The top 10 ballsiest South Park episodes
Join us in a look at the 10 most offensive episodes in South Park's 15-year history. Is a warning even necessary?
Following on from our celebration of South Park's 15th anniversary (you'll find a link down at the bottom!), it seems logical then to salute the episodes that have really help the show push at the many boundaries it has. So here we are.
The following aren’t necessarily the show’s ten best episodes, but a collection of those that represent the particular brand of South Park rebellion at its most pointed and offensive.
10. Krazy Kripples
Krazy Kripples focuses on the two handicapped boys in Stan, Kyle and Cartman’s year, Jimmy and Timmy. South Park’s treatment of disability has always been remarkably (if deceptively) progressive: while it’s decidedly un-PC, with laughs being mined from their appearance and weird speech patterns, they’re also both proper characters who are regularly involved throughout the show, and rarely wheeled (pardon the pun) out just for the sake of a cheap gag. The South Park attitude to disabled people is that pretending that they don’t exist out of politeness or embarrassment is as just bad as hateful bullying. It seems this approach has been successful within the disabled community – a BBC poll found that Timmy was voted the best disabled character of all time, and proved much more popular among disabled voters than he did amongst the able-bodied.
The plot of episode features the lovable duo attempting to join LA’s infamous Crips gang, mistaking them for a club for handicapped people like them. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of this episode is the sub-plot, one of the most surreal in the show’s history: Christopher Reeve (the episode was produced before his unfortunate death), in his advocacy for stem cell research, uses the stem cells to become a super villain with over powering strength, in the process doing battle with his Superman co-star Gene Hackman (‘Hack-Man’). He achieved his powers by sucking the blood out of unborn foetuses, in one of the most disgusting sight gags you will ever see, anywhere.
9. All About the Mormons
This is one of the most notable examples of what would become a Parker and Stone trademark when looking at religion – the dogma, rituals and mythology are presented almost totally straight, with a lot of attention to detail and little in the way of comedic embellishment. This in turn lets the absurdities inherent within the religion then speak for themselves.
The plot, where a Mormon family moves to South Park and disarms everyone with their unfailing niceness, is based on stories from Trey Parker’s youth – his high school girlfriend was Mormon, and he was regularly invited round for Family Event Night just like Stan is in this episode.
These experiences clearly had a big impact on the formative Trey Parker, as Mormonism has been a recurring theme in Parker’s work, with the lead character in their 1997 film Orgazmo being a Mormon, and of course their phenomenally acclaimed and successful stage musical The Book of Mormon being a reworking of a lot of the themes found in this episode.
8. Scott Tenorman Must Die
Not all of South Park’s most shocking moments have been related to a topical, hot button issue. One of the show’s biggest assets is Cartman, the corpulent, foul-mouthed uber-brat who is the show’s reliable voice of not-reason.
Scott Tenorman Must Die is a favourite amongst fans of the show – unfortunately, to explain exactly why it’s so good would be to spoil its brilliantly constructed plot. Needless to say, Cartman before ths episode comes across as an obnoxious, spoilt, unpleasant dickhead, but after the episode, the real truth is revealed: he’s utterly, dangerously, irredeemably insane. Which is quite a daring trait to apply to your most recognisable character, all things considered.
7. Hell on Earth
The plot of this episode – Satan holds a super sweet sixteen birthday party in Hell – is fairly tame stuff by South Park standards, even if it does feature Jeffery Dahmer, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy as Satan’s hapless helpers running party errands that descend into gore-drenched catastrophes.
The reason this episode makes this list is a throwaway joke late in the episode: at Satan’s costume party, a familiar looking Australian man is shown revelling with a stingray lodged in his chest. Satan, assuming that this is someone wearing a deliberately bad taste costume (Steve Irwin died in reality six weeks before the episode aired), chastises him (“It’s just a little soon, you know?”), before it’s revealed that this is in fact the real Steve Irwin, who now resides in Hell. On hearing this Satan ejects him from the party for not wearing a costume, and Irwin is dragged off shouting “I thought we were friends!”
This one joke got international coverage, and it’s interesting that with all of the other sensitive material covered by South Park, this was the moment that many long-term fans thought they had finally overstepped a boundary. They might have a point. It’s indefensible on just about every level – which is probably why it was so funny.
