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Friday, April 23, 2010

South Park, Comedy Central, and "warnings" of violence

South Park is in trouble with some Islamic groups, in a way that has turned a bit ominous. And creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker appear to be in a creative spat with Comedy Central.

Last week, the show marked its 200th episode with a very meta show in which many or most of the characters from throughout the show's history appear, among them Tom Cruise and every other public figure who ever has been ridiculed or satirized on the show. Cruise and company threaten a class-action against the town, unless the boys can bring Muhammad to South Park, which residents fear would result in the town being bombed for showing the Prophet. The celebrities really are looking to steal the "secret" that makes Muhammad immune from public ridicule, an obvious reference to the threats resulting from the Danish cartoons several years ago (a subject that the show has tackled before). Muhammad is shown with a black rectangular box marked "Censored" over him, then is shown in town inside a trailer and standing in a bear costume--all very obvious attempts to aoid "depicting" the prophet.

No good. The day after the episode aired, a group called Revolution Muslim posted a statement on its web site saying that the show had insulted Muhammad (I guess by talking about depicting him); that what Stone and Parker had done was stupid; and that they probably would wind up like Danish director Theo Van Gogh, who was killed by an Islamist militant in 2004. The statement also said "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them." Neither the FBI nor New York police are treating the statement as a criminal threat-- and it probably is not punishable as a true threat.

So this week, in the conclusion to the cliffhanger (almost certainly completed this week, after the group's warning), they went one step further, keeping Muhammad under the black box, bleeping all mention of Muhammad's name, and revealing the person in the bear costume to actually be Santa Claus. But now the controversy shifts to Comedy Central. According to a statement from Parker and Stone, the network bleeped out additional material, including a final speech about fear and intimidation that did not mention Muhammad at all. In addition, Comedy Central has refused to give them permission to stream the episode (uncensored, presumably) on their own web site.

I long have said that, within the scatological humor (which I sometimes find too much, personally), South Park is among the most brilliant and consistently funny and accurate socio-political satire around. Partly this is because they hit just about everyone (thus avoiding the charges of political bias often aimed at Stewart or Colbert) and partly because they have been relatively fearless. And I obviously am no fan of the efforts of some Muslim groups to threaten (or warn about) violence against speech they do not like by people who do not share their beliefs as a way to make speakers (and especially corporate forum owners) back down.

But on this controversy, I am particularly angry with Viacom (which owns Comedy Central) for caving in, although there is a question of why they made further changes to the episode. Were they worried about violence because of the threats/warnings? Or was it an effort not to offend or further anger anyone? I am troubled either way, although more so by the latter.

It is obviously wrong to give in to the lowest common denominator of the most-easily offended listener and adopt that as the level of "appropriate speech." In any event, what did they expect? This is what Parker and Stone have been doing for fourteen years. If Viacom is going to support Stone and Parker when they fun of everyone else--appearing in this episode including Jesus (shown watching internet porn), Joseph Smith, Buddha (shown snorting cocaine), and Pope Benedict--it is hypocritical to stop here or declare this one issue off limits. Assuming the Stone/Parker version is true, I am especially troubled by the bleeping of the final "moral" of the story, which (I am guessing) contained a political message directed at an obvious target but nothing that should be deemed "offensive". Hopefully Viacom recognizes the irony of allowing fear and intimidation to cause it to censor a speech criticizing . . . the use of fear and intimidation.

The Stone/Parker statement ends with "We'll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we'll see what happens to it." Indeed.


It appears (H/T: Huffington Post) that Comedy Central's decision to further censor the episode was done out of concern for Stone and Parker and not to avoid causing further offense. But this also is not the first time Comedy Central has stepped in when Stone and Parker have taken shots at the Islam/depiction of Muhammad issue.

Anyway, let's let Jon Stewart have the last word:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
South Park Death Threats
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 23, 2010 at 10:00 AM | Permalink


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Another interesting update - On the episode of The Simpsons that aired last night, Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard: "South Park - we'd stand beside you if we weren't so scared."

Posted by: SLC | Apr 26, 2010 3:24:47 PM

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