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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
When Timmy burst onto the scene in Season 4, he represented a major step forward in the depiction of profoundly disabled people on television. No show had ever featured a character with his sort of handicap before, much less done so in a way that normalized the handicap. The boys all know Timmy’s “retarded,” they accept that fact, and they move on with their lives, treating him like an otherwise normal member of the gang and involving him in their various activities.
Though Timmy’s role has declined in recent seasons, the very fact that he’s present at all in the South Park universe is a statement of Parker and Stone’s values. Though they’re unafraid to insult any given group and have seemed, at times, to mock people who care overly much about various subjects, the duo is firmly on the side of greater societal tolerance and breaking down stigmata. That’s an important fact to keep in mind before one criticizes the show’s increasingly old school no-prisoners attitude.
We’ll obviously get to Randy further down this list, but I want to make sure we acknowledge Sharon’s importance to his character’s development. She serves as a reasonable foil to her husband’s antics—in fact, since a certain someone further down the list died, she’s been perhaps the only reasonable adult in all of South Park—and provides a normal against which he can act out. Randy would still be hilarious if he were single, but many of his funniest moments come out of the situation of his marriage. Certainly, we’d be missing out on every instance of “Hey Sharon.”
But perhaps the most important reason to include Sharon on this list is her responsibility for the incredible emotional stakes of “You’re Getting Old,” perhaps South Park’s best episode of the 2010s and the most ready signal that Parker and Stone are capable of high drama as well as fart jokes. That episode single-handedly rejuvenated what was then a sputtering show, enabling it to come roaring back from the depths of cynicism’s logical extreme, and Sharon, not Randy, was its primary catalyst.
Unique among South Park’s residents, Mr. Garrison has actually undergone significant change over the past twenty years. In the early days, he filled the role in which Randy currently stars: batshit crazy adult. Then there was the whole seasons-long arc concerning his sexuality, which provided for some classic moments and allowed for us to meet Mr. Slave. Now, after a lengthy period following his Season 12 reversion to male in which he mostly did a whole lotta nothing, Garrison’s back in the spotlight, campaigning for the presidency on his “Fuck ‘Em All To Death” ticket alongside Caitlyn Jenner. He’s already raped and murdered Donald Trump, so he’ll have to carry the show alone through this election season.
Garrison, when being used regularly by Parker and Stone, provides the sort of episode-to-episode dynamism that not many other characters (save for PC Principal) are capable of generating. And though he languished for a long while and his renaissance doesn’t count much toward the “indispensable” label yet, he was instrumental in South Park’s treatment of LGBT issues from approximately Season 3 onward. He also opened up the door for a lot of the show’s weirdness, since, in comparison to Garrison, everyone in the town is normal and completely not fucked-up.
It might seem a little premature to add him to this list, but I’m a firm believer in PC Principal’s importance to South Park if the series’ relevance will hold up over the next several seasons. The primary reason that Season 19 was hailed as the show’s best in nearly a decade is that it fully embraced the serial format Parker and Stone had begun to explore in Season 18 (you know, the one where Randy is Lorde). The season-long plot arc wouldn’t have worked without PC Principal coming into town to shake things up, and now that it looks like he’s here to stay, he suddenly makes South Park Elementary an interesting setting again.
It’s not just that PC Principal ushered in this brave new era of South Park’s style, though…it’s the perspective he represents. This show is one of the few remaining bastions of offense comedy in an entertainment world whose millennial audiences have increasingly come to favor more positive, more diverse humor. Parker and Stone are astute guys; they’re aware that they stand nearly alone. So what’s their response? Take ownership of the opposition, shooting winking mea culpas at their own anti-PC tendencies while simultaneously lampooning the near-totalitarian stances of some of the more radical progressive-types. PC Principal exists to keep South Park in that careful equilibrium, and the show’s ability to play the political correctness issue (and so many others) down the middle has been crucial for its continued relevance.
How can I rank a character so high when that character has now been dead for more than half the show’s total run? I think you’ll find your answer when you look at the stylistic turn South Park has taken since Chef’s demise in the Season 10 premiere. For the first nine seasons of the show, Chef was just about the only reasonable adult in the town, an anchor upon whom the kids could and did rely when the typical SNAFU struck. He, not their parents, was their main source of adult wisdom, in every sense of the word, and it allowed for the boys to just be boys.
Then Isaac Hayes decided to get offended over South Park’s treatment of Scientology, and Parker and Stone left his character to be torn apart by wild animals in a chasm. Since then, the town has been almost completely devoid of sane grown-ups. The boys, lacking their great mentor, have themselves had to grow up. You’ll notice a slow increase in Stan’s cynicism starting in Season 10 and culminating with the seminal “You’re Getting Old.” Kyle, though he was never friendly with Cartman, seems to have lost any semblance of patience. With Chef died the blithe innocence that colored South Park’s early era of satire. Some people would say the show has never recovered that level of consistent quality; I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I would say that last season was the first since Chef’s passing that felt like something new.
