The ending of Wednesday's episode of South Park, "The Problem with a Poo," took a dig at fellow long-running animated series The Simpsons over the controversy around the latter's racially insensitive character Apu. It was weird for a lot of reasons, not least of which because it was an out-of-nowhere twist ending in an episode that was mostly about the cancellation of Roseanne Barr and the Kavanaugh hearings.
In the episode, Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, the Christmas-loving talking turd who has been a recurring character since Season 1 in 1997, got in trouble with the people of South Park for tweeting offensive stuff, which he blamed on Ambien, which is exactly what Barr did when her own offensive tweet led to Roseanne getting canceled. He was fired from directing the annual Christmas pageant, and the town held a hearing about what to do about him, at which he behaved as belligerently as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh did at his hearing. His punishment was to be banished to "a place that accepts racist, awful beings like him," where people "don't care about bigotry and hate." Cut to the cloud-parting first shot of The Simpsons' opening credits as Mr. Hankey arrived in a poorly-animated version of Springfield, where he was welcomed by Homer and Bart and other Simpsons characters including Apu, who said in an even worse Indian accent than the one Hank Azaria does on The Simpsons, "Welcome, my friend. Rest your weary feet and make yourself at home here," and then the gathered Springfielders cheered "Hooray!" This episode-ending scene was followed by a black screen with the hashtag #CancelTheSimpsons.
So is South Park really advocating for canceling the The Simpsons? Quite the contrary. South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone are staunch free speech supporters. Their core ideology is a commitment to "political incorrectness" and bad taste in the pursuit of satire. For them to call for a show to be canceled over offensive humor would be as out of character as Donald Trump saying Alec Baldwin does a really good impression of him on Saturday Night Live. It's actually a show of support for The Simpsons, trolling people who would call for the show to be canceled. And if you take South Park literally, you're getting trolled, too. Plenty of people online misread the joke as a serious call to action, because apparently they forgot they were watching a show completely committed to irony? Comedy Central has been promoting Season 22 with the hashtag #CancelSouthPark. The joke is a parody of reflexive online cancel culture.
That being said, it's a weirdly timed joke that doesn't land squarely. The episode's title references The Problem with Apu, comedian Hari Kondabalu's documentary about how the character perpetuates negative stereotypes about South Asian people. The documentary was released almost a year ago, and The Simpsons responded to it (poorly) in April. With the speed that the news cycle moves, the Apu controversy is not at the top of people's minds like the ongoing one around Brett Kavanaugh, nor was it as significant a news story as the country's top-rated show getting canceled over a racist tweet. South Park was between seasons when all this Apu discourse went down, so it had to wait to add its two cents. But no one was waiting for South Park's two cents. South Park's greatest strength at this point in its run is that its short lead time allows it to be timely, like with the Kavanaugh stuff, so weighing in on something it wasn't even involved in six months after the fact (and on the wrong side of the issue, because the gripes with Apu are justified) feels like a misallocation of resources. The South Park guys wanted to support their show's big brother, which is fine, but they could have just retweeted the interview The Simpsons creator Matt Groening did in May where he said, "I think it's a time in our culture where people love to pretend they're offended" and moved on. That would have been a clearer show of support than an antagonistic joke that got misinterpreted, if support was what they were going for. (The South Park guys aren't on Twitter, I'm just being rhetorical. What I'm really saying is that of course South Park sides with The Simpsons in the battle over Apu, and also who cares?)
In fact, the point of "I think it's a time in our culture where people love to pretend they're offended" was made in the episode in a clever way, when PC Principal's babies were crying in response to Mr. Hankey's onstage meltdown and a character commented "sometimes PC babies don't even know what they're crying about." They could have just left it at that. But instead they started a conversation about irony that our Trump-tweet scrambled brains can't handle anymore.
South Park airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on Comedy Central.