“It’s a tough task that calls for marvelous intelligence beyond that of your average comedian to heal a disease endemic to the city. But let’s give it a shot.”
Aristotle, author of the first systematic work of literary criticism in the Western tradition, classified all narrative art as either tragedy or comedy, and clearly preferred tragedy. According to Aristotle, the key difference between the two genres is that tragedy deals with characters who are “better than us” (“us” being, presumably, students of Aristotle), while comedy deals with characters who are “worse than us.” The very first episode of Comedy Central’s South Park, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” which first aired in 1997, illustrates this thesis. Aliens implant a satellite dish in Cartman’s rectum, Chef sings to elementary school children about making sweet love down by the fire, and Kyle—the Jewish kid who later becomes the show’s thoughtful, sometimes moralistic, speechmaker—giggles at kicking his baby brother through school bus windows. Kenny dies grotesquely for the first of many times; Kyle casually rips the head off the corpse and rats devour it while Stan muses, “I gotta get a piece of lovin’ while the gettin’s hot.” When the alien visitors finally speak, the “wisdom” they reveal is radically anti-humanist: they say to the cows that trampled Kenny, “We have experimented with all the beings of Earth, and we have learned that you are the most intelligent and wise.” The implication of this apparently programmatic claim is that we humans really are as brutish as the most brutal comedians suggest that we are.
As the novelty of their crude language and Kenny-killing jokes wore off, South Park’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone focused their satirical gaze upon a wide variety of hot-button issues, from hate crimes and NAMBLA to Scientology, deforestation, and sexual harassment. In earlier seasons of South Park, each subject was usually satirized in a single twenty-two-minute episode, and the next week’s episode would be about something else entirely. But later seasons were much more ambitious, bringing together several issues and storylines in season-long arcs.
Ancient Greek comedy developed in a similar way. According to Aristotle, it was the Athenian comedian Krates (mid-fifth century BCE) who first introduced longer narratives to a genre that originally consisted of brief, improvisatory lampoons. That development allowed Greek comedy to achieve the weight and sophistication we find in the work of Aristophanes. What makes an Aristophanes comedy so rich is that it begins by targeting one societal woe as the root of all kinds of evil, before revealing that the problem is immensely more complicated. This usually occurs through a verbal contest called an agon, in which two competing perspectives turn out to have as many similarities as differences, each flawed in their own ways. In Aristophanes’ Clouds, the protagonist’s debt problem embroils him in a debate about the nature of education. In Birds, two Athenians’ quest for the simple life leads them, ironically, to establish a human-avian super city in the sky designed to starve out the gods and rule over all the earth. Longer narratives enabled writers of Greek comedy to highlight contrasts between the seeming simplicity of social issues and their actual complexity.
South Park’s most recent season targets political correctness (PC), an issue that has been increasingly visible on social media and in university campus protests. This is particularly notable because PC culture was what gave South Park its initial power. The show’s early shock-value humor was, in part, a reaction against a climate in the late Nineties of hyper-awareness and language policing. Having grown out of one of the first viral videos on the internet, South Park has always retained the spirit of libertarian egalitarianism that is so pervasive on the web. PC is in partial affinity with the egalitarian side of that spirit, but sharply opposed to the libertarian side, which spawns both immense creativity and immense negativity, as the new season graphically demonstrates. In the fifth episode, the sweet fourth-grader Butters becomes the vessel of wrath for the entire internet’s negativity: he is nearly destroyed by having to clean up insult-ridden comment sections in an effort to make the internet a “safe space” for everyone.
Today’s revitalized emphasis on political correctness, articulated most visibly on university campuses, gives the show a new antagonist. Over the past year, Columbia University took Ovid’s Metamorphoses off its rigorous core curriculum after a few undergraduates complained that it didn’t come with a trigger warning about rape. Activists at the University of Missouri designated their protest a “safe space,” excluding even journalists. Princeton students have demanded that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from campus buildings because of his racist views. Asian students at Oberlin recently complained about the “cultural appropriation” committed by their campus dining service, which served slightly unorthodox versions of sushi and Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches. It is no surprise that comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld now avoid campus performances, citing the touchiness of today’s students; an environment more hostile to comedy is hard to imagine. So when a new character, PC Principal, bursts onto the scene in the first episode and shouts “PC is back, and it’s bigger than ever!” you can almost hear Parker and Stone’s giddiness at the opportunity to get back to their roots. This they do, but with far more thoughtfulness and nuance than in the early years, as well as with greater sympathy for PC enthusiasts.
Parker and Stone have always seemed intent on tapping into the libertine virulence of the internet and channeling that into their show, usually in service of a cause. Though it may seem counterintuitive, those causes are more or less in line with the central PC ideal of respect for the marginalized. For example, Stone and Parker have asserted the right of transgender people to use whatever bathroom they feel comfortable with (Season 18, Episode 3), defended race relations against self-promoters like Jesse Jackson (Season 11, Episode 1), supported the right of NCAA athletes to be paid for their labor (Season 15, Episode 5), and explained that Somali pirates are not villains but subalterns forced into a life of crime by hopeless economic conditions (Season 13, Episode 7).
