South Park and Poe's Law: Nothin' Funnier Than the Truth

southpark-mormons

Poe's Law: Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article.

Throughout their years of practice, scatological satirists Trey Parker and Matt Stone have had a very effective secret weapon in providing much needed laughs week after week. When lampooning the absurd, how do you top its own absurdity? South Park knows it's futile to try, so it opts to recreate instead. It’s amazing how many people would then assume these things were fiction, when in reality the South Park guys didn’t have to invent a thing. Through their simplistic animation style and poorly impersonated celebrity voices, it’s easier to notice how insane our world truly is. As the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction.

One of the most famous examples of this particular South Park comedy tactic is the Season 7 episode “All About the Mormons,” in which they accurately reenact Joseph Smith’s founding of the Mormon Church. South Park’s only original contribution? A musical chant going, “Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” Which surely mirrors the sentiment of anyone who don’t fall for Smith’s trickery. The episode was a tightrope of insult. Technically, it didn’t muck with the Joseph Smith legend. It was merely condescending.

Two seasons later, they did the same “joke” in an infamous episode called “Trapped in a Closet,” this time targeting the Church of Scientology. The episode offended chief Scientologist Tom Cruise so, the producers of Mission: Impossible III called Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom and demanded the episode’s reruns be yanked off the air. They partly succeeded, but word of the shady practice soon got out, making both Viacom and Paramount look bad and South Park once again the victor.

Contained in the episode was an animated depiction of Scientology’s taught history, so mindbogglingly preposterous that South Park had to flash the disclaimer “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE” during the sequence, lest the viewers assume the guys were fooling around with all that stolen-alien-souls baloney. It was insane, it was hilarious, it was perfect in its stupidity—and again, Matt and Trey simply took what was already there. Poe’s Law—If they had invented a raucous fictional Scientology belief and then present it side by side with the real deal, would the uninitiated be able to tell which is which?

To a lesser extent, “Trapped in a Closet” also contains another example. In the episode, a running joke is R. Kelly randomly pulling out his Beretta while singing about it. One might assume that it’s just South Park’s way of parodying R. Kelly’s epic musical soap opera and the fake-thuggery displayed, but if you watch the damn thing, R. Kelly really does randomly pull out his Beretta throughout the series. While singing about it. Applying Poe’s Law to the absurdity of pop culture rather than fundamentalism, you’ll find out that many of South Park’s jokes are not jokes; but rather a form of snarky journalism.

Last week, the show debuted its 13th season, kicking off with a Jonas Brothers-centric episode called “The Ring.” The episode harshly criticizes Disney’s use of Jonas Brothers’ purity rings as a mean to put up the facade of an innocent family friendly company while blatantly marketing sex to young children.

One of the episode’s most over-the-top moments was when the supposedly pure and virginal Jonas Bros pull out phallic hoses and shoot white foam all over their mostly underage female audience. This stage act was so disgusting and obviously Freudian that no one would blame you if you thought it was all Matt and Trey's mischievous concoction. Guess again. This is something the Jonas Brothers actually did at their concerts, as depicted in their recent 3D Experience concert movie. Below is a video taken at one of their shows in 2008.

Disturbed? Welcome to the party.

It wasn’t the first time South Park had done this to Disney. Last season, they did a brilliant spoof of the High School Musical craze. In one scene, the South Park boys sit down to watch the movie together. Cartman declares, “If this is what's cool now, I think I'm done. I no longer have any connection to this world. I'm gonna go home and kill myself,” during a scene where the kids in the movie sing “Go with the status quo.” If you think that’s just a simplification/mockery of how boring and squeaky-clean the kids are, you are sorely mistaken yet again, because it was a direct parody of an actual song from High School Musical called “Stick to the Status Quo.” Observe:

