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Ten Parallels Between South Park's Eric Cartman and Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary

March 17, 2010  |  7:00am
Ten Parallels Between <em>South Park</em>'s Eric Cartman and Ambrose Bierce's <em>The Devil's Dictionary</em>

Woman, n. An animal usually living in the vicinity of Man, and having a rudimentary susceptibility to domestication.”
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

“I would never let a woman kick my ass. If she tried something, I’d be like, HEY! You get your bitch ass back in the kitchen and make me some pie!”
—Eric Cartman, “An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig,” South Park

It’s difficult to imagine that a show featuring a talking turd named “Mr. Hanky” could have anything to offer the viewing public beyond simple, crass comedy. But after 13 consecutive years of delivering the adventures of four potty-mouthed fourth-graders to the viewing public, South Park has proven itself to be more than just an obscenity-rich cartoon. For creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, everything in American culture is fair game for satirizing, including Terry Schiavo, Tom Cruise, molestation in the Catholic Church, and a stingray-skewered Steve Irwin. Oh, and Tiger Woods, whose hyper-publicized sexual travesties will be repurposed for the show’s fourteenth season premiere, which airs tonight.

Nothing is sacred in South Park, making it one of the most offensive shows on television—and the Parents Television Council, a conservative interest group that files complaints with the FCC on a regular basis, agrees. One of South Park’s fiercest opposers, the PTC has described the show as a “curdled, malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit” that “shouldn’t have been made.” Among the PTC’s least favorite examples of said vomit include the episode “It Hits the Fan,” wherein characters drop a particular uncensored expletive 162 times. And yes, there was a ticking counter keeping track onscreen throughout the episode.

Yet, beneath the in-your-face vulgarity and cornucopia of poop jokes, there is substance. By desecrating everything from Jesus Christ to Jesse Jackson, Stone and Parker have equipped themselves with a powerful tool: the ability to yank down any cultural phenomenon from its lofty pillar and slap it around a few times (in front of several million viewers, no less). Smug eco-friendly Prius jockeys? Check. Republicans threatening suicide after Obama’s 2008 win? Check. Fat, pimple-ridden kids who spend their days fighting imaginary creatures in World of Warcraft? Check.

While ivory-tower academia may not be readily prepared to compare Matt Stone and Trey Parker, harbingers of sleaze, to the lofty satirists of literature, one can’t help but make that comparison when watching the train-wreck of American pop culture unfold in a construction-paper cutout town in southern Colorado. It’s more than likely that Ovid and Horace strayed away from utilizing the high degree of scatological humor that Parker and Stone seem to enjoy, but many satirists who are considered the height of satirical literature probably shared a similarly ribald sense of humor as the South Park creators. See A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift’s treatise on gourmet neonatals.

And what of that incessantly mean-spirited, anti-Semitic, misogynist, fat curmudgeon of a character (Paste’s #13 TV Character of the Past 20 Years, no less), Eric Cartman? Sure, his hatred for humanity and depthless well of narcissism have captured the love of countless boys and young men, who bear his portly image on t-shirts and butcher his signature statements with their shoddy imitations (“Respect Mah Authori-tah!”). What could such a depraved character possibly bring to the series in terms of sociological relevance? Perhaps we should ask Ambrose Bierce.

It’s surprisingly easy to see similarities between Bierce’s infamous collection of misanthropic, cynical definitions in The Devil’s Dictionary, and the poop joke-smattered tao of Cartman. He is substantially less subtle, spending his episodes trying to exterminate the Jews, making money by forming a Christian rock band, and even seeking revenge on a bully by grinding the boy’s parents up into chili and feeding it to him. (A touch of Swift’s influence, perhaps?) Yet he is South Park’s instigator, the foil to American culture. And he, like Bierce, shares a sharp distaste for just about anything that could be called “politically correct.”

Without further intellectual puffery, below are but 10 parallels between Bierce’s infamously cranky Devil’s Dictionary and the antics of Eric Cartman. For more, watch the show’s season premiere tonight on Comedy Central.

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