It’s a well-known fact that I’m a huge fan of the show South Park on Comedy Central. Of all the shows on television, I feel that this show is spectacular in that it is a no-holds-barred look at anything and everything in the world. Nothing is off-limits: religion, pop culture, even celebrity deaths are mocked every week. South Park says what no one else will, making it the most hilarious and honest show on television.
But the two most recent episodes of South Park (creatively titled “200″ and “201″) were frustrating to me, because despite the fact that the show and its creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, pride themselves in making fun of everybody, Comedy Central dropped the ball on redefining the culture.
A quick synopsis of the situation: In honor of their 200th episode, South Park decided to call back every celebrity they ever made fun of. The story goes that Tom Cruise comes to South Park to go “fly fishing” (which is actually working at a candy factory in the fudge department). Stan, while on a class trip to the candy factory, sees Tom Cruise and observes that he’s a “fudge packer.” Cruise gets upset and decides to sue South Park along with the rest of his celebrity friends.
In an effort to drop the lawsuit, Randy pleads with Cruise, promising to bring anyone he wanted into South Park to drop the lawsuit. Cruise calls for Muhammad, prophet of the Muslim faith. The next two episodes follow the saga of trying to give Muhammad to the celebrities (to get his “goo” so that they can no longer be made fun of), while at the same time trying not to have the town destroyed by the Gingers, and finding out who Cartman’s father really is.
The two-part episode went out of its way to make fun of everything and everyone, and the first episode went off without a hitch: a few censored images of Muhammad here, a few shots of the townspeople looking up to the sky for bombs there, and a perfect cliffhanger for next week.
It was only when a message on the website Revolution Islam (now not working) did things start to get a little scary. Coupled with the picture of Theo Van Gogh, the filmmaker who was shot and nearly decapitated on the streets of Amsterdam after making a film about Islam’s mistreatment of women, the message for Matt and Trey said, “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”
It was after this threat that “201″ became completely different. Every mention of Muhammad was censored. Even at the end, when the show goes into its formulaic “I’ve learned something today” section, the entire moral of the story was bleeped out. The last few minutes of the show was one gigantic tone, interrupted with, “I’ve learned something today,” “That’s right, Kyle,” and “Absolutely.”
At first, watching it, and digesting it for a while, I figured it was some huge joke, a commentary on doing whatever it takes to not offend anyone. I had no idea what was behind the huge bleeps, but I figured it was nothing important, and laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.
Then, on the front page of the South Park Studios website, was this message from Matt and Trey (emphasis mine):
In the 14 years we’ve been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn’t stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn’t some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle’s customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn’t mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We’ll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we’ll see what happens to it.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker were doing what they do best: mocking the world around them. And Comedy Central, the station that supported this behavior for 14 years, suddenly didn’t want to offend anyone.
The situation reminded me of an article I read a few weeks back called Nothing is Exempt from Criticism. It’s a short article about how nothing is so special that it can’t be criticized, but the point of the article is expressed in these two paragraphs:
Furthermore, why should anything be exempt from criticism? Criticism is the most important pillar of modern society. Without criticism, how would we sort the good ideas from the [bad] ones? Without criticizing the inane…, how do we ever improve anything?
If you criticize an idea, and it stands its ground against your remarks, then it’s probably not too bad of an idea…. On the other hand, if you have an idea and it falls apart in the face of criticism, don’t get indignant and claim that your idea deserves special treatment. It’s a stupid idea…. Trash it already.
Islam, like any other religion, is not exempt from being made fun of. If it is part of the world, it is able to be made fun of. What should be interesting to note in all of this is that in 2001, South Park showed an image of the prophet Muhammad, a member of the religious superhero group “The Super Best Friends.” He was fully seen, spoke a few lines, and showed off his power of fire. Nothing happened, and no one was offended.
It appears that the religion of Islam is one of the most vocal and violent religions when they get offended. The threats and the violence are over the top and not necessary. Christians and Jews get mocked constantly, and the level of offensiveness with these mockings know no bounds. Yet there are very few instances of Christians or Jews getting so offended that they explode in violence, and the wide difference between these two worlds is striking. Make a few Holocaust jokes, and the Jews are upset. Mention Muhammad in an off-color joke not even about Islam, and people are brutally murdered on the streets.
This post isn’t to tear down Islam. Rather, this post is about not being fearful of speaking your mind. To paraphrase Jon Stewart in the opening of Thursday’s episode of the Daily Show: The Muslim extremists that are in America are free to practice their religion, praise Osama bin Laden, celebrate the anniversary of 9/11, and nearly anything else they want to do, because they are given that freedom in the Constitution. However, that freedom is a two-way street: sure, they can say or do whatever they want, but they must also respect the fact that the rest of America has the freedom to mock them, and not use fear and intimidation to inhibit those freedoms.
If you want to have limited freedom of speech, stay in the Middle East.
Kudos goes to Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and everyone who works at South Park, for continuing to push the envelope, and for not going with the flow when your art is compromised. Keep up the good work.
Coming soon will be separate posts about Islam in general and Censorship. Keep watching, and thanks for reading.