Can you find a joke in any situation? That’s what the Season 15 finale of South Park got us to ask ourselves on this week’s episode “The Poor Kid.” Everything was fair game, from poverty porn, meth, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and foster homes, to zealous agnosticism, superhero worship, and, yes, even Penn State. Yet at first glance, it seemed like “The Poor Kid” was kind of a dud. The plot was jumpy and convoluted, and the jokes just seemed lacking despite highlights like the return of Mysterion. Eventually, it became obvious that that was the point. The jokes were purposefully lame because South Park was saying something about itself — that sometimes there isn’t a joke there, sometimes (to quote Liz Lemon) things are just the worst.
I’ve touched on this before, but audiences expect a lot from this show. Ultimately that is a good thing and the result of South Park’s proven greatness in political satire and irreverence. No wonder Comedy Central decided to extend its run through 2016. But that is a huge burden to carry for a show that is 15 years old, and the harsh light of weekly reviews probably don’t help. That doesn’t mean that the per episode vacuum reviews aren’t worth anything. On one level, the episode’s either funny or it’s lame, and for some viewers, that’s all they’ll care about. It is just a raunchy cartoon about a bunch of 4th graders after all, textual analysis is hardly a prerequisite to really enjoy it. But just like the best children’s movies, there are layers in South Park. You can enjoy it for the base gags, or your can look a little deeper. Neither way is better, but instead rating the success of each Yo Mama joke, I think it’s more useful to explore how “The Poor Kid” is the most self-reflective South Park we’ve seen since the mid-season finale.
There were two threads of rapid fire one-liners that the episode gave a lot of screen time too: Cartman’s “Yo Mama’s So Poor” jokes, and the Social Service Worker’s Penn State jokes. On their own, they weren’t very funny at all. They were just awkward and sad. When Cartman discovers that he’s the poorest kid at South Park Elementary now that Kenny’s been sent to live with a Foster family, he assumes that everyone will want to make fun of him. So he goes on the offensive and makes fun of himself. The Social Worker, on the other hand, makes child molestation jokes to the kids he is trying to comfort in an attempt to prove that he works in a laid back office and that he’s funny and carefree. Both go on for a while. There’s even a showdown where Cartman and the Social Worker go back and forth and fail to amuse the other. Each treats his own jokes with grave seriousness.
The poignancy didn’t become obvious till the very end. The Social Worker eventually realizes that he has recklessly put kids in jeopardy by sending them to a foster home with abusive parents. In his distress he tells the best Penn State jokes of the night, but he doesn’t care. He’s too sad. He’s actually taking it seriously at that point. The Yo Mama jokes take a turn too when kids all return to South Park Elementary. Everything seemed back to normal, till a giant reptilian bird burst through the ceiling of the school and killed Kenny(!).The episode ends with Cartman muttering Yo Mama’s So Poor jokes to himself through his tears, because he’s the poorest kid in school again.
So is the joke funnier when you’re making it about yourself? Or is it just a defensive and somewhat pathetic? For Cartman and the Social Worker the latter is more true. For the show as a whole, tonight’s episode was actually a clean way to end the season. We need a break for a little while — they’ve started to hold their characters and themselves responsible for making light of situations. Ultimately, we want South Park to hold a mirror up to us, not to themselves, but it is pretty interesting to watch when they decide to do it anyway.