Cartman Shrugged: The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand in South Park (Mises)Submitted by RobHino on Thu, 01/24/2013 - 23:42
Comedy makes fun of people—that is its nature. As Aristotle stated in his Poetics, comedy portrays people as worse than they are and makes them look ridiculous. To laugh at people is to feel superior to them. Comedy can thus be downright vicious. The contemporaries of a given comedy may well be offended by it, especially when they are the objects of its ridicule and feel threatened by it. Only the passage of time can soften the initially savage blows of satiric comedy and allow later generations to put up on a pedestal authors who were originally viewed by their angry contemporaries as being deep down in the gutter.
Thus the people who condemn South Park today for being offensive need to be reminded that comedy is by its very nature offensive. It derives its energy from its transgressive power, its ability to break taboos, to speak the unspeakable. Comedians are always pushing the envelope, probing to see how much they can get away with in violating the speech codes of their day. Comedy is a social safety valve. We laugh precisely because comedians momentarily liberate us from the restrictions that conventional society imposes on us. We applaud comedians because they say right out in front of an audience what, supposedly, nobody is allowed to say in public. Paradoxically, then, the more permissive American society has become, the harder it has become to write comedy. As censorship laws have been relaxed and people have been allowed to say and show almost anything in movies and television—above all, to deal with formerly taboo sexual material—comedy writers, such as the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, must have begun to wonder if there is any way left to offend audiences.
The genius of Parker and Stone was to see that in our day a new frontier of comic transgression has opened up because of the phenomenon known as political correctness. Our age may have tried to dispense with the conventional pieties of earlier generations, but it has developed new pieties of its own. They may not look like the traditional pieties, but they are enforced in the same old way, with social pressure and sometimes even legal sanctions punishing people who dare to violate the new taboos. Many of our colleges and universities today have speech codes, which seek to define what can and cannot be said on campus and in particular to prohibit anything that might be interpreted as demeaning someone because of his or her race, religion, gender, disability, and a whole series of other protected categories. Sex may no longer be taboo in our society, but sexism now is. Seinfeld (1989–1998) was perhaps the first mainstream television comedy that systematically violated the new taboos of political correctness. The show repeatedly made fun of contemporary sensitivities about such issues as sexual orientation, ethnic identity, feminism, and disabled people. Seinfeld proved that being politically incorrect can be hilariously funny in today’s moral and intellectual climate, and South Park followed its lead.