In the first instalment of a monthly column focusing on cartoons, Mark Martin argues that the sustained, unruly genius of South Park gives it the edge over its more famous rival. //
South Park is the best cartoon in the world. I said it, and will stick by it. Sacrilege? Sure, maybe it’s a little like arguing The Beach Boys are the best band in the world. But maybe they are. And fuck you.
This issue is close to my heart and I need some release.
It seems like just the other day that I was eight years old, sneaking round to my friends place to hear Chef sing about his balls, alien butt probes and group sex. Way too young to understand most of it. Who’d have thought I’d wake up in my late twenties to find that the show had grown up with me, now serving the most biting social satire around. Not many shows improve steadily, certainly not a cartoon comedy show. So welcome to my world. A world where South Park is the best goddamn thing around.
Are you, somehow, a South Park n00b? Let me bring you up to speed. It’s a crudely animated comedy with a stop motion, cardboard cut out aesthetic. The show’s universe centres around a group of eight year old kids living in the small town of South Park, Colorado. Most of the voice work and writing is done by creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and they tend to write and fully animate an episode in a week.
In contrast, an episode of The Simpsons usually takes six months to make. So we’re not talking Disney-style watercolours here, we’re talking something pretty stripped back. The show flickered into existence in 1992 when Parker and Stone were film students at Colorado University. They animated a short, ‘The Spirit of Christmas’, where they performed all the voices, made all the art themselves and painstakingly animated the thing using stop motion.
It was really crude, but got passed around and eventually found its way to Comedy Central. It was 1997 by this point, and The Simpsons had changed the world of television. Everyone understood that cartoons could be aimed at adults. Networks were looking for the next big Simpsons-esque thing. It got greenlit.
Stone and Parker started work on the first season and quickly ditched the pain-in-the-ass cardboard, stop motion technique, while keeping the minimal, rough aesthetic. Early episodes relied more on shock tactics and crude humour, but as the show grew up the humour became more about social satire, with each episode generally being a parable based on politics, religion, or just pop culture in general.
Stone and Parker reckon it’s simply a show about being in primary school in the States. Just “kids being kids”. That definitely rang true with me at first. These characters actually talk like the kids at school talked. Like people do in real life.
School yard shit-talking like, “I’ll put a firecracker in your nutsack and blow your balls all over your pants”. Or spot on sarcasm poking fun at adults, with a teacher giving advice.
“Gay people? Gay people are evil, right down to their cold black hearts which pump not blood like yours or mine, but rather a thick, vomitous oil that oozes through their rotten veins and clots in their pea-sized brains which becomes the cause of their Nazi-esque patterns of violent behavior. Do you understand?”. Sure it’s basic and crude, but there’s something in that kind of crass language that appeals to an eight year old just as much as it appeals to a slightly cynical grown up.
Don’t get me wrong, I mean no disrespect to The Simpsons. Everyone knows who the big daddy is. He’s one of the most influential cultural artifacts of recent times. I LOVE the guy. But he stuck around a little too long. I mean, it’s widely acknowledged that The Simpsons has been in decline since the late ‘90s.
I tend to divide The Simpsons up into eras based on the various showrunners. So you have these six phases. The first is seasons 1-2; the second 3-4; third 5-6; fourth 7-8; fifth 9-11; and sixth 12-present. In the first era they’re figuring out what to do with the show. In the second, third and fourth eras they’re fully nailing it, the finest modern comedy show going.
But come 1997, season 9, the show was falling off. It was still hilarious but began to lose the emotional core that made the characters so rich and relatable, and instead became a joke delivery system.
The point is that in 1997, The Simpsons had been ruling cartoons and popular culture for seven odd years. They weren’t getting any better. The stage was set for something else to take the reigns.
So what makes the satire in South Park so great? Well, one thing you’re always going to hear is that they’re ‘equal opportunity offenders’. That they satirise everything and everybody. Sounds fair, right? But I’m not fully buying it. Sure, the show cracks jokes in all directions. But when it comes to their best satire, they tend to target one group in particular. They target extremists. Fundamentalists.
Trey Parker sums up the general view of the show quite nicely: “We find just as many things to rip on on the left as we do on the right. People on the far left and the far right are the same exact person to us”. I love that. I can fully relate. I only have to look on my Facebook feed to see this in action.
Being a musician in New Zealand means I see way more of the extreme left than I do of the right, and it baffles me how some people miss the irony. That they’re doing the exact thing they hate. Communism and fascism. Always with the same shenanigans. And these people are mostly perfectly intelligent, capable people. I guess ultimately there are just a whole lot of bigoted, close-minded types on both sides of the spectrum. And it’s this fertile ground that South Park loves to get involved with.
Which brings us to the show’s greatest strength: topicality. Being able to turn around episodes in one week means South Park is able to comment on current affairs in a way that no other cartoon really can. Season nine’s ‘Best Friends Forever’ is a perfect example, arriving just as the Terri Schiavo case was coming to a head.
Schiavo was in a vegetative state, and had been kept alive for about 10 years with a feeding tube. Her husband and her parents waged war against each other through the courts and the media about whether she should be allowed to die. The President even got involved. In the end, the courts ruled that Terri’s feeding tube would be removed. It’s at this point that South Park weighed in.
‘Super Best Friends’ was released the day before Terri died, with the episode centring around the death of one of the boys, Kenny. After being revived and kept alive in a vegetative state his parents and his friend Cartman argue over whether to keep him alive. Kenny’s friends misguidedly attract a large amount of media attention to the whole carry on. The episode closes out by revealing that before he died, Kenny had requested that if he was ever a vegetable, he was to never be broadcast on national television.
So the message there is pretty straight forward. South Park calls out the media for its crass coverage of a sensitive, private issue. They call out all the participants for encouraging the media to get involved. They ultimately sympathise with Terri. It wasn’t clear whether she would have wanted to be kept alive, but it was certainly clear that she wouldn’t want this level of international humiliation.
South Park sealed the deal by mixing in some clever surreal humour, with heaven and hell waging war against each other through the use of a handheld video game. God backing the removal of the feeding tube, Satan encouraging Kenny to be kept alive, and both for selfish reasons. The episode won an Emmy.
Another key reason South Park rules is that it’s pretty hard to miss the show’s impact on modern culture. These guys were one of the only major comedy voices that manage to touch on so many politically incorrect, taboo social issues. And now it’s become a bit of a genre in and of itself.
Just check out shows like Tim & Eric, The Eric Andre Show or Nathan For You, where they take the obtuse trolling aspect out of the cartoon format and into a surreal IRL setting. Or have a look at Super Jail!, Mr Pickles or Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Those guys take the strange, gross out, cartoonish intensity even further. Maybe way too far. Even the in-your-face, quick-fire Arrested Development or the outrageous, socially biting Black Mirror have South Park’s DNA all through them. That specific salt-and-sour aftertaste is a hard thing to avoid if you’re into modern comedy. Delicious.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.