KRAZY KRIPPLES: South Park & Disability

Earlier this year a poll was conducted on OUCH!, a Web site devoted to disability-related content in BBC programming (www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/). Users were invited to cast their votes for “The Greatest Disabled TV Character,” and for regular viewers of South Park, the results offered a pleasant surprise: By a considerable margin, the winner was TIMMY!

Now, it’s astonishing enough that the BBC has the foresight to offer such a Web site, and fascinating to discover that British television offers a variety of disabled characters, most of them unfamiliar to all but the most devoted American anglophiles. But what’s equally interesting from the OUCH! poll is that the all-American Timmy was even more popular among disabled than nondisabled voters, and there were telling differences in the total-vote breakdown.

For example, while disabled voters chose Timmy as their number one favorite (Dr. Kerry Weaver from ER placed a distant second), the number one choice among nondisabled voters was Brian Potter from the popular Brit-com Phoenix Nights, a character (played by nondisabled actor Peter Kay) described as “bad tempered, stingy, bitter, mean-spirited and calculating, who uses charity boxes to raise money for himself, and is a wheelchair user with a terrible taste in patterned sweaters.” (Phoenix Nights ceased production in 2002, and is not currently available on BBC America.)

Some interesting conclusions could be drawn from the poll results, but for now consider one simple question: Why would disabled voters choose an animated, learning-disabled, wheelchair-using fourth grader as “The Greatest Disabled TV Character,” a misfit kid whose vocabulary is almost exclusively limited to garbled repetitions of his own name and who scored instant popularity as lead vocalist for a heavy-metal garage band called the Lords of the Underworld?

There’s an equally simple answer–Timmy is drop-dead, pee-your-pants, roll-on-the-floor hilarious–but for disabled viewers of South Park, Timmy’s popularity warrants closer examination. For better or worse, Comedy Central’s controversial cartoon series, featuring a foul-mouthed batch of fourth graders in the “quiet mountain town” of South Park, Colo., is the iconoclastic source of the most progressive, provocative, and socially relevant disability satire ever presented on American television.

With his jagged teeth and can-do spirit, Timmy appears at first glance to uphold the condescending disability stereotypes that are gradually fading from mainstream entertainment. But like everything else in South Park, he’s actually challenging preconceptions, toppling taboos, and weaving his uniqueness into the fabric of the show. He fits right in with the other South Park misfit kids (even the nefarious Cartman seems to enjoy his company), and he’s never robbed of his disability pride. There will always be thick-headed morons who laugh at Timmy, but the character’s popularity is largely determined by those who laugh with him.

That this is happening on South Park–a series routinely condemned by conservative watchdogs–should come as no surprise to anyone who pays fair attention to what the show is all about. Co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who financed the excellent pro-disability documentary, How’s Your News?) may seem like ultra-juvenile provocateurs with a liberal agenda–and there’s some truth to that–but South Parkwould not have become a pop-cultural phenomenon (with its ninth season now ending, it has been renewed to continue through 2008) if there wasn’t a noble method to its madness. Parker and Stone are equal-opportunity offenders, and when absolutely nothing is sacred–not even the seemingly unassailable image of the late Christopher Reeve–the satirical playing field is level, and timely issues become ripe for comedic scrutiny.

Timmy, who is occasionally described as “retarded,” and whose parents both use wheelchairs, made a cameo appearance in the fourth season premiere episode–“Tooth Fairy Tats 2000″ (originally broadcast April 5, 2000)–but it was two weeks later, in “Timmy 2000,” when he became an overnight sensation. As front-man for The Lords of the Underworld, in a plot condemning the over-prescription of Ritalin for children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Timmy dazzles a concert audience, prompting complaints from resentful bandmates (“Timmy gets all the chicks!”) and leading concert host Phil Collins, target of much South Park derision, who assumes a condescending, overprotective role on Timmy’s alleged behalf.

But when the animated Collins says, “I don’t think you should laugh at people with disabilities,” he’s expressing all the hesitant discretion and politically correct politeness that would potentially isolate Timmy from the cultural mainstream in the real world. Without telling its viewers what to think, South Park challenges their own fears and foibles regarding disability, and Timmy emerges triumphant.

