Most of the “Top # Characters” rankings you’ll see on the internet are pretty subjective. Inherent in entertainment produced for the broad public eye and ear is the fact that people don’t agree on many things. Life experience and genetically-determined personality factors determine, to a large degree, what we find funny or endearing or repulsive; since we’re lucky enough to live in a world where individual differences exist, fans of a television show or movie or book are bound to disagree on any effort to rank characters. Most of the comments on this ranking, in fact, will probably be folks calling me stupid and postulating their own, 100% objectively correct rankings. That’s fine. Long live online discourse.
But I think that one small shift in approach will be sufficient to make this ranking very worthy of your veneration. You see, most lists of this type take what I’ll call the “Heisman” approach. The Heisman Trophy is awarded to college football’s most outstanding player. What makes a player outstanding, of course, differs from voter to voter, especially when said players compete at different positions on the field. As little of a unifying standard as there is in college football, there’s even less in the field of character rankings. In my judgment of “best character,” I could be a huge sucker for adorability and, on that basis, rank Tweek Tweak in the top three here. (He’s not in the top three.) Or I could approach this from the point of view of societal good and decide that Big Gay Al, a very minor but pioneering character in animated television, belongs above Stan and Kyle.
Instead of going for any number of factors that constitutes “most outstanding,” I’ll be taking the “MVP” approach. A sport’s MVP award, at least ostensibly, should be given to the player whose performance was most indispensable to his team. This is a far more quantifiable measure than the vague word “best,” and has probably been best utilized in baseball, where the WAR stat measures precisely how many wins a player has contributed to his team’s record. Even in sports that don’t have WAR, the idea of “most indispensable to the team” does a nice job of leveling the playing field and selecting the highest quality player, rather than merely the best one on the best team (often the deciding factor in the Heisman race is, absurdly, team success).
You see where I’m going with this. This is a list of South Park’s 20 “best” characters, but “best” is only in the headline so people can find this on Google. Whenever you see the word “best,” mentally replace it with the phrase “most indispensable.” The sole question I’ll be asking in these rankings is this: if the character were erased from the show’s history, how much would it have suffered? With any luck, that’ll leave us with the most comprehensive ranking of South Park characters ever produced, just in time for the iconic show’s 20th season premiere.
20. Tweek Tweak
Poor Tweek. Caffeine is probably the opposite of the recommended treatment for severe anxiety, but coffee is all he ever drinks. If this were a ranking of South Park’s most adorable characters, as I said earlier, he’d probably fall somewhere in the top three. But his limited screentime puts a hard cap on how high he can rise here. Tweek’s stint as the fourth member of the Boys did give us some memorable moments (“HAMMERTIME!”) and although he seldom carries a story today, his most recent appearance—as Craig’s “lover” in the absurd “Tweek x Craig”—provided one of Season 19’s absolute standout moments.
19. Liane Cartman
Liane lands here mostly because of her relationship with her son, which verges on toxic. Having Liane on the show puts Eric’s behavior into context, and the few episodes that focus on their bond (or lack thereof) are highlights—”Tsst” could have been the end of sociopathic Cartman as we knew him. Aside from that, her past as the idiomatic village bicycle, while never directly addressed, adds color to the South Park fabric.
18. Terrance and Phillip
Is the Canadian comedy duo incredibly relevant to the show’s day-to-day activities? Not in the slightest. But in serving as South Park’s first exercise in self-parody, Terrance and Phillip established a precedent that has continued to this day. You can trace the Randy-as-Lorde and PC Principal story arcs, two of the chief highlights of the recent South Park resurgence, to the moment that Parker and Stone decided to create a depiction of what a show composed entirely of fart jokes—critics’ harshest debasement of their baby—would actually look like.
17. Token Black
There’s only one black family in South Park, a snide little fact that in itself carries some heft in a Hollywood world that still underrepresents minorities on the screen. Token, besides being a reliable member of the boys’ crew when called upon, gives Parker and Stone the opportunity to address racial issues in a traditionally unorthodox way: he’s pretty much the opposite of every black stereotype, with the exception of his bass skills. By depicting Token as a rich kid whose only difference from his friends is his skin color, the show is able to effectively skewer racism, pointing out that it exists independently of socioeconomic status (though it acknowledges that these factors are often conflated).
16. Jimmy Valmer
By no means is Jimmy vital to South Park—in fact, the show makes explicit reference to his redundancy as a handicapped kid in the Season 5 episode “Cripple Fight”—but since his introduction, he’s gotten enough of the focus and enough hilarious bits to endear himself to the fan community. His delivery of “you shall not p-p-p-paa-” remains one of the early years’ most memorable gags. Jimmy’s main value to the show, though, is his unflappable optimism, which is unmatched by any of the main boys and makes him a welcome recipient of the occasional featured storyline.
15. Saddam Hussein
One of South Park’s most idiosyncratic, memorable traits has been its wide variety of celebrity lampoons, and none is more memorable than the flappy-headed, Satan-abusing Saddam. At a time when Hussein was viewed as perhaps the most dangerous person in the world to American interests, his reduction to Satan’s peevish, pushy lover defanged the very idea of him, destroying with its patent ridiculousness any aura he may have possessed at one point.
We never would have had the Muhammad controversies if South Park had never put Jesus on the screen. In keeping with the show’s iconoclastic tenor and reduction of the extraordinary to business as usual, Jesus is just a regular, unassuming citizen of the town—still special, still the son of God, but with any sense of mysticism stripped away. South Park’s thesis statement over the past two decades might be reduced to “nothing is holy,” and having Jesus fight Satan in the first season pretty much sealed that deal.
13. Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo
No character is more thoroughly South Park than Mr. Hankey. His appearance in the Season 1 Christmas special that bears his name was the most absurd thing the show had done to that point, a capstone on a group of episodes that had to that point featured a gay dog, an elephant having sex with a pig, and angry parents catapulting themselves to their deaths against a TV network building. Those other things made strong points, but a talking piece of shit reached a new level of gross.
That South Park was able to use said talking piece of shit to make a cogent point about religion was a real eye-opener to the critical and popular viewing community. Mr. Hankey blew the doors of possibility wide open.
12. Wendy Testaburger
She’s faded into the background a little in recent years, but the fact remains: don’t fuck with Wendy Testaburger.
Wendy’s been a pretty consistent, reliable, feminist voice of reason since nearly the outset of the show. That’s what makes it so hilarious when she’s pushed past her breaking point, which happened a fair few times over the first half of the show’s run. Sometimes it’s a more innocent type of aggression (if you can call shooting the class’s substitute teacher into the sun “innocent”), but more often, her loss of composure is a symbol of how totally messed up society is. If a girl as intelligent and put-together as Wendy feels forced to get breast implants to compete for boys’ attention or beat the shit out of a trolling Cartman to win an argument, what are the rest of us to do?
11. Kenny McCormick
Kenny’s value to South Park is interesting to parse out. On one hand, he’s almost exclusively been a plot device or a running gag, the show’s equivalent of the Star Trek Redshirt. On the other hand, he’s been a core member of the group from the very beginning, and he literally can’t die. (Guess that one regeneration at the end of Season 5 took a long time.) So what do we make of the little boy in the parka? I think the fact that his many deaths have become a cultural touchstone push him higher on this list than he would otherwise fall. Even newer fans of the show know that Kenny used to die in every episode, and that blasé treatment of mortality set the tone for South Park’s irreverence from the moment of Kenny’s first demise: a classic that involves him being shot by an alien spaceship, then trampled by cows, then run over by a police car.