It should never have worked and it didn’t for many. The traditional South Park animation was so cheap, so basic and crude and even the writing back then was almost entirely puerile. But that was why I loved it so much. It was a cartoon, but it was so filthy. It was childish, my parents hated it, and that only seemed to spur me on to love it more. At first, it was the fart jokes that hooked me. As a thirteen year old, farts were funny (and as a twenty-five year old, I can honestly say they still are), but something happened to both South Park and myself as the years went by. We grew up.
That potty humour is still there in force. South Park never changed exactly, it’s still the same filthy, offensive, tasteless show it always was (in fact it’s arguably worse today) but as its creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker clearly grew in ability and intelligence, so too did their output. Today it enjoys perhaps as wide a fan base as even its rival animated sitcom, The Simpsons. But perhaps the most respectable quality of South Park is in the boldness of its social satire. Matt and Trey will say anything, about anyone, regardless of race, creed, colour or belief and without fear of repercussion. Either everything is funny, or nothing is.
As with any long running show such as South Park, there are filler episodes from time to time, but more often than not the creators use the show to house a satirical message, exposing hypocrisy in politics, religion and industry. I’ve actually heard it referred to as the most important sitcom on T.V and I’d be easily swayed towards agreeing; given the fact that an episode is conceived just six days before it airs I’d argue that no other show is even close to being as on the pulse of the zeitgeist as South Park is.
With the second half of South Park’s sixteenth season beginning just days ago on Comedy Central, I decided to look back at some of my favourite and most socially relevant episodes over the years; those episodes that house sharply observed satirical sentiments, buried beneath the poop humour – the blood in the stool if you like. And so we begin with…
10. Quest for Ratings – Season 8, Episode 11
Quest for Ratings is a hilarious episode laced with Matt and Trey’s healthy disdain for making T.V. Anyone with a creative profession will know that constantly coming up with fresh ideas, as Matt and Trey (and the other collaborators of course) have to is tough. To inform and entertain, maintain originality, while adhering to expectation. To top that off, they’ve got network heads breathing down their necks about ratings, and audience polls and god knows what other bullshit. A boiled down version of these events form the plot of this episode, as the boys compete with Craig to make the most popular TV show for South Park Elementary students.
In many ways, Quest for Ratings is autobiographical; if you caught the making of documentary ‘6 Days to Air’, you’ll notice that the Sexy Action School News ideas room is nearly an exact cartoonized replica of the room where they themselves write the show. South Park may contain crude animation, but to bring any broadcast show from inception to realisation in just six days is a feat nigh on superhuman – it takes a hell of a lot of work, in a condensed amount of time and the show’s creators are clearly big kids. Clever big kids, but big kids all the same. And what do big kids want to do? Play.
The episode isn’t exactly indicting T.V, after all, it’s a T.V show itself and its creators must possess a measure of passion for the medium, to put themselves through the mental rigour that they do every season. What it does do though, is re-iterate what the world inside your television is like; how cynical it can be, how tempting it can be to dumb down for ratings, how rewarding it can be, but ultimately, how exhausting the process is for those involved.
9. You Have 0 Friends – Season 14, Episode 4
When Stan reluctantly signs up to Facebook, he’s inundated with requests from his friends and family but at first denies them, not wanting to get ‘sucked in’. Meanwhile, Kyle befriends Kip Drordy, a lonely, nerdy kid with ‘0’ friends, and thanks to Cartman’s Mad Money style podcast, Kyle’s ‘friend stock’ plummets and he panics as his healthy friends list dwindles away.
This episode examines one of our more recent social phenomena’s and perhaps one of the greatest sources of social anxiety since the invention of texting. Cartman treats people’s Facebook friends as a quantifiable commodity, creating his Mad Friends podcast to inform South Parker’s of who they should and shouldn’t be friends with. It’s ludicrously caricaturized, as is the way of South Park, but this cold, cynical view of ‘friends’ as a form of measurable stock isn’t far from how many view their own list of online chums, especially those still in their teens (but even, unfortunately, supposed adults).