Second only to Randy Marsh in how high his star has risen over the past two decades, Butters has become a core member of the Boys. His naiveté make him the perfect counterpart for Cartman—if young Eric only ever had Kyle’s adversarial relationship to work with, we never would have glimpsed the more manipulative side of his personality.
More importantly, Butters has kept South Park’s original premise intact. At the start, its humor largely came from the innocence of the boys in the face of completely ridiculous events, an innocence that allowed them to clearly see what actually mattered and discard the rest as frivolous bullshit. Two decades in, it’s hard to argue that Stan and Kyle haven’t been hardened by their insane experiences (Kenny was always hardened). Enter Butters, whose sheltered upbringing has allowed him to chime in with commentary and jokes the main quartet stopped being able to deliver well over a decade ago. It would be impossible to imagine any of the kids but Butters getting a ninja star stuck in his eye, or going to pray-away-the-gay camp, or somehow becoming an actual pimp, or becoming a Mexican hero—and because those stories have maintained South Park’s robust childlike gaze, they’ve been crucial to the show’s graceful aging. If Butters had stayed in the background, Parker and Stone would’ve run out of fresh ideas by the end of the Bush presidency.
Over the past decade or so, there’s been a pretty obvious shift in the South Park fan base’s character preference toward Randy. Part of that is the result of the show’s audience growing up; the college-age kids and twenty-somethings who’ve been with Parker and Stone since 1997 are now about Randy’s age, and they can slide all-too-comfortably into his shoes when it comes to marital and family issues. And of course, as Parker and Stone have grown older, they’ve been able to build their own changing perspectives into Randy, who, among his many roles, is a man in permanent midlife crisis. That’s the driving force behind his cycle of obsessions (cooking, Broadway shows, tween wave, cock magic, etc.), and his obsessions are almost always hilarious enough to mask their sort of depressing soul.
It wasn’t until about Season 5 or 6 that Parker and Stone started giving Randy more of the spotlight, and he’s run with it, enough so that he warranted one of Paste’s lists of 20 best quotes. Beyond the aging male insecurity factor discussed above, his humor comes from his status as an unintelligent liberal—one of South Park’s great triumphs is its acknowledgement that those exist—and his general tendency to be absurd. Randy can essentially pull off anything on screen because he himself is the joke, and in the show’s latter days, when it’s often had to reach for funny moments, he’s been its most consistent comedic engine by far.
You can’t really separate these two. Yes, Stan and Kyle are different characters with significantly different personalities: Kyle’s more hotheaded and morally righteous, Stan’s more relaxed and prone to apathy (and you can see traces of Randy in him at times). But they’ve been linked as inseparable best friends from the show’s first episode, and therefore for the purposes of this list, they’re functionally equivalent.
This might seem a tad high at first blush. But take away either Stan or Kyle, and what would you have left? At first glance, you would still have a pretty strong foundation, with most of the funniest characters left untouched…but then you realize that these characters would have a significantly decreased sandbox in which to be funny. Kyle’s departure—which almost happened in Season 5 before Parker and Stone decided to instead kill off Kenny “for good”—would leave Cartman without a balancing moral force and Butters without his readiest ally. Stan’s departure would leave Randy without a son to constantly try to impress. The straight man in a comedy duo is necessary not only to keep the act grounded in reality, but also to set up the other guy’s jokes. Given all they’ve been through and the crazy people who surround them, Stan and Kyle can lay claim to being some of television’s best straight men ever.
You could make a strong case for Randy to be here—and if you only take recent seasons into account and go by the “most outstanding” criterion, I’d say Randy should definitely be here—but when you look at all 20 years of South Park, there can be no doubt: without Cartman, there would never have been a reason to watch this show.
From the start, he’s been the most memorable character, even when he was just the fat, grumpy little asshole who usually got into the stickiest parts of the boys’ predicaments. Over the intervening years, Cartman has morphed into one of television’s great sociopaths. You can trace that development from his near-victorious Confederate Army campaign in “The Red Badge of Gayness,” but his turn isn’t completed until “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” an episode whose ending I wish I could watch with virgin eyes to experience the utter shock it caused upon first release. Since then, his crimes have only deepened—they include attempted genocide, militant anti-Semitism, and straight up shooting Token—and his dynamic with Butters has become a recipe for near-guaranteed success. But one of the most important aspects of Cartman, and one of the most overlooked, is the fact that he’s…pretty unhinged, and increasingly so in recent years. We see aspects of this in episodes like “Tsst” and “1%,” each of which features semi-psychotic breakdowns, and his Cupid Me hallucination is downright disturbing. The fact that Parker and Stone have managed to build this development into Cartman in a show that has kept its characters the same age since 2000 showcases not just their creativity, but also Cartman’s dynamism. When South Park is a relic of memory centuries from now, that’s the reason Cartman will still be remembered.
Zach Blumenfeld has seen every episode of South Park at least twice and is stoked for this upcoming season. Follow him on Twitter.