Last week, another television standard fell by the wayside. It was not merely broken; it was shattered. The Comedy Central animated-cartoon series "South Park" used the word "s--t" 162 times in one half-hour episode.
Disgusting? You bet. Surprising? Not even slightly. "South Park" masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always done their best to make their four-year-old program offensive, and they've almost always succeeded in doing so. The notorious pilot episode featured a fistfight between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus over which better represented the spirit of Christmas. Around this time last year, a truly vile installment made light of pedophilia and abortion.
This is a show that celebrates cultural sewage with outrageous content. Now it is celebrating the contents of the sewer as a cultural statement.
Why celebrate the vulgar expression for feces 162 times? There is the unmistakably smirky, immature mindset behind it all. In effect, Parker and Stone were saying to anyone who might object to their scatology, "We can do whatever we want; try and stop us," with a "nyaah-nyaah" or two thrown in there as well.
Since Comedy Central is a cable and not a broadcast network, the FCC wasn't a factor. Then again, the FCC isn't much of a factor in prime-time broadcast TV either, given that the s-word has also been used there with no reaction from the agency. In the fall of '99, a character on CBS's fading medical drama "Chicago Hope" said, "S--t happens," and this past spring, "On Golden Pond," also on CBS, included six uses of "bulls--t."
Legal mandate or no, the FCC is a toothless entity. But what about good old corporate responsibility? Well, Comedy Central is co-owned by Viacom, the conglomerate that disseminates the wit of the World Wrestling Federation and the wisdom of Howard Stern, so, predictably, there were no obstacles there, either. (AOL Time Warner, itself no enemy of cultural envelope-pushing, is the other owner.)
Entertainment Weekly's Website reported that Comedy Central "accepted (the s-word barrage) with open arms." "We were actually pretty shocked," "South Park" animation director Eric Stough told EW. "They came back to us a day after we met with them and gave us their approval."
In fact, the network acted clueless as to why anyone would find Parker and Stone's feces-fest revolting. Executive vice president Bill Hilary -- as Dave Barry might say, I am (ITAL) not (ITAL) making that name up -- remarked to the New York Daily News, "That word (is) used widely across all cultures. (It) is easily on the line of acceptable or unacceptable." In the New York Post, Hilary went further, wondering, "What is it about ('s--t') that makes people think it is offensive?"
That question is not only stupid, it's disingenuous: If the word weren't offensive, would "South Park" have devoted an entire episode to flaunting it?
Such content is especially problematic when children are in the audience, absorbing explicit and implicit behavioral lessons. "South Park" may run at 10 p.m. Eastern time, but it is still watched by nearly half a million impressionable youngsters. Comedy Central, naturally, couldn't care less.
There (ITAL) is (ITAL) something these people do care about. Animation director Stough commented to Entertainment Weekly, "We (didn't) want to go too far. We have to have somewhere to go from here."
The episode itself hinted where that might be. After "s--t" becomes so common that respectable types such as schoolteachers and newscasters are using it, one of the "South Park" kids gripes, "This sucks ... ('S--t') isn't fun to say anymore." Another kid adds, "Yeah ... We're gonna have to start saying other words like (a bleeped vulgar synonym for 'penis') and (bleeped 'f--k')."
Who knows, maybe one of those words will be used 162 times in one of next season's episodes. Tee-hee, tee-hee.
We mustn't forget the sponsors' vital role in this steady decline in standards. David Stanley, a producer of another raunchy Comedy Central series, "The Man Show," told the Los Angeles Times last year that "the line (regarding acceptable television program content) is being drawn almost exclusively by (advertisers). If advertisers are willing to buy time on shows with more risque content, (networks) will go ahead and sell it."
Sponsors of the "South Park" episode in question included Disney, Nike, Best Buy, and Reebok. They are directly responsible for turning "taste" and "decency" into dirty words.