The following post contains coarse language and due to its content it should not be read by anyone.
The four boys of South Park—Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Kenny McCormick and the one and only Eric Cartman—originated in two animated short films, The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Frosty (1992) and Jesus vs. Santa (1995). Having met in film class at the University of Colorado, Trey Parker and Matt Stone created the shorts using stop motion animation and construction paper cutouts. The second short became a viral hit, which led to South Park being picked up as a series. The show debuted on Comedy Central with the episode, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” on August 13, 1997, attracting a solid fan base from the very beginning. From there, the series quickly rose in popularity to the point where it has long since become a cultural phenomenon.
I was 13 when I first watched South Park at the prompting of two of my friends. One of them had described it as a poorly animated show in which all the characters, male and female, were voiced by one guy, which was apparently part of the joke. In hindsight, while that wasn’t exactly a spot-on description, it wasn’t so far off-base, either, as Matt and Trey do voice the majority of the characters themselves. My other friend—the valedictorian of our class, I might add—had summarized plot details of various episodes to me on a long bus ride back to school after a class field trip. At one point, my science teacher turned around and asked us, half in disbelief, half in amusement, “Are you guys talking about South Park?” All I knew was that after everything I’d heard, I was absolutely intrigued, and I had to give this filthy yet hilarious-sounding show a watch.
The first episode I caught on TV was “Kenny Dies.” I watched it with my then 8-year-old sister, and while I may have had a mini moral crisis in fully knowing that I, let alone my little sister, shouldn’t have been watching a show with such strong language and crude humor, it only made watching it all the more enticing. It was unlike any other show I’d watched, and I couldn’t wait to watch more. In terms of first impressions, I remember I used to get Stan and Kyle mixed up because the two of them seemed so similar personality-wise. Matt and Trey had actually admitted that themselves in previous interviews, which was part of the reason why they’d considered killing Kyle off at one point. Glad they ultimately decided against that.
I also knew about the running gag of Kenny dying every episode, so that first episode I watched didn’t seem particularly significant in that regard despite how emotional it got. I only learned after the fact that Matt and Trey had decided to keep Kenny dead after that episode and see what direction the show would go without him, only to have him show up at the end of the following season with no explanation as to how he’d revived. Upon that initial watch, Kenny became my favorite character, although my favorite later shifted to Stan and now Kyle. With Kenny, though, I was drawn to the fact that his words were muffled by his parka, and it was fun trying to figure out what he was saying only to realize how unbelievably dirty he is even compared to his foul-mouthed friends.
Coarse language and naughty jokes aside, what truly sets South Park apart from other adult animated shows is its ability to tackle such timely issues on a weekly basis. That’s because unlike the vast majority of Western animated shows, which are generally produced in-house before being shipped overseas for final animation, South Park is created start to finish all in one building. The documentary, 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of an episode of South Park from initial ideas, to writing, voice recordings, storyboards, animation, sound, editing, re-writing, all the way to final product in under a week. It’s a noteworthy process that has allowed the series to evolve from a fart-joke fueled, crudely animated show about the adventures of four boys living in a small mountain town, to a fart-joke fueled, higher-quality animated show that provides biting social commentary on today’s society, ripe with plenty of iconic, hilarious and screwed-up moments along with a hearty dose of controversy.
Throughout the years, South Park has made fun of a wide range of topics ranging from religion, politics, pop culture, sports, celebrities, news, trends and, more recently, PC culture. The show has become synonymous with pushing the envelope completely off the edge while delivering unique insight along with laugh-out-loud comedy. As the tone got sharper and the writing grew stronger, the four boys gradually lost any wide-eyed naiveté they had at the start of the series. Eric Cartman, in particular, saw the biggest shift in his character starting with the pivotal episode, “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” in which he went from a fat kid punchline to a sadistic and downright fucked-up human being. He’s long since become the character who can get away with anything regardless of how offensive his words or actions may be because, shit, dude, it’s Cartman being Cartman.
To that point, with a character as extreme as Cartman, a counterbalance comes with the morally righteous Kyle Broflovski, who loathes Cartman for his appalling, selfish behavior and outright bigotry. Their rivalry is one of my favorite aspects of the series, and it’s even given us some of the most epic episodes, such as “Cartoon Wars” Parts I and II and the “Imaginationland” trilogy. While the show makes a point to highlight how wrong and dangerous it is to think and act like Cartman, it doesn’t shy away in the slightest from poking fun at good-intentioned people, either, which is where the gullible, beloved Butters Stotch comes in. Their opposing personalities make for some great comedy, as seen in fan-favorite episodes such as “Casa Bonita,” AWESOM-O” and “The Death of Eric Cartman.”
Meanwhile, with all the wackiness that goes on in South Park, we get the much-needed straight man in Stan Marsh, who’s arguably the sanest and most normal person out of all the town’s residents, even after he fell into a pit of cynicism in the episode, “You’re Getting Old.” In more recent seasons, however, the focus has moved away from the core four boys and instead branched out to bigger storylines for the adult characters, including Mr. Garrison—whose arc consisted of a sex change operation, a sexual reawakening, a reverse sex change operation and, just last season, becoming the president—as well as another fan-favorite character, Stan’s dad, Randy Marsh. Some of his best episodes include “The Losing Edge,” “Medicinal Fried Chicken” and “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” the last of which won the series an Emmy, along with “Best Friends Forever,” “Margaritaville,” “Raising the Bar” and the previously mentioned “Imaginationland” trilogy.
Despite all its well-earned accolades and success, South Park has also been met with its fair share of criticism throughout the years. Quite a number of episodes managed to spark outrage, and a handful of episodes have even been banned from re-airing at one point or another. Not only that, but the show has seen criticism from long-time fans in the past few seasons after deviating from its non-serialized episodes to a season consisting of 10 consecutive episodes with an overarching plot. This method of storytelling created flaws during last season, in particular, by running the same few jokes into the ground and stretching out plot points only to have a less than satisfying payoff. Since then, Matt and Trey have expressed interest in returning to non-serialization while only carrying over an interesting plot element here and there. They did this well, for example, with a brilliant running gag in which Randy was secretly living a double life as the pop singer, Lorde.
Even with all the changes South Park has seen in recent years, I can honestly say it’s one of the few shows that still consistently makes me laugh out loud. I have fond memories of watching marathons of the Christmas episodes with my cousins over my grandma’s house every year. To this day, I consider “Woodland Critter Christmas” one of my favorite holiday specials in all of television. I also vividly remember watching South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut for the first time with my younger brother and sister on a long car ride home and how all three of us completely lost our shit when Terrance and Phillip started singing “Uncle Fucka.” I could devote an entire blog post delving into my favorite episodes (and maybe I will at some point), some of which I’ve already mentioned, though others include “Good Times with Weapons,” “Pre-School,” “ManBearPig,” “Le Petit Tourette,” “Fishsticks” and, my personal all-time favorite, “The List.” This show has brought me such joy over the years, and thankfully, we’re guaranteed at least three more seasons of it through 2019. After that, who knows, but Matt and Trey have stated that they plan on making South Park until Comedy Central cancels it, so hopefully we’re still a long way off because there’s definitely still plenty more to rip on.
And so, I salute you, South Park, for all the laughs and controversy and discourse you’ve given us these past 20 seasons. Here’s to more zaniness, outrageous moments and satirical humor. And last but least, a shout-out to the greatest character ever in all of televison, Towelie.