If you grew up watching television in the ’90s, chances are there was a cartoon that caused some kind of moral panic, a show that the kids “got” and the parents didn’t. First it was The Simpsons, swiftly followed by Ren & Stimpy, then Beavis & Butthead, and at the end of the decade, Family Guy. But for many in the middle of the decade, it was South Park. This, far more than The Simpsons, was the kind of humor that I, as one of “the kids,” could get, and called my own. South Park used a variety of different styles of shock humor—embodied by the early gimmick of Kenny dying in every episode—the kids were profane, and the subjects taboo. To a cynical teenager, South Park seemed radical, a television revolution, doing things that had never been done before.
That wasn’t quite the case. When South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone released the Broadway musical The Book Of Mormon last year, some critics noted what had long been true of Parker and Stone’s work: They’re formalists who take existing storytelling structures and make them dirty. It’s less revolutionary than subversive. No episode illustrates this quality of Parker and Stone’s work as well as South Park’s first Christmas episode, “Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo,” which arrived at the apex of that first-season rush of South Park excitement, five months after the show premièred in a year that saw the show feted by the press.
Parker and Stone had already demonstrated a strong attachment to Christmas before South Park with a pair of attention-getting short films both called “The Spirit Of Christmas,” and structurally, “Mr. Hankey” is a straightforward Christmas special. A boy with an idealistic view of Christmas is ostracized by his peers. He has a crisis of faith, and as he wavers, his idealism is magically confirmed, but it’s only confirmed to him. His redoubled faith only gets him in trouble again, and he is removed from the story. It’s then, and only then, that the idealized form of Christmas reappears, and everyone realizes that they shouldn’t have ostracized the boy in the first place. There are, of course, songs.
It just so happens that here, the idealized personification of Christmas is a piece of shit.
Kyle, the true believer in question, is found painting the room with the formerly animated Mr. Hankey, who’s now a lifeless piece of poop in his hands. (The “Noel” on the mirror is a nice touch.)
There’s also a commercial that implies a baby eating poop, school counselor Mr. Garrison sipping on coffee with a log in it, and generally a lot of poop getting all over everything. This isn’t dancing on the fine line between offensive and funny, as, say, Seth MacFarlane shows do; unless you’re Georges Bataille, this is well beyond the line of comfortable behavior. The laughs come from the audacity of South Park going all-out with the concept of a “Christmas poo.”
Most Christmas specials or lesson-based television generally derive their conflict from things that are obviously wrong. If this episode of South Park had merely been about how Kyle is ostracized because he’s a Jew and his mother’s beliefs conflict with conventional beliefs about Christmas, we’d know we were hurtling toward an inevitable and uninteresting lesson on the usefulness of tolerance. However, because Kyle is literally playing with shit, and clearly pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a way that makes the characters—even the impossibly profane Cartman—and the viewers uncomfortable, this means that the only proper resolution is a Christmas miracle, complete with Mr. Hankey making an appearance to everyone and giving them a speech about the True Meaning Of Christmas.
Mr. Hankey doesn’t just need to give his speech to save Kyle. He’s also saving the entire town from being torn apart by Christmas. Following in the footsteps of The Simpsons, one of South Park’s best go-to storylines is that of the idiot mob, overreacting and tearing the town apart. South Park often uses mobs to make a political point. I tend to think South Park’s political influence and coherence are both overstated, as I rarely see South Park’s politics being discussed except in terms of how to interpret them. (Thank goodness the “South Park Republican” concept died a quick merciful death.) But political and social issues undeniably tend to get projected through a libertarian-individualist lens on South Park, and here we have a depiction of what would come to be called “The War On Christmas” when Kyle’s mom triggers a town meeting about offensive holiday imagery.
At this point, South Park moves to examine the intersection of ’90s-style political correctness (via the mob) with Christmas traditions, but it doesn’t seem to actually want to achieve a resolution. It’s just used to create entertaining conflict, one that’s resolved by the feces ex machina at the end of the story. Instead of attempting to ask and answer a hot-button question about the rising anxiety over public portrayals of Christmas and how they might affect those of other religions, South Park wisely channels that debate’s tension toward the personal, poop-based story of Kyle and his love for Mr. Hankey. It’s a pretty generic bit of philosophy about the usefulness of holidays, but it works, and by utilizing traditional plot structures but sticking both its jokes and its final moral in the mouth of a talking piece of poop, South Park made a Christmas special that even cynical teenagers could find meaningful.
Tomorrow: The raucous first Christmas of a TV institution.