Earlier this month, South Park aired its 200th and 201st episodes. Together, they formed something like a greatest-hits special, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone crammed in references to a score of bygone plots, parodies, and gags: In the first of the two episodes, every celebrity ever mocked on the show returned to file a class-action lawsuit against the town (and, of course, to enjoy a fresh helping of mockery); the seasons-old question of Cartman's father's identity was reopened; and one long-absent character after another trotted out for a cameo, from Mr. Hat to Mr. Hankey, Mecha-Streisand to the Prophet Mohammed.
This last throwback—Mohammed first appeared on South Park in 2001 as part of a team of superhero religious figures that included Jesus, Buddha, and Moses—was the most controversial. * Since the 2005 Danish cartoon fiasco, when caricatures of Mohammed sparked a chain of worldwide protests, death threats, and media self-censorship, the idea of representing Mohammed visually has been the single most radioactive issue South Park has dared to touch. In the two-part 2006 episode "Cartoon Wars," the show tried, and failed, to bring Mohammed back to the screen—at the moment of his appearance, the screen went black, and a title card explained that Comedy Central had refused to air the image. Here the show was, four years later, giving it another go.
The first episode, "200," was a tease: Mohammed "appeared" obscured from sight, first behind a black box marked "CENSORED," then in a U-Haul van and later on in a bear suit. In "201," he stepped into full view—or, rather, into what would have been full view, were the "CENSORED" box still not superimposed over him. (In an elegantly telescoping gag, it also turned out that the guy in the bear suit was actually Santa Claus, pretending to be Mohammed wearing a bear suit). What's more, every mention of Mohammed's name had been replaced with a shrill bleep—which wasn't the case in "200." Comedy Central, apparently acting in response to a threatening post published (after "200" aired) on a New York-based Web site called RevolutionMuslim.com, had plastered the episode with fig leaves.
In newspaper editorials, official statements, and comment sections across the Web, the controversy over the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in "200" and "201"—and Comedy Central's duck-and-cover response—has been cast as a simple case of individual bravery versus institutional cowardice, free speech versus censorship. But is it really that simple? The dustup revolves around a set of seeming absolutes that, upon closer scrutiny, dissolve into a dizzying array of questions.
For starters, were Matt Stone and Trey Parker trying to "make fun" of Mohammed, were they trying to merely "depict" him, or, once we find ourselves within the mirthful city limits of South Park, Colo. (not to mention the give-no-quarter limits of fundamentalist Islam), is there no meaningful distinction between parody and depiction?
Meanwhile, did the post on RevolutionMuslim.com, which suggested that Stone and Parker might meet with a grisly fate for their "outright insult," constitute a "threat" (as the New York Police Department and FBI called it) or simply a "warning" (as Revolution Muslim insisted)? If it was a threat, how credible was it, and if it wasn't credible (as the NYPD diagnosed it, characterizing the two men behind the site as all-talk nobodies), then on what basis did Comedy Central decide to censor "201" so heavily? Comedy Central has yet to acknowledge that there was any link between the Revolution Muslim post and the network's decision.
Then there's the question of which Muslims, exactly, believe that there should be no visual representations of the prophet. The injunction itself turns out to be just one interpretation—more prevalent among Sunni Muslims than Shiites—of sayings attributed to Mohammed that appear not in the Quran but in supplementary oral transcriptions known as hadith. Finally, faced with a centuries-old history of art and artifacts in which Mohammed has been portrayed, variously, as a turbaned and/or bearded sage, as a flame, and with his face veiled altogether, how does one decide which representations, if any, are permissible? And what even counts as a representation of Mohammed in the first place?
Which is all to say, the "200" scandal rests atop a mountain of contingencies. If there is one absolute here, it is the precedent of violence both real and intimated—the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, to which Revolution Muslim alluded in its original post; the deaths of more than a hundred people protesting the Danish cartoons throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa; and the threats that sent several of these cartoonists into hiding.
What's funny, of course, is that when South Park first featured a cartoon depiction of Mohammed back in its fifth season, not a whisper of scandal ensued. Perhaps this is because South Park's depiction of Mohammed wasn't negative: The theme of the episode—different religions have different things to recommend them, unless the religion is Scientology—was hardly provocative. Or perhaps it's simply because the episode aired way back in July of 2001, in a very different world. In the wake of the "200" controversy, Comedy Central has tried to scrub the old episode, "Super Best Friends," from the Internet, but you can find a streaming version easily enough.
South Park owes its longevity to its deft mixture of shock and sophistication. For sure, Parker and Stone can be irritating, and not always in the gadflyish ways they intend. They have a weakness for breaking the world into two camps—hypocrites on one side, Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the other—in the manner of two kids in the cafeteria who think they're smarter than everyone else. They are overly convinced of the hilarity of Asian people speaking English poorly. And their libertarian streak can grow pigheaded, as in their Season 4 swipe at hate-crime legislation, in which they argued speciously, via Stan, that "all hate-crime laws do is support the idea that blacks are different from whites." But when they avoid these pitfalls, they are among the sharpest, most inventive satirists working.
In "200," they are at the top of their game. The last time South Park took on the depiction-of-Mohammed issue, in 2006, it did so with a far heavier hand: In one subplot, Americans afraid of violent al-Qaida reprisals for a cartoon of the prophet literally buried their heads in sand, and the script featured several speeches about the slippery slope of censorship. This time around, Parker and Stone take an inspired, show-don't-tell approach: The episodes vibrantly illustrate the idea—fascinating both in its political and philosophical implications—that a U-Haul van, a bear suit, and a "CENSORED" bar can themselves come to represent precisely the thing they were meant to obscure.
And Parker and Stone do this in a way that thumbs a nose at censorship itself, demonstrating that Comedy Central's skittishness actually made South Park's representation of Mohammed more "offensive": In 2001's "Super Best Friends," Mohammed was a hero. In "200" he is stuffed into a piece of moving equipment. Which representation is more sensitive?
Unlike the "Cartoon Wars" episodes, "200" and "201" feature no speechifying interlude—the moment, traditionally, when Parker and Stone risk underestimating our intelligence and lay out the "moral" of the episode. The co-creators have Comedy Central to thank for this absence, as more than a half-minute of monologues from Kyle, Jesus, and Santa Claus toward the end of "201" is completely bleeped. From Parker and Stone's official statement, we know that the theme of the monologues was "intimidation and fear," and that the bleeps weren't a "meta-joke"—they were added by the network. But the sequence winds up speaking as eloquently, startlingly, and hilariously to the issue at hand as a monologue ever could. That 38-second bleep is one of the best pieces of writing South Park has ever aired.
Correction, April 29, 2010:This article originally stated that Moses was rendered as a giant glowing dreidel. Moses was depicted as the Master Control Program from the film Tron. Who sort of looks like a giant glowing dreidel. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)