Originally published in the Baltimore Sun.
You're sitting down to watch TV. One channel's showing a presidential debate, another a cartoon. Which do you watch?
If you want entertainment, you'll pick the cartoon. But if you want a smart take on current events—well, you still might want to pick the cartoon. Ever since The Simpsons launched the current boom in adult animation, we've been more likely to hear pointed social commentary from animated cells than from anyone running for office.
Start with the most recent City Journal magazine, where conservative writer Brian C. Anderson argued that his side is no longer losing the culture wars. Some of his article made sense, and some of it was silly. But the most notable thing about it was that it recognized something that's obvious to anyone who watches Comedy Central but somehow hasn't become common knowledge: South Park, bane of religious moralists everywhere, is actually kind of right-wing.
Not conservative. But not liberal, either. An intensely political show—really—South Park almost always comes down on the libertarian side of an argument. Its targets range from environmental crusaders to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to government-run sex education. And no, it doesn't preach a libertine sort of libertarianism. In addition to the sex-ed episode, it's satirized the extreme wing of the pro-choice movement and once devoted a half-hour to arguing that there's a good reason why TV should refrain from airing cuss words.
To be fair, that same installment included 162 references to a word that couldn't be printed in a family newspaper.
Before social conservatives were worked up about South Park, the cartoon that earned most of their scorn was Beavis and Butthead, the brainchild of animator Mike Judge. It wasn't exactly liberal entertainment, either; the only characters who came off worse than its meathead heroes were their hippie-dippie teachers. But Mr. Judge's politics didn't come into focus until a few years later, when he created another cartoon: King of the Hill.
If South Park is libertarian, then King of the Hill might best be described as populist. It makes no bones about its heroes' failings: Hank Hill is naive and repressed, his family is eccentric, and his best friends are a loser, a womanizer, and a raving paranoid. But their world exists in a kind of balance, where everyone's good qualities make up for everyone else's flaws; you get the impression that their Texas suburb can take care of itself. Real trouble comes when outsiders try to interfere: regulators, managers with MBAs, Ritalin-dispensing doctors, left-wing or right-wing ideologues.
It's not so far from South Park's worldview. The main difference is that while South Park devoted an episode to sticking up for out-of-town chains, complete with a lecture on the social benefits of corporations, King of the Hill sided with Main Street businesses when they faced competition from a big box store called Mega Lo Mart. (That episode included this great line: "The only Main Street you can find nowadays is in Disneyland—and just try to buy a gun there!")
It's harder to generalize about The Simpsons' point of view, if only because so many writers with so many perspectives have worked on it during its 14-year run. South Park, by contrast, is clearly the creation of producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, while King of the Hill doesn't stray far from Mr. Judge's vision.
True, Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon have provided some continuity as The Simpsons' producers. But they haven't exactly harmonized the show's politics: When the famously liberal Mr. Groening was giving money to Al Gore, Mr. Brooks was writing a check to the Republicans.
Anyway, the show skewers every institution in sight, old or new, left or right. Small wonder that the show's fans range from the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg to the leftist linguist Noam Chomsky.
But even The Simpsons might have a somewhat consistent vision. One producer tried to sum up the program's philosophy to writer Douglas Rushkoff, in his 1994 book Media Virus!: "The media's stupid and manipulative, TV is a narcotic, and all big institutions are corrupt and evil." The show's skeptical spirit has a warm spot for just one social institution—the family—and even it comes in for some rough treatment.
Cartoons can be political or apolitical, left-wing or right-wing or apathetic. But from Betty Boop to Bugs Bunny to Beavis and Butthead, there's always been a special connection between animation and anti-authoritarian attitudes. In different ways, South Park, King of the Hill, and The Simpsons are all a part of that lively tradition.