What with so much talk in the headlines now about charity and the right and wrong ways to go about it, it’s perfect (if unintentional) timing that South Park should do something on the subject this week. This being South Park, of course, the show did not exactly go about it in the way you’d expect.
In an episode dealing with the disillusionment following the Lance Armstrong scandal, last night’s South Park spoofed the controversy by imagining that all those trademark yellow bracelets were actually in honor of Jesus—who was found to have used HGH before his crucifixion and resurrection. And then it went more bizarre than that, as Jesus and Stan went in search of where the bracelets come from—and found a Dr. Seuss wonderland with a Onceler-like figure extolling the virtues of “scauses.” “Let’s just think of the thing that you care about most / Then let’s make it orange, like marmalade toast!”
The brilliantly goofy sequence sends up the style of Dr. Seuss, but it also points up some parallels between him and Trey and Matt that I would not otherwise have thought of. Seuss wrote parables, of course, but he was also a kind of satirist. He may have had earnest messages, but he often delivered them in a way that highlighted absurdities, be it someone razing a landscape to sell useless thneeds to trend-happy consumers or people judging one another by the stars on their bellies.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s relationship to earnestness is more complicated, certainly. They’re not nihilists—all those “what we learned” moments at the end of episodes may spoof a certain kind of message-moment, but it doesn’t make the messages any less sincere. Watching South Park over the years, you get a sense that the show has a moral compass and believes deeply—but, as exhibited here, what it believes most deeply in is the danger of people believing too deeply and fetishistically in any one cause, to the point that the demonstration of support becomes more important than the cause itself. It’s important—as the show’s recent arc about Stan’s cynicism said—for “someone like you” to “care a whole awful lot,” to quote the Lorax. But it can also be dangerous to care too awful much, or at least to be blinded by commitment to seeing the world a certain way.
If you asked me to compare Trey and Matt to anyone before last night, I’m sure I’d have more quickly named Norman Lear or Matt Groening than Dr. Seuss. Still, the fantastical animation, the whimsy, the willingness to depart reality: when you look at it in an episode like this, there isn’t necessarily that much difference between the guy who warned us about stars upon bellies and the guys who now cautioning us against wearing our scauses on our sleeves.