I couldn't help thinking about both last night. This week's South Park was its usual sharp, subversive self. And the visual games they play with race and gender and sexual orientation, and the language they use, leaves Imus in the dust. And yet South Park is not in the slightest bit offensive to me at all. This week, they had a hilarious parody of 300, including a battle between a phalanx of determined lesbians defending a gay bar called "Les Bos" and a group of Eurotrash Persian club owners threatening to take over the club and fill it with velvet blue carpet, gold curtain rods and white statues. They also threw in some Latino immigrant stereotypes for good measure. How do they pull it off?
Three reasons, I think. The first is that they're a cartoon. No actual person has to take responsibility for saying any of the naughty words and stereotypes involved. When Eric Cartman tells Kyle that he should go back to San Francisco with the rest of the Jews, it's the character voicing the collective bigoted id - not an actual human being. It may be that in a multicultural society, cartoons will become the primary medium for speaking honestly and humorously about our differences. The same goes in a way for Sacha Baron Cohen who has created a character, Borat, to voice these things. It's not him. The distance matters, and enables comedy based on bigotry not actually to be bigotry. The creators can legitimately say they're not actual haters; they're just exploring and making fun of prejudice, and invoke the First Amendment to defend themselves. Without this distancing device, Ricky Gervais, Dave Chapelle and Sarah Silverman would be in deep trouble. But even they sometimes balk, as Chapelle recently did, because it's a morally precarious path to travel at times.
Second, South Park's creators actually get and love the subcultures they lampoon. The amazing thing about this week's South Park is how detailed the observation was. The lesbian bar was a classic - it was clearly created by people with actual and acute knowledge of what lesbian bars are like - and there were many hilarious shades of recognizable dykiness in the cartoon figures. In fact, this week's episode was a landmark in mainstream depiction of lesbianism. It didn't rely on any hoary stereotypes that spring from ignorance and fear; it created stereotypes based on knowledge and fondness.
Lastly, anyone watching the show can tell very very quickly that its creators are not actually bigots. You don't need to know these guys personally to see that. In general, I think the American public is pretty shrewd about this. Mel Gibson got roasted because he is, in fact, a self-aware, vicious anti-Semite. Michael Richards? Confused guy who didn't even realize his own repressed bigotry, until it came pouring out. Don Imus? I think most people think he actually is a bigot - and that's why he got fired. It wasn't just a shtick. Ann Coulter? A strange case. I can't tell if she's a bigot; she's just decided to deploy hate in order to make money. Her "persona," however, is not removed enough from her person to get her a pass. And her support for political forces that would demonize and marginalize gay couples deprives her of the South Park defense, however many closet-cases she befriends. Besides, she beat up on "faggots." As Harvey Fierstein points out, we're still fair game. Imus targeted all blacks and all women. That's a majority of the population. Coulter picked on three percent. She's smarter. And viler.