WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared on the recent 500th episode of "The Simpsons" as a barbecuing denizen of an off-the-grid community just outside Springfield. On "South Park" last season, Assange was portrayed as a rodent named WikiLeaks (evil kin to the brave gerbil Lemmiwinks).
The two takes on Assange speak to the diverging paths of our two most enduring prime-time cartoon shows. "The Simpsons" is a sprawling, sardonic semi-celebration of an ever-expanding pop culture, while "South Park" increasingly focuses its irreverence on specific targets. "South Park" also has mastered the art of the quick turnaround, making it the rare animated comedy that's able to tackle timely issues – not as quickly as "The Daily Show" or even "Saturday Night Live," but impressively fast enough to keep Cartman and his pals relevant after all these years.
"South Park," nearing its 15th anniversary, kicks off its 16th season on Comedy Central Wednesday – just in time potentially to make a satirical mark on the 2012 presidential race.
The previous season proved fairly strong with timely spoofs on the Penn State sex scandal and Occupy Wall Street (with Presidential Fitness Test failure Cartman cast as the "One Percent"), as well as sheer silliness about the pitfalls of failing to read the iTunes user agreement. But perhaps the most fascinating installment from last fall was the special, "6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park," which showed creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and their team manically producing an episode in less than a week.
The animation method – done via computer, but still crude by "Simpsons" and "Family Guy" standards – gives Parker and Stone leeway to play off the headlines. One memorable example came a day after Barack Obama’s 2008 win, in an episode that marked his presidential victory – and teamed him, Michelle Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin in an “Oceans 11”-like heist movie parody. The episode was fun, but Parker and Stone have become smarter, more surgical satirists in the years since, particularly with their brave 2010 two-part parody of the Muhammad cartoon controversy.
Sure, the guys who gave us Mr. Hankey still dabble in the scatological, as we saw in last year’s iTunes episode. But judging from previews for Wednesday's season premiere, it looks like they’re using toilet humor for a higher purpose. The episode centers on a new Transportation Security Administration law requiring seatbelts for toilets, in an apparent takeoff on what some would call the nanny state. On "South Park," that passes for growing maturity – and offers hope for a strong, topical humor-driven season to come. Check out a clip below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity 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.