In their own way, everyone in South Park becomes obsessed with Facebook. Even Stan, who despite wanting a limited involvement finds himself with 845,823 friends, and a rogue profile that literally sucks him into his computer, and challenges him to a Tron-esque Yahtzee showdown for his continued existence in the real world. For the most part, Facebook is a positive experience when used responsibly, and you’d better get used to it if you haven’t already as social networking is going nowhere for the time being. But just be aware as you post up pictures of your cleavage/abs: it’s watching you.
8. The Tale of Scrotie McBooger Balls – Season 14, Episode 2
One of the main reasons that I find Matt and Trey so relatable is that they don’t appear to take themselves too seriously. You only have to look at the level of critical acclaim that their recent Broadway musical The Book of Mormon received, by even seasoned patrons of the medium, to know that they’re not wanting for intellectual clout. But it’s in the self-deprecatory episodes like Scrotie McBooger Balls where they re-iterate that above all else, their work on South Park should be appreciated for what it is: an immature, offensive and overtly childish cartoon. It should not be treated as a doctrine of truth as it is in certain circles or conversely, blamed for perverting the youth of the world.
The Tale of Scrotie McBooger Balls is apparently autobiographical, the boys attempting (and succeeding) to write the most disgusting and offensive book of all time almost mirrors Matt and Trey’s beginnings with South Park. If you’ve been with the show from season 1, you’ll remember looking back just how low-brow it really was. And to this day they push the limit of what’s acceptable, what’s too far, often resetting the bar entirely (their un-censoring of the word ‘shit’ at a time when it was still unfashionable, for example).
The Tale of Scrotie McBooger Balls looks at how we, as a society, find the meaning we want from stories we consume. I learned early on in film school that anything can mean anything in fiction, provided you can justify it with a plausible explanation. But to follow that logic back to its source, surely that means that nothing means anything? In the end, Scrotie McBooger Balls urges one thing; don’t take any story, from and episode of South Park, right up to the Bible, too literally. Stories can help us to grasp the patterns of life, but they shouldn’t be considered blueprints for how to live.
7. Make Love Not Warcraft – Season 10, Episode 8
Now when I say ‘socially relevant’, I don’t necessarily mean religiously or politically themed. Make Love Not Warcraft is, as an MMORPG player, one of my favourite ever South Park episodes and it explores something every bit as socially relevant today as any other episode. Anyone who plays Blizzards behemothic MMO will tell you that if you injected some heroin into a McDonalds burger, sprinkled it with crack and tobacco before dipping it in liquid sugar, you’d be getting somewhere close to World of Warcraft’s level of addictiveness (I’m joking of course, DO NOT do this, as you’ll probably die and it’s not even really true).
The premise of the episode is simple; a player on Warcraft reaches a higher level than should be possible (86?) and kills everyone’s characters’. The boys team up and spend months killing boars for low xp, getting ready for a final showdown to decide the fate of Azeroth. Within the episode, everyone takes WoW a little bit too seriously – the boys, Randy, even the Blizzard executives.
But people do take WoW too seriously, and it’s not just WoW either; I’ve played MMO’s before that opened on a warning screen urging me not to forget school/work, family and friends. These games are specifically designed to cause the human mind to release addictive dopamine’s into the bloodstream (upon winning a particularly rare or sought after sword for example), creating a sort of insidious dependency. And they effectively never end which means should you get addicted, you’ll play on and on until your brain deals exclusively in floating damage counters. And so it will be until the end of the World…of Warcraft.
6. Best Friends Forever – Season 9, Episode 4
Best Friends Forever is based on the famous Terri Schiavo case, in which Michael Schiavo battled with his wife’s parents over the legal right to remove her from life support after she was diagnosed to be in a permanent vegetative state. In the South Park version of events, Cartman champions the side of Michael Schiavo, but only to receive the PSP that Kenny has bequeathed him in his will. When the final page of the will is found, it’s only instruction is to not show him in his vegetative state on T.V.