Of course, it’s dangerous to read too much into a cartoon that employs deliberately offensive humor as its number one priority. After all, South Park has featured such recurring characters as Mr. Hankey (a talking piece of poo) and a pot-smoking bath towel named Towelie. (You want sophistication? Tune into PBS.)

Still, when Catholic dogma is tackled in “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?”–a two-part episode, followed by “Probably”–you can’t deny that serious questions are being asked, no doubt a bit facetiously, but smarter viewers get the point. When the kids express concern about Timmy, who’s unable to verbally confess his sins according to Catholic stricture, South Park opens a whole can of worms about heaven, hell, salvation–and, oh yeah, Saddam Hussein’s love affair with Satan. Fortunately, Timmy is spared from eternal damnation.

Timmy proudly stars in the title role of the fourth-season episode, “Helen Keller: The Musical,” along with a “physically challenged” Thanksgiving turkey named Gobbles, but it wasn’t until the fifth season’s “Cripple Fight” that “crip competition” appeared in the form of Jimmy, a stuttering kid with withered legs and crutches (he’s since become a South Park resident), who performs stand-up comedy in a rally to protest the firing of South Park‘s gay boy-scout leader.

Timmy is instantly jealous of this new “handi-capable” challenger, and a slugfest ensues (modeled after a brutal fistfight in the sci-fi movie They Live), ultimately ending with Jimmy and Timmy’s joint declaration of disability pride.

All well and good, but South Park offended even some of its loyal defenders when the seventh-season episode, “Krazy Kripples,” spoofed Christopher Reeve as an inspirational celebrity who defies his disability and gains super-human strength by sucking stem cells from the bodies of dead fetuses (You want good taste?–switch to Masterpiece Theater).

Angered by Reeve’s popularity, Jimmy forms a club (with Timmy) exclusively for those “crippled from birth,” as opposed to “crip wannabes like Christopher Reeve.” Reeve forms a “Legion of Doom” in a failed attempt to destroy stem-cell opponent Gene “Hack-Man” (spoofing the actor who played Reeve’s nemesis in Superman) while Jimmy and Timmy forge a truce between Denver’s street gangs, the Crips and Bloods.

As if to acknowledge the delicacy of conflict between disability groups on both sides of a controversial issue, the South Park kids take a strictly hands-off approach to the Reeve/Jimmy showdown. The episode’s running gag finds the boys vowing to “just stay out of it,” suggesting that there’s at least one hot-potato that even South Park is hesitant to handle.

A similarly judicious attitude was taken toward the Terry Schiavo case in “Best Friends Forever,” a breathtakingly topical episode originally broadcast just a few hours before Schiavo’s death on March 31, 2005. Clearly aware that taking sides in the right-to-life debate would be a divisive, no-win strategy, Parker and Stone aimed their satirical arrows at the one aspect of the Schiavo case that’s indisputably offensive: the horrendous media circus that turned a private matter into a shamefully public spectacle.

This was all handled with typically confrontational South Park humor, involving the umpteenth death of Kenny, the beloved character who’s been “killed” repeatedly throughout the series. But while viewers looked on with horror or hilarity, one thing remained clear: South Park has a moral conscience. The one-of-a-kind animated series is outrageous because we live in an outrageous world, and while issues like disability and right-to-life are treated with kid gloves in the cultural mainstream, South Park tackles them head-on, with blunt-force honesty, free from the politically correct restrictions that curtail open discourse in more “respectable” forums of debate.

In his 1997 book, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, renowned sociologist Peter L. Berger observes that all good satire, or “comedy as a weapon,” adheres to four basic criteria: fantasy (often grotesque), a firm moral standpoint, an object of attack, and an educational purpose. As much as critics of South Park would like to think otherwise, the series has been boldly satisfying all four of those criteria for nearly a decade, and it’s still going strong. We may not all agree on the benefits and shortcomings of this ongoing cartoon controversy, but in the simple act of addressing disability at all, South Park is opening a dialogue where none previously existed. Jimmy and Timmy–as strange as it may seem to some–are goodwill ambassadors, and we owe them our thanks.

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