I distinctly remember the first time I watched South Park. Bundled up in my bed at around 10:10 on a Saturday night, I flipped on Comedy Central to see this bizarre, low-res animation show featuring a fat, angry child who wanted to be abducted by aliens. I was confused but obviously intrigued. After watching wide-eyed for a few minutes, I started screaming for my mom to come into the room and share in the fun. Odd, isn’t it? While this was the same woman who refused to let me play Mortal Kombat or watch Beavis and Butthead, she also gave me my first good taste of comedy, sitting me down for Marx Brothers movies, I Love Lucy, and her reluctant acceptance of my love for The Simpsons. I wasn’t looking for approval as a parent, but rather as a lover of comedy.
She rushed in, sat on my bed next to me, and watched. Seeing her vacillate between abject horror and gut-busting laughter made me question what was more entertaining: her reactions or the show itself. While I was dying at every joke, she was still on the fence (both as a parent and a consumer of comedy, I’m sure). Then Kyle asked Ike to do his impression of David Caruso’s career. She nearly fall off the bed. I sat there, confused. It was that moment that cemented South Park as must-see television. Sure, there were great, funny jokes, but it also had stuff that went over my head, things I had to search out to understand. Comedy Central ran the next three episodes of the first season in a mini-marathon and we both watched, enthralled. My mom kept reiterating that she should leave, but never made a move for the door. Her better judgment keeping her where she needed to be.
It is my most indelible memory of sixth grade.
Since that time, I’ve gone into and through middle school, entered high school, got my license, decided I wanted to become a filmmaker (no doubt through the influence of shows as brilliant as this one), graduated, attended Boston University, fell in love with a girl, dated her for two years, broke up, turned 21, graduated college, and am currently in New York trying to become a TV writer myself at 25, nearly the same age as when Matt Stone and Trey Parker made their animated Christmas card “The Spirit of Christmas” for producer Brian Graden, which led to this very show. Looking back, that’s a staggering amount of time for me.
Imagine what it must feel like for Matt and Trey.
Last night’s episode, “You’re Old Now,” wasn’t just the best of a mediocre season. It was truly one of the best the series’ long run. Heartfelt yet low-brow, meta and moving, it was a perfect encapsulation of what I love so much about the show. In an episode about growing up, it made me look back at all the points when South Park truly dotted my life path. I remember racing home from the D.A.R.E.-sponsored Devils game as the bus full of my classmates anxiously checked out digital watches and endlessly debated who Cartman’s father would be, only to get an April Fools joke in “Not Without My Anus. Even then, I took to heart that you shouldn’t take a silly TV show’s plot lines so seriously (note: I enjoyed the episode then as much as now, and I’m incredibly proud of that fact).
Sitting down to watch the “shit” episode as the oddly groundbreaking event it truly was while taking to heart the lesson that having too much of a good thing could ruin its meaning. How “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants” comforted me in my post-9/11 head space as every other program tried to either scare the shit out of me or keep me in some lasting depression. I remember when I truly recognized the power of television and artistry when they kept Tom Cruise and John Travolta in the closet with barely any blow back from anyone, or when I realized that corporations will always kowtow in the face of fear when Viacom abjectly refused to show Muhammad, even in an animated costume, on multiple occasions (regardless of the fact that they’d been airing a version of him in their opening title sequence for years from a an appearance in an earlier episode, no less).
I’ve always viewed the show as one with great jokes, an incredible mix of low- and highbrow comedy, but most importantly, a show with a heart that always cared for its characters paramount. No matter what silly bullshit was going on on screen (and god knows that there has been a staggering amount of that), it always came down to the hopes, dreams, and feelings of some little boys in Colorado, trying to make sense of the crazy, mixed-up, ridiculous world that they inhabit. One that was only a bit more crazy, mixed-up, and ridiculous than the one the viewers exist in.
To most, however, South Park is not about the kids, but the prism through which the show’s creators see our culture and insert that into the South Park sandbox. The gift and the curse that this show survives on is its insane production schedule. If you’re blissfully unaware (although at this point I find it hard to imagine as it’s nearly as famous as the show itself), they create the show in a literal week; from breaking the plot, through writing the script, animating, recording all the voice work, adding sound effects, writing music, and editing it into a polished product literally just in time to air it on Wednesday. And they’ve never once missed a deadline.
In many ways, this overshadows the show that they’re trying to accomplish; the audience becoming fixated by the process as its own three-act circus rather than focusing on the story they show is trying to tell. This sense has only increased as the show moves forward in age. They make a great episode about “Christmas in Canada”, but all anyone remembers is when the Mounties reached into a hole and pulled out Sadam Hussein, who had recently been discovered in a very similar fashion by US troops earlier in the week. The entire episode “About Last Night…” was a great parody of heist movies like Oceans 11, but all anyone could talk about was the herculean effort it took to put that show together a mere 24 hours after Barrack Obama won the presidential election. Make no mistake, it’s an insane thing to do and is a remarkable effort, but the effort begets a great show that you’re too enjoy first and foremost.
More recently, the boys finished an episode that parodied the cultural response to “The Jersey Shore” by having the US team-up with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda to fly passenger jets into throngs of American citizens…but all anyone could talk about the next day was how they ruthlessly went after Snooki. It has gotten so routine that any big event that takes place in our news or culture gets met with an expectation on how South Park will send it up this week (or, for the cynical among us, react with an eye roll about how they know what the show will be). What started as a fun add-on turned into an expectation and then a creative burden.
