YouTube personality PewDiePie — his real name is Felix Kjellberg — had his show canceled, was dropped by Disney and had his channel removed from the “Google Preferred” service due to his ongoing fascination with anti-Semitic humor and Nazi imagery.
But many fans wonder: Why do South Park and other shows or movies “get away” with humor on these same topics without incurring an internet backlash or losing business relationships? Are people holding PewDiePie to a different standard than everyone else in entertainment?
It takes skill to turn hatred into humor
The issue is that Kjellberg doesn’t know how to write or tell a joke. It sounds simple, but that is the reality of the situation. The content that got him in hot water wasn’t satire; it was too crude for that. There was barely a punchline.
One Polygon commenter wrote an insightful post about the situation.
Ultimately I think his greatest failing is he’s a hack. Felix is just a bad writer, there are people who touch on this same material in infinitely more dark and disturbing ways but don’t catch the blow back he does. The reason they don’t catch blow back is they do it well. They tackle the matter that is clear and addresses the content in a way that illustrates a point.
When we dissect the most recent bit that caused the implosion of his career it’s simply bad comedy on many levels. He starts by taking advantage of individuals who are poor and don’t speak English particularly well. So we’re STARTING from a place of abuse of privilege (in comedy terms he’s starting by punching down in fact I’d say he’s going so far as to be doing a pile driver down given he’s a multi-millionaire who is taking advantage of some Indian dudes who do dances for 5 bucks a pop). He then doubles down by using the ridiculously offense "Death to Jews" sign. Dissecting that he’s making fun of their language skills AND stating a hateful remark. His "punch line" is he pulls a face and laughs.
From a comedy stand point that’s not a joke, that’s a rich white douche being a rich white douche. There is no satire here, there is no comedy, he’s making fun of poor people and using them to propagate hate. He may THINK he’s being funny, I could even vaguely given him the benefit of the doubt and believe he THINKS he’s doing a bit of satire (though given this had happened 8 times before in some variation in earlier videos and he’s already said he’s going to try to "reform" his platform I don’t believe it) this isn’t satire. It’s not even a joke really. It is, again in comedy parlance, hack. A hack has a couple of definitions one is someone who steals another person’s material (arguably being a rich white douche pranking people he’s stealing Ashton Kucher’s life) the second is a cheap and unoriginal punchline. His entire structure is hack from the material on down. Further, he doesn’t have any of the supporting structure you need for good satire.
Kjellberg seems like he’s beginning to realize the amount of time and effort that goes into effective jokes that push buttons. “I do strongly believe that you can joke about anything, but I also believe there’s a right way and not the best way to joke about things,” he argued in his latest video. “I love to push boundaries, but I consider myself a ‘rookie comedian.’”
Kjellberg thought that by turning to shocking humor — having an impoverished person hold up “death to all Jews” for little more than $5 — he was making a greater joke about the service. It backfired. Instead of becoming the punchline, Kjellberg lets someone less fortunate spread a hateful message, all in service of shock humor. It’s not a rookie mistake; it’s a series of judgment calls that all went badly.
That rookie nature is what made his videos so easy for white supremacists to support. Even in context, his jokes waffled between sincerity and ironic distance, and he’s not skilled enough to walk that tightrope.
The thing about "ironic" racism / antisemitism is that it is impossible to distinguish from the genuine article. pic.twitter.com/lNcuCOubAf— Luke ❄️ (@LukeMaciak) February 15, 2017
Kjellberg knows how to build a good controversy while framing himself as the unfair target of the fallout, but he has no idea how to build a joke. Which brings us to South Park, and other acts that use shock humor effectively.
Cartman does the same thing!
The first myth we should put to bed is that South Park gets a free pass on its comedy. It does not. It has been and will continue to be criticized, but it does a much better job of earning the humor that have brought it such success.
South Park is popular for this reason: The characters have had years to develop, and the writers of South Park understand how to write an actual joke and to create the structure and commentary necessary for satire to actually take place.
It may not always be the most subtle form of satire, but South Park knows it needs to maintain an infrastructure for its humor to keep its audience. It needs to work within its own internally consistent value system for the jokes to land, and it has spent a lot of time building that system. The shock isn’t the point; the ideas or people it targets are purposefully chosen.
In one episode, Kyle, who is Jewish, sees The Passion of the Christ and begins to believe the Jews need to apologize for the crucifixion of Jesus. This belief, unsurprisingly, ignites a firestorm when he suggests the Jews take “their share of the blame” when addressing those attending his temple.
