Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Killing Joke: Censorship in South Park

On April 21th, 2010 Matt Parker and Trey Stone were boldly unable to go where they've gone before. A week earlier, they had celebrated their 200th episode with a plot revolving around the Muslim prophet Muhammad's invincibility from ridicule and the town's desire to harness similar powers within South Park. The episode, inoffensively named "200," directly asked us if whether they were portraying Muhammad in an offensive manner or not. They placed him in a U-Haul van, in a mascot's outfit, behind a black bar labeled "censored." He does remain silent. They asked us if we would be offended hearing him speak or if we could allow ourselves to see his legs move. They weren't mocking Muhammad. They were mocking how we've come to censor our thoughts and ideas, not out of respect for the subjects brought up, but instead because of fear.

Then episode "201" aired. Not only was the image of Muhammad censored from the previous show's conclusion, but his name was as well. Their biting commentary on this taboo, which had been developing since the violence erupted over the political cartoons in a Danish newspaper, became a show that we could watch without knowing Muhammad was ever involved. Comedy Central was clearly scared. His name was bleeped, his image, even his ridiculous clone, were all deemed by Comedy Central to be so blasphemous that we could not be subjected to him. We weren't offered the choice to view him in a cartoon that featured Buddha snorting lines of cocaine in front of little children. We weren't allowed to look at Muhammad, but we were allowed to watch Jesus browse Internet pornography. In a nation where nothing is sacred and speech is free, we weren't awarded a choice for ourselves. And Matt and Trey lost their voice for the first time in their show's 14 year run.

Matt Parker and Trey Stone released a statement early on April 22nd regarding the conflicted representation:

"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."

What is ironic here is that Muhammad, like controversy, isn't a stranger to South Park. He figured into an early episode during the series' fifth season entitled "Super Best Friends" and was actually shown and given dialogue. After the riots and bombings concerning the prophet's portrayal in the Danish political cartoons, Matt and Trey launched themselves into a two-part episode ("Cartoon Wars Part 1 & 2") which dealt with the very concepts of free speech within mainstream media and the power of censorship. When these episodes aired (in April 2006), they still had to fight the network to show Muhammad. Comedy Central eventually caved and censored his likeness at the last moment. This added an air of seriousness to their satirical program. When they tried again last week to show his visage and the story's conclusion was met with the inability to even mutter his name, the bite was gone and danger filled the air. The mere fact that a week prior they could speak the Muslim prophet's name without a "bleep" suggests (and has led to speculation since airing two days ago) that the creative team's safety was being threatened. A posting on the Revolution Muslim website suggested that the two could end up like Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered by a Muslim extremist who objected to a film of his that was critical of the treatment of women under Islam.

Matt and Trey know that speaking their minds is dangerous business. This is a big deal for the duo because, until now, absolutely nothing has been off limits. They've already killed Jesus twice. They once forced a kid to eat chili where the secret ingredient was his parents. Even the use of Tom Cruise through their 201st episode was not as random as some may think. He was cleverly used as a stepping stone toward dealing with the controversy they knew they'd be facing. Tom Cruise was first featured in an episode a few seasons back called "Trapped in the Closet" which made assumptions about his sexuality and his ties to Scientology. They were threatened with lawsuits and Comedy Central almost pulled it from airing. It was ultimately met with massive critical acclaim and an Emmy nomination. On the commentary track for last season's "The 'F' Word," where the townsfolk attempt to transfer the definition of the word "fag" from homosexuals onto bikers, they openly announced that they thought the episode might get them killed when it aired.

Trey and Matt know that trouble brews when ideas roam free -- and for 44 minutes they just wanted to ask "what makes Muhammad so special?" Even with the looming threat of violence, they wanted to have their thoughts out in an open forum and were censored without hesitation. In the end, it doesn't matter whether you hold the show in high regard, or if you think of it as offensive trash, it was vital that you had a chance to develop your own opinions. What's important is Matt Parker and Trey Stone's refusal to be silent paves the way for a key message that Comedy Central tried to hide: You shouldn't be afraid to laugh.

-- Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

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