Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

South Park revitalized its relevance by revisiting its roots

Gif: Libby McGuire

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers South Park, which has run for 309 episodes and 23 seasons on Comedy Central. Currently sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, the show has produced two hour-long specials in the last year.

In 2020, Entertainment Weekly published a retrospective where South Park  creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone picked their favorite and least-favorite episodes of the show. In typically dismissive fashion, Parker expressed his desire to delete the first three years of the duo’s most famous creation.

“If I had to permanently erase anything from the library, it would basically be anything before Season Four,” he told EW. “It’s just embarrassing to watch. Okay, we were, like, 26, 27. But it’s like, ‘Really? We thought that was funny? We thought that was well-written? Oh my god, this is terrible.’”

He has a point. South Park’s early years—primarily focused on the core foursome of potty-mouthed elementary-schoolers Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovksi, Eric Cartman, and Kenny McCormick and their collective antics in the Colorado town of the title—are marred by sometimes painfully crude animation and jokes that lean solely on irreverence. For instance, season one’s “Volcano” features a mountain monster named Scuzzlebutt who has Patrick Duffy for a leg, just because. Switch out Duffy for another veteran TV actor and the joke doesn’t become any more or less funny. It’s just kind of there as a flexible gag that would eventually be more at home on Family Guy, a show that South Park would go on to eviscerate in 2006 with its two-part “Cartoon Wars” saga.

But to counter Parker’s criticism, the lower-stakes, one-off nature of early South Park has proven to be somewhat aspirational among the series’ fanbase over the past five or so years. For its first 20 seasons, the show embarked on a slow climb toward longer-form storytelling, gradually dropping in a feature film, the aforementioned two-part episode, three-part episodes, and eventually, a complete pivot to serialized continuity. This also synced up with a much quicker turnaround time on production, which gave South Park the ability to comment on real-world events within a day of occurrence. “About Last Night…”—which reimagined Barack Obama’s first presidential election as part of a heist straight out of Ocean’s Elevenwasn’t completed until the day of broadcast. As shown in the documentary Six Days To Air: The Making Of South Park, this wasn’t that unique of a situation for the show, either.

Unfortunately, the more serialized, eleventh-hour approach started to show its cracks around season 20, mostly due to South Park’s treatment of Donald Trump, a political figure so cartoonish and awful that he proved almost impossible to parody, even through the equally despicable surrogate of the boys’ teacher, Mr. Garrison. Parker and Stone occasionally got some comedic mileage out of just using Trump’s real-life quotes and actions as dialogue/story points for Garrison, but a lot of the material fell flat. It didn’t help that the character was given a season-long arc and that so many U.S. viewers were just plain sick of seeing his real-life counterpart on television.

Parker and Stone more or less admitted the futility of their Trump-lampooning in both the title and the content of the season-20 finale, “The End Of Serialization As We Know It.” Couple that with the year’s mixed fan and critical reception of the show, and it’s understandable why a 2017 promo for season 21 leaned so heavily on the South Park of yesteryear, Parker’s eventual comments to Entertainment Weekly be damned.

In the clip, Cartman performs a riff on Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” a song released only two years before South Park’s now-storied first episode, “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe,” and in the same year as the show’s groundbreaking short/sort-of pilot “Jesus Vs. Santa.” “Flip the track, bring the old school back,” Cartman sings—a line that was interpreted as hinting at a return to “classic” South Park and more standalone episodes. Even if the season did end up carrying over select elements from the previous year, it wasn’t nearly as concerned with linear narratives or commenting on the week’s news in such a down-to-the-wire fashion as its predecessor. Seasons 22 and 23 veered even further down that direction. Regardless of how you feel about the return of both Satan and ManBearPig or the show devoting more time to fan favorite Randy Marsh becoming a weed farmer than anything Trump-related, there’s no denying that Parker and Stone have gone back to what first got people to come on down to South Park in the first place.

