color of the animated characters they voice. South Park, on the other hand, has never pandered like this or watered down its offenses. Just the opposite: Trey Parker and Matt Stone have gone in the other direction — escalating offense, pushing the envelope more each year. The question presses: How do these guys keep getting away with it, when anyone else would be panned and erased into obscurity?

I finally came across a satisfying explanation. According to this critic, South Park has been impervious to cancel culture for the following three reasons, each of which is critical.

(1) The frog-in-the-pot phenomenon. South Park has acquired its exempt status by a slow build — increasing its offensiveness gradually over time, crossing new lines that were previously thought uncrossable. Parker and Stone didn’t plan their success that way. Just the opposite: in interviews they say they never expected success and thought it was a given that they would be cancelled sooner than later. Their mindset has always been, “Since this is probably our last season, let’s push things further.” That consistent fearlessness in taking offense to the next level (instead of dialing back as Family Guy did) was, ironically, a key to their success. It’s like the urban legend of the boiling frog: if you want to cook a frog, you don’t have to kill it first; all you have to do is put it in room temperature water and heat the water very slowly. If you heat the water too quickly, or put the frog into hot water, it will jump out. But if you heat it slowly enough, the frog will remain in the water until it boils to death. Parker and Stone have been slowly cranking up the heat in their pot for 25 years now, and because of that, the frog has yet to jump. [In this analogy, the “frog” is Comedy Central” and “jumping” is canceling the show.] They might have cranked up the heat too fast on a few occasions and made the frog agitated, but as of today, the water is still on its way to boiling. If you look back at old South Park episodes, they are incredibly tame compared to what the show would later be like. That slow build has laid the groundwork for the show’s invulnerable status. If, for example, they had created an episode like “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” (season 11, episode 1) — which uses the word “nigger” 42 times — back in season 1 or 2, the frog would have leaped from the pot in a heartbeat.

(2) Equal opportunity offense. South Park makes fun of absolutely everyone, including themselves. There is not a single person, group, or idea that is off-limits when it comes to criticism. Parker and Stone don’t choose sides. Atheists are skewered as much as religionists, Democrats are blasted as much as Republicans — often both sides within a single episode. Take the episode “Goobacks” (season 8, episode 7), for example, which satirizes events taking place at the U.S. border with undocumented immigrants crossing over. South Park ridicules those who are completely against it and those who are in full support of it. (The TV interviewer has two guests: “On my right is pissed-off white trash redneck conservative; on my left is aging hippie liberal douche-bag.”) The South Park philosophy that absolutely nothing is off limits is an important part of the show’s untouchable status. If you are equally offensive to everyone, it’s actually the ultimate form of equality. It’s almost like the offensiveness of the show cancels itself out. The show is never trying to push an agenda or make you feel a certain way about a topic. It makes fun of everything and lets you decide what you want to believe. Parker and Stone aren’t preaching to you. They’re showing the flaws in your beliefs as well as those of people you disagree with. Because of this, South Park is the last true social satire to exist in the mainstream — finding comedy in the absurdity of our society, rather than taking sides.

(3) South Park is not, in the end, offensive. That sounds contradictory, but to those who watch entire episodes of South Park, and invest in watching a lot of episodes, it becomes clear that the show is not ultimately offensive. Consider one of the most controversial episodes, “Red Hot Catholic Love” (season 6, episode 8), which follows Father Maxi as he goes to the Vatican to help deal with the Catholic priest molestation scandal. When he arrives, he learns that every single Catholic priest in the entire world molests kids. That may sound offensive, but Parker and Stone aren’t literally suggesting that all priests are pedophiles. They’re using hyperbole and caricature to highlight a real issue. That’s what they do in most episodes: take real issues and exaggerate them to make a point. The actual message of “Red Hot Catholic Love” is neutral and inoffensive: that if you look too deeply into religious texts, you create expectations and ideas that are absurd in modern times; but if you refuse any set of moral standards, your expectations and ideas can become just as absurd. The episode follows the same formula as almost every episode of South Park: (a) select a topic; (b) hyperbolize and exaggerate to the point of silliness; (c) end with a neutral opinionThe reason there is so much outrage about things that happen in the show is because people who are offended probably don’t watch the entire episodes. You can’t claim a show is offensive based on short clips of priests insisting that they should have the right to molest their altar boys. You can’t claim a show is anti-Semitic or insensitive from watching short clips of Cartman impersonating Hitler and being anti-Semitic. You can’t say Parker and Stone are racist for depicting the character of Tuong Lu Kim as a slant-eyed Chinese man; Parker and Stone over-emphasize stereotypes associated with Chinese people, just as they do with other peoples (like flapping-head Canadians) to show how absurd the stereotypes are. Fans of South Park understand that the show is ultimately not offensive, but rather the opposite.

This analysis makes perfect sense to me. I suspect that all three factors account for South Park‘s cancel-exempt status. The show has survived because it built a reputation for itself before taking the gloves off completely, and has offended everyone impartially in a way that the overall presentation is never truly offensive. Each is not enough in itself to account for South Park‘s survival. The second factor in particular (equal-opportunity offense) is often parroted by many people as “the” answer, but there are plenty of equal-opportunity offenders who come under cancel fire (or even physical assault), like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. South Park lives on for a combination of reasons, and it stands to reason it will keep going until Parker and Stone decide to retire because they’ve run out of ideas and are boring people instead of offending them.

One thought on “Why South Park is Cancel Exempt

  1. South Park has started to retcon things to make them less offensive. They changed Token Black’s name to Tolkien Black in season 25. They also retconned the Al Gore/Manbearpig to placate the climate change activists. They even quit killing Kenny in every episode due to outcry.

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