Is South Park Still Funny In 2023?

Ryan Fan

tarted watching South Park again since I saw it on HBO. I haven’t watched the show since I was 15 or so, especially since I felt like I outgrew watching a satirical show featuring a bunch of 8-year-old boys.

However, a friend prompted me to watch it again and I listened to a podcast and read an article about how South Park has gotten a lot of flak for allegedly fueling the mentality of the alt-right’s distaste for wokeness and love for offending liberals.

It seemed silly that a comedy show featuring foul-mouthed 8-year-olds can be seen as an animating force for the alt-right.

But I can see why someone would make that argument.

South Park’s appeal

South Park feels like a product of a bygone era (the 2000s). It’s a show that has intentional shock value and pushes the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable to say. As a teenager, all you want to do is push boundaries and explore taboo topics, so South Park most certainly appealed to me between the ages of 12–15, and luckily my parents were not home enough to enforce what I could or couldn’t watch.

But watching it recently felt like a breath of fresh air. Even as a staunch progressive, there is a part of me that tires of feeling like you always have to have the right opinions or say the right things or risk significant social censure. There’s a huge part of me that just wants to laugh at myself and my own side, which South Park has given me license to do.

I, too, tire of the thought policing and censoriousness that often goes on on my side, and I do feel like there’s a dark side of every liberal that wants to explore taboo topics and push back against always needing to say the right thing, have the right opinion, or be so pure in ideology all the time on all subjects. This feeling is never so strong that it’ll cause the vast majority of liberals to vote Republican, but that culture has only grown more pronounced in recent years and there’s naturally a backlash.

Still, South Park holds no bars and makes a lot of fun at the anti-woke DeSantis crowd just as much. I think it’s very inaccurate to say that South Park is a proxy for the alt-right when its mockery of the right is just as scathing.

I never felt like South Park took sides, but it did make social critiques and send the message that everyone is deserving of mockery, no matter how “righteous” the cause. It’s a show where everyone is fair game, from Evangelical Christians to vegans.

South Park today

The world has changed a lot, and South Park has most certainly changed with the times. Gone are the days where the goal is simply to be as offensive as possible because the world has changed to make a lot more things unacceptable to say that South Park did say back in its earlier stages. These social changes are positive, and the show has had to mature to make more pointed social critiques of contemporary topics. It certainly feels more tame than it did in the past, and its humor just feels different. I used to laugh non-stop every episode, and I’m not saying it’s not funny anymore because a couple moments in every episode still make me laugh.

I watched one episode that explained a lot of the changes in South Park since I last watched it. It was an episode called The Big Fix where one of the protagonists, Stan, discovers that his only Black friend has actually been named Tolkien, not Token, the whole 25 years or so he has known him, after the author who wrote Lord of the Rings. Stan discovers his unconscious bias and implicit racism when even his friends, who he sees as more idiotic and less understanding, knew Tolkien’s name was Tolkien the whole time.

This was a change from South Park’s creators, Matt Parker and Trey Stone, who almost certainly named the character the derogatory term for the only Black person in the room. It was a very necessary response from the creators (in a satirical fashion that only South Park could pull off) to the changing norms of the times, a signal that South Park was ret-conning and making a borderline apology for its past decision in naming one of its only Black characters.

The most recent season includes humor pointed at the anti-semitism of Kanye West, ChatGPT, and Harry and Meaghan. The first episode of the latest season tackling the anti-semitism of Kanye West seemed to fall flat to me. The jokes about the “Jews running Hollywood” were just not that funny, or seemed to rely on age-old stereotypes that weren’t anything that felt very original. Another episode targeted city people who move to the suburbs, who only utter words like “Wi-Fi,” “Cortado,” and “Tesla.” Again, it didn’t really feel that original or like a critique of city people I haven’t heard before, so I didn’t find that particular episode that funny.

I came to the (very brief) opinion that South Park was at the end of its rope in creativity and originality. The mid-2000s brand of pushing the edges and offending as many people as possible that made South Park what it is just isn’t there anymore. We can decry the changing social norms that led to this shift where South Park has had to adapt and become more tame, but it is 2023 and the world has changed.

It still does feel like South Park pushes boundaries as much as possible within the framework of a show on national TV and a streaming service, without verging into unacceptable territory. Yes, it is a shift because South Park used to never worry about being in that territory, but that maturity maybe doesn’t mean the show is more funny, just less crude.

Is South Park still funny?

I used to think South Park isn’t a show that has aged very well. The fact that it has lasted almost 26 years and 325 episodes seems to have proven me wrong. Yes, if liberals like myself are looking for complex and cerebral social critiques of the elite and the right, we can watch shows like The White Lotus or Succession. The beauty of South Park is that sometimes, we’re the targets. We can laugh at ourselves. The targets are often regular people and the humor does punch low or sideways.

I cracked up at a depiction of the performative allyship of White liberals in light of the racial reckoning following the 2020 protests. Randy Marsh invites the only Black family in South Park to his home after attending a seminar about how marijuana businesses that are completely White-owned don’t have a financial future. The speaker urges an almost completely White audience to reckon with their implicit bias and systemic racism in America.

Of course, Randy gets the idea to invite Tolkien’s family to his house, bring on Steve, Tolkien’s father, as a business partner, post on Instagram about having Steven and Tolkien’s family over for dinner, and then rebrands his marijuana business as a Black-owned business. Randy, to Steve’s chagrin, puts Steve on a billboard to advertise the diversity of the company, while not taking any of Steve’s business ideas seriously. The two have a falling out because Randy clearly doesn’t take Steve seriously as a business partner, and Steve opens his own marijuana business across the street from Randy as a competitor.

I won’t sit here and say South Park is as funny as or exactly like it was in its inception or first several seasons because it’s not. Having run for so long, it’s possible that Matt Parker and Trey Stone are running out of jokes. It’s definitely not easy to have the longevity South Park has somehow had. I will give it a lot of credit for being able to adapt to the times and tackle the most sensitive and controversial subjects of today’s political life.

The funniness of South Park today depends on the person. Someone who’s never watched it might find it hilarious, or horribly off-putting. Someone might watch it and feel nostalgia for the 2000s. There’s always going to be an appetite for the edginess and boundary-pushing of South Park, especially in the confines of people’s homes and outside the governing rules of polite society.

But as for me, the answer is sometimes — sometimes South Park still has its moments. But due to a variety of factors, including shifting norms on TV or the fact that the show has been running for so long, the show has its moments, but it’s not what it used to be.

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Believer, Baltimore City IEP Chair, and 2:39 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire"

Baltimore, MD

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