6. Douche and Turd
Not a classic episode by any means, but it’s a nice distillation of South Park’s attitude towards the political system. Screened just before the 2004 general election, see if you can spot the extremely subtle political allegory – when South Park Elementary’s cow mascot is scrapped due to complaints from PETA, the kids are asked to vote for a new one. Their choices? A giant douche, or a turd sandwich. Stan, arguing that there’s no real difference between a giant douche or a turd sandwich, refuses to vote – his apathy enrages both the rest of the town and Puff Daddy, head of the ‘Vote or Die’ campaign.
Parker is a registered libertarian, and this attitude towards the two main parties is a fairly representative of the libertarian philosophy. The timing of this episode, at a time when there were desperate measures being employed to get people (especially the young people who make up a large proportion of South Park’s audience) voting in a bid to prevent another four years of George Bush, annoyed liberals no end, which you imagine is exactly the response the South Park team wanted.
5. It Hits the Fan
George Carlin had a famous stand-up routine called the Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV, and the ludicrousness of the FCC, the standards and practices body that regulates television output, demonizing certain words (“Tits doesn’t even belong on the list, man…”). It Hits The Fan is South Park’s version of Carlin’s routine, only it concentrates on one word. Previously always the subject of bleeping, the word ‘shit’ makes its first and last appearance on the episode, albeit repeated over 200 times in the space of 20 minutes, with a counter in the corner helpfully tallying up each utterance.
When the word ‘shit’ is uttered on ‘Cop Drama’ (a reference t o word being first used on TV on Chicago Hope in the late nineties), usage of the word becomes widespread, and so popular so that entire programmes are produced with dialogue comprised exclusively of that word.
Unfortunately, the boys discover that the word is cursed, and its constant utterance is resulting in a resurgence of the Black Death – therefore, they must employ the Knights of Standards and Practices to banish the word from South Park forever. At the end, Stan concedes that “too much use of a dirty word takes away from its impact. We believe in free speech and all that, but keeping a few words taboo just adds to the fun of English.”
This moral is given even further weight if you’re privy to a bit of production history: Stone revealed that when the idea for the episode was taken to Comedy Central, they balked at what was originally three or four mentions of the word and rejected it. When the pair re-wrote it so that the word was used hundreds of times, the network had no problem with it, and passed it uncut.
Death is at first glance one of the least controversial episode on this list, but it’s still one of the most important episodes in South Park history, and easily represents one of its biggest risks.
Some fans have decreed that South Park is now too ‘preachy’ and focused on delivering a message than it is on telling funny stories about its characters. However, the series’ first episode to deal with hot button ‘issues’ came precisely six episodes in.
While South Park had already become a sensation with its first five instalments, the episodes themselves were seen as purely exercises in toilet humour and bad taste (even though there was more going on under the surface than people gave the boys credit for). Death, however, was a first for the show: an extremely ambitious episode that takes on the hugely thorny twin issues of censorship (a topic the show would return to over and over again) and euthanasia, in a storyline that depicts Stan’s grandfather as suicidal, as he begs his grandson to murder him.
The sub-plot features the parents of South Park staging a protest against Terrance and Phillip, the disgustingly puerile Canadian comedians beloved by their children, and in the process ignoring the real job of actually bringing them up. This plot went on to form the basis for the brilliant big-screen adaptation South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
‘Death’ is something of a turning point – after the episode, the show began to tackle topics in the news and moral issues with more and more regularity. Again, the argument rages whether this has been to the detriment of the show or not, but it’s inarguably played a huge role in its longevity.
3. Terrance and Phillip in ‘Not Without My Anus’
This was perhaps one of the first times Parker and Stone showed that they really are unafraid to give the proverbial middle finger to anyone – even their own audience. Especially their own audience.
The first season of South Park ended on a cliffhanger –who was Eric Cartman’s father? As hard as it seems to believe now, people were genuinely invested in this revelation and eagerly sat down to watch the second season premiere, ominously broadcast on April 1st.
