I recently watched this past week’s episode of “South Park,” which poked fun at the writers strike — basically, Canadians everywhere go on strike, demanding more money from the Internet. The best part is the B story, in which the kids create their own YouTube sensation and then go to an office to try to pick up their “money” and find themselves in a waiting room with all the other YouTube sensations still waiting for their “money,” who all end up fighting and killing each other out of frustration.
Through this episode, the “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are saying that if these amateurs like the Numa Numa guy who create something that 10 million watch don’t get any money, why should the TV writers demand any money when people watch their shows on the Internet? The writers asking for money is equivalent to the Numa Numa guy asking for money, which is not dissimilar from Canadians asking for money from some unknown place. I guess the difference is that the writers are asking for a portion of the money the network gets from Internet. But the networks are analogous to YouTube, which is earning money from the Numa Numa guy, who is getting nothing. And we’re totally ok with the Numa Numa guy making nothing.
Sure, TV writers are professionals, and they do this for a living. But how do we know that that entitles them to any more than what they make for the simple airing of the show on TV? How do we know they should get any Internet residuals in the first place? It just seems like the strike and writing for the Internet is in this bizarre moral space where there aren't too many traditional ways of telling us who's right and who's wrong. And the South Park episode was posing a theory on how to look at it, saying "here's one way to look at this," and that theory seemed coherent, or least interesting.
I took the opportunity to catch up on all these YouTube sensations depicted on the show, some of which I had seen (Chris Crocker), some of which I was vaguely aware of (“Star Wars” kid) and some of which I knew nothing about (Tron guy). I saw the baby laugh. I saw the panda sneeze. I felt like I was walking around at 2 AM inside a deserted Disney World. Here I was at this thing that 43 million people have seen and I’m the last one to arrive.
The baby and panda are surprisingly funny. And the Numa Numa is extremely watchable and the song is, of course, very catchy (I was first introduced to it by my students at the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia in summer 2006). They’re all completely throwaways — if my they hadn’t existed, my life would be not much worse — but each one has a streak of accidental genius that sets it apart.
The baby panda's sneeze, for instance, is this incredibly unique, surprising sound, but what makes the video is the big panda’s reaction in the background. The whole thing is economical, like a low-brow, video version of a New Yorker cartoon. How many millions of viewers would the video have lost had the big panda not been there to jump into the air, I wonder?