‘South Park’ Has a Donald Trump Problem

Co-creator Trey Parker says he doesn’t want ‘South Park’ to become CNN. But what is the show’s responsibility in the age of Trump?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The President Trump fanatics who reside on The_Donald subreddit rejoiced this week in response to some big news about South Park’s upcoming 21st season. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Trey Parker announced that he and his co-creator Matt Stone will be laying off the Trump jokes.

“We fell into the same trap that Saturday Night Live fell into, where it was like, ‘Dude, we’re just becoming CNN now,’” Parker said. “We’re becoming: ‘Tune in to see what we’re going to say about Trump.’ Matt and I hated it but we got stuck in it somehow.” He added, “We probably could put up billboards — ‘Look what we’re going to do to Trump next week!’ — and get crazy ratings. But I just don’t care.”

“TREY PARKER AND MATT STONE UNDERSTAND WHAT CNN AND MSM CANT ABOUT TRUMP! South Park to no longer focus on Trump in next season and produce real comedy again!” one Reddit post exclaimed. “South Park bends the knee on their fake-news-fueled portrayal of President Trump,” another read. Lots of similar posts followed.

This outsized enthusiasm betrayed the uncomfortable overlap between the same 18-34-year-old males who help drive South Park’s stellar ratings and those who voted for Trump in 2016. While Parker and Stone may very well find Trump-based satire “boring,” they also likely realize that if they double down on the anti-Trump train, they will turn off many of their most loyal viewers.

That may help explain why the show has never really taken a stand in the five presidential elections that have occurred since it made its premiere in the summer of 1997. Just before the 2004 election, South Park aired an episode titled “Douche and Turd” that parodied what Parker and Stone seemed to believe was a “lesser of two evils” choice between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

The pair decided to revive this theme for the 2016 election, as they previewed for The Daily Beast in early September of last year once it became clear that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would be the two major party candidates. Parker joked that if he thought Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson had “any chance in hell” of winning, he would probably vote for him over “the giant douche and the turd sandwich.”

By the time the season 20 premiere aired two weeks later, this point of view had become manifest, with the orange-faced Mr. Garrison — who became the show’s surrogate for Trump — representing the “giant douche.” As Mr. Garrison gets increasingly worried that his joke candidacy may turn him into a real presidency, he asks himself, “Why did the Democrats have to elect such a turd sandwich?”

While South Park undoubtedly portrayed its Trump as an incompetent asshole in way over his head, it characterized Hillary Clinton as equally unpalatable. An episode later last season that focused on the general election debates found Mr. Garrison straight-up trying to lose the election. But Clinton immediately squandered her chance at victory.

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing,” Garrison said from the debate stage. “I had no idea I would get this far, but the fact of the matter is, I should not be president, OK? I will fuck this country up beyond repair. I am a sick, angry little man. Please, if you care at all about the future of our country, vote for her. She’s the one who at least has some experience. She’s not as bad as you think, I promise. And unlike me, she’s actually capable of running this country.”

Hillary’s robot-like response? “My opponent is a liar and he cannot be trusted.”

Still, like the rest of the country, Parker and Stone were so sure that Clinton would prevail on Election Day that they had no back-up plan for what they would air on their Wednesday night show if she lost. As they told The Ringer’s Bill Simmons on a podcast earlier this year, they considered “going black” instead of showing the episode they had planned or starting from scratch with less than 24 hours to find a solution.

“Everyone was so shell-shocked and it was like you didn’t want to see that the world had changed,” Parker said. “You wanted to be like, ‘OK, this horrible thing has happened, and [Trump] has been elected president, [but] South Park’s still on the air. The sun’s still rising. Water’s still clear.’”

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The episode they ended up airing just one night after the election showed the strain of that last-minute rejiggering. It was just as disjointed and unsure about the future as much of the country was on November 9th. Parker and Stone clearly did not want to be talking about presidential politics anymore, and it showed.

The show’s most potent Trump satire came in the fall of 2015, long before anyone was taking him seriously as a presidential contender. At that point, they cast him as a vengeful Canadian president who builds a wall to keep Americans out.

That episode — titled “Where My Country Gone?” — contains a brilliantly written monologue from a Canadian man, explaining how his country ended up with such a terrible president. “There were several candidates during the Canadian elections,” he began. “One of them was this brash asshole who just spoke his mind. He didn’t really offer any solutions; he just said outrageous things. We thought it was funny. Nobody really thought he’d ever be president. It was a joke!”

“But we just let the joke go on for too long,” he continued. “He kept gaining momentum, and by the time we were ready to say, OK, let’s get serious now, who should really be president? he was already being sworn into office. We weren’t paying attention… We weren’t paying attention!”

And then they showed a graphic scene of Mr. Garrison literally “fucking” Donald Trump to death.

Parker and Stone could not imagine that Trump would still be part of the conversation when they returned the following September and as such had no plans to continue parodying him. “That was pretty hardcore,” Stone admitted to us of the rape scene ahead of season 20. “Yeah, I don’t know what else we could do,” Parker added.

Now, with Trump in the White House, they are faced with the same dilemma once more. Despite Parker’s latest comments, many viewers will still tune in to the premiere this fall to see how the show comments on Trump’s first nine months in office. Yet just as they used 2004’s Team America: World Police to skewer Hollywood liberals like Sean Penn and Matt Damon, it’s easier to imagine them going after the Women’s March and Trump’s CNN critics than it is to see them targeting the president directly.   

While late-night hosts like Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert have been pointed and powerful in their comedy about the Trump administration, what they are doing on a nightly and weekly basis isn’t really satire. As Parker noted, Saturday Night Live’s practice of simply recreating the dumbest thing Trump did that week has started to grow stale. Arguably, only Comedy Central’s The President Show, which has been surprisingly strong in its initial run of episodes, has been successful at nailing the true absurdity of Donald Trump the man.

Matt Stone summed up the essential Trump dilemma best in that same podcast interview with Bill Simmons. “If I flip off the principal and the principal flips me off back, that’s really funny, but I really don’t know where to go from there, you know what I mean?” he said. “I moon him and he moons me back. If he moons first, [it’s] like, ‘Oh fuck, that guy shouldn’t be the principal.’”

In the end, The_Donald redditors have good reason to celebrate. Trump not only won the presidency, he managed to troll two of this century’s two greatest trolls into submission. When the president is boasting about grabbing “pussy” and whining about fake bloody “face-lifts,” what more can a group of curse-happy Colorado fourth graders say about him?