At one point, Comedy Central did Matt and Trey’s job for them. It happened in the highly controversial “Cartoon Wars” episode, in which they talk about the Muhammad cartoon scandal. The gist of the two-part episode’s moral is this: Terrorism is scaring people into doing something; by pussing out of showing Muhammad’s image in fear of Muslim retaliation, TV networks are essentially surrendering to terrorists. Kyle’s anti-censorship and anti-terrorism speech to a FOX network exec named “Doug” was taken almost verbatim from Matt and Trey’s own argument with Comedy Central head honcho Doug Herzog.

southpark-muhammadNot content with verbally bashing TV networks, South Park wanted to push the envelope further by actually showing a depiction Muhammad briefly. Comedy Central pulled the plug—nevermind that South Park had already depicted Muhammad in an episode five years prior, in a far more sacrilegious manner—thus proving the point that the censorship was motivated by fear and not moral integrity. Where the Muslim prophet was supposed to enter, a black screen appeared with the words, “In this shot, Muhammad hands a football helmet to Family Guy. Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Muhammad on their network.” Many fans thought it was a meta-joke meant to poke fun at Comedy Central. It was simply the truth.

Matt and Trey then highlighted this hypocrisy by ending the episode with a short cartoon supposedly paid for by Al Qaeda. It shows Jesus being defecated on by President Bush in front of the American flag. Comedy Central had no problem airing it.

The examples just keep on going, depending on the viewers’ awareness of what’s going on in the world. Who hadn’t wished that NAMBLA is just a fictional organization South Park came up with for a Season 4 episode? Who else was surprised to find out that Butters’ “What What (In the Butt)” video was a verbatim copy of an actual YouTube sensation?

In the Season 9 episode “Death of Eric Cartman,” South Park made popular the existence of Super AIDS. “There's no reason to be afraid of things that aren't real. There's plenty of real things to be scared of. Like Super AIDS,” warns Butters’ father to a terrified Butters. “A new form of AIDS which is resistant to drugs! Just one teaspoon of Super AIDS in your butt and you're dead in three years!”

The joke here is not that he’s scaring Butters with something equally unreal. The joke here is that what sounds so outrageous actually exists. While not formally called Super AIDS by the medical community (though totally should be), in 2005 doctors in New York discovered a rare and highly aggressive strand of HIV which, as Butter’s dad said, is resistant to drugs and develops much faster. So yeah, Super AIDS.

It’s fascinating to see how South Park, hiding behind its guise of juvenile humor, can illuminate and discuss real life incidents without their fans even realizing it. It has transcended reactionary and gone fully into the realm of education, even if the creators never meant to build a flock.

Of course, you can’t stay this cutting edge if you only go for the cheap shots. In the 13th season opener, when many expected them to completely rail on the Jonas Brothers for their goody-goody pretty boy nature, South Park once again proved themselves more clever than that, pointing out the real enemy and even made the Jonas Brothers somewhat sympathetic. It’s a familiar tactic they’ve displayed before with Britney Spears, going against the grain when it was hip to make fun of Crazy Brit the falling star. Search the internet and you’ll find many comments left by people who were so disturbed and saddened by the Britney Spears episode that they vowed to lay off Spears’ media mania. In "All About the Mormons," Matt and Trey balanced their sneering account of Joseph Smith with a concluding moral that basically says, "So what if their religion is irrational? If the people who follow these religions are truly nice, why should their faith be a problem?"

In a 2006 interview with Reason magazine, Matt Stone offered the following summation of South Park's approach to the subject matters they bring up on the show. It is perhaps the best way to understand how a comedy show can be so provocatively sophomoric and yet intellectually satisfying.

We’ve done stuff that’s really anti-religion in some ways. But it’s such an easy joke to go, “Look how stupid that is,” and then stop right there. Religion’s just much more fascinating than that to us. So from the very beginning, we always thought it was funny just to flip it on its ear and show how screwed up it is, but also how great it is. People couldn’t tell if we were kidding.

Mar
18
2009
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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