Among the reasons given by those who dismiss South Park, Comedy Central’s 15-year-old cartoon mainstay, is a usual litany: it’s crude, sophomoric, mindless, thoughtless, offensive, or satanic. There is plenty of evidence to support these claims; beyond the show’s main characters, four elementary school boys in Colorado, the show’s lesser characters have included (among many) a weed-smoking towel, a rectum-excavating gerbil, several pedophiles, the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey, and a talking piece of poo.
But when South Park finishes its improbable run, future generations will view it as an incomparable document of its time. The show—arguably more sustained in both relevance and quality than its animated contemporaries The Simpsons and Family Guy—will endure because South Park manages the binary requisites for cultural longevity: it succeeds in explaining its era and, more importantly, the show has heart.
The tragedy of South Park is that it remains culturally defined by specific controversies. In a 2006 two-part episode, the writers attempted to feature animated images of the Islamic prophet Mohammed to protest censorship in the wake of the Danish cartoon scandal (Comedy Central blocked them out after receiving death threats). What was overshadowed by the episode’s controversial message were jokes the writers made about its rival Family Guy. As with many other episodes, the broader context remained unexamined and the show, which is consistently a thoughtful and equally-offending American conversation, was dismissed for its lowbrow flourishes.
With the Jews, it’s no different. While the show’s detractors see only anti-Semitism (or the myriad boundary lines of identity politics), many fail to even investigate the extremely blunt points the show attempts to make, which often stem from topical real life. Consider Kyle Broflovski, the major Jewish character, who was actually created in the image of the show’s co-creator Matt Stone.
In interviews, the Jewfro-ed Stone cites his experience growing up as the only Jewish kid in his predominantly Christian hometown of Conifer, Colorado. Accordingly, the character Kyle (whom Stone voices) is also Jewfro-ed and shares Stone’s birthday on the show. Kyle is outspoken, morally righteous, and often insecure about his place adrift in the Midwest. Fearing the worst about his brother Ike’s impending bris, Kyle helps him escape. When the school’s most unpopular kid is revealed to have no Facebook friends, Kyle befriends him, losing everything in the process.
In an episode early in the first season, South Park covers the War on Christmas controversy that dominated the news cycles in the late 1990s. For the sake of tolerance, citizens of the town attempt to wash out religion from the school’s Christmas pageant. Much of the episode is a treatise on the life of an American Jewish family in a place where Jews are scarce, especially for Kyle, a Jewish kid struck between belonging and not.
Kyle’s ridiculous song “A Lonely Jew on Christmas” is high on sentimentality and an insider brand of exlusion. When Kyle’s stereotypically Jewish mother Sheila (who in the episode becomes the target of a once-famous song about her particularly Jewish obstinacy; the Estonian version will blow your mind) argues that the emphasis on Christianity in the school play offends the Jewish community, a teacher replies by shouting back, “You are the Jewish community!” It’s hard to imagine that this line and its specific verisimilitude could work its way into an episode of the show without some authentic experience behind it.
But the approach to South Park’s Jewish themes comes most often through Kyle’s confrontations with his foil Eric Cartman, the show’s best known and most incendiary character. Consider this amazing collection of (just some) of Cartman’s anti-Semitic utterances throughout the series. In the course of this minute-plus clip, Cartman uses the word Jew as a noun, adjective, and verb. (A note for novices: The most pernicious of the utterances in this clip is during an episode in which Cartman pretends to have Tourette’s Syndrome so he can say whatever he wants and still seem noble.)
While this compilation would no doubt give Abe Foxman shortness of breath (the accompanying user comments enabled by this clip are also wildly problematic), these moments isolated from their context don’t show Kyle fighting back, a microcosm for the shortchange the show receives from worried parents and critics.
Then, of course, there is the episode when the town is about to be flooded and Cartman is willing to save Kyle’s life if Kyle hands over the bag of Jew gold that “all Jews carry around their necks.” Kyle tries to tell Cartman he’s insane, but Cartman persists. Kyle then produces a bag from around his neck and Cartman calls it out for being the decoy bag of Jew gold that every Jew carries. Rather than give him the real bag, Kyle throws into the maelstrom below. It’s funny. You have to see it.
Previously on Network Jews: