This article was originally written in 2012 for Issue 1 of ISMOKE Magazine
Cannabis and cartoons are undoubtedly two of my favourite guilty pleasures in life. And they mix so well. There is little I enjoy more than sitting comfortably and watching an episode of South Park while toking on a joint of an evening.
Increasingly cartoons have begun to touch on deep political messages intertwined into their storylines in a quasi-original manner, often with similar events happening to the characters that we know and love.
The media today is a vast unequivocal free-for-all, filled with every different viewpoint imaginable. Cartoon writers sometimes seem to be a voice of reason in this madness. The social commentary of episodes of adult-themed cartoons can be highlighted, often providing meaningful insights into topical political issues around the time that they air, much as each cartoon described below has taken a viewpoint on the cannabis campaign around the time of its creation.
Due to the steady rise of the internet over the past decade there are a rising number of accessible programmes on subjects such as racism, sexism, violence, drugs and crime (i.e programmes you may not see on television, or at least before the watershed), and also many primarily American-funded programmes that we as little Englanders would previously not have had access to. And this means a wealth of programmes on my favourite subject – yes, you’ve guessed it – cannabis.
Over the last couple of years I have encountered cannabis-themed episodes of South Park, Boondocks, Family Guy and The Simpsons, and while they all take slightly different angles on the subject, each in my opinion does wonders for promoting awareness of the cannabis campaign. Over the next pages I will analyze each show in turn, and describe how they show a leap forward in views on cannabis in today’s society. It is worth noting that all of the cartoons analysed are American, as this can only further highlight the backwardness of Britain on the subject, but I will discuss this further later.
“Medicinal Fried Chicken” (Season 14 Episode 3)
Originally broadcast 31st March 2010 (US) and 4 days later here in Britain, Medicinal Fried Chicken is an episode that will rarely be forgotten. The show, popular for its controversial adult themes takes on the Medicinal Marijuana subject head-on, and the episode is primarily about the character Randy Marsh and how he cheats the medicinal system after his doctor will not prescribe him cannabis by intentionally giving himself testicular cancer.
Meanwhile, as Medicinal Marijuana is legalised in South Park, KFC is made illegal in low-income areas, meaning that Eric Cartman does not have access to his favourite food in the world. His addiction drives him mad to say the least, and he goes through stages of cold-turkey, violence and crime in order to get his ‘fix’ from the Colonel.
This parallel storyline highlights the stupidity of making something illegal – a kick in the teeth for prohibitionists everywhere, and ends in the usual, brilliant South Park fashion, with things getting way out of hand. In this case the Colonel’s hitmen burst into Cartman’s hideout, killing several people in a scene loosely based around the movie Scarface.
The episode is a social commentary, sparked by Colorado’s move to change the laws around marijuana and also to restrict fast-food restaurants. There is a strong political message throughout – the illegalisation of people’s lifestyle choices will lead one way – to a black market. The episode’s conclusion further exposes the stupidity of current marijuana laws in a rhetorical manner:
Police Officer Barbrady: “Last November this town passed a bill that seemed silly to some. Since then we’ve had been underground black markets, crime, death and shootings. But now the bill has been repealed, and I am relieved to announce that once again Marijuana is illegal.”
Doctor: “And another bill has been repealed as well. Because ever since we got rid of KFC we’ve seen a great rise in cancer. But today we welcome back KFC, and all the medical benefits it gives us.”
Typical of South Park, the irony of this statement is that it was making KFC illegal, not making Marijuana legal which had caused most of the problems that it sought to remove by re-legislation. However Randy’s actions in the episode (giving himself cancer to get onto the medicinal marijuana programme) also highlight abuse to the medicinal marijuana system in America.
When I first watched this episode, I thought it was a god-send for the cause of a rational cannabis debate. Highlighting our cause and exposing it to the masses of people who never give cannabis a second thought can only be a good thing.
“Weekend At Burnsies” (Season 13 Episode 16)
The Simpsons episode is the earliest episode of the four, first being broadcast 9 years ago on 7th April 2002. Some themes in this episode are still relevant today, however it is worth noting at this point that cannabis has become a little more accepted since the original air date.
Weekend At Burnsies takes a less-serious approach, ascertaining to show a comical side of cannabis rather than to promote a serious political message. Cannabis is prescribed to Homer Simpson by Dr. Hibbert after he gets an injury, and as he enjoys it more and more he changes as a person, becoming generally happier and more interested in things such as Ned Flanders’ Bible (a subject he would hate in sobriety). Homer’s actions in the episode also get him promoted to vice-president of the Springfield Power Plant. But with Homer’s unwitting help a bill gets passed to re-illegalise medicinal marijuana, closing the everlasting and unchanging circle that often encompasses sitcoms and cartoons.
Political relevance, however, does come into play because this episode was banned from television on Channel 4, and is only allowed to be shown after 9pm on Sky 1, no doubt due to its cannabis content. What does this say about Britain? It seems odd that they cannot show a cartoon depicting medicinal marijuana on the television station which, to be frank has some of the most rational programmes and documentaries shown on British television. Once again, thank God for the internet, and its uncensored hosting of cannabis-related content.
