THE TIMES, Friday 15th 2004

Stand by for revenge of the couch potatoes
BY Clive Davis

WHETHER or not you admire their brand of scatological humour, the one thing that can be said about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the cult American TV animation, South Park, is that they are capable of offending almost everyone. Even so, their new cinematic venture, Team America: World Police, which opens in the US this weekend, manages to break new ground in bad taste.

Team America, for those who have not yet heard about it, is a typically ill-mannered Thunderbirds-style spoof which sets a group of special forces marionettes on the trail of Kim Il Jong and other members of the “axis of evil”. Foul-mouthed and culturally insensitive, the saviours of Western civilisation set about their task with gusto, laying waste to the Eiffel Tower and a large chunk of Paris and the Pyramids in their quest to track down elusive weapons of mass destruction.

Long before its release, the film had already upset a Bush administration spokesman, who chided Parker and Stone for making light of the War on Terror. His irritation was nothing, however, compared with the cold rage of actor cum activist Sean Penn, a figure wellknown for his opposition to Mr Bush in general, and the war in Iraq in particular. Penn, you see, is one of a group of liberal figures roundly lampooned in the film as well-meaning dupes of the forces of darkness. Not content with ridiculing the former Mrs Madonna, Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore, among other worthies, Parker and Stone devise imaginatively gruesome ways of dispatching them. This is not the done thing in Tinseltown. Moreover, when Stone added insult to injury by mocking rap star P Diddy's voter registration campaign during a magazine interview, Penn let loose with an indignant letter, signing off with a none too affectionate “All best, and a sincere f**k you”.

Penn has every right to object to Stone’s calculatedly slacker-ish riposte to the vote drive among the young and apathetic (”If you don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the South Parker, “there’s no shame in not voting.”), I can’t help suspecting, though, that Team America’s satire of Penn and his fellow members of the great and the good has touched a raw nerve. America’s left-wing cultural elite — just like Britain’s — is simply not used to having its values mocked. When humour is used as a weapon, it is invariably the Right that ends up with a bandage around its head.
How many American comedians, can you think of who take a conservative view of the world? British audiences have had plenty of opportunities to savour the wit and wisdom of the great Jewish stand-up, Jackie Mason. But, witty and acerbic though he is, Mason is something of a fringe figure, a wonderful relic of the borscht belt tradition. I sometimes think that if the droll P. J. O’Rourke were to hang up his pen tomorrow, the whole American right-wing humour factory could be sold off for scrap.

There was certainly a lot to be said for the British alternative comedy wave of the 1980s. Nobody would want to go back to the days when Bernard Manning was regarded as suitable prime-time viewing. (As one who had to endure versions of his jokes on the school bus every morning in my teens, I am grateful my sons are not subjected to the same racist drivel.) On the other hand, now that the rebels have become the new Establishment, weighed down with riches and fêted by Question Time producers, an awful complacency has set in: Blair is bad and Bush worse is about the limit of most comics’ worldview.

The rest of the arts world is not much better. The truth, I suppose, is that the baby-boomers who administer our mighty cultural industries are content to behave as if the world stopped on a sunny afternoon in the Sixties. Iraq, to them, is Vietnam; Dubya is Nixon with a twang. Thatcher, Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall are figments of the imagination.
Sad to say, most political satire has not moved on from the era of M*A*S*H. I have always enjoyed the show, but watching re-runs on satellite today I can’t help wishing Frank Burns could get a good one-liner in every now and then, if only to make the arguments more interesting. Then again, poor Frank would be immensely gratified to learn that Wayne Rogers, the actor who plays Hawkeye’s sidekick, Trapper John, is now one of the financial wheeler-dealers on the 24-hour news network that every good liberal loves to hate, the Fox News Channel.

If Trapper John has switched sides, all is not lost. Will the new elite be overthrown by a restless younger generation? Some pundits in America see Parker and Stone as the vanguard of a new caste, so-called South Park Republicans: twentysomething males who spurn the liberal consensus in favour of a raucous libertarianism. SPRs are profane, politically incorrect and show not the slightest respect for the likes of Dan Rather.

Perhaps there is a revolution stirring among the video-game-playing couch potatoes. That is certainly a more reassuring prospect than the thought that Parker and Stone’s nemesis, Michael Moore, really has become the spokesman of slackers who not only can’t be bothered to vote, but don’t care how many lies and distortions are crammed into Fahrenheit 9/11. It goes without saying that most of the media have fallen down on the job of educating the film’s audience about Moore’s falsehoods. The good news is that Parker and Stone take their revenge on Moore in Team America by blowing up his puppet on the screen. Another step down the road of bad taste, I grant you, but it will give some of us a lot of guilty pleasure.

|||Clive|||http://clivedavis.blogspot.com/2004/10/team-america-takes-on-liberal-elite.html|||10/17/2004 07:04:00 pm|||||||||