In “Hamlet’s Raspberry” I brought up South Park purposefully. I don’t know of anything in recent popular culture that’s quite so focused on toilet humor. How could it be otherwise in a show about four badly animated fourth-grade boys? I can’t say I’m a fan, although I generally endorse its choice of satiric targets; I prefer my bad animation ironic (Sealab 2020, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, The Brak Show) and I find The Venture Brothers screamingly funnier. To be honest, South Park wasn’t even on my radar until the miracle of Google Books brought a volume called The Deep End of South Park: Critical Essays on Television’s Shocking Cartoon Series to my attention. (Academics seem to love South Park even more than fourth-grade boys, though without the excuse of identification. I’ve seen no fewer than four anthologies of academic essays on the show at Amazon.com.) One essay in particular, “’Yon Fart Doth Smell of Elderberries Sweet’: South Park and Shakespeare,” makes the case for the quartet from Colorado but shows, ironically, that they don’t cut it.
You’ve already met Terrance and Philip in “Hamlet’s Raspberry,” when they saved Canada from Saddam Hussein’s insidious mind control. They are Canadian petomanes; their show-within-the-show consists almost entirely of farting. In the episode entitled “Terrance and Phillip: Behind the Blow,” their life stories are celebrated—but tragedy threatens when Phillip breaks up the act to go legit, doing “Canadian Shakespeare” in Toronto. (As a United States expatriate living in Toronto, this naturally got my attention.) To retrieve Phillip and reunite the team, all four South Park boys brave the terrors of socialist Canada (I wish. Really.) and the even starker terrors of a performance of Hamlet starring Philip. It’s while the (actual) final scene drags on that Stan, the Everyboy of the group, exclaims “Jesus tapdancing Christ, is this thing ever going to end?” Once it does end, Philip shows how much he’s changed by asking the boys “Do you really think fart jokes are funny for that long?” A pertinent question, which he promptly undercuts with a fart.
Even so, the rescue mission succeeds—or does it? Terrance and Philip are reunited just in time for the South Park Earth Day Brainwashing Fair, but Philip’s aspirations to legitimate theatre are not extinguished; he rankles Terrance by interpolating the line “Yon fart doth smell of elderberries sweet” on the ground that though it’s not the line, “it’s a better line.”
Well, is it a better line? The academic who used it as the title of her essay plainly thinks so, although it’s hard to see what it has to do with Shakespeare. “Elderberry” dates from 1589 but Shakespeare doesn’t use it, and if it conjures anything, it conjures John Cleese as the French Taunter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who farts in the “kniggggggits”’ general direction and exclaims “Your father was a hamster and your mother smelt of elderberries.” It’s not clear to me that Terrence and Philip come off the better if this is the allusion. However, the author’s typical practice turns out to be to credit Matt Parker and Trey Stone, the creators and writers of South Park, with a penchant for Shakespearean allusions that doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. She begins her essay with a discussion of the episode entitled “Something Wal-Mart This Way Comes,” which patently riffs on Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s easy to draw convincing parallels between the episode and Bradbury, but just because Bradbury is alluding to Macbeth (his title is of course one of the Weird Sisters’ famous lines) it doesn’t follow that South Park is alluding to Macbeth by alluding to Bradbury. Referentiality isn’t transitive. It just isn’t good enough to assert that because the South Park episode involves a magic mirror and so does the Bradbury, it follows that there’s an allusion to the magic glass in which Macbeth sees Banquo’s progeny reigning “to th’ crack of doom” (especially since by the author’s admission the link between the first two is the breaking of the mirror). Nor is her argument that the episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die” is “in part a re-write of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus,” as opposed for example to the Greek myths (Atreus and Thyestes, Philomena and Procne) to which Titus alludes, less forced—though Wikipedia seems to have picked up on it as the citation for this claim.