Screw You Guys: South Park at 25, and How the Controversial Series Stayed Ahead of the Curve

TV Features South Park
Screw You Guys: South Park at 25, and How the Controversial Series Stayed Ahead of the Curve

On August 13, 1997, two young animators/BFFs named Matt Stone and Trey Parker debuted an adult animated series titled South Park on Comedy Central. Using a crudely designed paper cut-out style, it centered around four foul-mouthed 10-year-old boys (Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny) who resided in the small Rocky Mountain town of South Park, Colorado, and got into absurd scenarios daily. When the pilot aired, titled “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” (where aliens give Cartman… well, the title says it all), South Park immediately took the world by storm. It was and to this day still is the show that redefined adult animation. Its unapologetically vulgar, absurdist, and satirical perspective on contemporary American culture delighted audiences—from kids whose moms punished them for watching it to adults who couldn’t get enough of it—for 25 years straight. The legacy it has forged over a quarter century is a once-in-a-lifetime triumph. As of today, its recent wave of Paramount+ movies, new season orders, and now a 25th-anniversary concert just goes to show that South Park’s influence ain’t gonna just die off like Kenny anytime soon.

At the time of its arrival in ‘97, South Park’s crude and cynical nature blew the likes of The Simpsons—which was once deemed TV’s most risqué animated program—out of the water. Not only was it the first animated series to gracefully carry a TV-MA rating, but was one of the first major basic cable shows to do so, period. Very early in its run, it strived to merely be as outrageous, funny, and absurd as it could. That was part of its overall charm. What other series had the gall to include a running gag of a kid getting massacred, or feature recurring characters such as a homosexual satan, a pothead towel, and a talking piece of stool, to name a few? For the ‘90s, that was grade-A shock value that made parental heads spin. Media advocacy groups such as The Parents Television and Media Council described it as “a malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit.”

Prioritizing vulgarity as a primary basis of humor, at a time when cartoons cursing on television was fresh, made South Park a hot new cultural phenomenon. Its popularity skyrocketed for both the series in particular and Comedy Central at large, which was still figuring out its identity as a network. By the end of its first season, South Park’s rating went from 0.98 to 6.4 million viewers. Of course, due to its rampant popularity, Comedy Central (then owned by Viacom, now Paramount Global) was going to capitalize on the Cartman-shaped bucks for all their worth. It was their network’s bread and butter, and arguably still is to this day.

Within its short timespan of premiering, it received multiple video game adaptations for sixth-generation consoles and, of course, was commissioned a theatrical film adaptation, South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, which was in production around the time of its third season. Most TV shows had to work for years upon end to get a movie, but with South Park it was nearly instantaneous. It was also a box office success, was hailed as the best musical by the late Stephen Sondheim, and also garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song with “Blame Canada” (which is not on Spotify, dammit). And yet, after three seasons, a few console games, and a theatrical movie, the series was only beginning to hit its stride.

Due to its crude cut-out art style and movement which complemented the show’s cynical tone, episodes take a short amount of time to produce, allowing Parker to write whatever is in the now as a backbone to an episode’s bizarre setups, which keeps the show maintaining its relevance.

Whereas a lot of television buddies-up to celebrity culture via featured guest stars, South Park thrived on lampooning them alongside public figures from current events. Leaving a burned bridge of celebrities and their known faults and idiosyncrasies—such as Tom Cruise’s involvement with Scientology, Mel Gibson’s antisemitism, and Caitlyn Jenner’s hit-and-runs—made for some of the most iconic episodes to date. Still, the inclusion of celebrity culture is often hit or miss. Most of the early lampoons might as well have been petty pot shots; nowadays, it’s a right of passage into a celebrity’s relevancy to be featured. And sometimes the show nails the effect those celebrities have, and the weirdness of their lifestyle or the media’s obsession with them. Season 12’s “Britney’s New Look” might be the only piece of television that, while disturbing, discussed how the media’s pressure and fetishization of her life affected her mental health.

As it continued throughout the years, the series would mix current events with just plain foolishness, focusing on the characterization of the boys’ personalities and the shenanigans that ensue. Either way, the formula was a success. Some episodes, such as the Season 8 premiere “Good Times with Weapons,” primarily showcased the boys being agents of chaos without utilizing many cultural references. Other episodes like “Go Fund Yourself” (about the NFL and the Washington Redskins’ name), “Trapped in the Closet” (Scientology), “Make Love Not Warcraft” (online gaming), and “Margaritaville” (the Great Recession) were satirical stances on the cultural impact of American events at the time, and yet are still be completely rewatchable due to the clever writing and blunt humor.

The series’ signature formula of blending topical events with offensiveness and absurdity gave it long-lasting legs during times when, let’s be honest, the country needed it most. In the wake of life-altering events such as 9/11 and the global pandemic, when tensions were high across the board, the South Park team did their damnedest to make people laugh, and help alleviate the stressful wounds of the bleak world around us—even through its inherent nihilism. That stance eventually bit itself in the butt, especially during the dreaded Trump era, which without a doubt made for the worst seasons the series has done to date, but it also carried over to nearly every other comedy-based series at the time, setting a tone for years to come.

And South Park still hasn’t gone out of style. As recently as Season 25, it still made big moves—most importantly retconning the name of the sole Black kid, Token, to “Tolkien.” It may be considered progressive, rightfully, which is not typically in their nature. But the change was approached in a way only South Park could: by Mandela affecting everyone who thought otherwise. They even went the extra mile to change every past episode that related or referenced Token as Tolkien.

South Park pioneered the landscape of adult animation in television. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have the existence of an Adult Swim or the plethora of wry, absurdist comedies that have arrived in its wake. It’s the granddaddy of this kind of TV, which is now more popular and diverse than ever. Though South Park’s legacy is a string of hits and misses, it’s almost impossible not to tune in for the sake of seeing what topic in our wild, everyday life it’s going to tackle next. 25 years later, its offensive, cynical, vulgar nature has never lost its edge. Ultimately, you have to respect its authori-tah.

Rendy Jones is a film and television journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. They are the owner of self-published outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics Choice Association, and a film graduate of Brooklyn College. They have been featured in Vulture, The Daily Beast, AV Club and CBC News.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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