Last week, while LeBron James was still trying to walk the incredibly fine, “I believe in the power of protest but don’t want anyone messing up my money” tightrope regarding the NBA’s ongoing China controversy, Trey Parker was presumably in a recording studio in Los Angeles voicing Eric Cartman. The episode Parker and his co-creator Matt Stone were working on, titled “Let Them Eat Goo,” was mostly focused on the Impossible Burger/ Beyond Meat craze, but amidst Cartman’s profanity-filled diatribes over getting tricked into eating fake beef, there was one line that stood out:
“Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself.”
It was a direct quote from James — whose comments on a controversial Tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters by Houston GM Daryl Morey have been roundly criticized. This marked the second time in a week that South Park mocked the NBA incident while connecting it to their own recent multi-episode arc tackling China and Chinese censorship. A nice bit of synchronicity for a show that always seems to be a step ahead of the cultural conversation.
Two weeks earlier, the episode “Band in China” — a brutal takedown of the Chinese influence over American media, in general, and the overt changes made to Bohemian Rhapsody to appease Chinese censors, specifically — literally got South Park banned in China. In response, Parker and Stone issued this “apology,” via the South Park Twitter handle:
Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all! Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the Great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?
Then, a week later, came the LeBron joke. For anyone paying attention, the various plot threads all wove together into one razor-sharp garrote wire — like the one Randy Marsh used to murder Winnie the Pooh in order to appease the Chinese — thus issuing two almost incontrovertible edicts: South Park is still the most subversive show on the air and Parker and Stone are two of the bravest creative minds in Hollywood.
“Badass” has become one of the most hackneyed, overused compliments in all of media. These guys actually deserve it.
It’s important to note that this whole turn of events likely surprised no one. Though there are no targets larger than the most populous country on earth, South Park has been prepped for a battle of this scale. Over the course of its 301 episode run, they’ve taken on the three major Abrahamic religions, plus Mormonism, Scientology, multiple US presidents, the biggest stars in Hollywood, and perhaps the most prickly subject of all: PC culture. Parker and Stone also featured the assassination of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il as a primary plot point in Team America: World Police and won nine Tony Awards while skewering Mormonism again in The Book of Mormon.
They do all of this knowing there will be fallout. Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that the Chinese ban — which scrubbed all mentions of the show on blogs, message boards, social media, and streaming sites — seems to have prompted Apple to drop out of the bidding war for South Park’s digital rights. The property was considered too dangerous in light of Apple’s myriad other Chinese interests; they couldn’t dare upset the nation where the majority of their products are both made and sold. Not the company that raced to pull a Taiwanese flag emoji from their phones, in fears it would anger the superpower.
It’s all a little crazy, right? The idea that a few lines in a single episode of TV could make an aggressive new player in the streaming wars back off one of the most coveted pieces of intellectual property this century. Can you imagine the puzzle it created for Viacom executives and shareholders, who clearly had a vested interest in South Park leaving China alone? Do they A) talk to Stone and Parker, apply some pressure, and risk offending them, or B) just let it all ride and keep the duo happy?
With 99.999% of all creators in Hollywood, the conversation in scenario A is going to happen in some form (even Tarantino probably had a few voices in his ear). But why on earth would Viacom dare to annoy the minds behind their most bankable show and the highest-rated cable primetime comedy for six years running? Not with a series that is, by any conceivable metric, one of the most successful ever on television. Not with two more seasons secured, no murmurs of the show ending its run, and the entire South Park conglomerate inexplicably growing, even as the world of entertainment atomizes.
In 2018, Deadline reported 111 million streams for South Park, with startling increases on Instagram (586%) and YouTube (78%). Mind you, the show is already the most popular comedic property ever across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. In an era when good shows, even great shows, are canceled with little explanation, the idea that South Park, which is already the biggest and most successful comedy in the world, is expanding buys Parker and Stone a whole lot of leash.
The only consistent stumbling block for Parker and Stone over the show’s 22-year run has been the show’s soft-pedaling of systemic racism, which is by far the least touched-upon social issue in the South Park universe. Many of the episodes that have tackled race, including episodes about Colin Kaepernick, actually dance around the larger matters at hand — instead focusing on the easier target of well-intentioned white liberalism. It’s a blind spot, to be sure, and sticks out on a show that has very few of them.
Gender and sexuality are given much more nuanced treatment in recent years. With Dave Chappelle continuing to swat at the lowest, most boring fruit on the transgender joke tree, South Park wrestled with the issue in season 18’s “The Cissy” in a way that affirmed the identity of all people while also admitting, “this stuff is complicated.” Though the show’s China arc didn’t require those same ponderous moments of uncertainty, it still had layers. The sharpest joke of the “Band in China” episode comes when Stan balks at changing his band’s biopic script in order to appease the Chinese censors.
“Come on guys,” a Hollywood producer urges, “everyone else is fine with China approving our entertainment. Even the PC Babies don’t seem to mind, and PC Babies cry about everything.”
In the episode, the PC Babies are another band, but that knowledge is hardly necessary to get the joke. It’s perfect, as is: an on-the-nose reminder that our outrage culture — which will spin out endlessly over old TV shows and dead authors — won’t touch the fact that China has absolutely exploded the notion of creative integrity in the United States. American claims to being the land of the brave and the home of the free have ceded endless ground to corporatism and globalism. Or, as Stone and Parker’s producer character says, “You gotta lower your ideas of freedom if you want to suck on the warm teat of China.”
It’s a deeply incisive burn. It’s also objectively true, underscored by the ESPN moratorium on discussing the Chinese debacle. Or Viacom’s own erasure of a Taiwanese patch in the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick — a move that was handled swiftly and quietly. Because you’d better believe Viacom knows and respects the power of China, they just seem to know and respect the power of two buddies in a Los Angeles recording studio even more. And though the company is willing to make tweaks to the sequel of one of the most beloved action movies ever, they wouldn’t dare force the hand of the geniuses behind the cultural steamroller that is South Park.
At this point, fearlessness is the Parker and Stone brand. They’ve earned an unprecedented level of creative freedom which they wield like the Sword of a Thousand Truths. Few could ever hope to stop them. Or dare suggest they lay off James, the NBA, the Chinese, or the issue of censorship altogether. In episode 300, they literally had Randy Marsh look at the camera and say, “Fuck the Chinese government” not once but twice. That’s brave. It’s badass. It’s way more rock and roll than an Oscar-winning movie about rock and roll could ever hope to be.
Most of all, it’s working. Because that streaming deal? It’s predicted to close this week, likely in the $500 million range. Apple be damned.