To deflate pomposity is the raison d'être of the modern nighttime cartoon. All the heavyweights—The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, not to mention the Adult Swim universe—revel in zealously ridiculing athletes, politicians, and pop icons, or anyone who can be treated like a piñata without inviting a lawsuit.
But there's often a disconnect between the large game and the satirical cartoon's ability to accurately target it. Each passing day brings a fresh opportunity for satire—Randy Neugebauer's "baby killer" outburst, for example. But animation is lengthy, painstaking work. The Boondocks, which debuted in 2005 and returns in May, will only be on its third season due to the mammoth undertaking of animating it. South Park, however, has a distinct advantage. By localizing all its production and using computer animation exclusively, the South Park team can produce an episode in as little as four days, giving them flexibility to pursue the latest-breaking oddities as they develop. But as of late, the streamlined production seems as much a gift as a curse, as South Park has gone from weekly satirizing to satirizing weakly.
Granted, the quick draw can often work to South Park's advantage. The 2008 episode that followed the presidential election, ostentatiously titled "About Last Night," aired the very day after Obama's win and was able to incorporate actual dialogue from the victory speech given less than 24 hours prior. But while the agility was impressive, the episode itself was markedly less so. "About Last Night" wound up being a lukewarm parody of an Ocean's Eleven–style heist film, which seemed like a wasted opportunity given that the show would be the only scripted program able to react to the news. "Dead Celebrities," which aired in October, was another stumble. It included references to the many celebrities who died last year, including Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, and Natasha Richardson, and in the absence of laughs, felt tasteless and unnecessary. This season's premiere, "Sexual Healing," seized on yet another recent story—this time Tiger Woods's infidelity woes—but didn't manage to be terribly funny or insightful in its take. The problem with South Parknow is that being first across the finish line has become part of the brand. Whereas once the show's creators swiftly turned around topical episodes because they could, now the South Parkteam is expeced to seize on the news.
In that way, the show's recent dip in quality has mirrored that of another weekly comedy show, Saturday Night Live. Sure, when SNL is on target, as it was during election season, it's really on. But this season has been wobbly, to say the least, especially in its attempts at topical humor. I'd imagine that a day will come whenSouth Parkwill consider a shift in its approach to line up better with audience appetites, one that emphasizes having the smartest take rather than the fastest one. Because even with its quick turnaround, by the time South Park gets to a joke, Stewart, Colbert, and Letterman, et al. have already planted flags there. And if you're going to show up late to the party, you have to make a hell of an entrance.