This episode does not seem to promote cannabis in either a strictly positive or negative light – in fact homer’s actions seem to show cannabis as making him lazy, scruffy and a bit mad. However there are still several good references to cannabis throughout the episode, for example Lisa questioning her beliefs that it is wrong as it is a drug and “drugs are bad” when it stops Homer being angry all of the time, and also Homer’s getting a promotion because he is high. However, this can appear outweighed towards the end of the episode when Homer appears at a rally in his honour in a dirty suit, as well as getting the date wrong, meaning he is too late to vote against cannabis re-illegalisation. Another scene sees Homer Simpson and Waylon Smithers smoking a joint, which causes them to forget about Mr Burns in the bath and leave him to drown. In part due to the time of release this episode is unlikely to convert people on the fence about the issue of cannabis decriminalisation, although its good references to cannabis are still worth being noted.
“420” (Season 7 Episode 12)
420 was aired on 19th April 2009, the day before 4/20 (Cannabis Day for stoners in America), and once again shows an underlying voice of reason in society. Although famed for its controversial subjects and denounced by some, Family Guy has come through with a brilliant episode about cannabis.
The focus of this episode is Brian Griffin, coincidently the voice of reason within the cartoon itself. Peter kills Quagmire’s cat, and as him and Brian attempt to hide the body (covered in blood) they are pulled over by police. The police see nothing wrong, and are about to leave when they notice a small amount of cannabis on Brian. He is arrested for drug possession and thrown in a cell for a quarter ounce of weed – portraying an interesting social commentary that the police are more interested in small amounts of cannabis than much more serious crimes. Brian then and goes on a campaign to get cannabis legalised in Quahog.
There are several logical statements made about cannabis throughout the episode, for example at one point Brian says: “What’s sick is making marijuana illegal when its been proven to do less damaging than alcohol.” But these statements are not followed up with further debate.
The most memorable section of this episode is the 3 minute song sung by Stewie and Brian Griffin. Titled “Bag of Weed”, the song is a hilarious yet relevant take on cannabis culture, and the message throughout is “Everything is better with a bag of weed.” (youtube link – http://bit.ly/fjvAsR ). What follows are some brilliant scenes with many Family Guys characters very, very stoned.
However Louis Griffin’s father runs a paper business which will be driven out by the new booming hemp industry, and so he persuades Brian to get cannabis re-illegalised in exchange for publishing his novel. This in itself is a major reference to the smear campaign on cannabis in the 1930s by several competing industries including paper, petrochemical and cotton (http://bit.ly/dTpuGB), and there are also several other references to the stupidity of cannabis prohibition throughout the episode, for example Peter creates an anti-cannabis video using old film of Hitler with a spliff drawn in his mouth.
There are also references to cannabis culture in previous Family Guy episodes; Brian, his son, Peter and Louis all getting high in at least two other shows, and this seems to suggest that the writers appreciate cannabis in its own right.
“Mr Medicinal” Season 3 Episode 12
This is the most recent episode studied, airing 18th July 2010 in America. It is also perhaps the least well-known of the cartoon series discussed, but has the most significant and thought-inspiring portrayal of Cannabis.
In this episode, Robert Freeman, voiced by John Witherspoon (of the infamous “Friday” film trilogy) goes to the doctor with high levels of stress. The doctor informs him that he could die, and he is prescribed a number of pharmaceutical pills designed to lower his stress levels . However on learning of some comically serious side effects on the medicine (Total Scrotal Implosion), he is persuaded to try cannabis by Thugnificent – a local rapper, and this enhances every aspect of his life. Robert enjoys food more, loves his family and generally has a better time in his day-to-day activities.
The whole episode can be described as showing a brilliant portrayal of cannabis, as the usually grumpy “Grandad” character becomes happy, thoughtful and fulfilled. He also goes to meet Thugnificent’s dealer, “The Weed King Pin”, who turns out to be a middle-class well-mannered character, exactly the opposite of the expected drug-dealer stereotype.
However things turn bad for Robert when he gets caught smoking cannabis – twice. The judge makes an excellent comment, stating he can either go California where it is absolutely fine to smoke for medicinal purposes, or stay where he is and face jail time. This highlights the flaws of the current medicinal marijuana laws which differ from state to state in America.
Another satirical take on the current system of prohibition occurs when Robert’s friend, a lawyer, says: “Look Robert, I get it. Everybody needs a way to escape from their problems. But there’s a legal way to do it.” It then cuts to them drinking heavily, and they exhibit many traits typical of inebriated people: violence, vomiting and lewd behaviour, further highlighting the fact the effects of cannabis are not in comparison to alcohol. The message behind this episode is that cannabis really isn’t a negative thing, and that all of the problems that it seems to cause are a direct result of its prohibition rather than the plant itself.
Although Robert Freeman ends up doing an anti-cannabis advert as part of his community service, this in itself can be seen to highlight the system of scaremongering which exists against people caught with small amounts of cannabis who are often given two options – rehab or jail.
All four cartoons studied were from across the Atlantic, and this denotes that our American cousins are much more ready to accept cannabis than we are here in Britain. This is already apparent due to medicinal marijuana laws in some states, and I think that it is only a matter of time before a more successful version of Proposition 19 comes to pass (I would estimate 2012), leading to the control and taxation of cannabis rather than prohibition in at least some parts of America. How long will it take the people of Britain to follow suit?
In most respects these cartoons do an excellent job of raising awareness for the cannabis community. It is a sad fact, however, that out of the many re-runs of each cartoon, the least likely episodes we are to see on our televisions happen to be the ones about cannabis. Our society still sees Cannabis as a harmful substance, a viewpoint which we need to change. In a way, cartoon writers with high ratings and millions of fans have paved the way, and it is up to you and I, as supporters of the cannabis campaign to educate as many people as possible to the benefits of cannabis and to eliminate its misjudging stereotypes while the topic is still hot.