On the latest “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” there was a joke about ABC’s refusal to air an underwear ad with a so-called plus-sized model – but not a word about the censoring of the latest “South Park” episode by Comedy Central.
This is not necessarily a knock on “SNL,” as much of an observation about the range of reactions by those in the comedy business to a controversy that raises profound questions about fear and limits of humor, network censorship and self-censorship, and comedy’s power as a weapon against would-be bullies.
That’s pretty heavy stuff for an irreverent cartoon about dysfunctional fourth graders. But here’s how we got to this bizarre point: Comedy Central heavily censored last Wednesday’s “South Park” amid a thinly veiled death threat from a New York-based Islamic extremist website over a storyline involving the Prophet Muhammad.
All mentions of the name “Muhammad” were replaced by bleeps, as was much of the ending. The episode hasn’t been rerun, and isn’t online at the South Park site. You’ll find instead a statement from show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone that says, in part: “Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too.”
Comedy Central, undeniably, was in a tough spot. We all remember the bloodshed wrought after a Danish newspaper printed a caricature of the Islamic prophet nearly five years ago. The website that targeted Parker and Stone invoked the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was killed in 2004 by an extremist angered over a movie about Muslim women.
For Jon Stewart, the "South Park" controversy was clearly a comedy call to arms. The "Daily Show” host chided his bosses at Comedy Central Thursday, but turned his full ire and acid humor on the “numbnuts” behind the extremist website.
“This group, residing in the shadows, or should I say former shadows of the World Trade Center, are allowed to praise Osama bin Laden, celebrate the anniversary of 9/11, and try to intimidate the creators of ‘South Park’ all while enjoying our lovely theater district, our many diverse restaurants – including some of the best Jewish deli you’ll find…
“And these numbnuts get to enjoy it, all because of how much we in this country value and protect even their freedom of expression.”
He ended the 10-minute segment by singing, “Go f--- yourselves,” backed by a small Gospel choir.
The next night, Bill Maher, who’s gotten some threats himself for skewering organized religion, used his HBO show to back Parker and Stone.
“What is it with radical Muslims and cartoons? They watch more cartoons than potheads,” he quipped. “I applaud you [Parker and Stone] for standing up to them…They’re just bullies.”
But “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, whose primetime network show stretches the boundaries of the outrageous, was oddly ambivalent.
MacFarlane, it should be noted, has lampooned religion and battled censorship (an early “Family Guy” episode about Judaism, the relatively benign “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein,” was banned by Fox). It also should be noted “Family Guy” played a key and uncomplimentary role in a 2006 two-part episode of “South Park” that also centered on images of Muhammad.
“The question becomes at what point is it worth it for them to put themselves at risk?” MacFarlane asked on CNN’s “Larry King Live” Thursday. “Is the joke so hilarious that we want to risk our lives? If I were in that situation, honest, I don’t know how I would react.”
Another guest, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame, took MacFarlane to task.
“I think you cheapen Matt and Trey’s morality, strength and courage when you say, ‘Is the joke worth it?,” because the question is, ‘What is morally right?’” he said.
At least they’re talking about the issue, and Stewart and Maher are using humor to weigh in – even as others in the comedy game, so far, stay silent.
The “South Park” episode was the finale of a two-parter that began April 15 with the program’s landmark 200th show. The premise: “South Park” is invaded by 200 celebrities, led by Tom Cruise, who wants to capture Muhammad and steal whatever quality makes the Muslim prophet immune to ridicule.
Kyle’s usual end-of-the-show, lessons-learned recap didn’t make it onto TV. But we’ll chime in and say that comedy should be used as a tool to battle the forces of fear and intimidation. You give fearmongers more power by giving in – but you start to sap their strength by laughing at them.
Otherwise – and we’ll let Penn, who, in his act, speaks for his silent partner, Teller, and in this case, for many of us – have the final word: “Everybody should be very, very scared.”
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|South Park Death Threats|
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.