In the August 12, 1997 issue of Variety, critic Ray Richmond reviewed South Park and wrote: “Here it is, the show that will bring down the republic, that will warp your mind, that will fry the little brain cells inside the heads of impressionable children – – the one that God himself warned you about. It’s South Park, the cartoon from hell; Peanuts meets A Clockwork Orange.”
Oh, how prophetic Mr. Richmond’s words were. However, as much as these words, echoed by many, seemed like a warning for all who attempted to watch South Park enter carefully, most everyone didn’t bother to heed these warnings.
South Park exploded into pop culture with the force of character Eric Cartman’s profanity-laden rants. With quotes, images, and characters plastered across the zeitgeist, becoming one of the iconic images of the late ‘90s. South Park brought its own form of inappropriateness that audiences wanted to turn away from but couldn’t.
Debuting on August 13, 1997, on Comedy Central, it’s hard to believe that South Park is celebrating its twenty-sixth anniversary this year.
The genesis for South Park came from two animated short films entitled, The Spirit of Christmas. It was the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who met in film class. The short films made their way to a mutual friend, an executive at Fox Broadcasting, who shared the videos with others and soon became one of the first viral hits.
This eventually led Parker and Stone to meetings with Comedy Central and the debut of South Park. The pilot episode was entitled “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” which spoke volumes of what audiences could expect from the show.
All of this was brought to life through some unique animation, inspired by the paper-cut animation by Terry Gilliam that appeared in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The pilot episode employed this cut-out paper and a stop-motion technique, while later episodes accomplished the same style by using computer animation.
South Park centered on four young boys: Stan, the “everyman” of the group, and Kyle, who feels like the outcast in the group (and his Jewish faith as a plot point in many episodes has drawn both criticism and praise from many), Eric, is loud-mouthed and inappropriate in every way, and Kenny, who can only be heard mumbling inside his parka and usually winds up dead in every episode.
The fictional Colorado town of South Park, where the characters all live, is populated with just as many eccentric supporting characters, such as Mr. Mackey, their somewhat strait-laced school teacher with his catchphrase, “M’kay;” Butters, a young, gullible student at school; Stan’s completely off-kilter parents Randy and Sharon; Timmy a disabled student and a gamut of other characters that included everyone from Santa to Jesus.
Some of the more infamous and controversial episodes included one in which Stan is recruited into Scientology, which was a no-holds-barred skewering of the religion and many of the famous names that follow it; in another, the boys help Brittany Spears from committing suicide and try to shuttle her away to the North Pole is a pointed statement against the status of celebrity and the power of the Paparazzi; and there was the episode featuring the self-explanatory, Mr. Hankey The Christmas Poo, who defied all the odds by becoming an iconic image from the show, appearing on numerous pieces of merchandise.
No one and nothing were safe from South Park. There were no “off limits” for the show. And viewers were there for it all. By the second season, the show set a record as the highest-rated non-sports show in basic cable history.
It’s no surprise that South Park became controversial. It’s also no surprise that Trey and Stone celebrated the show’s controversies in the episodes “200” and “201” (denoting the episode numbers). The plot of “200” centered on celebrities who have been mocked by the town’s residents, filing a class action lawsuit. However, in the episode, actor Tom Cruise offers to drop the lawsuit if South Park citizens can arrange for the prophet Muhammad to meet with him.
In yet another ironic layer, this episode stirred up even more controversy with a radical Muslim organization threatening Trey and Stone. According to “Screen Rant’s” website, both episodes have been pulled from circulation on Comedy Central, the South Park site, and any streaming platforms.
The popularity of South Park led to a full-length feature, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which was released in the summer of 1999. With an R rating, what shackles there were on TV were off, and Trey and Stone were freer to do as they pleased (and they did!)
The film was not only a tremendous hit, going head-to-head with blockbusters like Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Disney’s Tarzan, but it also received an Oscar nomination for best song “Blame Canada.”
Over twenty-five years later, South Park is still airing on Comedy Central. In an article on the website “Den of Geek,” in 2019, writer Matthew Byrd noted how the show is the last survivor of the 90s era of “shock TV,” that brought such other shows as Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead.
Of South Park’s staying power, Byrd wrote: “It finds the universal message in the most divisive of topics and uses comedy as a megaphone to ensure we never forget that being shocked is a pretty good indication that we never cease being aware of the absurdity that we so often create for ourselves.”