“His act is co-opted by both sides of a culture war, as the Christian and Jewish religious communities, enflamed by the film and goaded by Eric Cartman’s Hitleresque manipulations, become increasingly indistinguishable in their groupthink approaches to cultural conflict and their inability to see complexity or diversity in the other’s responses,” Ken Morefield wrote in The Deep End of South Park: Critical Essays on TV’s Shocking Cartoon Series.
That’s why South Park “gets away” with its content; it attacks everyone and everything, and does so with at least a modicum of skill and purpose.
“Now, it was as if our culture had been shining an Eric Cartman-shaped Bat-signal and South Park answered,” The New York Times wrote about the show in 2015. “You could see the news from college campuses — safe spaces, trigger warnings — and conclude that America was more radically leftist than ever. You could read a dispatch from the Republican primary — border walls, refugee panic — and conclude that it was more reactionary than ever. The country is deeply polarized, and between two poles is precisely where the quasi-libertarian South Park most likes to swing.”
Kjellberg doesn’t swing from the center, his jokes are based on the shocking nature of the imagery itself. You could argue he’s punching down, but the reality is he’s punching himself by inviting outrage without saying anything or making a greater point. He wants to cash in on his anti-Semitic humor without answering for it.
When a business-focused news outlet writes about Kjellberg, he assumes it’s a hit piece meant to hurt him financially. South Park wouldn’t work if Cartman were portrayed as the victim of everyone who criticized his jokes; the structure of that fictional universe only works if Cartman is implicitly weak and ultimately impotent in his hatred. The show is always aware that the ideas he spews are garbage, and that’s communicated clearly to the audience.
The show also takes time to make its points.
“By shifting toward serial stories, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone have been able to make more complex arguments this season: acknowledging, for instance, that sometimes outrage culture has a basis in actual outrages,” The New York Times explains. “An episode on police brutality posits both that South Park’s cops are needed to keep the peace and that many of them joined the force to have carte blanche to beat up minorities.”
That doesn’t mean South Park’s jokes don’t try to shock through bigoted language and inflammatory imagery, but it explains why the show still exists and its creators continue to create works of art that toe the line between offensive and insightful.
“Satire requires more scaffolding to telling the joke, look at shows like South Park or The Colbert Report,” one of our commenters stated. “They build elaborate tells into the material to communicate a subtext that is absent from [Kjellberg’s] material. Comedians who do stand up touching on this material are far more nuanced.”
Jokes that require this much context, and play with such loaded imagery, need to be perfect for the audience to go along with the ride. If you go too far, you better have a plan for sticking your landing.
Joan Rivers spent years honing her act, and when she lost a member of the audience in the video below, she immediately knew how to get them back. She didn’t blame anyone; she had her skills ready to take her crowd back. It’s an amazing moment of comedic timing and talent, and you better have that sort of reaction ready if you dive into these topics.
Borat is a great example of what it takes to build an actual joke around offensive material. Let’s watch a video that features a whole bunch of anti-Semitic content:
This is a great joke. The setup is effective, it builds slowly and it’s a bit shocking when the song takes a turn to attacking Jews. But the audience is the target, not any minority. The joke is how many people in the audience are willing to instantly go along with the hateful song.
The target is Americans who feel comfortable repeating anti-Semitic language, and the execution of the bit is flawless. It’s brutal humor, but it’s effective. He’s not normalizing hatred of Jewish people, he’s pointing out how common it actually is, and how quickly people are willing to express it when they feel they won’t be judged. He created a safe space for hatred, and the live audience was happy to provide examples of their prejudice.
This is why Sacha Baron Cohen continues to get movie deals and media appearances; his humor uses inflammatory jokes to attack anti-Semitism. There’s no “outrage” when you begin to understand how jokes actually work, and how much time goes into the construction of humor that’s meant to use the cultural weight of hateful words and images.
Louis C.K. has spent a lifetime honing his craft, and that’s why his 2015 Saturday Night Live monologue pushed so many boundaries without negatively impacting his career. That monologue is the result of very careful writing, planning and practice. If you want to joke about Nazis or genocide, you better be damned sure you know exactly what you’re doing, who you’re criticizing and why.
Kjellberg doesn’t know how to do this, but he still wants to cash in on that cultural weight while blaming the media when he fails. His apology videos are an attempt to cash in on the outrage he caused a second time.
Kjellberg calls himself a rookie comedian, but you don’t learn to juggle by practicing with chainsaws. The knowledge of structure and earned payoffs is the reason he’s received so much negative coverage and why South Park remains a popular show.
There’s no double standard at play; it’s a matter of understanding that comedy is hard, and making light of these topics is nearly impossible. If you do it well, you become one of the greats. If you fail, you complain about the press you’ve earned and create a conspiracy where the Wall Street Journal is out to get you.