I was a late convert to "South Park." By the time I had cable and had worked up enough curiosity to watch a few episodes, the initial furor over the cartoon's content had long since died. "South Park" and its parcel of pint-sized reprobates didn't win me over right away. I'm not a fan of the toilet humor Matt Stone and Trey Parker gleefully indulge in, and I did find some of the material pretty offensive - but it wasn't as offensive as I was led to believe. More importantly, the show was smart, well-written, funny, and fearless. When it got crass and mean, there was always a point to it. The satire was vicious, but it was also insightful, timely, and provocative in the best way. The creators had their leanings, but they went after everybody, left and right, young and old, famous and infamous.
Which brings us to the controversy that's making headlines right now. "South Park" is in trouble again, after ominous warnings were delivered by an Islamic group about the planned appearance of a cartoon caricature of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in Wednesday's episode. Comedy Central was so concerned, they blocked the image of Muhammad with black boxes, even when the character was concealed in a bear suit, then bleeped out all mentions of his name and cut more referential dialogue for good measure. I haven't seen in the episode in question, or most of the current season since I drop-kicked my cable subscription, but I remember the last time the "South Park" guys tried to put the image of Muhammad on the air after the Danish political cartoon fracas. Comedy Central didn't let us see him that time either, though it refrained from the heavy bleepery.
The reactions to the decision have been predictably mixed. Parker and Stone revealed that they delivered an uncensored episode to the network and the decision to censor was on the part of Comedy Central's executives. Many sympathize with the creators, pointing out that this could be setting a worrying precendent, allowing the curtailment of speech by religious fringe groups. There have also been charges of hypocrisy, as Muhammad already briefly appeared on the show years ago in a group of major religious figures that included Buddha and Moses. Others point to the murder of director Theo van Gogh after a similar controversy, and suggest that the network had no choice but to censor in the interest of protecting themselves and the creators. In January, over four years after the publication of the Danish Muhammad cartoons, one of the cartoonists was attacked by a radical Islamist in his own home.
Yet it's difficult to think of this kind of controversy happening with any other show on any other network. The United States has stronger safeguards on freedom of speech than most, but tends to be more restrictive in actual practice, especially with speech in the media. Comedy Central is one of the few major television networks that occasionally allows uncensored speech other button-pushing content in its programming. "South Park" is one of Comedy Central's flagship shows and has pushed the boundaries of acceptable content since day one. They've been called racist, sexist, blasphemous, un-American, and not funny. Provocation is the show's modus operandi, but it's only been able to push as far as it has thanks to a network willing to take risks and sustain outrage from everybody from the Scientologists to Steven Spielberg.
The fact that Comedy Central backed down and acknowledged that its boundaries exist isn't as important as the fact that the "South Park" guys are still pushing them. And this is why "South Park" consistently makes headlines, even after nearly fifteen years. It has never reached the kind of popularity or widespread acceptance of "The Simpsons," but "South Park" has never lost its edge and has remained culturally relevant for at least twice as long. It would have been easy for Parker and Stone to rest on their laurels when celebrating their big 200th episode last week, but instead they reignited an old controversy and the show is back in the middle of a raucous free speech debate.
Now that's the way to honor "South Park."