“Jokes about Donald Trump aren’t funny anymore,” The Economist declared in 2015. The magazine took the example of the Roman poet Juvenal, noted practitioner of the art of Satura, who once remarked that it was hard not to write satire, when one lived within the corruption and decadence of the “unjust City.” Trump, the magazine wrote, “poses a curious inversion to this: He makes satire almost impossible.”
It’s a complaint that has been often articulated about Trump, as the larger-than-life mogul became a larger-than-life presidential candidate became a larger-than-life actual president: How do you mock someone who so readily mocks himself? How do you penetrate those layers of toughness and Teflon to reveal its underlying absurdities? How, as The Economist noted, do you take a tweet like this—“Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault”—and make it even more ridiculous?
One answer: You don’t. That’s the solution come to, at any rate, by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators and writers of, among other works of irreverent pop culture, the long-running show South Park. As Parker told the Australian Broadcasting Company in a recent interview, while promoting the Australian premiere of The Book of Mormon: Making fun of the new U.S. government is more difficult now than it was before, “because satire has become reality.”
Parker noted how challenging it had been for him and Stone to write the last season (season 20) of South Park, which attempted to create a pseudo-Trump through the person of South Park Elementary’s fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Garrison. Mr. Garrison’s political fortunes rose throughout the season, to the extent that its finale—spoiler—found Garrison becoming the 45th president of these United States. It might have been a cheeky take on Trump’s own unconventional rise to power; instead, the season struck something of a sour note. As Esquire put it, “South Park’s 20th Season Was a Failure, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone Know It.”
It explained, of the season’s frantic creative process:
Ideas were started and abandoned. Story lines fizzled out (What happened to the gentlemen’s club? What exactly happened with the Member Berries?). The stories that were completed either made no sense or seemed like they were forced together, as if Parker and Stone tried to shove a puzzle piece into the wrong spot. (Why was SpaceX involved? What were they trying to say with Cartman’s girlfriend? What was the deal with Star Wars and J.J. Abrams?) It was a season of half-thoughts and glimmers of brilliance that never amounted to anything. And because they were trying to keep up with the rapid changes in the election, the jokes and analysis suffered.
South Park in many ways suffered from the same thing that plagued many creators of pop culture in the aftermath of the election: Things hadn’t gone as many had thought they would. They had to adjust not just their expectations, but also their creative plans. Which was unfortunate: The 2016 election came on the heels of a 19th season that was exceptionally prescient in its assessment of Trump. One episode, the much anticipated “Where My Country Gone?,” was expected to take on immigration. It did, but its story also doubled as a dire warning about treating a man who was, in 2015, still a long-shot presidential candidate as a joke. (“Nobody ever thought he’d be president!” one of the episodes Canadian refugees wailed, about the man who had turned his country into an apocalyptic hellscape. “It was a joke! We just let the joke go on for too long. He kept gaining momentum, and by the time we were all ready to say, ‘Okay, let’s get serious now, who should really be president?’ he was already being sworn into office.”)
The episode was smart. It was nuanced. It was Neil Postman, in the guise of Eric Cartman. But it worked because it was able to do what the best satire always does: to point out that which is hiding in plain sight. It warned about laughing at Donald Trump long before it occurred to other people to adopt the same anxieties.
And now that @realDonaldTrump is also President Donald Trump, the threats he represents to American democratic institutions are more obvious than they were before. Trump himself, through his executive orders and his seemingly stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed, has made them obvious. Satire, in that context, is more difficult. South Park’s role—and the value it can add—is less clear. So, Parker explained, “we decided to kind of back off and let them do their comedy and we’ll do ours.”
It’s a fairly shocking decision, coming from writers who have, for so many years, reliably delighted in the absurdities of American culture. There’s a certain defeatism to it. But there’s a certain realism, too. As Stone put it: “People say to us all the time, ‘Oh, you guys are getting all this good material,’ like we’re happy about some of the stuff that’s happening. But I don’t know if that’s true. It doesn’t feel that way. It feels like they’re going to be more difficult. We’re having our head blown off, like everybody else.”