[27 October 2005]
It shouldn’t matter, but for some reason people lump South Park and The Simpsons and any animated program together. [It’s] unfortunate that we have to be compared to one of the best shows on television ever. We never get compared to Sister, Sister or Small Wonder.
—Trey Stone, Commentary for “The Simpsons Already Did It”
Who would have thought we’d be here today, lionizing South Park as cultural institution and satirical juggernaut? I remember when South Park first came on the radar, long before its sharp eye for cultural critique was fully developed, back when the idea of scabrous third graders was still considered repulsive by the majority of the body politic.
But history has a way of redeeming the strange and the outrageous. Although it is now inconceivable, there was a time when The Simpsons was considered toxic anti-family propaganda. How will we explain to our children that The Simpsons was once used as a talking point in presidential politics, intended to symbolize the inglorious fall of our once-mighty “family values”? It’s already almost impossible to conceive of the President of the United States stopping to pillory the series—as George H. W. Bush famously did, in a 1992 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters—now that The Simpsons have become enshrined as one of the most significant pop phenomena of the past century, not to mention as blatantly pro-family as any TV show has ever been.
It is not so hard to remember why South Park was once seen as dangerous to the Republic. Although conventional wisdom now holds it to be a bastion of common-sense Libertarianism, the crude humor and incessant scatology still seems positively satanic to some. But the puerile humor is also its most revolutionary element: the genius of South Park is its willingness to admit what most people already know and try to ignore. Kids can be, not to put to fine a point on it, foul-mouthed, petulant assholes. Especially if they don’t think anyone’s watching.
Regardless of their childishness, the protagonists of South Park are, like their creators, fundamentally decent (except for Cartman, who represents the zenith of selfish indecency). Like Parker and Stone, Kyle and Stan loathe hypocrisy, detest charlatanry, eschew obfuscation, and believe in honesty. (Fourth protagonist Kenny is gone for most of the sixth season, a fact that becomes a recurring plot point as the season progresses.)
The sixth season contains a number of the series’ all-time best episodes. Stone and Parker say “The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers” is one of their favorites, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a spot-on parody of the Lord of the Rings films, only featuring the kids getting swept up in a quest for a porno movie mistakenly given to Butters by his parents. Although the South Park kids are often possessed of wisdom beyond their years, this episode showcases Stone and Parker’s excellent ability to conjure the self-obsessed insularity of childhood play, while lampooning the sexual misconceptions of preadolescent children.
Parker and Stone’s straightforward morality provides the backbone of the show’s satiric appeal; it’s usually most effective when targeting the dysfunctions of society at large, following a fairly clear philosophy outlined by Stone, in his commentary for “Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society”:
There’s two competing theories in the world. One is that we’re born natural and beautiful and good, and that society corrupts us, which is what I think a lot of people believe. South Park is based on completely the opposite notion, that we are born basically gorillas, and that society keeps us just barely in line.
“The Biggest Douche in the Universe” takes aim at John Edwards, self-proclaimed psychic for dead relatives. Parker and Stone devote the entire episode to exposing his fraudulent techniques and manipulative parlor tricks. It was such an effective debunking that Penn and Teller put a stop to their own plans to expose Edwards on their Showtime series, Bullshit, admitting that South Park had already delivered as devastating a blow to the fake mystic as could be imagined.
“The Simpsons Already Did It” may be the series’ single finest episode. Parker and Stone say they conceived it in frustration, as all their ideas seemed already done by the Groening show. Here good-natured but hapless Butters appears in his Professor Chaos mode, intent on wreaking havoc throughout the world, but foiled by the fact that every good idea for world domination has already been done—on The Simpsons. Everything culminates in a truly inspired hallucinatory sequence wherein Butters sees everyone he meets as yellow-skinned Simpsons characters, and the shabby streets of South Park morph into the familiar Technicolor streets of Springfield.
Ironically, this episode is itself replicating something the The Simpsons already did: the subplot, which has Cartman raising a civilization of sea-monkeys to worship him as a god, was conceived by Parker and Stone totally independent of the Simpsons connection. Of course, it was later brought to their attention that The Simpsons had done that gag too, at which point they simply gave up and embraced the synchronicity. The episode is at once a brilliant, genuinely respectful tribute to The Simpsons and a not-so-gentle ribbing of its ubiquity.
Remarkably, most South Park episodes are conceived and created in the space of a week. Whereas many animated shows require months of lead time, the fact that South Park is done entirely on computers allows a by-the-seat-of-their-pants “freedom.” Parker and Stone reveal that many of the show’s most memorable elements were created at the last minute, or, as in the case of the Simpsons episode, entirely by accident.
Parker and Stone’s commentary comprises the set’s only bonus feature (discounting a few Comedy Central coming attractions), and they are brief. Apparently, they received complaints about the lengthy commentary tracks for previous sets and resolved to make every episode’s comments as brief as possible, usually only two or three minutes long. Even so, they are easily sidetracked onto amusing tangents, such as the brilliance of the bootleg-only Star Wars Christmas Special or their odd relationship with Russell Crowe, whose violent tendencies and musical aspirations come in for a drubbing in the form of a TV show called Russell Crowe: Fightin’ Round the World. (In their commentary, Parker and Stone describe Crowe’s music as “Bon Jovi meets Hepatitis B.”)
Season Six is a definite high point in the history of the show. Who can forget the gerbil Lemmiwinks’ magical journey through Mr. Slave’s digestive system in the immortal “Death Camp of Tolerance” episode? I remember laughing as hard at that show as anything I’d ever seen on TV, despite and probably because of the fact that it is both unaccountably weird and unquestionably offensive.