“Jesus tapdancing Christ, is this thing ever going to end?” (third of three posts)

For the first post in this series, click here; for the second, click here.

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.

Well, maybe these are clever postmodern appropriations and maybe they aren’t. But what about the direct appearance of Hamlet in “Terrance and Philip: Behind the Blow”? The author is convinced that the episode “asks whether endlessly repeated fart jokes have any real value, either aesthetically or culturally.” Although “we . . . see the performance in a sense from the boys’ point of view,” she maintains that “the show pokes fun at the boys here as well as at the South Park audience.” As she puts it:

In Western culture, Shakespeare is a touchstone for what we think of as high art, and yet, like the boys, many of us find Shakespeare’s work inaccessible. Often, people are afraid or bored by it, or they simply don’t understand it. Like the boys, they tune out. The show thus ridicules our failure to engage with higher forms of art. The audience is complicit with the boys’ impatience for Shakespeare to end so they can get on with the really funny stuff.

Those first three sentences are not only true, they are the reason I am writing a book about Shakespeare. I fear, though, that the last two are figments of the author’s imagination. I see an endorsement, not ridicule, of the boys’ and our “failure to engage with higher forms of art.” There’s no distance, ironic or otherwise, from Stan’s impatience.

Indeed, we can only pity Stan. He hasn’t even had Shakespeare ruined by bad high school teaching yet, and he already hates him. But can there be a less appropriate target for his ridicule? Shakespeare is not the museum piece you graduate to when you get tired of fart jokes. Shakespeare is where you go when you graduate to—contradiction in terms though it sounds—sophisticated fart jokes. If Parker and Stone had known this, they could not have written this episode the way they did. Instead, they fall back lazily on the stereotype of Shakespeare as the “touchstone” (and I wish I could take the author to be alluding to the clown in As You Like It here, but I have my doubts) “for what we think of as high art”—and univocally, unironically rejecting it. The only irony in the neighborhood is their choice of Hamlet for, as I’ve shown you, that play contains examples of filth that are beyond Stan’s comprehension. (My thanks, by the way, to The Hamlet Weblog for endorsing my view of “Buzz, buzz.” You should check out this very interesting blog.) And I didn’t even mention the most notorious probable fart joke in all of Shakespeare, the passage at Act III scene iv lines 206-207 where Hamlet says

For ‘tis sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard . . . .

He is explaining to his mother how he’s going to alter the letters that were supposed to ensure his death so as to condemn their bearers, his false friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As you’ve probably heard, a petard is a small bomb, so the sense is that just as a bombmaker might be blown up by his own weapon, so Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be killed by their own tools. However, “petard” derives from the Middle (and modern) French “peter,” meaning “to fart,” so although the sense of “hoist” wouldn’t be obvious (he that smelt it dealt it?), there certainly seems to be a fart joke here.

The point of all this is that according to the essayist, South Park “prefers fart jokes to Hamlet,” but neither she nor Parker and Stone seem to realize that there are fart jokes in Hamlet. Are Parker and Stone making a clever, multilayered cultural commentary on the high and the low as the essayist suggests, or are they just using Shakespeare as synecdoche for all the “high culture” they don’t want to sit through? It’s hard not to conclude it’s the latter. Parker and Stone aren’t experts: they probably really did hate Shakespeare in high school. Why should they know any better? The essayist, though, is apparently enough of an expert to be a teacher of Shakespeare at a state college. She should know better.

Unlike the essayist, I don’t find this episode funny at all. In fact, I hate it, because the alleged humor is based in ignorance. As far as I can see, it celebrates ignorance. And that is never funny. Ever.

That is as good a note as any on which to leave our discussion of Shakespeare’s use of fart jokes. There’s been a point to it. The stereotype into which South Park buys has it that Shakespeare is the boring peak of “high culture” about whom all you can say is “Jesus tapdancing Christ, is this ever going to end?” Anybody with much more than a passing interest in Shakespeare knows that isn’t true; this series of posts will contain few surprises for such folks. But throughout this blog and in my book I want to go further than to say that Shakespeare could do both high and low. I want to say that Shakespeare shows us that the very distinction between high and low culture is untenable, a pernicious illusion. It is not a distinction Shakespeare would have accepted or even understood, and we will not understand Shakespeare or ourselves unless we give it up.

Am I suggesting there’s no difference between Anna Karenina and Android Karenina? Hardly. There’s a myriad of differences, but they are not usefully captured by saying that one belongs to “high culture” whereas the other is mere “entertainment.” I believe that when you hear that distinction, you should reach for your gun. (And yes, of course I know where that phrase comes from.) One of the master themes of this blog and the book is the vindication of this view. And if that isn’t a come-on, I’m not quite sure what would be.

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