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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

South Park (Classic): “Cow Days”/“Chef Aid”

Illustration for article titled South Park (Classic): “Cow Days”/“Chef Aid”
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Here we have two episodes from an interesting point in the show’s history. That’s not to say the episodes themselves are very interesting, because they’re not. We’re now getting close to the end of the show’s sophomore season. Trey Parker and Matt Stone still had a lot to learn, not just about making television, but about pacing themselves and warding off exhaustion. But they still had a remarkable knack for pulling instant, surreally resonant catchphrases out of thin air, and they also had a special gift for self-promotion while appearing to be above such things. These are uninspired episodes that, for one reason or another, both contributed hot-button moments to the show’s history.

“Cow Days” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 9/30/1998)

This one does try to do its bit to define the spirit of South Park—the town and its people. As Graham Chapman’s King Arthur said of Camelot, it is a silly place. The title refers to a 14-year-old traditional celebration that includes “the world’s biggest rodeo and carnival” and the “world-famous running of the cows.” “Cow Days” opens with the introduction of Tom and Mary, a couple who win a trip to South Park on a game show and, despite their absolute lack of interest in visiting the place (“Uh… what was second prize?”), feel duty-bound to make the trip and be polite about what they’re made to endure. At first it seems that they’ll be the eyes and ears through which we will get a fresh take on the town, but instead, they’re quickly charged with a crime they didn’t commit and permit themselves to be taken to jail and locked in a cell, where they quietly die from neglect, Sheriff Barbrady and the other officials having forgotten about them. This would appear to make them even sillier than the residents of South Park, who can be counted on to take to the streets and start a riot if their TV remotes don’t work—not admirable behavior to be sure, but it beats starving to death in an empty jailhouse on vacation. It’s as if Parker and Stone set up the visitors-in-town idea and then wandered away from it, because they have it in them to be as easily distracted as Officer Barbrady. Or a cow.


With Tom and Mary reduced to an afterthought of a sick joke punchline, “Cow Days” can be reduced to the idea that cows are so boring that they’re inherently funny. It’s a joke that Parker and Stone tapped out in the pilot, when the superior beings from another world turned out to be so interested in Elsie and her friends. (Truth be told, there wasn’t much left of it after Michael O’Donghue and Frank Springer created “Tarzan Of The Cows” for the National Lampoon, back in 1971.) The liveliest this episode gets is when time comes for the running of the cows, an event which, we’re told, has claimed many lives in the past. The door to the cow pen is opened, and while the cows just stand there looking confusing, the good people run around as if they were two steps ahead of a thundering stampede, doing sometimes fatal damage to themselves and others.

Unfortunately, this is not the last we see of the cows. The Mayor has unveiled a giant, Buddha-shaped wooden clock with a mournful-looking cow’s head, built to serve as a magnificent tribute to the festival, and the cows take a shine to it and carry it off into the distant fields, to worship as their god. (It is the disappearance of the cow clock that results in false accusations being lobbed at the outsiders Tom and Mary, and, ultimately, to their sad end.) This display of bovine spirituality horrifies Jimbo and the town leaders, and they lecture the cows on their need to accept their proper place in scheme of things. Apparently unwilling to do this after they have gazed on the majesty of the Buddha-bellied cow clock, the cows throw themselves, like lemmings (or Thelma and Louise), off a cliff and go to a far, far better place.

Meanwhile, the boys are trying their goddamnedest to win some Terrance and Phillip dolls from a carny game that involves throwing balls through the mouth of an especially disturbing photograph of Jennifer Love Hewitt. Kyle is quite obsessed with winning the dolls, and after his initial failure is determined to raise five dollars  so he can purchase another throw, but he has a major handicap because Cartman is helping him. (Having made a wad of cash, the boys start back to the tossing gang, but Cartman insists on stopping for such amusements as the Chamber Of Farts and the Line Ride, “a real live simulation of a long line.” When they finally make it back, they don’t have enough money left. Cartman acknowledges that he said they did, but “I didn’t take into account the fact that I suck at math.”) In the end, they raise $5,000 after Cartman triumphs in the bull-riding contest, in spite of having suffered a blow to the head that makes him think he’s a Vietnamese whore from Full Metal Jacket.