The episode opened with a brief caption telling viewers that the scheduled episode with the big reveal was to be replaced with Not Without My Anus, a frankly ridiculous piece of surrealism featuring Saddam Hussein, Céline Dion, and of course the fart-happy duo of Terrance and Phillip.
To say people were annoyed is an understatement – Comedy Central received over 2,000 angry emails regarding the bait-and-switch, with many fans swearing never to watch the show again. Some critics were equally incensed, decrying the stunt as ‘fatal’ and that the South Park ‘phenomenon’ was over. Others saw it as either not that big a deal, or a genius move designed to separate those who watched the show for the dirty jokes from those who were prepared on board for something genuinely anarchic, mischievous and unafraid to mess with convention, even if it upset people. Fifteen years later, South Park is still on the air, and Not Without My Anus is something of a fan favourite.
2. Super Best Friends/Trapped in the Closet/The Return of Chef
These three episodes are three of the most famous the show has ever done, and without question three of the bravest. All three feature damning critiques of one of the least self-effacing and powerful ‘religions’ in the world: L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.
Super Best Friends is the tamest of the three (with one notable exception, which we’ll get to) – in the episode, the boys join Blaintology, a cult that bears a significant resemblance to another –ology, and require the Super Best Friends, a Justice League of famous religious figures, to help them defeat the evil Blaine. By South Park standards, the Scientologists, usually so quick to take umbrage, probably realised that they got off relatively lightly, and the episode didn’t make much of a stir.
Parker and Stone really stepped things up for Trapped in the Closet, however: a vicious two-pronged attack on both Tom Cruise (the title alludes to both R. Kelly’s insane song and the scene in the episode where Tom Cruise locks himself inside a closet and refuses to, erm, come out) and Scientology as a whole, repeating the trick of animating some of the more out-there sections of the church’s mythology, and standing back without comment. Well, almost no comment – the sequence detailing the history of thetans (human souls that are also independently immortal spiritual beings), and how the evil alien dictator Lord Xenu fiendishly attempted to manipulate them, is overlaid with the withering caption “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE”.
This flippant attitude towards core beliefs of Scientology was given extra spice as the story it details is top secret, and unavailable to even many lower-level Scientologists – you have to spend thousands of dollars to reach level three clearance before this story is revealed to you. The end of episode acknowledged the Church of Scientology’s notoriously litigious nature with one of the all time great South Park moments: all the Scientologists in the show threaten to sue Stan after he belittles their faith, to which he responds “Fine! Go ahead and sue!” Cut to a credits reel where the names of all of the South Park cast and crew have been replaced with John and Jane Smith.
This episode proved hugely controversial, with rumours abounding that Tom Cruise demanded that the episode be pulled from Comedy Central’s schedules (the episode was pulled, but there was no explanation as to why, and the evidence linking this to Cruise was circumstantial).
There was an even bigger knock on effect from the episode, however. Isaac Hayes, who played the boys’ lovable confidant Chef, was a practising Scientologist, and not longer after the show aired, issued a statement resigning from the show and accusing Parker and Stone of ‘intolerance and bigotry’ with regards to religious beliefs, to which the pair retorted that Hayes didn’t seem to have any problem when they were satirizing one of the myriad other religions that they had targeted.
The next episode to air after this furore was The Return of Chef, where Chef (voiced hilariously by cut-ups of previous lines spoken by Hayes in the show) returns to South Park having been brainwashed by a cult. The episode ends with Chef being gruesomely killed, but also with Kyle poignantly saying that the boys weren’t mad at Chef for leaving, but rather that ‘fruity little club’ that brainwashed him.
Rumours abounded later that Hayes’ health was such that he would have been unable to put out a statement like the one he did, and that he had been prompted to put it out by others. Sadly he died two years later, and the South Park team dedicated the episode The China Probrem to him.
The Scientology episodes were for a brief period South Park’s most notorious ever, but there was to be a even bigger controversy on the horizon, first hinted at in Super Best Friends. The coalition of religious leaders in the episode included Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Joseph Smith, and a Muslim prophet with ‘the powers of flame’ identified as Muhammad.