For many, it wasn’t the sociopolitical commentary that caught our attention—at least not in the beginning. When South Park premiered in 1997, I was a 13-year-old boy, arguably the show’s core demographic at that point. I didn’t get sucked into those first few seasons because of the frequent skewering of organized religion or self-righteous humanitarianism. Like many other middle-schoolers who came of age with the series, I was there for the toilet humor. Even if comedic devices like the bleeped-out profanity, Stan frequently puking all over his girlfriend Wendy Testaburger, or an elephant making love to a pig don’t slap quite as hard as they did nearly 25 years ago, there was an inherent puckishness to South Park as soon as it hit the airwaves—a shared knowledge that the show was getting away with something that other shows weren’t. It didn’t just pave the way for other series to use more adult-oriented humor on Comedy Central. It made the network a household name and altered the landscape of television, usually by amplifying the transgressions of the time until they no longer felt like transgressions at all.

There’s no better example of this than 2001’s season-five debut episode “It Hits The Fan,” a takedown of the backlash surrounding NYPD Blue’s frequent use of profanity and, more specifically, the word “shit” being uttered on a 1999 episode of Chicago Hope, a first for a network television series (NYPD Blue would go on to use the word shortly afterward). The grittiness of NYPD Blue’s subject matter at least partially led to the formation of the conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council, which was later outraged by Chicago Hope’s flagrant shift in vocabulary as well—on CBS no less. As quaint as it would be today to see Dennis Franz’s butt in a shower scene or hear Mark Harmon say “shit,” particularly with the advent of streaming, viewing PG-13 content like this on network TV was a big deal at the end of the millennium.

Of course, it shouldn’t have been, and Parker and Stone knew just as much, as evidenced on “It Hits The Fan.” In the episode, the whole town of South Park is a-flutter because an upcoming episode of the fictional Cop Drama (a clear sendup of NYPD Blue) is going to air the word “shit” uncensored. The joke is that, leading up to the Cop Drama broadcast, South Park’s own characters say the word uncensored about once every eight seconds. By the time the episode ends, a counter at the bottom of the screen reveals “shit” has popped up 162 times (200 if you count its appearances in written form), with only one of them coming from the show everyone’s so hyped about. The point is, many of us use profanity on a daily basis, and it’s fucking ridiculous to get so up in arms or excited about a single curse word on a TV show, network or otherwise.

Despite all the pearl-clutching leveled at CBS less than two years earlier, no one made that big a deal about “It Hits The Fan,” a half-hour of TV with 162 times more “shit” than Chicago Hope. Stone himself remarked at the time how “nobody cares anymore,” and the word has been uttered openly on South Park with little fuss ever since. And that’s to say nothing of all the other subsequent basic cable shows like The Shield, where profanity (and more) became a regular occurrence. Network procedurals may have been the first to broach the wall of censorship, but it was South Park that actually tore it down. And it did so by pushing the act of swearing on TV to such an illogical extreme that a swear word for “poop” got sapped of its power.

Parker and Stone would take the same beat-it-into-the-ground approach to so many other taboos as the show progressed, developing an uncanny ability to identify topics that were ruffling peoples’ feathers. What’s considered transgressive has tended to change over the years, and as South Park evolved, its creators gradually set their sights on targets that had more complexity, gravity, and severe real-world consequences. Most notably, 2005’s season-nine finale challenged the sanctity of the Virgin Mary with a statue that the town’s citizens think is bleeding out of its ass. Then, starting in 2006 with “Cartoon Wars,” the show embarked intermittently on a four-year stretch of taking on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad controversy, in which a Danish newspaper scoffed at Islam’s longstanding practice of aniconism (the absence of sentient beings in artwork) by depicting the religion’s founder in several of its cartoons.

