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.