Of course Best Friends Forever doesn’t really champion either side of the argument, its statement for me is that, despite what the God squad had to say, despite what the atheists had to say, despite the fact that both the husband and the parents both considered Terri’s potential wishes, her dignity had been sacrificed regardless the moment someone put a camera on her and turned her into a media frenzy. I don’t know what I would want should I fall into a vegetative state, but I do know one thing: I wouldn’t want it to be my first T.V appearance.
This is the beauty of making a show in six days – when something happens, South Park can parody it immediately, right when it’s fresh in the audience’s minds. This episode was particularly current as it aired mere hours before Terri Schiavo’s death. Best Friends Forever deals with how the media sacrifices human dignity for a heart-tugging story, and what it might really mean to have been chosen by God for death. It’s also one of South Park’s more renowned episodes, winning the 2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program.
5. Trapped in the Closet – Season 9, Episode 8
South Park has had several well publicised run-ins with various religious bodies and it’s abundantly apparent why. Over the years Matt and Trey have levelled their special brand of cynicism at Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism; no faith is safe, and least of all Scientology. Trapped in the Closet examines this…interesting religion, with as little regard for diplomacy as any of their other shows about organised faith.
People don’t often take on Scientology (I certainly don’t have the stones to, not this early in my career at least). Their legal wrath is well-known and far reaching, and as an organisation, it has access to some of the most powerful lawyers on the planet. To avoid being sued senseless, each and every member of the creators, cast and crew that produced this episode did so at the expense of their end of episode credit – devastating news for the work experience tea boy.
It was a risky move for South Park, but as always, it went there. Any organisation that makes a profit from the general public should be subject to scrutiny, and this episode scrutinizes down to the letter of the doctrine. It’s bold, it’s revelatory and it’s relevant, but most importantly, it’s side-splittingly hilarious. Seriously, if you can sit through this episodes’ many celebrity impersonations without choking on your tea, then you’re a special sort of stoic.
4. Douche and Turd – Season 8, Episode 8
This politically themed episode looks at the rampant voter apathy that plagues society, in a time when your only real choice is between a douche and a turd. The school mascot storyline is also allegorical of the 2004 presidential elections, where the only real choice was between a douche and a turd…sorry I meant to say President Bush and Senator John Kerry.
Is voter apathy really all that inconceivable to people? How does the government attempt to reach these apathetic members of the public (who usually reside in that ever elusive 18-35 age bracket so don’t forget, they’re up against marketing campaigns for movies, cartoons and video games with us)? They get celebrities like P-Diddy – or Dirty Pappy, or Pillow Daddy, or whatever it might be that Sean Combes answers to these days – to front a patronising campaign informing them that their choice is actually between voting or…death? As the episode rightly points out, what the fuck does that even mean?
Douche and Turd’s final statement is what I find most interesting about the episode, and most socially resonant, especially in the light of Great Britain’s ‘wonderful’ (notice the inverted comma’s) new coalition government. Randy points out to Stan that, even though the nominee he voted for lost by a landslide, his vote still matters. But then the members of Peta are found dead in their camp, meaning South Park Elementary can go back to having the Cows as their mascot. Now his vote doesn’t matter. And neither did mine.
3. Cartoon Wars – Season 10, Episodes 3 & 4
Technically this is two episodes, but hell, I’m going to allow it. Cartoon Wars examines censorship, something that’s obviously at the forefront of any contextual discussion about a show like South Park. The whole story arc follows Cartman and his quest to get Family Guy cancelled, citing that its upcoming episode featuring Muhammed, the prophet of the Islam faith, is too inflammatory for T.V.