This brings us to last night’s episode, “You’re Old Now,” another episode in the long South Park tradition of righteously striking down that in the culture that which Trey and Matt do not approve. For the duration of the show, they have steadfastly stood on one side of the line and pointed out exactly what stands on the other. Paris Hilton is Wrong, the boyband craze is Wrong, Michael Bay is Wrong, the way we treat Britney Spears is Wrong, NAMBLA is Wrong, doing steroids is Wrong, and they all sit on the same clear, basic, black and white moral plane. Making these kinds of stands have also caused the two to be accused of being “holier than thou,” which is what made the moral of the episode so damn interesting, because, shockingly, they turn the gun on themselves.
The show begins with a missive on how shitty Tween Wave music, but does so in a strikingly similar fashion to how they dealt with the boy band craze in “Fingerbang,” reapplying the axiom “if it’s so shitty, anyone can do it” with Randy instead of the boys. They once again go after shitty, bland movies that are just “reheated turds,” such as The Zookeeper, Mr. Potter’s Penguins, and whatever shitty movie Adam Sandler is going to put out, echoing their stance on people coming to see the same shit over and over without a care in the world. This idea–even its execution–harkens back to the classic put-down of Rob Schneider movies (“THE STAPLER!”) from seasons before. The fact that this idea is voiced by Stan, who is usually a proxy for Trey (and Kyle for Stone) makes it all the more apparent that this is beyond meta; it’s oddly personal.
This idea reaches its climax in the extremely pointed conversation between Sharon, one of South Park’s most–only?–grounded characters and her husband Randy, clearly the most insane man in town. They discuss how upset they are with how things are going, listing the litany of crazy stuff Randy has gotten into. He says it’s all to shake things up and have fun while Sharon is disappointed Sharon in the notion that he has to go to such crazy lengths (highlighted by the two old guys saving the “britches” that Randy had been farting into as a Teenwave musician that acted as a ridiculous c-story). The characters talk about specific plot lines that Randy’s character has gotten into but, in the same time, notice how every week it’s just the same old, same old, repeating ad nauseum, as Randy gets more and more ridiculous going further and further out.
There’s only so much one can do with a character before he or she becomes some sort of parody of itself (think Homer Simpson, Michael Scott, The Fonz). When it hits that point, it’s no longer about the person inside the character; what they think, how they feel, how their actions affect others around them. As mentioned in the show, Randy’s drunken fighting in “The Losing Edge” worked because it was funny on its own and worked as a story against his son and wife. Counter to that, a recent episode was based around how Randy was angry because his penis is small, eventually manifesting into taking control of a FedEx store. Yes, it was a method of trying to explain everything from the Birther movement to wigger teenagers, but that was all. His arc existed only to answer the question, “WHAT CUH-RAAAAAZY STUFF CAN RANDY DO THIS TIME?!” and that is the definition of “diminishing returns.”
First and foremost, Matt and Trey are storytellers. It’s evident in everything they do, especially in the work they have done largely outside of the South Park world. Before the show started, they made a live-action comedy (Orgasmo) and a musical (Hannibal: The Musical). They took the opportunity of doing a South Park movie to make a mash-up of Disney animated films and Broadway standards, creating South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, what Stephen Sondheim–he of West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and Company to name a few–called one of the best musicals of the last twenty years. They created a live-action sitcom (That’s My Bush!) and a Michael Bay-style action movie with marionette puppets (Team America: World Police). They starred in their own Zucker movie (BASEketball) and created The Book Of Mormon, which has garnered 14 Tony nominations and has been the hottest ticket in New York for months now.
In the strictest sense, they don’t need South Park the way we do.
We depend on South Park. We know that every Wendesday at 10 PM there will be an episode on, be it old or new. It’s a crutch, a stabilizing point in our lives that are always too chaotic and move too fast for us to really get a grip on, no matter our age or profession. It doesn’t matter what happens in our week: who passes away in our family, what wars go on outside our borders, if we’re presently single, married, divorce, or widowed, there will be a South Park for us to turn on and laugh at. Like all good shows, what started out as a gift and has since become a promise, and a comfort that we don’t want to lose.
But Matt and Trey have more stories to tell, more sandcastles to build, more characters to create and grow and play around with. They’ve maxed out in South Park. Look at the character of Kenny, who went from a two-joke character (he mumbles curses and sexual thoughts into his parka and dies every episode) to being written off of the show for a year or two only to return with a simple “oh hey Kenny.” Now, thanks to a three-part episode arc, we know his death/rebirth comes from a pact his mother made with a cult that prays to a dark hell-beast and that he uses this power to become a superhero, Mysterion, who watches over South Park at night. (…What?) And this is on top of a work schedule (working day and night for eight straight weeks, twice a year) that was gruelling as guys in their late twenties, let alone men in their early forties who now have families to spend time with.
I take comfort from the fact that if we lose South Park, we won’t be losing Matt Stone and Trey Parker. They seem like two guys who you couldn’t keep from expressing their worldview, be it through songs or movies or something we haven’t even seen yet. I give South Park the show far too much credit. A good portion of that should be reserved for those two men at the helm and the gaggle of talented people at South Park Studios who have imparted lessons to me both as a person and a writer. I truly don’t know if I’d be where I am today without the product that they create together.
Luckily, there is one more lesson that they can impart to me: how and when to bow out gracefully. I cannot wait.