#7: “South Park.” [TV Aughtrospective]
January 6, 2010 1 Comment
Our next selection is a show that combined the earthy glee of fart jokes with the biting sting of satirical humor; a truly fearless “equal offender” program that skewered virtually every major group in American society with no agenda other than making people laugh. Few television programs have mixed witty and incisive commentary on modern American religions with cutting critiques of television censorship and performances by a singing, dancing Christmas poo. Actually, this is definitely the ONLY show in the history of television to pull that off.
When “South Park” premiered in the 90s, it was a shock-value oriented cartoon that derived a lot of its humor from little kids swearing, catch phrases and outrageousness, and was the first show ever to earn the TV-MA rating. By the show’s second season, it seemed to have lost its mojo, relying on the same dumb jokes every week.
However, the release of the 1999 film “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” revealed that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were major, major talents with great ears for humor and music — it’s arguably one of the greatest movie musicals ever made, and certainly one of the most hilarious feature-length cartoons of all time.
This masterpiece set the stage for a brilliant decade of “South Park” episodes that have inspired us to name the show the 7th best television program of the aughts.
The premise of “South Park” is simple: four elementary-school-aged boys learn about the world through their extraordinary experiences in an ordinary Colorado town. Of course, this is just a staging point for a series that is willing to tackle anything and everything that enters into modern American consciousness. Stan and Kyle are effectively stand-ins for Parker and Stone, “everyman” characters that the audience can identify with. Stan deals with the trials and tribulations of young love, while Kyle wrestles with his Jewish identity. Kenny is their indigent, unintelligible friend whose propensity to die in every episode was thankfully retired towards the beginning of the decade. Cartman, of course, is the rude, obese, selfish character whose antics often drive the show’s plot; his many hilarious moments are only slightly overshadowed by his use of tired catch phrases.
These characters were first introduced in the short video “The Spirit of Christmas,” which was originally commissioned by Fox executive Brian Graden as a Christmas card and became one of the first viral videos — passing from hand to hand on copied VHS tapes, and then spreading online in the early days of the Internet.
This show also features many classic secondary characters, like Chef, the singing cafeteria man memorably voiced by Issac Hayes; Butters, the naive and anxious classmate who Cartman often antagonizes; Mr/Ms Garrison, the gender-confused elementary school teacher; Timmy, their wheelchair-bound friend; and the boys’ parents, especially Mrs. Cartman, who seems like a normal homemaker, until you learn of her appearance in several German Scheiße videos.
For those skeptical souls out there who associate “South Park” exclusively with potty humor, offensive jokes, and cussing, here are some summaries of memorable episodes for your perusal. Click the episode titles to view the episode on South Park’s website.
Die, Hippie, Die. A brilliant parody of jam band festivals and crappy disaster movies like “Armageddon.” Cartman has long been protecting the town of South Park from the malign influence of hippies. He realizes that hippies are converging on the town to hold a music festival, and tries to warn the town leaders of the peril, but is brushed off. Eventually, Cartman is imprisoned for holding dozens of hippies captive in his basement. With Cartman out of the way, there is nothing stopping the influx of hippies, and plans for a music festival are soon put into motion. The Mayor applauds the idea, thinking of it as a good way to make money for the town. Stan and Kyle meet some of the hippies and are intrigued by their anti-corporate rhetoric.
Once the music festival begins, however, the people of South Park realize that Cartman was right all along. Stan and Kyle are appalled to find that all the hippies really are interested in is doing drugs and listening to jammy music. The huge music festival crowd grows and grows, overwhelming the town with patchouli stench, but the hippies fail to spend any money in the town, and the festival seems to go on forever. The town leaders finally come to Cartman and plead for him to help. After he’s promised a new toy truck, he agrees and outlines plans to build a giant drill called the Hippie Digger to make its way through the crowd and destroy the festival. With the help of Chef, the designated “black sacrifice officer,” the drill gets to the stage, and Cartman is able to blast Slayer music over the PA. The hippies flee from the death metal and the town is safe once more.
All About The Mormons. The only serious discussion of Mormon beliefs on television other than PBS. Gary Harrison, a young Mormon, joins the boys’ class. They quickly decide that his straight A’s and athletic talents are not to be countenanced, and Stan is sent to kick his ass. However, Stan is quickly won over by Gary’s friendly nature, and soon finds himself back at the Harrison home, where he is shocked to find that the Harrison family are a close-knit clan that love to do activities together, in contrast to the many dysfunctional families in South Park. Stan and his father Randy begin to learn more about the Harrisons’ Mormon religion through the story of Joseph Smith.
At first, they are fascinated and want to become Mormons themselves, but as the story continues, Stan and Randy soon realize that Joseph Smith was probably not a prophet and was actually more of a con-man scoundrel. They react with rage and indignation, even as the Harrison family point out that the factual truth of the Joseph Smith origin story is less important than their religion’s strong beliefs in family values and helping the needy. Stan is unconvinced and promptly drops Gary as a friend. Gary replies memorably, “All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.”
Scott Tenorman Must Die. “Titus Andronicus” comes to South Park. A middle school kid named Scott Tenorman convinces Cartman that “getting pubes” involves purchasing them from a third party, and rips him off for $10 in exchange for a bag of pubic hair. Cartman soon realizes he’s been duped, but as he tries to get his money back, Scott repeatedly tricks him into handing over more money, and even sends him on a fool’s errand to a mythical “pube fair” where he might get a return on his investment. Cartman is enraged, but his attempts at revenge fail miserably.
