Mightier Than the Sword?

Today I’m delving into the past to examine Sean Penn’s open letter to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, better known as the creators of South Park. Let me first proffer this preamble, prease.

In 2004, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (with fellow South Park writer Pam Brady) wrote, directed and voice acted in the Michael Bay-inspired satirical action comedy Team America: World Police. The satire hinged on quite a funny and clever conceit: that the characters, their motives, the action, story and plot, are barely distinguishable from a thousand other Hollywood action movies, except that the characters in this movie are portrayed using puppets. One of the puppets, portraying actor Sean Penn, is shown “making outlandish claims about how happy and utopian Iraq was before Team America showed up.” Needless to say, non-puppet Penn did not take kindly to this portrayal, and an angry memo arrived at the offices of South Park Studios shortly thereafter.

On to the memo, which is deceptively lukewarm as it addresses the two cartoonists, beginning with a brief stroll through the foggy remembrances of time. Penn recalls “a cordial hello”–exactly who said hello is unclear–“at some party” in Hollywood. Note how he refers to Parker and Stone as “guys” twice within the same sentence: “when you guys were beginning to be famous guys.” Brilliant wordplay.

With a seriousness that would scare the funny out of Robin Williams, he informs them that he also remembers “several times getting a few giggles out of your humor.” What’s several times a few giggles? By my estimation at least five giggles, equal in proportion to approximately two hearty guffaws, or–at a stretch–one mighty hee-haw.

Penn has so far proven he is the master of the semi-illiterate tone. Veering fecklessly towards passive-aggression, he pretends it didn’t bother him when Parker and Stone “traded on my name among others to appear witty.” Note how he makes a point of disassociating himself from Parker and Stone’s fans, whom he scathingly refers to as “your crowd.” Yet it doesn’t really matter how he feels about this scurrilous exploitation of his name, for the brave, duty-bound Sean Penn is always “of service, in satire and silliness.” He just wants to personally let them know that he hates their guts. Bravo.

The final nail in this coffin comes when Penn presumes to know Parker and Stone’s politics. Harking back to a comment made by Stone in reference to the celebrity-infested Vote or Die campaign, when Stone argued that it’s better to withhold your vote than to vote in ignorance (which may or may not have been a dumb thing to say), Penn attempts to obscure his annoyance at being portrayed as a left-wing puppet in some asshole cartoonist’s movie about the arrogance of Hollywood celebrities.

The letter concludes with an accurate demonstration of that arrogance, with Penn writing: “You guys are talented young guys, but alas, primarily young guys.” Draw your attention once again to the abundance of the word “guys,” which he uses three times within the same sentence, twice in the phrase “young guys.” At this point Penn is unable to restrain himself, misspelling “including” and calling Parker and Stone “a couple of hip cross-dressers” because they had the nerve to show up at the 2000 Academy Awards in dresses, while on acid (Penn would have viewed this as a smack in the face to the Very Serious Matter of improving the world through the magic of cinema). Aside from the postscript, which serves as an invitation to travel to Iraq with Penn himself (no thanks), the botched last line is: “All best, and a sincere fuck you.”

There are valid reasons to dislike Parker and Stone’s anarchic satire, and their political disengagement can be frustrating. However, the failure I wish to bring to light here is Penn’s own, which is to recognize that the voice in his letter sounds a lot like his character’s in Team America: World Police. Let it be known that this is not how you persuade someone to reexamine their views. Without saying anything, Parker and Stone have won the debate. You, Sean Penn, much like the Wife of Bath, have damned yourself.

Sean Penn’s Memo to Trey Parker and Matt Stone in Full

To Trey Parker and Matt Stone,

I remember a cordial hello when you guys were beginning to be famous guys around Hollywood at some party. I remember several times getting a few giggles out of your humor. I remember not being bothered as you traded on my name among others to appear witty, above it all, and likeable to your crowd. I never mind being of service, in satire and silliness.

I do mind when anybody who doesn’t have a child, doesn’t have a child at war, or isn’t or won’t be in harm’s way themselves, is encouraging that there’s “no shame in not voting” “if you don’t know what you’re talking about” (Mr. Stone) without mentioning the shame of not knowing what your talking about, and encouraging people to know. You guys are talented young guys but alas, primarily young guys. It’s all well to joke about me or whomever you choose. Not so well, to encourage irresponsibility that will ultimately lead to the disembowelment, mutilation, exploitation, and death of innocent people throughout the world. The vote matters to them. No one’s ignorance, indcluding a couple of hip cross-dressers, is an excuse.

All best, and a sincere fuck you,

Sean Penn

P.S. Take this as a personal invitation from me to you (you can ask Dennis Miller along for the ride as well) to escort you on a trip, which I took last Christmas. We’ll fly to Amman, Jordan and I’ll ride with you in a (?) 12 hours through the Sunni Triangle into Fallujah and Baghdad and I’ll show you around. When we return, make all the fun you want.


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