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Originally published Monday, November 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Timmy of "South Park" challenges viewers' attitudes about people with disabilities

Earlier this year, a poll was conducted on Ouch!, a BBC-sponsored Web-zine devoted to disability issues. Users were invited to...

Special to The Seattle Times

Earlier this year, a poll was conducted on Ouch!, a BBC-sponsored Web-zine (www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/) devoted to disability issues. Users were invited to vote for "The Greatest Disabled TV Character," and for fans of "South Park," the results offered a pleasant surprise: By a considerable margin, the winner was ... Timmy!

It's impressive that the BBC has the foresight to offer such a Web site and fascinating to discover a variety of disabled characters on British TV. But what's equally interesting from the Ouch! poll is that the all-American Timmy was even more popular among disabled voters than nondisabled, with telling differences in the total-vote breakdown.

While disabled voters chose Timmy as their favorite (Dr. Kerry Weaver of "ER" placed a distant second), the top choice of nondisabled voters was Brian Potter from the Brit-com "Phoenix Nights," a character (played by nondisabled actor Peter Kay) described as a "bitter, mean-spirited and calculating wheelchair user with a terrible taste in patterned sweaters." In other words, he fits a negative and yet stubbornly popular stereotype.

So why would disabled voters choose an animated, learning-disabled, wheelchair-using fourth grader as "The Greatest Disabled TV Character"? A misfit kid whose vocabulary is almost exclusively limited to garbled repetitions of his own name, yet who has gained a minor cult following as lead vocalist for a heavy-metal garage band called The Lords of the Underworld?

Hilarious, provocative

The simple answer is that Timmy is downright hilarious, but for disabled "South Park" fans, closer examination of the character's popularity (like that of "Stevie" on Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle") leads to a startling revelation: Comedy Central's controversial cartoon series, featuring a foul-mouthed batch of fourth graders in the "quiet mountain town" of South Park, Colo., is the source of the most progressive, provocative and socially relevant disability humor ever presented on American television.

With his jagged teeth and can-do spirit, Timmy appears, at first glance, to uphold the condescending disability stereotypes that are gradually fading from mainstream entertainment. But like everything else in "South Park," he's actually challenging preconceptions, toppling taboos and weaving his singularity into the fabric of the show. Insensitive, unenlightened viewers may laugh at Timmy, but the character's popularity is largely determined by those who laugh with him.

That this is happening on "South Park" — a series routinely condemned by conservative watchdogs — comes as no surprise to anyone who understands what the show is all about. Co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who financed the excellent documentary about disability "How's Your News?," available on DVD) may seem like juvenile provocateurs with a liberal agenda, but "South Park" would not have become a pop-cultural phenomenon (with its ninth season nearly over, it's been renewed through 2008) if there wasn't a method to its madness. Parker and Stone are equal-opportunity offenders, and when nothing is sacred — not even the seemingly unassailable image of the late Christopher Reeve — the satirical playing field is level, and timely issues become ripe for outrageously comedic scrutiny.

Phil Collins and Satan

Timmy (who is occasionally described as "retarded," and whose parents both use wheelchairs) became an overnight sensation during the fourth season in "Timmy 2000," as frontman for The Lords of the Underworld. In a plot condemning the over-prescription of Ritalin for children with attention deficit disorder, Timmy dazzles a concert audience, prompting complaints from resentful bandmates ("Timmy gets all the chicks!") and leading concert host Phil Collins (target of much "South Park" derision) to assume a condescending, overprotective role on Timmy's behalf.

But when the animated Collins says, "I don't think you should laugh at people with disabilities," he's expressing all the hesitant discretion and politically correct politeness that would potentially isolate Timmy from the cultural mainstream. Without telling viewers what to think, "South Park" challenges their own fears and foibles regarding disability, and Timmy emerges triumphant.

When Catholic dogma is tackled in "Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?" (a two-part episode, followed by "Probably"), serious questions are being asked — maybe a bit facetiously, but smart viewers get the point. When the kids express concern about Timmy (who's unable to verbally confess his sins according to Catholic stricture), "South Park" urges us to consider our own beliefs about heaven, hell, salvation ... and Saddam Hussein's love affair with Satan. Happily, Timmy is spared from eternal damnation.

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Timmy proudly plays the title role in the fourth-season episode "Helen Keller: The Musical," along with a "physically challenged" Thanksgiving turkey named Gobbles, but it wasn't until the fifth season's "Cripple Fight" that "crip competition" appeared in the form of Jimmy, a stuttering kid with withered legs and crutches (now a South Park resident), who performs stand-up comedy at a rally to protest the firing of South Park's gay Boy Scout leader.

Timmy is instantly jealous of this "handi-capable" challenger, and a slugfest ensues (modeled after the brutal fistfight in John Carpenter's sci-fi movie "They Live"), ultimately ending with Jimmy and Timmy's joint declaration of disability pride.

Goodwill ambassadors

Disabled viewers cheered, but "South Park" offended even some its loyal defenders when the seventh-season episode "Krazy Kripples" spoofed Christopher Reeve as an inspirational celebrity who denies his disability and gains super-human strength by sucking stem cells from the bodies of dead fetuses.

Angered by Reeve's image as a public hero (as some disabled people actually were), Jimmy forms a club, including Timmy, exclusively for those "crippled from birth," as opposed to "crip wanna-bes like Christopher Reeve."

As if to acknowledge the delicate conflict between disability groups on both sides of a controversial issue, the "South Park" kids take a strictly hands-off approach to the Reeve/Jimmy showdown. The episode's running gag finds the boys vowing to "just stay out of it," suggesting at least one hot potato that even "South Park" is hesitant to handle.

But one thing remains clear: "South Park" has a moral conscience. It's outrageous because we live in an outrageous world, and while issues like disability are treated with kid gloves in the cultural mainstream, "South Park" tackles them with blunt-force honesty, free from the politically correct restrictions that curtail open discourse in more "respectable" forums of debate.

We may not all agree on the benefits and shortcomings of this ongoing cartoon controversy, but in the simple act of addressing disability at all, "South Park" is opening a dialogue where none previously existed. As strange as it may seem to some, Jimmy and Timmy are goodwill ambassadors, and we owe them our thanks.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

This article originally appeared in the November issue of New Mobility: www.newmobility.com

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