Celebrating 15 years of South Park
Paul celebrates fifteen years of South Park (yes, you are that old), and looks at why it's worked so well, and for so long...
It’s indicative of how far we’ve come in 15 years that the idea that an eight-year-old calling another eight-year old an asshole would inspire anything other than glazed eyes now seems adorably quaint, like when cigarettes were prescribed by doctors for hysteria.
In 1997, though, the animated portrayal of swearing kids in South Park was transgressive enough to invoke widespread debates about moral decline, infuriate the self-appointed social and cultural guardians, and propel the show both to the top of the cable ratings and to the forefront of pop-cultural consciousness, a position it has managed to maintain to this day.
How South Park has, against all odds, managed stay relevant and reach over 220 episodes is primarily by remaining funny, and secondly by retaining its power to shock. Admittedly your mileage may vary as to whether it’s still as funny as it was, and every season is greeted with message board proclamations about it being the Worst Season Ever, but the decline in quality has been nothing like as pronounced as a certain other long-running animated comedy sitcom that introduced that particular saying into the lexicon.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s brand of comedy is still as recognisable and distinctive as ever, in South Park as well as in the hugely successful side projects of Team America and The Book Of Mormon: unashamedly scatological, powerfully surreal, fearlessly confrontational, whilst also somehow managing to be remain disarmingly sweet and hopeful, with a steadfast moral centre. Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay South Park is that, 15 years after it first premiered, there is still nothing else on television quite like it.
One of the most notable things about the show is its genuinely remarkable production process, where writing, voice-overs, storyboarding and animation for each episode is condensed into the six days leading up to broadcast, with Trey Parker assuming sole writing and directing responsibilities. While this unusually accelerated way of doing things results in the odd clunker, the advantage is that South Park can remain relevant and topical in a way that is the envy of more nakedly political live action shows; let alone South Park’s animated peers, many of which have script-to-screen production periods that last close to a year.
Some have argued that this ability to comment on topical events has negatively affected the show – it’s become too preachy, too focused on delivering a ‘message’ as opposed to telling a funny story. This change in focus was almost certainly necessary, however, as Parker and Stone have said, in order to remain provocative – they saw that poo jokes and kids swearing wasn’t going to stay shocking forever, and sure enough the early episodes seem positively tame in comparison to later season efforts.
Portraying Barbra Streisand as a fire-breathing Mechagodzilla, which elicited whispered giggles of astonishment at the time, doesn’t have quite the same impact when you’ve seen Mel Gibson in a nappy smearing his own shit over the walls, or Paris Hilton being forcibly and wholly inserted into the anus of a bondage clad submissive gay man named Mr Slave.
There’s almost guaranteed to be an episode of South Park that crosses your own personal boundary, and indeed one of things that unsettles people the most about Parker and Stone’s work is their distrust for political sacred cows. They show equal distaste for liberal viewpoints as they do conservative, if not more so – as with most predominantly artistic communities, Hollywood is dominated by those on the left, so Parker and Stone’s eagerness to attack the likes of Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore and Al Gore has led to many of their Tinseltown contemporaries to dismiss them as Republican sympathisers.
Likewise, Republicans are so desperate for a comedian, any comedian to be anything other than completely opposed to them that they have been quick to claim them as their own, with one right-leaning American commentator coining the term ‘South Park conservative’ to describe the young, typically male South Park viewer who subscribes to the political ideology supposedly espoused by the show.
In reality, rather than subscribing to the viewpoint of any political party, it’s precisely this ‘you’re either with us, or against us’ mentality that Parker and Stone are satirising. However, they definitely seem to attack targets on the left with a little more zeal – perhaps precisely because they’re harder targets for comedians to aim at. Stone may have summed up the South Park approach to politics in a recent interview when he said, “I hate Republicans, but I really fucking hate liberals.”
Perhaps South Park’s most notable run-ins with controversy during its run have been with religions and religious groups. You could argue that this is because religious fanatics are more – well, fanatical than other lobbying groups, but there’s an equal case to be made that the pair reserve a special level of vitriol for organised religion, as they’ve returned to attack certain targets again and again: the Catholic Church and its fervent covering-up of scandals, Scientology, the absurdity of anti-Semitism, Scientology, Mormonism, Christian self-righteousness, and Scientology. The fearlessness with which the South Park team take on, for want of a better term, sacred cows, and their refusal to censor or dilute their attacks, has over the years become one of its defining characteristics.
It’s hard to over-estimate how ballsy South Park has been in its 15 year run – it’s demonstrated fearlessness in the face of just about every taboo imaginable, a fearlessness that has led to the world’s most powerful institutions being provoked into a fury, and ultimately created an overall cultural impact so significant, it has even led to the lives of the creators being threatened. Not bad for some swearing eight-year-olds.
With that in mind, next time we’ll be celebrating ten of the ballsiest episodes in South Park history...