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'South Park's' key to effective satire

By Devon Shuman, Culture Editor

It's featured superstar rapper Kanye West having intercourse with a fish. It's shown an obese, acne-riddled fourth-grader defecating violently on his mother while playing "World of Warcraft." It's presented three Apple customers being sewn together a la "The Human Centipede" after unknowingly agreeing to it by accepting the company's lengthy Terms and Conditions.

It's also one of the most intelligent, up-to-date pieces of social commentary on the air.

"South Park," the animated program about a group of potty-mouthed fourth-graders in the titular Colorado small town, has time and again proven to be a conservative parent's worst nightmare. Its visual gags regularly make viewers' stomachs churn, and its filthy dialogue could cause a drunken sailor to turn his head in alarm. The over-the-top vulgarity and crude, in-your-face offensiveness often seem to be the show's defining factors. But beneath all of it lies a keen, observant eye, a clever ability to ridicule everything wrong within our messed-up society.

Over the years, co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been ruthless in their social satire, taking on such subjects as the BP oil spill, Scientology and even the Prophet Muhammad (the one time the show was visually censored). Their rapid production schedule (they don't start working on an episode until a week before it airs) allows them to skewer current events before other programs even get the chance. Now in its twentieth season, the show is tackling topics such as political correctness, our obsession with pop culture reboots and, of course, the presidential election.

But what truly sets "South Park" apart from other satirical programs such as "SNL" or "The Daily Show?" What has kept this obscene cartoon so consistently smart and relevant over the past 20 years?

Part of it is the show's stubborn refusal to pick a side. Other shows tend to plant their feet on the left or the right and unleash their attacks toward the opponent. This is still funny, but it's inherently alienating. How many far-right Republicans have you seen sharing those Jordan Klepper "Daily Show" clips on Facebook?

"South Park," on the other hand, will choose a topic or an issue and lampoon everyone involved. Take the season 19 finale, "PC Principal Final Justice," which addressed, among other topics, gun rights.

From the perspective of someone who supports stricter gun control, the episode appears to poke fun at pro-second amendment arguments. Believing that the only way to be safe is by arming themselves, the boys decide to buy guns.

"How are we all gonna get our hands on guns?" they ask, only to be seen in the very next shot all armed with firearms.

Throughout the episode, almost every character gets a gun and points it at one another to get what they want. Parker and Stone seem to be pointing out the ridiculousness of a society that believes all their problems can be solved by the second amendment.

But the careful viewer will note that in the episode's 22-minute runtime, not a single shot is fired, and all the problems are, in fact, solved. Suddenly, the liberal viewpoint that guns can't be used safely and responsibly seems to be the perspective under attack.

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But "South Park's" genius goes beyond simply making fun of everyone in its sights. If a show makes fun of every point on either side of a debate, it fails to make a point at all.

"South Park" succeeds because it avoids this paradox. It doesn't attempt to say which side of an issue outweighs the other; it ridicules the issue itself.

In the opening scene of this season, the town crowds in the school gym for the girls' volleyball game, eager to see if the one black player will sit or stand for the national anthem. I was curious to find out which side Parker and Stone were about to take on the Colin Kaepernick controversy.

But they didn't.

After four of the seven girls sit, and the anthem draws to a close, the town files out, leaving only a handful of fans in attendance to actually watch the game. The joke isn't that Kaepernick's in the right or the wrong; it's that we're being ridiculous for caring so much in the first place.

In an election season that has been so divisive, so enabling of a "left or right" mentality, "South Park's" commentary is as relevant as ever. As the nation aligns itself on either side, Parker and Stone find the middle ground, forcing citizens from all walks of life to step back and admit that maybe, just maybe, they're being a bit absurd.

And with the next episode airing Wednesday night, just hours after we hear whom our next President will be, this message couldn't be coming at a better time.