At first blush you would think it would be almost impossible to compare these two. South Park is aimed exclusively at adults who appreciate bad taste—if any seven-year olds happen to come across it on cable at 10 P.M. and start to watch it because they think Butters looks cute, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are probably guilty of child abuse. Jim Henson’s Muppets have the appearance of fare for children, although they are often appreciated just as much, or more so, by adults. South Park is satirical (it holds society up to ridicule); the Muppets are straightforward entertainers.
But the thing we’re comparing is the appeal of each to our own sensibilities. So the question is: South Park’s satire produces how effective a cartoon universe, compared to the Muppets? This I think we can answer.
South Park has, since it debuted in 1997, been the most consistently popular cartoon show on television. It basically launched Comedy Central—which has grown to become one of the three or four most relevant cable channels in the digital media age (The Daily Show, The Chappelle Show, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Politically Incorrect)—and South Park has remained the most-watched show on Comedy Central every year it’s been on the air. South Park has been relevant for over a decade, which is more than you can even say for The Simpsons, which, depending on what fan base you ask, faded into a cultural artifact somewhere between its sixth and ninth season. It spawned a hilarious hit movie in 1999 (I may have never laughed so hard in a theatre in my life), and is sneakily popular with many different types of people. On the face of it you’d think Parker and Stone’s brand of scatological juvenilia would be exclusively a boy’s game, but some girls with thick skin like it too. And minorities, who routinely get insulted in highly offensive ways on the show, still seem to appreciate it. South Park’s humor, while often crude and mean, is highly relatable. The weird, nasal affectedness of the characters’ voices transmits you to some devilishly naughty place inside Parker and Stone’s heads, where they can cleave through our collective psychological apparatus with one chop of the butcher knife; leaving id, ego, and super-ego in dismembered halves on the block.
The premise of The Muppet Show, which ran in syndication in 1976-81, is that a group of puppets are putting on a vaudeville act (often rather unprofessionally). The premise is adapted and stretched for the movies, but the idea of the Muppets being a troupe of wannabe entertainers persists. They produced a smash hit of a movie in 1979 and followed that with a string of less memorable ones, ending with their last theatrically-released film, Elmo in Space, in 1999.
From the late ‘70s to the late ‘80s, the Muppets were real-life celebrities. They made cameos in movies, guest-hosted The Tonight Show, and presented at the Oscars. Anyone who grew up in or was paying attention to media in that era remembers them distinctly.
The Muppets use vaudeville humor—the kind where one half of the act is asking who’s on first, and the other half is pretending to go bats trying to answer. Bad puns are the great staple of Muppets humor. It is a brand of entertainment that went out of style seventy years ago. But practiced by Jim Henson’s expertly designed anthropomorphic puppets, the style is amusing, endearing, and occasionally wondrous. A puppet does nothing but sit still for a moment, when the act calls for a beat before or after the punch line. But that beat is often priceless. Something about the way Henson fashions the usually very simple faces of his characters—big white circles for eyes set too close together; enormously wide, continually open mouths—makes you warm to them instantly, and laugh at jokes which were worn out in the 50’s.
The Muppets’ jokes may be stale by half a century, but they themselves have never been out of style. Even without a TV show on the air or a movie in the works, Kermit and friends are constantly showing up on our pop-culture radar—making appearances on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, or parodied reacting to pornographic movies on YouTube, or releasing 2011 covers of Bohemian Rhapsody. They have carved a place for themselves in our consciousness permanently, and I welcome them to it.
Strength of Nostalgia
South Park is considerably younger than the Muppets, but seeing and hearing Eric Cartman already makes me think back to school days. Still, because of the abrasive nature of South Park I can’t imagine Cartman will ever give the same warmth of feeling that Kermit will, sitting on a lily pad, strumming a ukulele.
Quality of Programming
South Park has, on a few occasions, achieved levels of genius. Parker and Stone are the preeminent satirists of the age, and if I had to fill a zip drive to put into a time capsule, with the intent to demonstrate the heights of our society’s achievements in humor, I’d probably include at least a season’s worth of South Park episodes.
There are lots of gags that are simply vulgar, too, but they’re often some of the funniest. Pundits often upbraid the American audience for enjoying vulgar over thoughtful fare, especially in comedy, but the truth is that potty mouths and gross-outs grow tiresome quicker than almost any other brand of humor. The lower circuits of sketch and stand-up comedy are filled with comic actors and writers who deal extensively in vulgarity, and almost all of it is so bad it’s unwatchable. Go try to watch a dirty comedian like Bob Saget go through a ten-minute routine—his work on Full House is revelatory in comparison.
Pulling off gross-out comedy consistently is really hard. It requires one to understand, at a fundamental level, that there is nothing inherently funny about dirty words or pictures. Dirty words elicit laughs because our minds associate them with transgression. Repeat the same dirty word three or four times and the transgression disappears. Then you’re just witnessing some crazy homeless guy screaming profanities in the park.
But for some reason, that never seems to happen on South Park. It has something to do with the atmosphere: everything in South Park is amped-up. At least half of the dialogue is basically yelled. The tone is such that nothing really holds the possibility of shock. The only rule seems to be that anyone is capable of anything.