At the beginning of Season 19’s first episode, we learn at a school assembly that South Park Elementary’s Principal Victoria has been fired for failing to make the school a politically correct environment. Her replacement, PC Principal, is a self-righteous, Oakley-wearing bro who has made it his mission to bring the school and the town in line with a progressive, twenty-first-century sensibility. So driven is he by this cause that he issues Kyle a draconian punishment for saying that Caitlyn Jenner is not a hero, and he brutally assaults Cartman for making microaggressive comments about women and minorities. Randy Marsh, Stan’s dad, joins the principal’s PC fraternity, and as part of his initiation has to check Kyle’s privilege by drawing penises on his face. Cartman, who seems to have given in to PC Principal after a failed attempt to frame him for raping Butters, is dismayed by Kyle’s treatment and vows to take revenge. He besieges the frat house with tacos, hundreds of pregnant Mexican women, Syrian refugees, Chinese drivers, and Subway’s Jared. Horrified by the chaotic morass, Kyle begs everyone to stop, and a temporary détente is reached, as the PC bros concede that offensive humor can open a dialogue about sensitive subjects.
What is most surprising about the season opener is that Cartman, of all people, recognizes that PC Principal means well. In fact, after PC Principal nearly beats him to death for saying “capiche?” (which in PC Principal’s mind constitutes an intolerable insult to Italian Americans), Cartman converts, admitting that he and his friends need to grow up. “PC Principal is right, Kyle. You and I are bigots,” he says—ironically, after eighteen seasons of leveling antisemitic slurs at his conscientious classmate. “We’re two privileged, straight white boys who have their laughs about things we never had to deal with.” His assault on the PC frat is not motivated by a desire for license to be as bad as he likes but by his friendship for Kyle. Parker and Stone suggest that Cartman’s naughty antisemitism masks feelings of friendship that are deeper and more authentic than what the PC bros feel for each other or for the marginalized. For regardless of their abstract political and rhetorical commitments, the PC bros end up establishing social bonds only with other white males through shared violence against their enemies. Cartman’s truly shocking onslaught proves to be the only way to persuade the bros to stop their violence. In the aftermath, Cartman and the boys literally have their cake and eat it too—a meta-comedic gesture that illustrates Parker and Stone’s satisfaction with using outrageous humor to support a PC agenda.
South Park’s PC bros are the great-great-…-great grandsons of the angry old jurors Aristophanes satirized in his 422 BCE comedy Wasps. Aristophanes’ mockery of the Athenian legal system must be read in light of the fact that the Athenians were in fact very proud of their courts of law, and for good reason: they were among the first people in history not only to subject the rich and powerful to the same law as everybody else, but also to pay jurors for their labor so that even the very poor could sit in judgment of the rich and powerful. The law courts did at least as much as the assembly to distribute concrete political power throughout the citizenry—which, by the way, is what leftists and libertarians who praise the internet praise it for doing.
In Wasps the marginalized are tempted to take excessive pleasure in the exercise of judgmental power. Philocleon and his fellow jurors lack physical power, being old, and social power, being poor. In their heated imaginations, the law court acts as an instrument capable of granting them the potency they lack. Philocleon’s slave describes the old man as being “in love” with jury service (the Greek phrase is literally translated as “he feels eros for the act of passing judgment”): he dreams of the water-clock (by which speakers were timed); he scribbles “the ballot box is hot” in doorways; he never acquits. He describes with seemingly sadistic glee the way powerful men break down in tears as they beg for his mercy. “Is there a pleasure, a blessing comparable with that of a juryman?” he asks. “Is there a being who lives more in the midst of delights, who is more feared, aged though he be?” When he comes home from court with his jury pay, his wife and daughter dote on him. Thinking of all this is so overwhelming that he exclaims, “The power I wield is as great as Zeus’s!”
Philocleon’s son, Bdelycleon, thinks his father would be better off staying home during the day and going to dinner with friends at night, so he stages an elaborate intervention to wean the old man off his addiction to legal power. In an ironic twist, the play ends with Philocleon restored to physical potency both erotic and aggressive, carrying off a young flute girl from a dinner party and assaulting someone on the road, thus landing himself in legal trouble. Such is his addiction to jury service that as soon as he is deprived of legal power, he loses all civility and, the play implies, will soon have to face the same merciless jurors whose ranks he has just left.
In the first episode of Season 19 of South Park, PC Principal explains to the new pledges that being PC “means you love nothing more than beer, working out, and that feeling you get when you rhetorically defend a marginalized community from systems of oppression.” The hashtagger and the student protester run the same risk as Philocleon: the satisfaction of feeling power as great as Zeus’s without, in fact, having anything close to it.
This season’s last four episodes are even more tightly knit than the rest of the season; together, they imagine internet ads that become sentient and threaten human existence. The subplot shows how even PC can be co-opted by exploitative corporations, tricking well-meaning egalitarians into cooperating with systems of oppression. The creators claim that PC, when thoughtlessly applied, is “verbal gentrification”—by creating the mere illusion of progress, it beautifies the surface of things while inadvertently harming the already downtrodden. In one episode, the PC craze has so infected South Park that the residents decide they no longer need a police force, a point they illustrate by bitterly telling an officer, “I’ll bet you don’t even know what ‘farm-to-table’ means!” The town’s effort to become more PC devolves into a utopian fantasy of power and exclusion. Because exploitative ads, gentrification, and overzealous PC all rely on utopian images, comedy—which often gets laughs by puncturing utopian fantasies—may in fact be the best medicine for these diseases.
Aristophanes’ plays often brutally mock the “noble citizen males” by suggesting that women, barbarians, and slaves, however flawed, might actually be better and cleverer people than those in power. As we have seen, however, Wasps reveals the flipside of the struggle. Philocleon’s love of passing judgment leads him to abuse—and thereby to lose—the small power he has gained. The chief insight shared by Aristophanes and the creators of South Park is that comedy has the power to expose not only the shortcomings of the mighty, but also the pitfalls that the oppressed must avoid in order not to sabotage their own causes. Comedy may be, as Aristotle says, about people who are worse than we are, but that is why it has so much teach us.