Protests arose in Muslim countries around the world, which The New York Times reported resulted in hundreds of deaths. The political unrest became so severe that, when deciding how to handle South Park’s own depiction of Muhammad, Comedy Central split the episode into two installments to allow more time for negotiations. The network ultimately decided to censor Parker and Stone’s intentionally brief and nondescript portrayal of Muhammad. The irony was that South Park had shown him onscreen nine years earlier as part of a Justice League-esque team of religious figures in season five’s “Super Best Friends,” to little contention. Parker and Stone sent up the whole quagmire in the series’ 200th and 201st episodes, the latter of which not only saw its animation of Muhammad censored, but also the utterance of his name. The same thing happened to a final monologue from Kyle implying that censorship is the product of giving into intimidation and fear (Comedy Central and the show’s creators were receiving death threats by that point). When it aired, his speech was completely drowned out by one long bleep.

“It wasn’t some meta-joke on our part,” Parker and Stone revealed in a statement from South Park Studios. “Comedy Central added the bleeps.”

With the quadrilogy of “Cartoon Wars” parts one and two, “200,” and “201,” the show attempted something it had already done all the way back in 2001, and was met with significant resistance from the network and wider culture. Granted, the cultural landscape had changed a lot by then. The violence stemming from the Jyllands-Posten incident was very real, plus “Super Best Friends” had aired on July 4, 2001—two months before the September 11th attacks made jihadism a more visible and widely talked about threat. And yet, even with that added context, the show’s Muhammad controversy still feels notable for being the one time South Park wasn’t able to demystify the subject of its satire, as those episodes have been continuously censored to this day. When HBO Max added the entire series to its programming in 2020, “Cartoon Wars,” “Cartoon Wars Part II,” “200,” “201,” and even the previously uncensored “Super Best Friends” were all noticeably absent, although the complete audio of Kyle’s speech had already surfaced online in 2014.

From the beginning, South Park’s courting of controversy—whether through swear words or higher-stakes religious figures—seems to have been a contributing factor to its longevity. As dangerous as it might have been to keep poking a half-asleep bear with episodes like “200” and “201,” there’s no denying that, at that point in the show’s history, the eyes of the world were on Parker and Stone. To paraphrase a line about Howard Stern from 1997’s Private Parts, fans and detractors alike wanted to see what they would say next.

One of the other keys to South Park’s long-term resonance and influence is decidedly uncontroversial, having little to do with taboos, but rather the transcendent nature of pop culture. Once Parker and Stone moved beyond the reference-for-reference’s-sake style of season one, they developed a brand-new aesthetic that leaned on subversions of other TV shows, movies, songs, and celebrities not just as jokes, but as a kind of organizing principle that appealed to many different types of viewers. Amidst the controversy the show has often sparked, it’s easy to forget how specific the series can get with its cultural talking points and how those talking points have affected South Park’s audience and unique mode of storytelling.

Sure, there are entire episodes devoted to mainstream pop culture like Avatar and Game Of Thrones. But Parker and Stone also have an ongoing fascination with more idiosyncratic art such as that of Rankin/Bass, the production company responsible for everything from the original ThunderCats to all of those holiday claymation specials from the ’60s and ’70s. Season three’s “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics” builds an entire episode around the introduction delivered by Fred Astaire’s musical mailman in Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. And when Mr. Hankey nearly died one year earlier in season two’s “Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls,” Parker sang the character’s normally upbeat theme song in a mournful, marble-mouthed tone reminiscent of Frosty The Snowman’s own melodious narrator, Jimmy Durante. It’s a scene ripped straight from the heartbreaking sequence when Frosty melts in the greenhouse, rendered impossibly funny because “Durante” is now singing about the death of a sentient piece of shit rather than a magical snowman.

Rankin/Bass continued to be a touchstone for the show: Season six’s “The Death Camp Of Tolerance” based a gerbil’s journey up a man’s ass on the animation house’s 1977 adaptation of The Hobbit, and one of the goblins from that same special popped up in the background of season 11’s “Imaginationland” saga—an Emmy-winning arc that’s essentially a convergence of all the popular culture Parker and Stone hold dear. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass are almost their spiritual forebears—a creative duo like Parker and Stone who, however unintentionally, revolutionized an entire genre. Rankin/Bass may not have invented the stop-motion TV episode or the Christmas special, but they certainly popularized both formats and changed what was possible within the medium.

