- Beyond a Cutout World: Ethnic Humor and Discursive Integration in South Park
A quick survey of recent popular American film and television comedy reveals a trend in the portrayal of racists, racism, and the sorts of stereotypes historically associated with conservative, Eurocentric worldviews. Comedians such as Sarah Silverman, films such as Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and television shows such as FOX’s Family Guy all casually reproduce the external markings of racist beliefs in the service of comedy with what is presumably an ironic tone. As New York Times critic A. O. Scott notes in discussing the work of Silverman, such texts are often assumed not to be truly racist by virtue of the fact that they so effortlessly engage in the offensive. Ironic racism, in this view, takes advantage of the notion that in a culture so concerned with political correctness, only creators “secure (in their) lack of racism would dare to make, or to laugh at, a racist joke” (E13). Thus, to present racist characters in the current comedy environment may, paradoxically, testify to the creator’s ultimate lack of prejudice.1
Although this understanding may suffice for the purposes of popular criticism, it neglects the question of how media texts are ultimately able to create messages that, while offensive on one level, can be deemed socially acceptable when considered in a larger context. It also fails to consider whether this trend makes a positive, progressive contribution to discussions of prejudice in America or works to annihilate the distinctions that make such debates possible. In this essay, we look to the show that perhaps best represents this phenomenon, Comedy Central’s South Park, in order to arrive at a better understanding of the ways in which the program’s overtly offensive ethnic humor operates within a broader discursive context. In doing so, we argue that the program’s integration of offensive humor into contemporaneous media discussions of ethnic prejudice works to show such prejudice as a systematic, social problem, not one that can be blamed on certain “bad” individuals.
Current scholarly accounts of the use of ethnic humor in adult-oriented cartoons in general, and South Park in particular, are insufficient because they often fail to account for the life that these programs have beyond their moment of broadcast. The offensive ethnic humor in South Park must be understood in a discursively integrated context, one that takes into account the material circumstances of the show’s production and its circulation within industrial and cultural discourses. By accounting for the way in which South Park has moved to a shorter production schedule that allows it to consistently engage with public discourses surrounding [End Page 5] current events, we demonstrate that the program’s offensive ethnic humor needs to be set against a broad context that has been previously unexamined. We contend that South Park must be understood as what Geoffrey Baym calls “discursively integrated media” set at the intersection of “news, politics, entertainment and marketing” (262). We argue that South Park is not constructed in a manner conducive to the sort of deep textual analysis to which great works of literature are so often profitably subjected. Instead of great depth, the show achieves its complexity through a wide and far-reaching web of connections to other media texts and, crucially, the larger discourses with which these other texts are engaged. It is this latter attribute that separates “discursively integrated media” from the merely intertextual. South Park not only asks the viewer to make connections to other media, but it also asks its audience to critically engage with the modes of discussion in which these secondary texts are participating.
Literary Models for Understanding Ethnic Humor in Prime-Time Animation
Despite the considerable public controversy that South Park’s offensive ethnic humor generates, relatively little scholarly attention has been devoted to the specific ways in which the program’s ethnic comedy functions both textually and contextually. Recent work in Dalton and Linder’s The Sitcom Reader, though, provides a good starting point for grappling with the elements of South Park’s humor that transcend and transgress...