Straddling the line between satire, silliness, and earnestness is the standard operating procedure for South Park. But given the show’s insane turnaround time (explored in depth in the documentary Six Days To Air), achieving that balance isn’t always in the cards. Either a particular episode heavily favors one factor over the others, or attempts to balance things out go astray due to the sheer pressure Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and the rest of the production team place upon themselves in order to knock these episodes out in under a week. “Sarcastaball” isn’t a classic episode of the show by any stretch. But by placing the most sincere child in the show’s universe at the center of a sarcastic maelstrom, it still produced the sweetest possible episode that also happens to feature the mass production of an energy drink composed entirely of a young child’s semen.
Each half-season of South Park seems to feature at least one Randy-centric episode, and they all tend to be among the strongest offerings in any programming bloc. “Broadway Bro Down” was my favorite episode of the 15th season, and Comedy Central just happened to run it right before tonight’s premiere. As such, I was primed for some more Randy Marsh insanity, and on that front, the episode delivered. Randy learns that Stan’s school has banned kickoffs from the student football league, over fears of concussions that seem to affect more and more professional athletes. (One thinks he’s driving a car on the field. Another believes himself to be baking either cookies or bread during the pre-game ceremonies.) At the next PTA meeting, Randy launches into an angry, sarcastic rant that has the effect of actually kickstarting the safer sport of “sarcastaball.” How does this sport differ from football? Well, all players wear bras and tin foil hats, use balloons instead of footballs, and must hug other players when not bestowing praise upon them. And that’s just the start of things.
Marsh’s cynicism only grows as sarcastaball grows in popularity, with sarcasm itself turning into a type of disease that infects all that come into contact with the sport. The gospel of sarcastaball spreads beyond South Park into the state of Colorado and soon the entire country. Soon, Randy isn’t coaching Stan’s school team but the Denver Broncos in the newly christened “National Sarcastaball League.” (In case you’re wondering, the refs aren’t any better in that sport than they are in football.) Now, actually having sarcasm be a legitimate, biological condition isn’t past South Park. The rules of the show allow for such a reality. But smartly, the show instead places blame on Randy himself, who eventually admits that the sport simply provided an outlet for his inner, raging a-hole. The episode uses recent football controversies to make a simple point: Sarcasm is the default language in this day and age. Is that a particularly fresh insight? Of course not. Did it get a little grating near the end? Sure. But in Butters, the show had enough of a counterpoint to keep things from becoming too monotonous.
Butters. Oh, Butters. If “Sarcastaball” is partly about the ways in which people can go overboard in the name of the ever-elusive notion of “keeping people safe,” it also demonstrates through Stephen Stotch’s actions just how harmful overprotection can be as well. In the beginning, it’s thrilling to see Butters take charge in an environment in which respecting other people is the mark of a true leader. Seeing Cartman drop his normal attitude and replace it with one akin to reverence for his new role model is something to behold. Butters turns into the freakin’ Vince Lombardi of positive speechifying. Some of his fellow players have a hard time adjusting to this new world order. (“I can’t remember if I’m supposed to hug the running back or compliment him. It’s so confusing!”) But Butters is there to inspire them to be contributing members of society. He implores his teammates to channel and churn the “creamy good” inside them to transform into their best selves. “You just gotta use that to be the nicest, more compassionate player you can be!” he extols his team.
Of course, the supposedly metaphorical cream is actually semen, at which point the show goes down the rabbit hole into pure gross-out humor. Just as no one seems able to discern between honest emotion and sarcasm, no one can tell what the secret ingredient in “Butters’ Creamy Goo” energy drink is. (It’s almost like The Emperor’s New Red Bull, if you will.) Randy finally figures it out, only after he’s temporarily cured of his non-stop sarcasm. But once the truth is revealed, everyone assumes that Butters hoarded his semen in his closet as part of some elaborate practical joke. No adult can conceive of any other scenario, just as no adult can conceive of a world in which children actually like playing sarcastaball.
But Butters simply works off information provided to him, even if it’s wildly inaccurate information about his “friendly compass.” Tonight’s episode does a good job of getting laughs at Butters’ predicament without getting laughs at Butters’ expense. It’s a tricky line, especially since there are clear indications that having kids sincerely like anything is good in the long run. Not that bottling up semen and selling it at insane profit margin levels is good, per se. But it does shift the attitudes of people such as Cartman toward trying to be better, because the social norm itself has shifted through the popularity of the sport. Cartman’s reasoning is still inherently selfish: He just wants to excel at whatever is popular. “I suck at being nice!” he moans before learning about Butters’ secret closet stash. Eric doesn’t have an internal change of heart. Rather, he forces himself to adapt to the changing cultural climate. The shift from “withering contempt” to “earnest praise” works from the outside in, rather than the other way around. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a bad way to start.
“Sarcastaball” doesn’t pretend like such a shift is sustainable over the long haul. Once Randy reveals Butters’ Creamy Goo for what it is, the balloon pops for the sport, both physically and metaphorically. But even if the temporary utopia featured gag-inducing visual humor, at least it offered up a small window in which children decided it was better to be nice to each other rather than constantly make one another feel like dirt. Maybe we can have that type of temporary utopia on the comment boards for South Park reviews this Fall, you guys!
(OK, it was worth a shot.)
- While the concussion storylines have been percolating over the past few years, South Park took advantage of its 6-day production cycle to incorporate this NFL season’s nightmarish officiating as well tonight. Having those three referees have such wildly different calls didn’t feel like “satire” so much as “predictive reporting”.
- As a New Englander, I’ve heard enough withering Bill Belichick press conference sarcasm to last multiple lifetimes.
- The Denver “Whoop-De-Fucking-Do Girls” have spirit. Or, you know, something.
- “I love all your hit song!” Someone in the South Park writer’s room sure doesn’t like CeeLo Green.
- Given the escalation of the episode, I kind of expected a “Sarcasm Telethon,” complete with a plethora of recording artists performing an ironic “We Are The World”-esque ballad to help support Randy’s condition.
- Has there already been a “bottles of semen” episode of Hoarders? That feels like something that should have already happened, somehow.
- “It’s pointing up because Jesus is your friend!” I’m guessing Butters will be blessing himself even more in the near future.
- Say it with me now: “Commitment! Compassion! Comradery!” Ah, wordplay. You’re fun.
- Marcus Gilmer and I will be trading off reviews on a weekly basis once again this fall.