When PBS's Charlie Rose asked Trey Parker pointblank on a September 26, 2005 show if he was a libertarian, the outspoken co-creator of South Park was uncharacteristically coy.
"It's possible," Parker admitted.
It's not that he was embarrassed about being a libertarian. It's just, Parker told the host, that the question was, well, "It's like: Are you gay?" Then he laughed uproariously.
It was a typical Trey Parker moment. He managed to compare a straightforward political question to a query about sexual orientation, and transform an enigmatic answer into a punchline. But Parker's evasiveness was less about embarrassment than it was about not wanting to be politically pigeonholed. From his, yes, libertarian perspective, Parker (along with creative partner Matt Stone) has been able to infuriate both right-wingers and left-wingers with barbed political satire. And that's the way he likes it.
Parker was born in 1969. He studied film and classical music at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he met Stone. The two teamed up to create crude cartoon shorts, including one that featured early prototypes of the major South Park characters.
Another short, "Frosty vs. Santa Claus," was a precursor to "The Spirit of Christmas." It caught the eye of a TV producer and led to an invitation to create South Park, which debuted on the Comedy Central cable network in 1997. The show features cartoon fourth-graders who live in a fictional town in the Rocky Mountains, curse constantly, and battle menaces like anal-probing aliens and a Godzilla-size Barbara Streisand.
South Park is rife with libertarian themes. It has mocked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, anti-smoking activists, the War On Drugs, government-mandated diversity (when the children shun a nasty gay teacher, they are sent to the "Death Camp of Tolerance"), public school sex education, and nature-worshipping environmentalists. It also tees off mercilessly on left-wing celebrities like Jesse Jackson, Rosie O'Donnell, Michael Moore, and Rob Reiner.
Given its eagerness to poke fun at liberal icons, it's no surprise that some conservatives rushed to claim South Park as their own. In his 2005 book South Park Conservatives, author Brian Anderson argued that the show is at the forefront of a conservative revolt against liberal media. (Although Anderson is honest enough to note that the show makes "wicked fun of conservatives" too.)
But Parker rejects the "South Park Conservative" label -- as well as the notion that he can only choose between liberal and conservative. In an interview with In Focus magazine (October 4, 2004), he said, "What we're sick of -- and it's getting even worse -- is: You either like Michael Moore or you wanna f**kin' go overseas and shoot Iraqis. We find just as many things to rip on the left as we do on the right. People on the far-left and the far-right are the same exact person to us."
All South Park Conservative claims aside, most commentators understand that the show is decidedly libertarian. On LewRockwell.com (April 27, 2004), Michael Cust said the program is "sharp, witty, funny, and very libertarian."
On FrontPageMagazine.com (April 16, 2003), Eli Lehrer noted the show's "persistently libertarian politics." On OpinionJournal.com (September 1, 2004), Bridget Johnson praised the show's "libertarian-minded material." On Reason.com (December 14, 2003), Jesse Walker said, "South Park almost always comes down on the libertarian side of an argument." South Park even gives an occasional insider's nod to libertarianism; one show featured a policeman saying he's "never reading again" after tackling Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
Following the success of South Park, Parker and Stone took their libertarian sensibility to the movies. The duo wrote, directed, or starred in Orgazmo (1997), BASEketball (1998), and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999). The latter film, a cartoon/musical attack on censorship and jingoistic American military policy, was praised by the Guardian newspaper in England for its "libertarian message." (One of the movie's songs, "Blame Canada," was even nominated for an Academy Award.)
In 2004, they released the bizarre marionette movie, Team America: World Police, which was simultaneously a send-up of Jerry Bruckheimer-style action movies, America's macho interventionist foreign policy, and clueless, do-gooder liberal actors. Team America featured puppet sex, puppet cursing (the movie boasted a tagline, "Putting the F back in freedom"), a puppet Kim Jong-il, and gory puppet slaughter.
So -- at the risk of asking "Are you gay?" -- is Trey Parker really a libertarian? He didn't play coy in an April 4, 2001 article in the Los Angeles Times. When asked to describe his politics, Parker said he was "a registered Libertarian." (Stone was less sure about his politics. He told the Los Angeles Times, "I don't think I'm registered to vote.")
"We find just as many things to rip on the left as we do on the right. People on the far-left and the far-right are the same exact person to us." -- Trey Parker, In Focus magazine (October 4, 2004)