Even if you’re not a scholar of antiquated yuletide cartoons or folksy J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations, there’s likely another significant pop-cultural touchstone in South Park’s history that caters to you, given the scope of its creators’ respective tastes and knowledge. Whether it’s animating an entire season 18 episode in the style of Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races or borrowing a breastfeeding gag from Little Britain to make fun of U2’s Bono in season 11, at some point, South Park seems to have spoken everyone’s pop-culture language.

Many other comedies that followed have taken note and relied similarly on pop culture—not just as an occasional source of jokes, but as an integral part of their DNA. There’s Family Guy (which you could argue corrupted South Park’s formula early on), as well as Dan Harmon’s Community, a show that, on the surface, has a completely different style of comedy from Parker and Stone’s. But Community also uses pop culture as a way for its characters to understand the world around them, including its own tribute to Rankin/Bass—a Christmas claymation special. Harmon later even admitted to having to keep himself from ripping off South Park with his other series, Rick And Morty. In a Vulture interview alongside co-creator Justin Roiland, he acknowledged unintentionally aping his predecessors with a mashup of Inception and A Nightmare On Elm Street, as well as Parker and Stone being unrivaled as pop-culture specialists. South Park’s style is so steeped in the universal language of pop culture that other artists might not realize when they’re mimicking the show’s approach.

There have been other unintended psychological consequences. Because pop culture is a force that can transcend politics and cultural barriers, it’s easy to drop in on a message board or comments section related to South Park (including the one on this very site) and find any number of viewers—many of them trolls—insisting that the messaging of a particular week fits in perfectly with their respective ideologies, simply because they understood the show’s references. The most recent special prompted online posts from viewers who interpreted the episode as being critical of QAnon, Antifa, and Black Lives Matter in equal measure. Never mind that the latter two groups are never mentioned, while the former is explicitly depicted as a mob of violent, misinformed losers (even the horned “Q Shaman” makes an appearance). Hell, the spelling alone of the title, “South ParQ Vaccination Special,” goes out of its way to poke fun at far-right conspiracy theorists.

But Parker and Stone’s own political stance—while nowhere close to being alt-right—has been annoyingly apathetic at times, and thus malleable to a certain type of fan. In recent years, they’ve begun to reckon with some of their more damaging viewpoints, going as far as to criticize and even repent for past episodes. In season 22’s “Time To Get Cereal,” the boys finally apologize to Al Gore for not believing him in season 10 about ManBearPig, the show’s bestial personification of climate change—a concern which, after being ignored and even made fun of, has proved to be the most urgent crisis of a generation.

Parker and Stone had also recognized their (somewhat unknowing) role in fostering online troll culture in 2016’s “The End Of Serialization As We Know It.” Granted, their stance wasn’t as conclusive, successful, or as funny as it was in “Time To Get Cereal.” But it’s further testament that across 23 seasons, South Park’s creators have developed a worldview that’s more engaged and compassionate than when they started out, if still flawed (their handling of anti-trans bigotry has been far from nuanced).

In a way, Parker and Stone pivoting from a “both sides suck” argument feels like a provocation in itself. What could be more surprising for them than apologizing to Al Gore, a guy who they mercilessly made fun of 12 years earlier for doing the right thing? Likewise, even if most of their Trump jokes don’t hold up, they still tried to take him on after they said they wouldn’t. Despite what the season 21 promo implied, the show hasn’t actually gone back to the beginning, because what was shocking for South Park back in 1997 isn’t shocking anymore. And for Parker and Stone—two guys who once prided themselves for not giving a shit—taking a firmer political stance could be a new kind of transgression.