As I stare out the window of my Morningside Heights apartment upon a cold, bleak, dead-spirited New York, it’s hard to conjure up memories of September’s warmth and cautious, nervous optimism—y’know, t-minus 2 months before the world as we knew it came to an end. In those days, I was composing a list of South Park’s 20 best characters in anticipation of the show’s 20th season, probably its most highly anticipated since the cliffhanger at the end of its debut season left fans hungry for answers (and, instead, gave them a mouthful of Terrance and Philip). South Park was coming off a 19th season that, by all accounts, was its best in a decade, buoyed by a new, semi-serialized format and the brilliant meta-skewerer PC Principal. It was the height of election season, we had a narcissistic, fascist asshole running for President, and the internet itself was at approximately 11:59:48 on the Doomsday clock, awaiting total meltdown. What better atmosphere could chaos profiteers like Trey Parker and Matt Stone desire?
As it turns out…maybe 2016 was too much chaos, even for South Park.
When I first started watching the show in the mid-2000s, little did I know it, but Parker and Stone were at the peak of their powers, and it had to do with the political and sociocultural climate of the time. The Bush years—and especially the latter Bush years—were ripe for satire. The intellectual Left, emboldened by a Republican administration’s utter foreign policy failure and denial of shifting social mores on the home front, fostered some of the most incisive comedy of the modern age. The nation witnessed the rise of Jon Stewart, on his way to becoming a modern-day Walter Cronkite for confirmation-seeking Democrats and heady independents, and Stephen Colbert, who transmuted himself into an American Borat to turn the Right’s own arguments against them. Right up there with those two titans was South Park, which fed off the latent absurdity of the Bush era to turn small, inconsequential snafus into hilarious and apocalyptic disasters. This was the heyday of what I call the show’s “blockbuster” era, when the boys’ innocence of the early seasons was mostly discarded in favor of dramatic music, more elaborate schemes, and totally overblown catastrophe in seemingly every episode. The blockbuster era kicked into high gear with Chef’s death at the beginning of Season 10, and it really hasn’t slowed down since.
Here’s the thing, though: that style only works when society at large is legitimately making too big a deal out of issues, when sincerity either traffics in objective stupidity or veneered commodification. It was the latter of these that made South Park’s 19th season such a hard-hitting takedown of trendy progressivism, and a sort of upset to boot. Even last year, the show’s take-no-prisoners attitude toward offense comedy seemed a bit outmoded, but the show thrived by pointing fingers simultaneously at itself and at everyone else. PC Principal was a stroke of genius, and Season 19 concluded with the usual Armageddon, punctuated by a fist in the face of the Ex Machina-spoofing, sentient advertisement Leslie. It’s still as ridiculous as it sounds, and it was possible because in 2015, the world wasn’t really ending—at least, not according to the zeitgeist.
But 2016 never completed its scripted pull out of its nosedive, and here we sit, with Donald Trump preparing to reign from atop his Manhattan tower like a real-life Saruman with an army of neo-Nazi, climate change-denying Uruk-hai at his command and fake news threatening to end the Galilean-Cartesian supremacy of facts and reason over hate-fueled emotion. In other words, the world had regressed to one of South Park’s batshit crazy endgames, and even South Park was rendered speechless.
When it did manage to find words, it wasn’t all that funny. Over this season’s 10 episodes, I can count the number of times I laughed out loud on one hand. There are, perhaps, several reasons for this. For one, Parker and Stone may have finally run out of ideas. Instead of signifying a turnaround in quality, maybe Season 19 was a momentary upward blip in an otherwise Simpsons-esque long-term slide. For another, it’s possible that the show moved too far in the serial direction this year. Despite the season-long PC Principal arc that pervaded last year’s effort, you could still watch several of those episodes as one-offs, out of context, and find them both comprehensible and hilarious. That was not the case this season, and for all the emphasis Parker and Stone placed upon building a cohesive, sweeping narrative (which still made only halfway sense and failed to resolve a number of conflicts), they forgot the humor. Cartman’s entire narrative felt like a half-assed waste of time, relying exclusively upon a joke that died over the summer (the sexist fracas surrounding the Ghostbusters reboot) and placing the show’s chief agent of manipulation and chaos soundly out of the picture. And after last year’s triumph repositioned South Park at the forefront of current events comedy, the emphasis on trolling in Season 20 seemed downright anachronistic. In a year when real-life hate-mongers have hijacked the internet and increasingly feel confident enough to parade their bigotry in the open, the show had the temerity to suggest that collective shame over our online behavior could destroy the city of Fort Collins.