Cartoon Wars really goes to town on Family Guy, so much so that according to an IGN interview, they received flowers from the Simpsons offices and calls from the King of the Hill offices congratulating them on doing ‘God’s’ work. It’s well known that the Family Guy creators have a joke ‘bin’ if you like, from which their gags are interchangeably cut and pasted. You think that’s bad?! The Family Guy writers have even gone so far as to dub their cutaway sketches as ‘manatee jokes’, proving that, as usual, South Park’s critique is right on the money.
The core issue of censorship is looked at through the Muhammed lens; as Cartman desperately attempts to get Family Guy cancelled, the issue becomes ‘if we allow censorship to rule our tastes through fear of fundamentalist repercussions, haven’t terrorists won?’ Who knew whether or not Muhammed would actually appear in the lead up to story arc’s climax; in fact I was riveted to find out if Comedy Central had the cojones. Of course they didn’t, its post 9/11 isn’t it, and we’ve all been well and truly weaned onto fear by the right-wing media by now. Interestingly though Muhammed appeared uncensored in their 2001 episode ‘Super Best Friends’ (which since 9/11 has been pulled from their episode catalogue); at the time, no one got blowed up. No one even seemed to bat an eyelid.
2. Go God Go – Season 10, Episodes 12 & 13
Another two-parter, the whole thing as one looks at the bigger picture of religion, at its root cause if you like. Months prior to the airing of this episode, Professor Richard Dawkins had released a book entitled ‘The God Delusion’, within it, likening God to a Spaghetti Monster – do you believe in it simply because you can’t disprove its existence?
Upon first glance, it may look like this episode bashes Christianity, and that’s what its many critics invariably cried when it first aired. And although the two part’er initially seems to wholly support Professor Dawkins’ Atheist musings, after Cartman freezes himself and wakes up in the future (in a botched attempts to shorten his wait for the Nintendo Wii) it’s apparent that the episodes commentary is deeper still.
In a future where Dawkins’ belief in logic has replaced the teachings of religion (to the point where they cry ‘Science dammit’ instead of speaking the Spaghetti monster’s name in vain), war is fought over the logical naming of an organisation – should it be the United Atheist Alliance (UAA), the United Atheist League (UAL), or the Allied Atheist Alliance (AAA)? Just as Hitler exterminated six million innocent Jews, just as the Sunni Muslims war with the Shi’as over doctrine, and just as Catholics fought Protestants over praying to a statue; humanity will always find an excuse for conquest, whether that be opposing teachings of a religion, or the simple semantics of an organization’s title. Lame…
1. With Apologies to Jessie Jackson – Season 11, Episode 1
With Apologies to Jessie Jackson is easily one of South Park’s most controversial episodes, thanks to it’s repeated use of the word “nigger”. But as with every ludicrously offensive moment in South Park, when you really look at it contextually, it in fact houses a wholly positive sentiment. This episode really looks in-depth at the power of language and the force that one can wield when using it. You’ve heard the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ right? A stroke of ink on a page can start, or end a war. A collection of words connected in the right way can inspire people to change, to fight, to kill.
Any fan of the show will remember the excitement they felt at sitting down to the first episode of its new season. Surely they’ll also remember their eyebrows lowering in confusion at Randy’s Wheel of Fortune clue, when that word jumped immediately into their own minds upon registering the revealed letters. With Apologies to Jesse Jackson, while being construed as a step too far by its many critics, looks at the negative power of that villainous word, breaks it down and applies it hilariously to a typically OTT Randy scenario; after declaring that Niggers annoy him on national T.V, he’s ostracised from society and dubbed a ‘Nigger Guy’ (literally a guy who was caught publicly using the ‘N’ word).
As a Caucasian, it’s really impossible for me to wholly empathise with the feeling of being labelled in such a derogatory way as Blacks have suffered for hundreds of years, and it’s because the race I belong to has had an undeservedly easy ride. And I think that’s what the underlying sentiment to this episode is. That whitey can’t just say “we get it, man” and expect to brush that shameful period of tyranny under the proverbial carpet.
Of course no list from a series as long running as South Park could ever be completely exhaustive. Have we missed any of your favourites? As always, please do let us know.