Cartman then devises a complex scheme that involves convincing Radiohead, Scott’s favorite band, that Scott has cancer of the ass, in order to get them to visit South Park on a mission of charity. He then plans a huge birthday party, pony ride and chili cookoff for himself, to which he invites Scott: his plan is to have a pony especially trained for the purpose of biting off Scott’s penis just as Radiohead shows up, humiliating him. Stan and Kyle are disgusted by this scheme and snitch to Scott, who gathers pubic hair from every kid in town to make into chili, while informing his parents that a poor maltreated pony needs to be saved and taken to a shelter.
The day of the party arrives. Scott and Cartman sit down at the table to taste each others’ chili. When Cartman eats some, Scott gleefully informs him that the chili is full of South Park pubes. Cartman replies that he is actually eating chili supplied by Chef that he swapped in at the last minute. He’d anticipated that his friends would betray him, and informed the pony’s owner that pony thieves were about. When Scott’s parents arrived to rescue the pony, the owner shot them. Cartman then used the bodies of Scott’s parents to make his own “Mr. and Mrs. Tenorman Chili,” which Scott is eating at that very moment. Scott realizes what he has eaten and breaks into hysterics. Just then, Radiohead arrives and begin mocking the pathetic, crying Scott as “the most uncool kid we’ve ever met.” Cartman, delighted, licks the tears off Scott’s face in triumph.
Ginger Kids. This episode is singlehandedly responsible for the British term “ginger” taking root in the United States. Cartman delivers a speech in front of his class that denounces gingers as disgusting, redheaded, freckled fools with no souls who cannot survive in sunlight. When Kyle protests that he has red hair and can go outside during the day, Cartman clarifies that there is a subset of gingers called “daywalkers” that can venture outdoors, but still possess the odious characteristics of gingers. Cartman then whips the kids of his school into an anti-ginger frenzy, expelling all the gingers from the school cafeteria.
To teach him a lesson, the other boys sneak into Cartman’s room at night and dye his hair orange and give him henna tattoo freckles. Cartman awakes in the morning to find he has been stricken with “gingervitis,” and soon he is an outcast at school along with the other gingers; even his family doctor urges his mother to “put him down.” Quickly shifting gears, he forms a ginger league dedicated to the notion that gingers are the master race, and soon convinces his fellow gingers that all non-gingers must be exterminated. The end.
Cartoon Wars. When the TV show “Family Guy” plans to use the prophet Muhammad as a character, the town is in an uproar, fearing terrorist reprisals. Cartman heads to Hollywood to implore Fox to drop the episode, claiming he is concerned about people getting hurt. However, it turns out that he just hates “Family Guy.” President Bush also arrives at Fox, concerned about the episode, but the executives inform him that there’s nothing they can do: “Family Guy” is written by a team of manatees that push “idea balls” around, thus explaining the many jokes in every episode that have nothing to do with the plot. If any idea ball is removed from their tank, they refuse to work. (Even Seth McFarlane admitted this was funny.)
Despite Cartman’s effort to pose as a victim of the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, Fox decides to air the episode anyway. The “Family Guy” episode airs, featuring Muhammad in a completely random joke. (Ironically, Comedy Central then censored the appearance of Muhammad in “South Park.”) Al Qaeda is outraged and releases a video depicting George Bush, Jesus, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Carson Kressley taking dumps all over the American flag and each other. Al Qaeda then declares victory over the US on the grounds that their video was “way funnier than Family Guy!”
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“South Park” is one of the most daring pieces of satire ever. But you don’t have to take our word for it. Here’s their citation from the prestigious Peabody Awards:
No aspect of modern society is exempt from the scathing satirical campaigns mounted by the raucous children of South Park. Institutions, individuals, and ideologies all are targets. So, too, is the series itself. Constantly doing battle with critics, with those whose values it challenges or lampoons, and with its own network, this cartoon for adults continues to push the boundaries of what is meant by “freedom of speech.” Censorship, the largest thorn in the side of creators/executive producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is attacked regularly, and in its ten years, South Park has broken down the barriers of television censorship, created new ones, and subsequently shattered them again.
Victims of the show’s irreverence range from religious leaders and icons of all faiths to presidents and political leaders to celebrities. Moses and Mel Gibson, Saddam Hussein and Paris Hilton all have taken their lumps. In the process of unapologetically ridiculing individuals and groups, the series pushes viewers to confront broader issues such as racism, war, mob mentality, consumerism, and religious fanaticism. Simplistic yet surprisingly expressive animation enables the show’s creators to produce episodes in less than a week, blending immediately topical subject matter into each installment. In addition to Parker and Stone, who write, direct, produce, and provide voices for each episode, South Park relies on the work of producers Frank Agnone and Jennifer Howell, executive producer Anne Garefino, and director of animation Eric Stough.
For pushing buttons and envelopes with stringent social commentary, South Park receives a Peabody Award.
In a recent podcast interview with Bill Simmons, co-creator Matt Stone said that he and Trey Parker originally didn’t want to be known only as “the South Park guys.” Eventually, though, they realized that “South Park” was their life’s work and decided to devote their creative efforts to it completely. The result was a decade’s worth of truly hysterical and groundbreaking comedy. Indeed, “the South Park guys” deserve, and shall receive, our utmost respect.
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”