But can transgression exist in such a place? Yes! A conservative force opposes transgression because that force assumes a transgression will violate a boundary, and thus cross into unknown territory. Conservative forces fear the unknown, thus their opposition. But in humor, transgression has to cross into territory that is known—we simply never acknowledge it in public, or occasionally even to ourselves. Any joke you laugh at you kind of already knew, somewhere in that massive electrical storm of a brain of yours. The punch line just gives you the zap between two synapses which puts it together. The insanity in South Park often seems diabolically capricious, but in ninety percent of the cases it references our own weakness—weakness for many things, but most of all for simply taking things too seriously. (Whether Parker and Stone have any kind of useful message about what we should take seriously, or they are just smart-asses who will mock anything in sight, is a question for debate).
The Muppet Show can’t compare to South Park for relevance, but don’t discount the ways Kermit and Co. have shaped our media landscape through the years. When the Muppets have found the right medium to express themselves, they have combined childlike wonder with grown-up sensibilities in a way I think only the Pixar films can rival. And even Pixar, as incredible a run as they’ve had in the past ten years, has often had to abandon one for the sake of the other (A film like The Incredibles or Up is basically grown-up fare disguised as kids’ entertainment).
Advantage: South Park
Appeal of main characters
It’s hard to argue against the Muppets here. Kermit the Frog is the most appealing animated character in existence, IMO. He has a brilliant look and voice, a fully realized personality that is capable of growth and adaptation, and a genuine decency of character which can be universally appreciated. Miss Piggy is a little less realized, but she’s a perfect foil for Kermit. Fozzy Bear seems to have only one recurring bit as a failed comedian, but that bit speaks to a wonderfully insecure personality that you can appreciate almost as much as Kermit’s. Gonzo is excellent as the weird uncategorized thing that doesn’t belong and doesn’t know who he is. (it’s amazing how these simple traits given to puppets can speak to our own basic flaws and desires, isn’t it?) Some of the other Muppets are so popular you could easily put them in this category too, but I’ll save them for later.
South Park’s weakness is probably in its main characters. Cartman is a superstar. He out-yells, out-schemes, out-annoys, and out-insanities every other loud, scheming, annoying, insane character on the show. But because everything is set to such a high volume it’s difficult to create more thoughtful characters. Kyle and Stan have been kind of interchangeable for most of South Park’s run—growing increasingly exasperated, until Stan delivers one of those faux-or-maybe-not-so-faux wrap-up speeches at the end (and see, I couldn’t remember just now whether it was Kyle or Stan that delivers that speech).
Appeal of secondary characters
Whoo. This is knock-down drag-out. For the Muppets, you have Rowlf the Dog, The Swedish Chef, Beaker, Statler and Waldorf (they look like the two scheming old guys from Trading Places), Dr. Teeth’s band which includes Animal, Sam the Eagle, Rizzo the Rat, the Pigs in Space, Pepe the King Prawn, and more. If you wanted you could also throw in all of the characters from Fraggle Rock, an HBO Muppets spin-off which is probably the most thoughtful educational program for children in history.
South Park’s secondary cast is more impressive than its leads: Butters, the constantly put-upon munchkin with an adorable voice whom audiences liked so much he basically became a lead character for a few seasons, Chef (no longer on the show; Isaac Hayes, who provided his voice, objected to its treatment of Scientology), Mr. Garrison and his hand puppet Mr. Slave, Big Gay Al, God, Jesus, The Devil, Saddam Hussein, Tuong Lu Kim, owner of City Wok (pronounced shit-tee Wok; it’s funny how some of the stuff about Asian people on the show has been twice as offensive as what that UCLA Girl on YouTube said a few days ago, but me and the million other Asians who watch South Park don’t care), Terrance and Philip, etc…looking at it now, I’m going to say that this secondary cast is probably more impressive than The Simpsons’.
I love the Muppets’ cast, but I can’t go against the uncountable number of laughs I’ve received over the years from South Park’s minor players.
Advantage: South Park
Total Realization of Universe
Are Parker and Stone saying anything? Do they just hate everything and everyone? Is there a message in any of this, or is South Park just nihilism dressed up in vomit?
One thing I’ve always found fascinating about these two is that they’ve sometimes showed signs of a conservative bent. (Artists who are politically conservative are about as rare as pandas in the wild; and usually not nearly as adorable) Take Team America: World Police. Doesn’t it seem they’re enjoying themselves a little bit more while having a tiger eat Ben Affleck and Susan Sarandon, rather than when they have American commandoes blowing up the Egyptian pyramids in pursuit of terrorists? They seem to take an especial glee in tearing into outspoken Hollywood liberals—Alec Baldwin, Barbara Streisand, Rob Reiner all receive particularly brutal treatment on South Park.
But that may all just be a red herring. I find it hard to believe Parker and Stone would so energetically and painstakingly criticize American culture only to suggest in the end that outlawing abortion and lowering taxes is the answer to everything. What I suspect is that they themselves are fully aware how liberal most of their contemporaries are, and are just sticking the knife in a little deeper by mocking that as well.
In the occasional moments when Parker and Stone do try to conciliate with us, they suggest that maybe moderation is the key. Well—maybe in real life, moderation is the key. But in art, moderation is kind of a let-down. At the end of Team America someone delivers a speech analogizing liberals and conservatives to “pussies” and “assholes.” It’s a slam-bang way to end the movie, and makes all kind of weird sense. At the time I thought it was genius—the gynecological equivalent to Kennedy’s inauguration speech. But all it is doing is preaching moderation.
I think I’ll take the Muppets here. Why? Because they have a real message, which I will go into in a later post. For now, it’s enough to know that South Park falls a little short of the mark.
So: Muppets 3, South Park 2. Warner Bros. vs. Sesame Street next.