There is something manifestly, monolithically humourless about Roman Catholicism, even among other awesomely po-faced organised religions. Something stern and fearsome and unbending. You don't trifle with Roman Catholics. They've been around longer than you have, chum, and they've got the Pope on their side. South Park on the other hand, has been around for nearly eight years, so roughly 1992 years less than Roman Catholicism. It is an adult animated series which from its first episode gleefully set about upsetting people in the name of satire. And in the name of just being incredibly offensive. But the intelligent, philanthropic, sober point remains like a slender epee of truth thrust through each vile outburst - *we believe in freedom of speech*. And in really nasty poo jokes. But mostly freedom of speech. As any show involving extreme violence, scatology, profanity and jokes at the expense of the disabled will, it's incurred many and vociferous complaints. However, it's always taken them in its stride, and gone on showing scenes of children feeding each other chilli made of their parents.
You can imagine what sort of unpleasant substance meets which rudimentary air-conditioning appliance when two such disparate elements collide. This happened in December, when the South Park season finale 'Bloody Mary' aired on Comedy Central in the US. There's no way to put this delicately - the episode features a statue of the Virgin Mary bleeding from the ass. This miracle brings people flocking to South Park to be healed, until it transpires that in fact she's just having a period. Then the Pope declares that 'a chick bleeding out her vagina is no miracle', and everyone goes home disgruntled. Unfortunately for Comedy Central, this spectacularly offensive bit of rudimentary subversion showed the night before the Catholic celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Even more unfortunately, Comedy Central is owned by Viacom, who have on their board a staunch Roman Catholic.
The Catholic League, an American organisation much like our own Christian Voice, roared into outrage-powered action. Seemingly, they succeeded in having 'Bloody Mary' pulled from the air; a scheduled repeat never materialised. Clips of the episode have disappeared from the Comedy Central website, although the press release preceding its first showing is still online. Of course it isn't the first time that organised pressure has succeeded in nudging a particular programme from a television schedule, but there are remarkable elements in this situation. For one thing, the Catholic League not only demanded and promptly got an apology from Viacom - Viacom's John Califano indeed released a statement denouncing the episode as an 'appalling and disgusting portrayal of the Virgin Mary'- but requested that the station should pledge never to release the episode on DVD. It remains to be seen if this unprecedented step will be taken. Also, the last time the Catholic League tried it on, in 2002 over the episode 'Red Hot Catholic Love' (featuring a storyline about child molestation by priests), they were whisked away like angry flies from a measly dollop of poop.
A year ago in this country, 15,000 Christians tried to put the BBC over a barrel about Jerry Springer: The Opera (Jesus in a nappy confessing to being 'a bit gay'; more swearing than had ever been sworn before; all that). The BBC showed it. They had 8,000 complaints afterwards. Sainsbury's and Woolworths are now being squeamish and refusing to sell the DVD, but that's almost by the by - the BBC, a public service broadcaster, stuck out its neck and its arse, and showed something it thought people might want to watch. Viacom, which arguably has less to lose and less responsibility to its audience, have apparently folded for a lot less. It's a pretty plain marker of how much more in thrall to religious interests America is than we are. With barely a strident pamphlet's width between church and state and a president with a direct line to the Big Man Upstairs, it's hardly surprising that religious groups are enjoying the kind of influence and clout they haven't had since the barbecues were fuelled by witches. Hollywood and other entertainment makes for a soft target; groups seeking to censor them will have support from many factions who already think it could all do with a little neatening up. The implications are easy to miss, especially in a country that is shedding the freedoms it claims to be working day and night to preserve like so much dead skin.
Comedy Central spokesman Bobby Amirshahi didn't sound too put out when we spoke to him (although of course projecting unruffledness is half his job); South Park is guaranteed another three series, after all. 'South Park has bothered, puzzled and upset many groups over the years,' he said, 'but it's a show about satire. (At the channel) we'll keep doing the things we've always done, as long as the talent is there.' He said that 'there are sensitivities we're mindful of' and that some programmes may not air at certain times of year or following certain events, but 'can't speak with certainty on why (Bloody Mary) was pulled'.
As to the issue of whether or not the episode will come out on DVD, or what it would take in terms of public protest for a show to be cancelled altogether, he said that 'these conversations happen at the highest levels, and I'm not privy to them'. We suggested that in a few months' time the fuss will have died down and the episode will sneak out onto DVD, and he didn't disagree. He has 'no way of knowing' whether it will ever air again on television, though. Ah, the uncertain world we live in. Almost makes you want to get religion.
The Catholic League declined to bend our ear, although they did release a rather unseemly crowing statement to follow the previous ones alerting others to the episode.
(Obviously, all *their* important conversations go on at even higher levels.) President Bill Donahue explains that they are suffering, as usual, for standing up for their rights. 'We are being deluged with hate mail that is as obscene as it is viciously anti-Catholic. All because we exercised our First Amendment right to request that Comedy Central not offend Catholics again! But we're used to such things and will not be deterred.'
Donohue doubtless believes that Parker and Stone's DNA wouldn't add up to a single one of God's crustaceans, but if only he realised what they have in common.Poor, beleaguered old First Amendment, struggling to cover everyone's basic right to say what the fuck they like. Some sort of childish reasoning plays out in your head as you look over this sorry scenario; well, Parker and Stone exercised their right to free speech *first*; yeah but the Catholics were *more* offended than the programme makers were self-satisfied; no but like Lenny Bruce said, take away the right to say 'fuck' and you take away the right to say 'fuck the government'; yeah, but you *just don't show something like the Virgin Mary bleeding from the ass*. No - you just don't allow religious groups to restrict what other people do or see. You let them get upset and organise boycotts and campaigns; you don't cravenly bend to their wishes because you certainly wouldn't do it for anyone else, although this paves the way for that. You let things be seen and offence be taken, because that's like the nasty shot in the arm of a free society that immunises it against things that are immeasurably worse.
It's easy enough to dismiss South Park as puerile frivolity, but it's bloody important that you're allowed to show these things - that you're allowed to satirise anything you damn well find worthy of satire. Satire has got a lot to get its teeth into in the US at the moment, but it's also being stifled. Also, it's increasingly difficult to satirise the goings-on of a country under a government that seemingly has no self-awareness. Or self-awareness without care, which is scarier by far. Ah well. If you think you're going to be thrown into a righteous fury at the sight of something on US TV, there's always reruns of Blossom. If you still want to watch 'Bloody Mary', it's here. God bless the Internet.