Cartoon Networking

Andrew Hultkrans on The New Yorker Festival

New York

Left: Matt Maiellaro, Brad Bird, Tad Friend, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Dave Willis. Right: Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Where do you go to hear that TV executives are censorious cowards, that Tom Cruise is indeed gay, and that, despite their efforts to appear cuddly and approachable, the Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with? To the New Yorker Festival, of course, the annual culture grope that, with its elbow-patched tweeds, perilously perched reading glasses, and mock seriousness, heralds the arrival of capital-F Fall. Avoiding the standard literary fare, I exhumed a patchless tweed blazer from its naphthalene crypt and set out for the Festival’s margins—events peopled by the kinds of characters who in decades past would have caused the magazine’s fabled little old lady in Dubuque to cancel her subscription. Potty-mouthed pranksters, stoned kid’s-show creators, geeks who make albums called Songs About Fucking, and hardcore machete-carrying rappers from Staten Island—in short, godless heathens from the cultural elite hell-bent on corrupting the morals of our nation’s youth. They came. I saw. The Christian Right, if only for an afternoon, was conquered.

At the Saturday afternoon “Anarchy and Animation” panel, the animators—the guys behind South Park, the guys behind Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the director of The Incredibles, maladjusted honkies to a man—bemoaned: Puritanical network Standards & Practices; the ghettoization of cartoons by the Emmys and Oscars; Tom Cruise (gay); Magic: The Gathering (“fucking gay”); and Sean Penn (not gay, but as loathsome as Donald Rumsfeld). Evidence for the persistent snobbery of the film and television industries toward animation was confirmed, coincidentally, by the event’s venue—The Directors Guild, which none of the panelists are eligible to join. Naturally, this ensured that a fair amount of rancor would be emanating from the stage, most of it entertainingly sardonic. Brad Bird of Pixar, who used to work on The Simpsons, related how, after years of sweeping the animation Emmys, the show lobbied successfully to be included in the live-action comedy category, only to lose to Friends and return to its painted cellblock, where it continued to win as easily as “knocking out your grandmother.”

Other hollow triumphs were recounted in the cartoonists’ war against censors. Religion, said Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro of Aqua Teen, is the chief taboo, forcing the pair to change references to Jesus to “Gee-Whiz” in one episode and spurring them to make a riotously irreverent clip about Standards & Practices, which was shown, to the audience’s delight. Disabilities are also a big no-no, in principle, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park found when they encountered strong initial resistance to a wheelchair-bound character named Timmy—until the character became popular, that is. Then the network started salivating over T-shirt and merch profits and begged the creators to boost Timmy’s profile on the show.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed, the division between animated and live-action filmmaking is a false one, at least in terms of artistic value and audience breadth. Parker and Stone noted that Looney Toons classics were as much for adults as for kids, and Bird maintained that present-day animation upholds the tradition of silent film comedy—the dogged process of marrying motion to timing for precise comic effect is the same in Pixar’s supercomputers as it was in Chaplin’s endless outtakes. That some of the best, most scathingly satirical television of the past decade—Beavis & Butthead, The Simpsons, South Park—has come from animators would seem to prove their point. If only the Emmys were listening.