[12 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Boy, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have sure come a long way since the days when they hand animated construction paper cut outs of various shapes to create their anarchic look at life in a small Colorado town. Over the last 12 seasons, the seminal cartoon series has gone from painstaking grunt work to…well, more painstaking grunt work, except this time, with computers. As part of the added content included on the latest DVD set from Comedy Central (by way of Paramount), we are treated to three separate featurettes which explain in exhaustive detail, the process from idea to on air. And those who think South Park simply springs from the boy’s borderline frat house Id, fully formed, are in for a very rude awakening indeed. In fact, this may be one of the most talent intense shows on all of television - broadcast or cable.
By this time, it’s clear that South Park’s comedy has split off into three specific forms: (1) the pop culture lampoon - taking issues and personalities within current celebrity and the media and mocking the holy Hell out of them. This is specifically true of the Spears’ spoof “Britney’s New Look”, “About Last Night”‘s Ocean’s 11 riff on the Obama/McCain election, and the spoof on take down of the High School Musical/Twilight craze (“Elementary School Musical/“The Ungroundable”); (2) the actual parodies of popular titles, as in Cloverfield/Quarantine‘s “Pandemic” and “Pandemic 2: The Startling”, the Heavy Metal mayhem of “Major Boobage”, and the memorable mistreatment of a certain iconic action figure and his latest adventure with a certain Crystal Skull in “The China Problem”; (3) and finally, the real world/little kids dynamic, where issues like AIDS (“Tonsil Trouble”), the use/abuse of the Internet (“Over Logging”) and the dilemma of fighting a girl (“Breast Cancer Show Ever”) are discussed. Toss in a look at “Canada on Strike”, a town literally screaming “Eek, A Penis!”, and life or death struggle for a “Super Fun Time”, and you’ve got 14 amazing episodes of side-splitting satire.
For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.
Of all the previous seasons of the show, it’s safe to say that twelve is perhaps the most consistent. Sure, it offers the polarizing pleasures of something like “Britney’s New Look” (in which the shrill chanteuse shoots her own face off - and takes America by storm with this new ‘trainwreck’ look) or the “Pandemic” duo (where the only thing standing between the planet and complete annihilation by giant guinea pigs is Peruvian flute band music), but as the bonus features indicate, even these episodes are part of a process that is scattershot in name only. For months, Parker and Stone will agonize over ideas, waiting for the right inspiration to strike. Only then will they cure Cartman and Kyle’s HIV with an infusion of cash - straight cash - or turn the entire country into a desperate Dust Bowl where access to the World Wide Web is the new personal dream. Some inspirations are shelved out of sheer time factors. The breast-oriented “Major Boobage” almost didn’t air because Parker and Stone failed to realize how long it would take to render their ideas in standard pen and ink animation.
Yet all the kvetching and care really shows, from the pristine first person POV filmmaking riffs in “Pandemic”, to the allusions to cinematic rapes past in “The China Problem”. And don’t think our heroes are having second thoughts about skewering Lucas and Spielberg for turning Indiana Jones into an aging joke. On their typical “commentary-mini” tracks, the duo make it very clear that they would stand up to the Star Wars/Schindler’s List pair in a heartbeat, cursing them out for destroying a favored motion picture idol. Elsewhere, they hint at how inconsistent their memories of Heavy Metal were with the film itself, explain the natural defense mechanisms of the Cavia porcellus, and wonder out loud how Comedy Central censors allowed a shot of Randy Marsh covered in “man goo” to make it to broadcast. Indeed, when listening to these crafty creators (or their equally entertaining crew), one gets the distinct impression of artists still rabidly in love with what they do.
Of course, it comes with a price, and the boys love to lament their overwrought work schedule. Watching the behind the scenes documentary for “Super Fun Time” (divided into ‘days’ and spanning nearly 90 minutes), we begin to understand the level of hard work involved. Because it deals in dirty words and tacky toilet humor, critics assume that this stuff is equally simple in creation. But as we soon discover, there is a painstaking process of animatics, rewrites, design changes, and storyline shifts made in the days between the recording of the temp track and the actual airdate. In fact, for the Obama episode, material was being written almost immediately after the President-elect made his acceptance speech. This has also given South Park the difficult task of remaining forever timely. But Parker is quick to point out that they will take on something only when they have something to say, not the moment the news breaks. Fans, however, aren’t so forgiving.
With a genuine masterwork of a series 13 premiere (Disney’s dippy Jonas Brothers ruin Kenny’s chance at some grade school sex), and the promise of more provocation to come, it’s clear that South Park won’t be stopping any time soon. Unlike other popular animated shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy, there’s no debate over “jumping the shark” or overstaying their entertainment welcome. It seems like, even when the push the envelope and go further than most funnymen would dare venture, Trey Parker and Matt Stone maintain a kind of integrity that’s impossible to duplicate. Heck, to last in the low profile waystation that is basic cable deserves some manner of acknowledgment. As one of the few water cooler cartoons left, South Park‘s twelfth season stands as an amazing accomplishment. As with previous DVD releases, it certifies that, as long as they have the drive and the determination to keep going, Parker and Stone will remain the rebels of 2D delirium.