Photo: Comedy Central

Too often with South Park, we get caught up in the message. And by we, I mean us. Yes, even you. Have you ever debated about the meaning of a particular episode in the comments section? Have you ever been absolutely sure that you’re correct about what it’s trying to say, even as others tell you you’re wrong? I sure have. We all want to be right, and it can feel shitty when we’re not.

To be fair to all of us, the message of a South Park episode is more important than the average comedy show, so much that, in earlier seasons, one of the boys would practically break the fourth wall to make sure the audience knew what Trey Parker and Matt Stone were getting at with that particular half-hour.

But as the years have gone on, the message hasn’t always been quite as easy to parse out. With the seasons that leaned more heavily on serialization, the lesson would sometimes play into a bigger long game—not fully understood until a few episodes down the line, or when the season had concluded. In other installments, the message questioned itself endlessly, countering one moral stance with another, over and over again until the whole argument resembled a 2-D paper cut-out of an ouroboros. South Park was becoming more nuanced and occasionally harder to figure out.

Many of you are probably already disagreeing with me, giving the finger to the computer screen and insisting that I’ve got it all wrong—that South Park’s message is always easy to understand, and that I’m just an idiot critic who gets it wrong week after week.

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Maybe you’re right. Or, maybe everyone—yes, even you!—twists the message of each South Park episode ever so slightly until it fits within their own moral and political code. Maybe it’s a combination of everything mentioned above.

My point is, when we talk about South Park—at least through a critical lens—we’re always talking about what it’s trying to say. And that’s good. A huge part of criticism and just being a thoughtful viewer is analysis, and I hope any valid discussion around a TV series focuses at least somewhat on theme and intent.

But what about the actual comedy of it? By that, I mean the intangible, probably inexplainable gut reaction to a specific gag. Does an episode make me laugh, and if not, is there something chewier to fall back on? Or, if the message isn’t particularly thought-provoking, can that canceled out by a run of good jokes? I found myself having this internal debate tonight, weighing the importance of ideology versus aesthetic in an episode where the jokes rang true even if the message felt tired.

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And I mean tired strictly in the context of South Park’s history. When Randy goes on a crusade to eliminate Columbus Day as a school holiday (much to the chagrin of the kids, who try and foil his plans), it’s, as with most of his Causes of the Week, for the completely wrong reasons. Here, it stems from white victimization—from Randy not only picking a random issue to care about, but forcibly connecting himself to that issue through manipulation and lying. This time, he makes out with a Native American man in hopes that the guy’s saliva will show up in an ancestry DNA test. This would prove that he’s part Native American, and thus a victim directly hurt by the celebration of Christopher Columbus, a historical figure who massacred many of Randy’s people.

Even if Randy tells himself otherwise (which he does), the whole charade is ultimately about wanting attention. That’s where the self-victimizing theme of “Holiday Special” aligns too closely to other South Park episodes, even as recent as last week. Cartman’s suicide threats had nothing to do with race, but they came from the same poisonous part of the soul as Randy’s storyline. Both threads center on a character falsely claiming that their lives are made worse by hardships that, for many other people, are actually very real (suicide epidemics, the oppression of Native Americans, etc.), then trying to get others to rally behind their cause. In the long-running history of the show, it’s old hat (no, not that one).

So why do Randy’s hijinks in “Holiday Special” make me laugh as much as they do, even as the message feels repetitive? Maybe it’s because, where the lesson is one we’ve heard before—just without the Columbus Day/genealogy label—the the jokes hinge on actual sequences.

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Or maybe I’ll just never get enough of seeing Randy act like a jackass. It’s probably pointless to break down why I get a kick out of discovering he’s actually had a Columbus obsession for most of his adult life—from keg parties to his own wedding, a series of dirty Polaroids reveal he’s never far from his cloak and explorer’s hat . It’s probably pointless to break down why him tonguing an elderly Native American man, then fleeing from that same man’s attempts at romance like it’s a Pepé Le Pew cartoon, works as comedy.

That baseness even gets reflected in the episode’s final scene, which sets up Randy for a what-we-learned-today moment, only to show that he has learned nothing. Throughout the entirety of “Holiday Special,” he not only lies, trespasses, and appropriates the very people he thinks he’s helping, but keeps confusing the word “indigenous” with the word “indignant.” As a result, his final monologue makes little sense, coming off as both confusing and racially insensitive. The crowd hurls insults at Randy—who thinks it’s part of the newly dubbed Indigenous Day (or Indignant Day)—and he lobs them right back as everyone nonchalantly begins to scatter.

So maybe that’s the more entertaining takeaway from “Holiday Special”: Randy’s an idiot. It’s a thesis we’ve heard many times before and will probably hear many times again. And unlike the episode’s more substantial message, I’ll likely never get tired of hearing it. As long as I don’t think about it too much.

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Stray observations

  • The internet tells me the boys’ animals masks could be an allusion to the video game Hotline Miami, which I haven’t played. Any thoughts on this?
  • I was really hoping we’d get an up-close view of Randy shitting on the recently vandalized Columbus Statue in New York.
  • The smooth jazz at Randy’s DNAandMe test made that party extra white.
  • “I’m working on a proposal to make British Columbia just British.”
  • “In 1492, Columbus got us a day off...skewl.”
  • “I’m 21 percent victim.”

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