Ironic racism is a hard line to walk. (Say, isn’t that a Lyle Lovett song?) Doing it right requires a satirical finesse that even our finest comic minds haven’t always pulled off—and when they try, they usually get pissy little blogs written about them. But I’ve always said that I believe South Park is some of the best satire on TV when it’s firing on all cylinders, and to that end I’ve seen it do ironic racism in a way that’s borderline revolutionary: Think of 2007’s “With Apologies To Jesse Jackson,” for example, an episode so fearless about one of the last great taboos in this country that it forced this poor CNN lady to put on her serious face.
But most important of all, “With Apologies…” was really fucking funny, which puts episodes like “Pee” in stark relief—and demonstrates what it’s like when ironic racism fails. To me, having Cartman sing about all the minorities crowding up his beloved water park (including “Native Americans—gross!”), and freak out that their sudden rise in numbers was all part of the ballyhooed (and totally, totally real, according to the three dozen documentaries I saw about it this week) Mayan apocalypse of 2012 wasn’t particularly clever in either concept or execution. Instead it just kind of hung there uncomfortably without being extreme enough to provoke the kind of cathartic laughter ironic racism demands. That there is Ironic Racism 101, kids. Try to sign up for Professor Whitey Littledick; he’s tough but fair.
I mean, I understand that because it’s Cartman who’s dreaming up these Lou Dobbsian worst-case scenarios (where he’s forced to speak in ebonics and sent to live in internment camps with the other white people), it’s supposed to illustrate that these are the sorts of things that only the most selfish and insensitive among us would believe. But it might have actually helped if they had pulled fewer punches. Cartman has always been an excellent mouthpiece for the ugly American id, and one of the great things about his character is how when he’s being an asshole he’s usually just being brutally honest. Here it just felt like he was pushing stereotype buttons without provocation—Mexicans are lazy! Black people use improper verb conjugations!—and as such a lot of it came off less like ironic racism and more as good, old-fashioned, butter-your-cornbread-with-it racism. (Ditto the random inclusion of the water park owner, who talk-a like-a thees because he’s-a Italiano, no? His name ees-a Pi Pi, and his water park-a ees-a full-a pee-pee! Ees-a funny, no?) That’s the thing about doing racism ironically: You either have to dive in all the way or not do it all. And probably best not to do it all unless you really, really know what you’re doing.
Adding to the general clunkiness of Cartman’s plot was that it felt really, really tacked on to the main storyline, which was yet another of the show’s many disaster movie riffs. This was one was a bit more obvious than most, what with all the various familiar landmarks at the water park getting Emmeriched into oblivion by huge tidal waves of urine, but as soon as those scenes ended, the whole thing became surprisingly reserved—especially compared to, say, last year’s epic Cloverfield riff, “Pandemic.” Most of the action here was confined to a parking lot and consisted solely of various test monkeys getting peed on, for crying out loud.
Even Randy—usually the token hysterical doofus in these situations—didn’t have much reason to be there, as he was more or less sidelined by some new, anonymous professor type we’ll never see again. And while I’m certainly not up in arms that such a deliberately silly episode didn’t have a more dramatic conclusion, it was a little anticlimactic that, in the end, none of those scenes really mattered: Thanks to some last-minute experimental testing, they discovered that getting peed on is only slightly more uncomfortable than getting a face full of tie-dyed Thundercats in those Avatar commercials, and as long as you have a banana handy you’ll be all right.
Far better was Kyle’s episode-long slow-burn as he comes to realize that the entire world around him is full of sickos who practically bathe in their own pee. His reactions as he discovers even trustworthy Stan is just another filthy wanton urinator provided the best character-driven humor tonight—lessened only slightly by the weak ba-dum-bum of the revelation that the only thing Kyle hates more than pee is… bananas! But it doesn’t say a lot that the biggest laughs, period, probably came from watching various monkeys get pissed on. I’ll leave it to you commenters to tease out the various satirical allusions in that.
- “Six adorable children please!”
- “The acceptable level of pee in any water park is 83 percent.”
- “Venice is almost all pee! We swim in pee! We sing in the pee!”
- There are few comedy scripts that cannot be improved by adding the phrase, “Bring in the monkey.”
- Loved this line from Butters to Cartman: “Awww, you lived?”
- And so ends one of the more hit-or-miss seasons of South Park in the show’s history, which I guess leaves me to offer some sort of benediction. So here we go: O yea, o yea! Benevolent South Park creators, hear our admonitions. Ye have displeased us more than is our wont, yet still, even when ye fall short, it is only because we know ye can do better. And though our grades be low, know that in our hearts we believe in thee, and that we know you’ve yet to enter the “staggering animal begging to be put out of its misery” stage of a show’s lifetime. For that we are grateful, and our love—if not everlasting—should surely carry us well into next season, when we will receive thy glory once more, all over our face. Amen.