Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cowardly Comedy Central

I've watched a lot of Comedy Central in my life. I enjoy watching Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and I think The Sarah Silverman Show is great. Comedy Central has never been an overtly political place, although certainly Stewart and Colbert have a fairly liberal message, but they are first and foremost comedians.

I've seen many episodes of South Park. Some are fairly disgusting (watching people bounce around on cancerous testicles is a little beyond my taste), some are brilliant (their episode on Mormonism was biting and hilarious.) Almost all are offensive to somebody. But I always cut South Park creators Parker and Stone a lot of slack with the offensive material for the simple reason that they were equal opportunity offenders. They took no prisoners. There were no taboos.

Comedy Central's decision to censor the 201st episode of South Park causes me great concern. For those of you not familiar with the story, let me give you the background.

The 200th episode of South Park (which had a plot too bizarre and complex to explain simply here) contained a depiction of the prophet Mohammed. Well, not quite an actual depiction. Part of the bit was about how you couldn't depict images of Mohammed, so the episode contained an image of a person in a bear suit that the characters claimed was Mohammed. This was clearly a joke poking fun at the notion that you "couldn't" portray Mohammed. The episode was part of a two-part series, with the conclusion to be shown the following week.

Well, somewhat predictably, an Islamic group posted a fairly thinly veiled death threat against Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone the next day. What was less predictable and more shocking was Comedy Central's reaction to the threat. It's reaction was to show episode 201, but to visually censor all of the images of Mohammed, bleep all uses of his name and bleep almost the entire ending of the episode, all without the permission of the creators. Additionally, rather than rerun the episode in the normal rerun time slots in the week (they typically show each new South Park episode about 3 more times in the same week), they chose to rerun an older episode instead.

Now, I'm not opposed to self-censorship. If Comedy Central were to decide that a show were not up to their standards of taste, then they have ever right to censor it or refuse to air it. But let's examine the things that they were willing to show. They aired a South Park episode entitled "The Word of Curse" where they characters say the word "shit" almost 200 times. They aired an episode called "N-Word Guys" in which the N-Word is used dozens of times. Just two weeks ago they had the episode with guys bouncing around on cancerous testicles and, yes, they showed the testicles. So this is clearly not an issue of taste.

Nor is it an issue of religion being out of bounds. South Park has taken aim at Mormons, Catholics and Scientologists ,just to name a few. They had an episode entitled "The Passion of the Jew" that includes character Eric Cartman in a nazi uniform, leading a group of Christians in a march, while proclaiming anti-semitic rants in German. So, this can't be about religious sensitivity either.

This is clearly about the threat of violence. And censoring something not because someone is offended but because they post a threat is wrong.

I would understand if Trey Parker and Matt Stone decided they couldn't take the heat. They are people first and comedians second. If they had asked Comedy Central to pull the show because they feared for their lives, I would have understood. But Parker and Stone wanted the episode aired and were strongly opposed to the censorship. Comedy Central took this on themselves.

I generally stray away from "if we do this, the the terrorists win" kind of statements, since they are often used by politicians to pose false choices. But in this case it is true. America shouldn't be the kind of place the censors what people can watch because of terrorist threats. And Comedy Central should be ashamed.

Incidentally, if you want to see some visual depictions of Mohammed, here is a great site:

If you like this site, tell your friends.

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