Except for the cow clock, the very sight of which is a mood alterer in the wrong way, and the sheer waste of time that the Tom and Mary scenes turn out to be, most of this is passable, especially if it’s late at night and you’ve had a couple. The classic part comes when Kyle has had it with the carny operator’s bullshit and the shittiness of the carnival in general and declares “shenanigans.” Having determined that Kyle’s complaint is just, Officer Barbrady shouts, “Everybody grab a broom. It’s shenanigans!” Thus armed, the good people of South Park use their brooms to whack the offending carny folk and herd them off to jail. The tradition of calling “shenanigans” is a worthy addition to what passes for the mythology of South Park. Too much of the rest of this episode amounts to a reason to get out your broom.


“Chef Aid” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 10/7/1998)

Chef discovers—from Cartman, who can’t stop singing it—that Alanis Morissette scored a big hit with a cover of a forgotten Chef composition, “Stinky Britches.” Chef, that blameless fount of goodness and natural nobility, wants no financial recompense; he’d just like to be officially credited for his work. Rather than accede to this reasonable request, the Morris Levy-esque record company boss punishes Chef by taking him to court for having dared to waste his time. (“I am above the law!” he says, over and over, in what feels like a bizarre attempt to construct a catchphrase for a character we will never see again, and whom we’d be happy to have never seen at all.)


In court, Chef easily proves that he wrote “Stinky Britches” long before Morissette recorded it. But that doesn’t matter, because the record company has hired Johnnie Cochran, “the guy who got O. J. off.” “Goddamn,” yells Cartman, “I hate that Cochran guy. If he was here in front of me, I’d be like, ‘Hey, you stupid son of  a bitch, I’m gonna kick you in the nuts!’” “I’m sure that would scare the hell out of him, Cartman,” says Stan. Here we have what feels like a brief glimpse into Parker and Stone’s world view at its simplest: A from-the-heart expression of bottomless loathing toward some public figure, accompanied by a sarcastic acknowledgment that neither the loathing nor the expressing of it will ever cost the scumbag in question a minute of sleep.

Cochran destroys Chef with what a TV reporter describes as his “famous Chewbacca defense,” which was key to his getting the desired verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. In a nutshell, it consists of pointing out to the jury that certain aspects of Chewbacca’s existence don’t make any sense, and that, furthermore, it makes no sense that the jury is listening to a dissertation on a Star Wars character at the conclusion of a trial that has nothing to do with that, and so when the jury deliberates, they should ignore the evidence and just focus on the fact that none of this makes sense. They oblige, and Chef is ordered by the court to pay the record company $2 million or serve four years in prison. Desperate to stay out of jail, Chef starts prostituting himself, sleeping with every woman in town, but, presumably because of the size of the local population, can only raise $400,000.


Trying to help, the boys go around selling candy bars. They focus on the many music stars who happen to be in the area, many of whom, it turns out, owe their careers to Chef. Elton John, who plays himself, remembers how Chef took him aside and told him, “You’re a great singer, but a retarded monkey could write better lyrics.” He then sets him up with Bernie Taupin, presumably because all the retarded monkeys in Chef’s address book already had paying gigs. Ozzy Osbourne recalls that Chef once told him “to get a pompadour hat. I thought he said, ‘Bite the head off a bat.’” It’s Sir Elton, however, who finally gets the idea to have a concert to raise the money Chef needs.

Joe Strummer, Rancid, Devo (“It was Chef who told us to follow our dreams, no matter how much we suck!”), Ozzy Osbourne, Rick James, Meat Loaf, DMX, Ween, and the act behind the South Park theme song, Primus, all appear. In addition to uttering snippets of dialogue that—endearingly—sound as if they were recorded on a home tape recorder over the phone, a few of them get to play just enough of a song to make you realize that you’re watching a promotional film for the Chef Aid compilation album, which was released a month later. In the end, this outpouring of love and music so touches Johnnie Cochran’s heart that he agrees to represent Chef in court for nothing, and wins him his freedom and a credit on his song. (Ever improving on his own material, Cochran again employs the Chewbacca defense but adds a new wrinkle: “Look at the monkey! Look at the silly monkey!”) It’s a desperation wrap-up to the kind of celebrity-cameo-crammed episode that’s the antithesis of everything South Park had defined itself as being. But the Chewbacca defense (which was actually referenced in some obituaries of Johnnie Cochran) will live on.


Stray observations:

  • Best single outpouring of love and music: Cartman’s German dance.
  • In a major subplot, Mr. Garrison is first stalked, then rescued from jail, and finally reunited with Mr. Hat. Mr. Garrison had rejected Mr. Hat in favor of a new, more unconditionally loving puppet companion, Mr. Twig, several episodes back, but there are periodic indications that the separation wouldn’t last. I don’t think I’ve said anything about this storyline until now, probably because I don’t give a rat’s ass.

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