The subtle wisdom of “South Park”

Have you ever heard of South Park? No? Okay, I’ll explain (but you’re missing out on a lot of laughs). The production is an animated series that portrays the lives of four American elementary students whose mouths are not the least bit clean. They are Eric Cartman, Kenny McCormick, Stan Marsh and Kyle Broflovski. Far from being well behaved, the boys’ vocabulary consists mostly of swear words and make jokes at the expense of everything and everyone from pop culture icons to Jesus Christ, for example. No matter what local or global tragedy strikes, Cartman will never be respected, Kenny will always be dying and Stan and Kyle’s friendship will remain intact. In all of these things, there are three main episodes of South Park that I find the most impactful and address topics that you wouldn’t typically expect from animated shows.    

The first of the three stories mentioned is from Season 2, Episode 17 of the series, titled “Gnomes.” One day, in the town of South Park, the father of Tweek, one of the secondary characters in the series, asks his son to do a project on corporate takeovers. But why? At the time, the Harbucks coffee company (a satirical play on Starbucks) was about to open a branch, threatening the small coffee shops of the metropolis.    

The residents of South Park, however, were against Harbucks’ opening and expected Tweek and his friends to make a presentation about why the company couldn’t set up shop. However, with the help of some mysterious panty-stealing gnomes (yes, you read that correctly), the populace concludes that legal force should not be used to remove Harbucks from the game. The reason? Healthy competition. City dwellers soon realized that the more options they received, the better.     

It is interesting to note that, in reality, as well as in the episode, the idea of state interference is commonplace. That said, in this case, the lesson the episode is pointing toward is that competition might seem like a threat to businesses, but for customers, it provides more variety and freedom in their purchases. Because of this, we shouldn’t restrict any company that can operate in a market. Rather, we should let consumers decide for themselves.   

Onto the second: Season 7, Episode 13: “Butt Out.” One day at South Park School, Cartman, Kenny, Stan and Kyle are caught smoking cigarettes. The crucial detail: they are all children/teenagers. The episode shocks the town, which calls on anti-smoking activist Rob Reiner to fight against the local tobacco companies.    

This episode fosters some deep reflections about the ends justifying the means in some cases. It shows how people act for noble causes but use unethical means to promote them. For example, it may be noble to want someone to stop smoking since it is bad for you. However, it is unethical to fight for no one allowed to smoke. Though it is advised against, it is an individual right.   

Certain quotes within the episode exhibit this ideology. For example, when the group of young protagonists visits Big Tobacco Co.’s headquarters. After explaining a brief history of tobacco within the U.S., Kevin Harris, vice president of the company, concludes with the statement, “So now, all people know the dangers of smoking and some people still choose to do it; and we believe that’s what it means to be an American.” Later on, in a heated argument between anti-smoking efforts at the tobacco company, Kyle yelled in frustration, “You just hate smoking, so you use all your money and influence to force others to think like you. That’s called fascism.” Any resemblance to the real world is not a mere coincidence. Though certain ideas are considered the “right way,” it is our directive to allow a choice between right and wrong. This is not to condone such actions, but as humans have observed previously during the prohibition era, telling people “No” will not stop them from doing it; it will only make them turn to alternative sources to do it.    

And last in the list: Season 13, Episode 3: “Margaritaville.” In this episode, South Park is flooded by an economic panic when a recession hits the town, seemingly without warning. According to a monologue by Randy Marsh early in the episode, the crisis occurred when people began taking out too many loans to buy frivolous items to suit their wants rather than their needs. With interest rates so low on the loans, citizens began buying too much without being able to pay. This accumulated countless debts and formed a massive negative snowball for the local economy. For example, brought into reality: If I am in debt to a store and cannot pay it back, the retailer will feel the expense; so, if necessary, he will fire his employees. And so on. Layoffs ensue, the economy suffers, companies go bankrupt, etc.   

Instead of understanding the problem and reducing their debts, the characters of South Park turn to the government to issue paper money. One slight issue with this solution is, with more money comes less value. Currency gains its worth from how much people value it. It has no intrinsic value. So, for example, if everyone suddenly received a million dollars, nobody cares as much about one or two hundred, maybe even thousands, because they know in the grand scale of things, it’s not a lot of money anymore. Because of this, everything will cost a lot more, a concept we frequently refer to as inflation.   

You can see where we are headed. Can’t you? This episode takes on the message that you should never spend more than you take in. At the very least, it makes the case that loans should be reserved for those who need them to progress in life, such as educational needs, rather than extraneous items that rely on personal wishes. Essentially, money doesn’t grow on trees, and every dollar you spend has to come from somewhere. In the words of Milton Friedman, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”   

South Park can be very controversial, disrespectful and exploit the limits of comedy in society, although, just like “The Simpsons,” there are some hidden takeaways or different interpretations that surely can be made. However, it will always depend on what are you looking for and how you choose to perceive the information presented to you. In all of it, one of the most interesting facets of the show is the ability to make absurdly immature jokes and also address real-world topics. The show uses shocking dark humor to disarm the audience just before swooping in with a topical lesson. This creates a polarizing effect within viewers, as they are either promptly turned away from the viewpoints of the show, or they are on board with the experience. In all of this, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t discount a message just because of where it came from.