Friday, March 24, 2006

After morning a be to got there's

This is the conclusion of my accidental Isaac Hayes trilogy of posts. Special bonus points to anyone who anyone who posts the best explanation of the above title...

Maybe three months ago, Gregg and Evan Spiridellis of JibJab were being interviewed on television -- I'm pretty sure the show must have been Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, which is often funnier and more pointed in its political commentary than The Daily Show -- about their latest Flash animation poking gentle fun at the travails of President Bush in the preceding year. This was the one set to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Turkey in the Straw" about which you probably received 900 e-mails in December, all saying "Hilarious!!! You gotta see this!!!"

Personally, I don't find their stuff especially entertaining; I find it bland and toothless, creating the illusion of humor without any point of view. Apparently not everyone feels this way: on this news show, the Spiridellis brothers were talking about the volume of outraged messages they'd received from both ends of the political spectrum. They said the Right was angry with them for attacking the President, and the Left was angry at them for portaying him sympathetically. One of the boys said this proved the maxim that "If both sides are angry at you, you're doing something right."

To which I immediately thought: Wrong. When you're doing this sort of thing right, people of opposing views each think you agree with them.

Case in point: South Park. We all know people who are stone cold liberals and want to see the smirking pretender Bush impeached, and who love South Park for its skepticism of authority and its willingness to attack sexism, racism, and homophobia. We all know rock hard conservatives who love the show for its attacks on political correctness and stand in favor of traditional values. The mere fact of a book titled South Park Conservatives : The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias makes it clear two opposing philosophies have claimed the show as their own. But in reality, those opposing teams are imaginary constructs of a culture which tries to break every question down to "you're either with us or against us" -- real individuals can have a variety of opinions that fit anywhere along a wide continuum, or even a multidimensional grid, and can even hold contradictory views on the same question. Simply by being honest and reflecting such an individual viewpoint, South Park became a Rorschach blot onto which people could project their own assumptions and biases, and accept the show as agreeing with them.

And so we come to the latest episode, in which the character of Chef is given his momentous farewell. With an estimated 3.5 million viewers tuning in for the season premiere, I hardly need to recap what happened, do I? But it may be interesting to look at the viewer comments on show's official website forums and many other online venues. Responses range from "Man, they really tore Isaac Hayes a new one" and "I hope I never get Matt and Trey as pissed off at me as they were at him" to "the farewell speech was beautiful" and "I was in tears by the end." I think we have here another example of people projecting their own take on an issue -- in this case, the sudden defection of Isaac Hayes from the show -- onto a story that was nuanced, subtle, and even self-contradictory, accurately reflecting the mixed emotions surrounding this topic.

There were moments when the writing was exceptionally vicious towards Hayes -- but never without humor; I hope everyone caught the brilliant visual quote from a famous Simpsons moment when Chef tumbles down the cliff -- and moments when the episode displayed naked heartbreak at the loss of a loved one. And this was an accurate depiction of the wildly swinging pendulum of emotions you feel when you lose a friend or lover or family member to a cult. One moment you rage at that person for being so incredibly stupid and self-destructive and selfish -- "you couldn't have done this if I meant anything to you!" -- and the next moment you're in tears, the anger vanished, mourning a loss that in some ways is worse than a death. If the loved one had simply died, that would be an ending and a closure...but instead you live with the knowledge that he or she is still out there, or someone claiming to be him or her is there, and it feels like an ongoing betrayal that just won't stop.

That's the reality this episode captures, and those who take it only as gleeful bashing of a former cast member or only as a love letter to Hayes are each, one feels, missing part of the picture.

I could quibble with a couple of things. Part of the show's stock in trade is their rapid turnaround time -- producing a finished episode in less than a week -- enabling the content to be timely and topical. In this case, though, they might have done better to wait, if only to give writer Trey Parker as well as partner Matt Stone a chance to reflect and put their feelings in perspective. But then, if they were slow and cautious, South Park wouldn't be South Park.

My other quibble is that a prime tool of the cult mentality is dissociation, the disconnect between the recruit's past life and his or her new life with the cult. Whether or not Hayes truly quit the show of his own volition -- whatever personal volition may mean in circumstances like these! -- the show closing the door on the possibility of his return is, if only on a symbolic level, right in line with the message of a Church that tells its followers "Your old friends outside us aren't really your friends, they've turned their back on you, you only belong with us." The closing memorial to Chef in this episode stands against that message...but the point may be too subtle. And being too subtle always runs that risk of opposing sides each claiming your message as being their own.