This depiction of Mohammed, whilst strictly something that has historically been incredibly offensive to practising Muslims, passed with little to no controversy at the time of airing – but when Parker and Stone attempted to repeat the joke a few years later, the reaction was markedly different…
1. Cartoon Wars Pt. 1 and 2/200/201
Cartoon Wars at first seemed primarily to be a broadswipe against one of South Park’s primary cartoon rivals, Family Guy, and its supposed over-reliance on cut-away jokes and gag humour. At one point, Cartman says “I am nothing like Family Guy! When I make jokes they are inherent to a story! Deep situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a point, not just one random interchangeable joke after another!”
The supposedly arbitrary nature of Family Guy’s stories is represented in the show by the presentation of Family Guy writers as manatees, who construct stories by fishing for balls with jokes and pop culture references attached to them.
This bit of sniping in itself would have made Cartoon Wars noteworthy, but what made the episode infamous was its attempt to once again portray Mohammad onscreen, only this time right in the middle of the furore surrounding the publication of Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad.
In the episode, when word gets out that Family Guy plans to show Mohammad on an upcoming episode, there is widespread panic, and the boys are torn between whether the episode should be shown or not, with those on the side of freedom of speech (Kyle), sensitivity to others (also Kyle, for a while) and outright hatred of Family Guy (Cartman). In the end, Kyle makes an impassioned speech in favour of the right to free expression, and the episode is aired…only when Cartoon Wars aired on Comedy Central, the image of Mohammad was replaced by an ominous black screen with the words “Comedy Central will not allow an image of Mohammad to be broadcast on their network.” This was then followed by a pointed coda, supposedly created in retaliation by terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, where Jesus Christ is shown defecating on George Bush and the American flag.
The impact of these episodes is hard to overestimate – the debate over whether to show the image goes on for 40 odd minutes, and the case for free speech is made so clearly and urgently that the black screen and white text disclaimer popping up at the cathartic moment constitutes as one of the most genuinely jaw-dropping television moments of the past few decades.
It was appropriate then that the pair should return to the controversy for 200, the appropriately title 200th episode of South Park, which featured a cornucopia of past appearances, in-jokes and call-backs for long-time fans of the show, in a plot where all of the people South Park has offended over the past 200 episodes (there are many) join forces to sue the town – the instigator of the lawsuit, Tom Cruise, agrees to drop the suit only if he can meet Mohammad, a demand that sends the town into another panic over reprisals.
At first, Mohammad is allegedly placed in a bear suit in order not to cause offense, although this later turns out to be a decoy of Santa Claus. Like Cartoon Wars, however, the episode ends on a cliffhanger, with a depiction of Mohammad teased for the next episode. In between the airing of 200 and 201, the New York based radical Muslim group Revolution Muslim warned that there would be violent retribution were South Park to depict Mohammad, and that Parker and Stone would “probably end up like Theo Van Gogh”, a film-maker who was murdered by an Islamic extremist after making a documentary criticising violence against women in predominantly Muslim societies.
As a result, Comedy Central heavily censored 201, placing a black box over all appearances of Mohammad, and bleeping out huge portions of dialogue spoken by Kyle, Jesus, and Santa Claus, all in support of free speech. The move by the network was heavily criticised by fans of the show, fellow cartoonists, leading academics, and the public as a whole as caving in to intimidation– a survey showed that 71% of people believed 201 should have aired uncensored. Comedy Central stood by their decision, claiming that the safety of their employees was paramount above all other concerns, and both episodes still heavily censored. They are still yet to be shown on UK TV, or released on R2 DVD.
In many ways 200 and 201 are South Park’s greatest statements on the importance of free speech and the fight against censorship, two battles Parker and Stone have been waging since the show’s inception, and the network imposed censorship only serves to enhance their power: the sight of crudely blacked out images is far more shocking that a caricature of Mohammad could ever be.
In a neat bit of circularity, Seth Macfarlane, creator of Family Guy, was asked what he thought of Comedy Central’s decision to censor South Park. He began, somewhat disingenuously, by saying, “No-one is a bigger critic of organised religion than I am”, but then went on, “It's tricky. You pick your battles. You have to judge how real the threat is against how funny the joke is. How much do I care about the joke?”
And with that last sentence, Parker and Stone finally have their point proved in a nutshell: South Park really is nothing like Family Guy.
See Also: Celebrating 15 years of South Park