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July 15, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Guides | July 15, 2008 |

Gazing rapturously at the pantheon of television shows from the past two decades, we have been blessed with shows that have redefined or exemplified genres, shows that have birthed social movements (even if they were the accursed Cosmopolitan and Mojito craze of the TwentyAughts), or shows that have carved their indelible influences on the future of television. Very few of them can claim to have permanently altered the entire landscape of television content and style like this poorly made ‘toon about four foul-mouthed 4th-graders and their quiet, little, redneck, podunk, white-trash, hmmmneh, mountain town. Whether you feel it was for better or worse is a matter of personal taste, but it cannot be denied that “South Park” has skidmarked its brown stain on the collective undershorts of not just animation or comedy but all modes of television. If not for this crudely animated gem, Comedy Central would not be as strong a presence in the original programming market, the bar for offensive content would not be set nearly as lowbrow and sewage-skimming, and most cable networks would still be running rebroadcasts of Hangover Theatre-level films and long-dead syndication.

“South Park” sprang forth from the foreheads of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who studied under Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado, creating a number of absolutely deplorable and delightfully seedy student films. The full-length feature Cannibal: The Musical brought them to the attention of Lloyd Kaufman at Troma, who financed the direct-to-DVD release. The animated short Jesus vs. Frosty caught the attention of a Fox executive in 1995 who asked the two twisted misters to whittle up an animated Christmas card. It became the infamous The Spirit of Christmas short, introducing the world to the joys of 8-year-olds in a small Colorado town calling each other buttfucking sons-of-bitches and watching (some folks’) Lord and Savior duke it out Hadouken fireball-style with Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick. Once Pandora’s Box was unlatched, these two fiends crackled their knuckles, fired up the construction paper, and proceeded to hurl their intellectually stimulated feces all over the face of America.

In the wake of “The Simpsons” juggernaut through the early 1990s, a massive bumper crop of animated series began to compete for the spotlight. Unable to replicate the layered wit of “Simpsons,” which could blend Shakespearean puns with slapstick, most of the shows withered and died like flowers in the presence of Katherine Heigl. One of the few to fondle a piece of the national zeitgeist was “Beavis and Butt-Head,” another show that used dimwitted ignorance to mask subtle social satire. “South Park” started in 1997, riding on the collar of Cornholio, and floated through its early seasons on a fartcloud of shock value and vulgarity. Parker and Stone banked on the fact that people would rather watch a fat elementary school boy fart his kitty on fire with a flaming anal discharge than wade through clever subtext on abortion and gay marriage rights. It is a point that’s difficult to argue. It was only in the later seasons that the show began to take advantage of its quick turnaround time and ability to test the limits of broadcast cable content to put forward some of the greatest episodes of television ever conceived.

Essentially, it’s a combination of no-punches-pulled topicality and an almost flagrant and self-deprecating disregard for the norms of common decency that makes “South Park” such an effective show. To call “South Park” an equal opportunity offender is the equivalent of saying George Bush might not be a very good president. Parker and Stone, who voice most of the characters, have taken potshots at every creed, race, gender, disability, dysfunction, cultural phenomenon, and political topic, and it’s not the occasional stereotypical Archie Bunkerism or blatant nyuk nyuk joke. “Family Guy” got yanked after airing an episode where Peter Griffin wanted Chris to convert to Judaism because it might make him better at math. After watching The Passion of the Christ, Eric Cartman donned his Halloween Hitler costume and marched the streets of South Park spewing pidgin German and rallying people to exterminate the Jews. Of course, Cartman was then subsequently crucified in a later season, so they could help get Gerald Broflovski an erection. In “It Hits the Fan” (Season Five), an episode revolving around a controversial television program that is going to have a character say the word “shit,” South Park actually had the characters utter the word “shit” unbleeped approximately 162 times. The FCC doesn’t have jurisdiction over cable networks, which police themselves at the risk of losing sponsors. “South Park” is also the closest thing to live animation there is, with the ability to turn around episodes in under a week. They did an episode where Saddam Hussein is found literally two days after he was actually found in a “spider hole.”

