"That's Called a Montage": Five Things Fiction Writers Can Take from South Park
Sara C Rolater
Apr 24, 2013At the end of the spring semester, after being inspired by a bit of Ellen DeGeneres stand-up in which she concludes procrastination is the universe's way of telling us to live in the moment ("Procrastinate now. Don't put it off.") I've attempted to render something productive from the hours (ahem, years) I have dedicated to a not-so-sleepy little Colorado town--one that is, in fact, quite animated. Humble folks without temptation! The ways we deploy the following tricks in our fiction may be a bit more understated, but don't have to be. One advantage fiction and animation share is that they don't impose a budget on special effects: anything can happen. (If you've mistakenly landed on this site and are getting your MBA instead of your MFA, South Park also has plenty of lessons to teach about business.) 1. Don't be afraid to date yourself (you're very good-looking). South Park proves that current events provide an endless stream of creative fodder. The news always has something worthy of mocking, something that inevitably unveils the hypocritical kernel of humanity. The show is about to enter its seventeenth season, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone have got a sustainable system of current critique and commentary down to a science. Each episode becomes a time capsule, likely a record of exactly what we'd like to forget. Season 16 episodes memorialize such illustrious 2012 subjects as Honey Boo Boo, the Lance Armstrong scandal, the sale of George Lucas's film production company to Walt Disney, and, of course, the presidential election (it turns out Cartman determined the outcome by stealing voter ballots from the swing states). 2. Spare no one. Special Olympics contestants take steroids. Terrorists hide a nuke in Hillary Clinton's snatch. Oprah's vagina shoots a police officer. (Perhaps Parker and Stone are intimidated by powerful women?) "What they want to do being funny it's just like, that's it, that's the priority, they don't worry about anything else," says staff writer Bill Hader, who, as an SNL cast member, has some insight into how the comedic treatment of celebrities can be political. Yes, these writers walk a fine line between cruelty and artistic integrity, but they are equal-opportunity haters, saying fuck you to everyone. Their Scientology episode (in which Tom Cruise is "Trapped in the Closet") led to their parting ways with Isaac Hayes, who had been the voice of Chef for eight years. (I try to remember that every time I sit down and write another story about my mother.) But by ripping the band-aid off our hypocritical airs and delusions, these writers acknowledge our universal humanity. Even R. Kelly can't get Tom to come out of the closet. 3. Self-awareness leads to forgiveness. In episodes like "The Simpsons Already Did It" and musical numbers like "That's Called a Montage," South Park has proven it's capable of making fun of itself along the way (see #2). Like any television show, it is formulaic. Those who eschew genre fiction while espousing its literary counterpart might like to forget that the latter is also formulaic (and snobs of this sort warrant their own critique in "The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs," when Butters writes a novel hailed as a masterpiece but that is so vulgar no one can read more than a few lines without vomiting). Usually at the end of a show the boys wind up articulating the lesson they've learned from the string of preceding events in front of the entire town; these Aesop-like middle-ground morals are undermined or subverted in some way that itself becomes formulaic--cheesy music begins to play but cynicism rips the needle from the record; the lesson is dismissed. But they repeat on an endless loop, episode after episode, insisting that the ultimate lesson is that we flawed humans seem incapable of learning from history. What passes in passes right back out. In such a formulation Parker and Stone themselves might be seen as mere funnels, ingesting pop culture and current events (or the media's mediation of said events) in mass sugary quantities and regurgitating their own versions. Hence the endless poop-and-puke gags. Every gratuity justifies itself. 4. Children are smarter than adults. Part of the greatness of South Park is that it is wedded to the eight-year-old-boy perspective. This often serves to expose the ways adults have made their lives needlessly complicated. In "Margaritaville," Stan lugs the margarita-mixing blender his father purchased at Sur La Table on a payment plan from one payment-plan-purchasing party to another, until he finally winds up at the US Treasury, where he discovers that decisions are made by cutting off a chicken's head and letting it run around a board labeled with various options (like "Bailout"). In "Cartman's Silly Hate Crime," the boys make a presentation to the governor on why hate crimes are "A Savage Hypocracy" and the governor comments that it makes more sense than anything he's heard in three years. Other times, the simplicity of the children's motivations underscores that the motivations of adults have not really evolved to a higher plane. The boys are only trying to spring Cartman from jail for his hate crime because they need his fat ass to beat the girls in a sled race. 5. Consistent characters can still be surprising, and mean characters sympathetic. Eric Cartman is the ultimate manifestation of pretty much every human shortcoming, seeking to please himself at the expense of any and all others. We delight in his cleverness, his ability to exploit and reappropriate whatever he's presented with to his own ends--it is not what he does that surprises us, it is the way he does it. The writers are also adept at giving us periodic glimpses that his abuse of others is a preeminent lashing-out to prevent people from abusing him (note his violent response any time he is called fat). He is, when you break it down, a compendium of clichés, the type who can dish it out but can't take it, to whom the writers like to give a taste of his own medicine because that's what the audience (not to mention the other characters) want to see.
[Editor's note: Sara's South Park observations are so trenchant and complex, we though it worthwhile to serve them up as a two-parter. Stay tuned for the second half next week--ample parking day or night!]