In sum, South Park felt like the rest of us: trying and failing to apply the thought paradigms of more stable times to the new, post-factual hellscape. But even if this season was the Waterloo to last year’s return from exile in Elba (and titling the last two episodes “Not Funny” and “The End of Serialization As We Know It” should clue us in), Parker and Stone still won the zeitgeist war.
Self-conscious as ever, they managed to capture the 2016 nostalgia strain with their Memberberries—the single most memorable element of Season 20. The fact that Memberberries were the only consistently funny characters, and that they thrived entirely on the past to collect their laughs, reflects an awareness not just of the toxic tendency to search backwards for progress, but also of the fact that South Park’s best days are behind it. Unlike the people who voted to “Make America Great Again” or even the ‘80s-inspired Stranger Things crew, though, Parker and Stone acknowledged that a return to the past is both impossible and undesirable…even if it means that their show isn’t going to be hilarious anymore.
Similarly, the Mr. Garrison-as-Trump analogy, one of Season 19’s highlights, took on more gravitas as it lost its humor. One can only imagine the reaction of South Park’s creative team when, less than 24 hours before their post-election episode, they had to flip the script entirely to accommodate Trump’s shocking victory. “Oh, Jeez” was the first episode of the show, perhaps ever, wherein South Park simply felt lost. There was no more laughter to draw from the situation, only a cold numbness. And even though that made for a downright depressing half hour, what else was there to say? Parker and Stone were as downtrodden as the rest of us.
Which makes the climactic showdown from the Season 20 finale all the more stunning and important.
Gerald Broflovski—Season 20’s surprising linchpin—stared down the Troll Hunter and admitted that in the face of that modern, laughing Nero, he saw his own reflection. This couldn’t help but feel like South Park soul-searching, wondering if its own offense comedy had contributed to the chaos and hatred currently gripping the country. Had Randy Marsh delivered this message, it would have rung hollow, because Randy is a goddamn fool. By putting these words in the mouth of the normally sane, put-together Gerald, Parker and Stone were acknowledging that just being in it for the LOLZ, no matter their incidental purpose of satirizing American society, might have had some adverse side effects. No longer would the South Park formula of old succeed.
But then, with a swift kick to the Troll Hunter’s groin to send him to a Palpatine-esque death, Gerald reasserted himself, proclaiming, “What I do is fucking funny, bitch!”
Has Gerald learned his lesson? Have Parker and Stone? Yes and no. The ending reminded me of a willful Sisyphus, whom Albert Camus once said we must imagine happy with his task of endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill. South Park is definitively over the hill, and 2016 deprived it of its normally razor-sharp absurdist fangs. But Parker and Stone are signed on for at least three more seasons of the show, and dammit if they’re not going to continue to believe in their humor, even if the rest of the world watches them slowly slip into irrelevance.
A small part of me thinks that message is dangerous, a signal that people needn’t willfully change with the times. But a far larger part of me, the part that currently surveys a cold, bleak New York City, looks at this season of South Park and finds a bizarro form of hope. The show is going to continue to fight against idiocy in America, and we can and should continue to fight against the creeping tendrils of corporatocracy, bigotry and fascism that threaten to drag us into a Morian abyss. It doesn’t matter whether there’s any humor in the situation, either: the solution is to stare the unfunny in the face, kick it in the nuts, and laugh joyously as we convert the terrifying, paralyzing reality into a buffoonish, defeatable opponent.
I don’t know whether South Park will ever again be funny—at least, not so long as the state of things remains as menacing as any of the show’s conceivable apocalypse scenarios. But if Donald Trump can believe that he won in a landslide, South Park can keep believing it’s relevant. And even if we can’t take laughs from that, we can take inspiration to carry on ensuring that the internet and the real world really don’t combust.
Zach Blumenfeld wrote this piece instead of studying for his contract law final exam. Find him searching for the perfect law school-pop culture hybrid joke on Twitter.