Choosing which season to laud was tough, believe me. Every single season in the show’s (so far) 12-season run has at least six or seven gut-clenchingly hilarious episodes that are instant classics. Conversely, every season has at least one or two serious clunkers. Unlike “The Simpsons” — a program to which everything animated owes a debt — “South Park” manages to get better the longer it stays on the air. Season Five stands out with the double opener of “It Hits the Fan” and the I-Can’t-Believe-I-Just-Saw-That-Ending “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” but I opted to go with Season Ten, the latest available on DVD and the one containing two of the greatest examples of why “South Park” is still as groundbreaking as when it began.

The season opens with “The Return of Chef,” an incredibly bittersweet way of saying “Fuck off, we love you” to a departing cast member. The plot is typically ludicrous: Chef returns to South Park from his travels with the Super Adventure Club, where he has been brainwashed into becoming a child molester. After the kids attempt to deprogram him, Chef is recaptured and ends up dying when trying to escape. It’s the backstory that makes this a powerful episode. Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef, quit the show after ninth season finale, “Trapped in the Closet.” That episode attacked Scientology and the alleged homosexuality of John Travolta and Tom Cruise, and Hayes claimed personal offense even though “South Park” has attacked Mormonism in the same manner and Catholicism by featuring priests clutching scantily clad young boys on leashes. To film this episode, Parker and Stone blatantly used sound bites from older episodes to replicate Chef’s dialogue, essentially turning him into a pedophile that craves young boy asshole. They kill off his character, and at the funeral Kyle gives a speech urging everyone to remember Chef as the guy who took care of them and to blame the “fruity little club that brainwashed him.” It’s a sweet moment where Parker and Stone say goodbye to the guy who worked six years and nine seasons beside them, while still delivering a hammer blow to the organization that caused all the hullaballoo. And they still manage to give Hayes an in if he ever chooses to return to the show by having the Super Adventure Club resurrect Chef, Darth Vader style.

“South Park” is the purest example of satire available today. Jonathan Swift suggested the British serve their baby-back ribs Irish style, but even he wouldn’t have imagined the lengths to which “South Park” pushes the arguments. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the seemingly sophomoric humor, such as corpses that shit themselves after death or blood and brain spurts from self-inflected gunshot wounds. Characters are constantly using the most debasing terms to refer to each other from repeated utterances of “faggot” to constant reference to “retards” who engage in “cripple fights.” On the base level, it is toilet-grade humor for child-minded simpletons who giggle at the easiest dick-and-fart-joking baby-kicker. But plumb the depths and there’s a lot more going on than just mere soap-boxery. It’s easy enough to make a very uncomfortable “Home Improvement” where Tim Taylor discovers the importance of immigration laws in the parking lot of Home Depot. “South Park” has a group of rednecks angered by “goobacks” traveling from the future to tek ther jerbs! so they decide to engage in a massive gay orgy pile to eliminate future generations. It speaks to both sides of the battle on illegal immigrants, while making both arguments seem equally foolish. It’s absolute theatre of the absurd lathered with bodily fluids and profanity.

Nowhere is this more impressively used as in the episode “A Million Little Fibers,” which thoroughly lampoons both Oprah Winfrey and the James Frey debacle. Towelie, the pot-addicted towel, decides the only way he can pay his rent is to write a biography of his drug addiction. The only way he can sell it is to pretend to be a real person. Eventually, the biography ends up as part of Oprah’s Book Club. The entire towel fiasco comes unraveled when Geraldo exposes Towelie for the Linens-and-Bongs towel he really is. Geraldo’s tip, of course, comes from Oprah Winfrey’s vagina Mingy, who sounds like a bad Russell Crowe imitator, and her asshole Gary, who’s voiced like a Spam-reviling Monty Pythonian. They are jealous she no longer takes time to tend to their needs because of her success. They plot to humiliate her, and when everything goes awry, the two orifices take the audience hostage in a Dog Day Afternoon for the swimsuit region. Towelie saves the day, because he’s a towel. And because he got high.

