Most Americans woke up last Wednesday, scrolled through social media, learned of the Paris terrorist attack that left 12 dead, and, within minutes, had formed an opinion about a French satirical newspaper they'd never heard of. A consensus emerged: Charlie Hebdo (typical print run: 60,000) was an equal-opportunity provocateur that occasionally went too far—those incorrigible French—but was to be supported nonetheless, because no offense justifies the savage killing of journalists and cartoonists. "Je Suis Charlie" has come to signify more than allegiance to one particular publication; it has become shorthand for "I condemn terrorism and support free expression"—values America can get behind.
But even as that hashtag spread, so did qualms about the paper itself. Richard Seymour, in a widely circulated piece, declared that Charlie Hebdo was "frankly a racist publication." Writing for The New Yorker, Teju Cole singled out examples of bigotry—a cartoon depicting the black French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey, for example—and drew a connection between the obligation to let Charlie Hebdo keep publishing and the obligation to let Nazis march in Illinois. Vox, meanwhile, patiently explained that French humor works on several levels (!), and context is key: The cartoon of Taubira was meant to depict how the far-right National Front party, the paper's real target, has caricatured her. One week later, it all remains reassuringly foreign. Couldn't happen here.
In reality, this sort of boundary-pushing, sacred-cow-prodding comedy has close equivalents in the United States. Louis C.K., who wore a homemade Charlie Hebdo T-shirt during his Madison Square Garden show the night of the attack, keeps finding ingenious ways to say the unsayable. He's part of a long tradition of stand-ups—including Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Sarah Silverman—who have delighted in flouting taboos, particularly those related to race, sex, and language. But no American comedians come as close to the paper's exuberantly sacrilegious spirit as South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Growing up in France in the '90s, I read Charlie Hebdo occasionally and enjoyed its gonzo cartooning style, but didn't follow politics closely enough to truly get it. To me, South Park, which began airing in 1997, was much more risqué—and much funnier. If Charlie Hebdo claims to be named after Charlie Brown, South Park truly was a demented version of Peanuts, in which a cast of third-graders embodied America's deepest anxieties. Eric Cartman was the new national id.
On a recent trip to Paris, I picked up a copy of Charlie Hebdo's special issue on the life of Muhammad, La Vie de Mahomet. Drawn by Stéphane Charbonnier (one of the victims of last week's attack) and co-written with Zineb El Rhazoui, it is a more or less straightforward, comic-book-style telling of the origin of Islam. There are no jokes. Aside from the obvious provocation of depicting the prophet on every page, the idea is to let the absurdities inherent in the religion—in any religion—speak for themselves. The conceit felt familiar: South Park had given Joseph Smith virtually the same treatment in the 2003 episode "All About Mormons."
Both institutions have been driven by a similar urge to needle the censors—Americans may worship the First Amendment, but basic cable still struggles with it—and shake our pieties. Over the years, South Park has aired sequences that, stripped of their context, would seem as offensive as anything in Charlie Hebdo: a black kid named Token, children's disabilities played for laughs, a Japanese man with a Mickey Rooney-caliber accent forced to eat shit, an episode with 42 instances of the N-word. Parker and Stone have likewise made a frequent target of religion elsewhere: Their ungodly popular musical The Book of Mormon includes the lyric, "Fuck you, God, in the ass, mouth, and cunt." Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, depicted pretty much that exact act.
Given Stone and Parker's predilections, the controversy surrounding the publication of cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005, the ensuing riots and death threats, and the reluctance of Western media to reprint the offending caricatures was all irresistible material. Though South Park had shown the prophet in a benign light in an earlier season and received few complaints, Viacom—Comedy Central's parent company—censored the show's next several attempts to feature Muhammad, citing safety concerns. In 2010, following the first installment in a two-episode series that was leading up to the depiction of Muhammad, Stone and Parker received death threats from a New York-based radical-Muslim organization that promised them the same fate as slain Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Undaunted, the pair delivered the second episode, only to see Viacom bleep out every mention Muhammad and slap a black square over his image. The episode is not available on South Park's website. (Nor, it should be said, is "All About Mormons.")
To be sure, there are tonal distinctions between the American show and the French paper. South Park's sitcom form demands a moral conclusion to every episode, which softens its edge. And generally speaking, the show's satire is more absurdist and artful. Whereas South Park, like Louis C.K., finds clever ways of breaking taboos without seeming to (see the N-word episode, also known as "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson"), Charlie Hebdo likes to show people butt-fucking each other.
These are differences in degree, but not in kind. South Park's creators may be generally libertarian, and Charlie Hebdo's staff is largely liberal, but a deep empathy shines through the gleeful provocations of both entities. More importantly, South Park's distribution model subjects it to corporate forces that don't constrain Charlie Hebdo. The fact that the paper has been more of a lightning rod than the TV show may say more about respective political realities and societal pathologies in France and America than about any inherent moral shortcoming.
I, for one, am looking forward to the Charlie Hebdo musical.
Julian Sancton is an editor for Departures magazine in New York. His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, and the New Yorker, among other places. He tweets @jsancton.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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