  1. I don't mean to be wearing my Clueless Hat, but... Countdown with Keith Olbermann, isn't that a sports show, or something?

    On JibJab: Agreed, they want to be seen as an update of Spitting Image but they're just flat. You don't get the sense, watching them, that this administration is something hideous and grasping as in the days of Nixon. When the next Democrat president takes the White House (it's gotta happen SOME time?), it'll be interesting to see what happens to their bland style.

    On agreeing with a satirist: South Park's style is seems essentially libertarian. Of course, the very fact that there's a book entitled "South Park Conservatives : The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias" implies that this is supposed to be a surprise. But of course there's always been conservatives of stripe, it's what has kept P.J. O'Rourke in business all these years, and who at his best had that same kind of both-sides-like-'em, libertarian vibe that South Park has. (In fact, I think his Holidays in Hell works better for liberals than conservatives in places: Heritage USA and the corporate-sponsored EPCOT Center are both mocked mercilessly.)

    I think it might be worth noting that I don't always agree with Parker and Stone, South Park's creators. Word is that they had a Michael Moore puppet as a terrorist in Team America because they claim the cartoon in Fahrenheit 9/11 was deliberately animated to look as if they created it. While I admit I thought of them when I first saw it, I'm unsure there was an intent to deceive, since it was done in Flash, and characters of that type simply look good in Flash. That puppet incident was one of the things that caused me to walk out of Team America before the third act, and considering their claims that Tom Cruise is in for some further animated comeuppance in a future episode makes me wonder if Parker and Stone themselves aren't immune to going off on their own crusades at times.

    Even so, I'm glad they handled the Chef incident with humor, wit and style. If you're gonna burn bridges, don't futz about with matches and kindling. Bring out the napalm.

  2. Many good points. But I can't believe you walked out on Team America! That film made me laugh so hard I nearly passed out in the cinema from sheer oxygen deprivation...and it had a similar effect the first time I watched my copy of the DVD. I personally have a lot of time for Michael Moore -- as well as Robbins and Sarandon, two of the other liberal celebrities even more ruthlessly skewered in the film -- but no one is above mockery or reproach. They basically got Moore for being fat and for being a reckless loudmouth, both of which are undeniably true. But they did not, for example, imply that he was a child it was definitely a fair satirical jab.

    Does Trey Parker have a tendency to settle petty personal scores in his scripts? Oh yes indeed. In South Park Cartman's promiscuous ex-whore and ex-porn star mother is named Lianne. In his pre-South Park film Cannibal: The Musical Alferd Packer's horse -- who runs off on him and allows herself to be ridden by other men, breaking Packer's heart -- is named Lianne. Turns out Parker was engaged to marry a woman named Lianne until he caught her cheating on him...and he vowed that in his writing, the name "Lianne" would always be associated with worthless, lying, unfaithful, cheating whores.

    On balance, I'd have to say Michael Moore got off easy for his perceived wrongdoing...

  3. The thing I found jarring was when they had Moore's character tying explosives to himself and blowing up their base. To me, that just seemed another version of the whole "against the war - with the terrorists" meme that has been disseminated so far in our diseased culture.

    But that, itself, isn't enough to sink a movie. I just didn't really find it funny or memorable I guess. Of course reactions to things can often be idiosyncratic on first viewing... if I get the chance I'll give it another shot, although the idea of sitting through puppet vomit is not one I find appealing....

  4. I have actually been thinking a lot about the whole conservatives and liberals both siding with South Park thing lately. I think it's really funny, because no matter who you are, if you watch South Park, eventually something you believe in will be made fun of (whether you be a hippy, Canadian, redneck, or constantly ride the middle ground). Trey and Matt definately don't mind telling their audience that they don't care what they think (as evidenced in the episode "Not Without My Anus", an entire episode of T&P following the inconclusive "Cartman's Mom is a Dirty Slut", an episode that fans got really pissed about. The whole chef being a child molester episode is just like that.

    And I'll take you up on the title dealy. It's from the episode "Chef's Mama" or "Succubus" where Chef falls in love with a filthy succubus and Stan and Kyle have to learn the theme from the Posideon Adventure backwards to defeat her evil man sucking powers.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.