This episode thoroughly prevents any sort of debate from the Oprah camp. How can they claim they’ve been slandered by an episode that features a talking cooter and sphincter? No rational human being or even Oprah devotee would attest they actually believe Oprah’s snizz is the Romper Stomper. The episode ridicules the entire premise of James Frey and drug memoirs (with apologies to Chez). Secondly, and perhaps more impressive, it’s an episode featuring none of the regular characters from the show. Even Towelie has only appeared in one other episode, and he’s barely a secondary character. In fact, he’s the worst character ever. The world of “South Park” is so strongly manifested they can base episodes entirely on any of the rich tapestry of tertiary hangers-on from the small town — whether that be Mrs. Garrison, the transgendered teacher who apparently changes the future with her views on evolution and atheism, or Leopold “Butters” Stotch, the kind-hearted tap dance murderer who becomes a theoretical internet millionaire with the YouTube music video “What What in the Butt?”

The show operates mostly as an ensemble with one obvious breakout star: Eric Cartman. While Stan and Kyle operate as the heart and conscience of the show, Cartman is the evil twisted bigot that lives in us all. He’s selfish, crude, belligerent, biased, and ignorant. He’s a character we love to hate, rooting for him to receive his comeuppance, and also cheering when his wicked desires are satiated. Season Ten features some incredible Cartman moments. There’s “Miss Teacher Bangs a Boy,” where Cartman dresses up as Dog the Bounty Hunter to patrol the halls of the school with a mullet and a can of bear mace. He’s got the lame Christianity-fueled hatespeech of the white-trash bail bondsman down pat. Even better is the episode “Tsst!” where Mrs. Cartman, after failed attempts from “Nanny 911!” and “Supernanny” turns to Cesar Millan and his dog whispering skills to quash Cartman’s naughty behavior. The scene where Cesar “tsst’s” Cartman into submission — poking his neck and hissing — as he begs for fried chicken had me peeing a little.

Season Ten is at its strongest when it’s attacking reality television or lampooning popular figures. MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen” gets a smash as Satan comes to Earth to throw himself an epic Halloween bash, and instead throws a Britney Spears-grade (and attired) tantrum. Cartman freezes himself so he doesn’t have to wait any longer for a Nintendo Wii, only to wake up 800 years in the future where mankind is atheist —and so are the otters. The season even ends with Stan taking over a pee-wee hockey team, a la The Mighty Ducks or every After School Special you’ve ever seen, only to have it end horribly. Slap Shot horribly. Even the weakest episode, “Manbearpig,” which mocks Al Gore and his obsessive environmentalism, still ends up delivering in later seasons as a clever nod to regular viewers.

If you doubt the impact of “South Park,” watch any late-series “Simpsons” or post-comeback “Family Guy” episode. Things have actually gotten cruder and more insulting in the wake of the “South Park” phenomenon. The “South Park” movie actually felt like a movie and not three or four episodes rehashed and cobbled together with chicken wire and Elmer’s Glue. The Cartoon Network would not exist without “South Park” paving the road to hell (and, well, “Futurama” and “Family Guy” reruns). Adult Swim has been truly pushing the envelope of taste and randomness, particularly with the excellence of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” “Robot Chicken,” and the fantastically underrated “The Boondocks,” all of which owe a spiritual debt of gratitude to Stone and Parker. Whether you find it to be tedious and immature gross-out humor or clever satire of the absolute freshest quality, the lasting effect “South Park” has made on broadcast history is undeniable. Besides, if you don’t like it, you can feel free to kiss my chocolate salty balls. Screw you guys, I’m going home.

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

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