How Un-PC can you be?

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Characters from Comedy Central's "South Park."
Click photo for larger image.

In the film version of "South Park," Americans, upset by an R-rated cartoon, invade Canada. Now, in real life, "South Park" and other shows on the Comedy Central network are turning the tables and leading an invasion of American pop culture.

The satire of "The Daily Show" and the politically incorrect humor of "South Park" and the "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" are bleeding into every facet of American life, ranging far outside the basic cable channel.

Marketers are trying to capture the savvy, politically astute "Daily Show" viewer. The show's host, Jon Stewart, has become a mainstream star, hosting the Academy Awards, and the show's fake textbook, "America: the Book" was a New York Times best seller.

The network made a star of Dave Chappelle and his racially charged comedy and is making one of comic Lisa Lampanelli, a foul-mouthed female Don Rickles in a sweater set.

On other shows, some of the channel's ribald material -- much of it making fun of ethnic stereotypes, sexual orientation and other taboos -- is increasingly being showcased in mainstream films, outside the safe haven of late-night cable.

The audience for the humor is huge (the 2005 CD by the "Blue Collar" comedian Larry the Cable Guy, "The Right to Bear Arms," was the highest charting comedy recording since Steve Martin's "A Wild and Crazy Guy" in 1978) and crosses political borders.

Stewart's show trends left, Larry goes right, and "South Park" skewers both.

Without the comedy network's influence, it is difficult to imagine a wide audience for indie films from "The Aristocrats," in which comics riff on a brutally dirty old joke, to Sarah Silverman's "Jesus Is Magic," with its shocking takes on race, rape, anti-Semitism and other touchy subjects.

One of the latest mainstream films outside the Comedy Central stable to go for its audience is "Thank You for Smoking," a comedy that has a truth-spinning tobacco industry spokesman for its hero. It addresses deformed kids, environmentalists, unethical newspaper reporters and corporate greed, playing them all for laughs.

From the film "Thank you for Smoking"
Click photo for larger image.

The audience, said "Smoking" director Jason Reitman, is "every college kid in America." They are kids who are savvy about political satire and sick of stepping lightly around so-called politically correct themes, which they see as dishonest and patronizing.

"College students don't read the news anymore, they don't watch CNN -- they get all their news from 'The Daily Show.' And I think the reason why is ... [Stewart] comes off as honest. Hopefully, by crucifying political correctness, we come off as honest," Reitman said.

"There's a deep need for that [honesty] right now, and people are reacting really strongly to that. Most college students are really tired of all this 'do-gooderness,' and they seem to be taking ownership of this film."

Honesty -- or a lack thereof -- is a theme that comes up a lot with Larry the Cable Guy, a character played by Nebraska-raised comic Dan Whitney. Whitney's Larry is a down-home character with a chaw of tobacco and a Southern-fried accent, who makes fun of himself and his misfit family but also takes aw-shucks shots at gays, blacks, Muslims and other groups.

Critics, such as comedian David Cross, have criticized Whitney's act, calling it racist, homophobic and ignorant.

The latest Larry the Cable Guy film, "Health Inspector," is filled with the same kind of jokes, mentioning "fags," "cripples" and "retards." But there is a subtle difference: the Larry character is friends with all the people he jokes about, from his mentally retarded neighbor to the black owner of a fried chicken restaurant.

"Dan Whitney is a smart guy and figured out a character to play -- and that character is a kind of misunderstood, underappreciated everyman, who is great at saying what a lot of people think but are not willing to say," said Alan C. Blomquist, the producer for "Health Inspector" and the "Blue Collar" films.

"But Larry the Cable Guy is [willing to say it], and he takes his lumps for it."

Blomquist -- who also produced films such as last year's "Walk the Line" and 2000's "Chocolat" -- said the key to the Larry comedy is it is light-hearted and not meant to hurt any particular group.

"The idea was [making fun of] everybody equally, but nobody hurtfully. You have to walk the walk: If you are exclusionary, people will see it, and Larry the Cable Guy is not."

Non-PC humor comes not only from Comedy Central, of course. Films from the Farrelly Brothers (from "There's Something About Mary" to last year's "The Ringer," about the Special Olympics) to the "Scary Movie" films mine the same ground.

National Lampoon has built a franchise around such humor, with film, television and Internet components. It's simply good business, said executive vice president Barry Layne -- comedy that pulls punches will not succeed, especially with college-age crowds.

"Clearly, what you call non-PC ironically is the mainstream. There will always be a reaction to anything that is PC, constraining or dogmatic," Layne said.

The highest-rated show in Comedy Central's history was the 1998 season finale of "South Park," with 6.2 million viewers. The 2005 roast of "Blue Collar" comedian Jeff Foxworthy followed in second, and third was last year's "Blue Collar Comedy Tour Rides Again," with more than 6 million viewers.

The nightly "Daily Show" gets about 1.5 million viewers but still has outsized influence, with top guests from U.S. senators to movie stars.

So who is this scattershot audience?

Reitman, the "Thank You for Smoking" director, calls them the "Jon Stewart generation": people who see through politically correct codes and spin and want to decide for themselves what is funny.

"Politically correctness is just a polite way of saying lying, and they're tired of turning on the TV and seeing people who are so terrified of their arguments being invalidated by a simple word choice that they don't say anything," Reitman said.

Blomquist, the "Blue Collar" producer, said the audience "is a huge swath, from Chappelle and 'Daily Show' -- who are as cool and as cutting-edge as you can get -- to ours, which is the exact opposite."

"We're down-home and we're regular guys. Now, we may not all be [regular guys], but the fact is the comedy is, and it's pitched directly at that whole other demographic. And they merge at Comedy Central."

Characters from Comedy Central's "South Park."


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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