Tuesday, March 22, 2011

20. South Park

The way that I was introduced to “South Park” was such a unique experience that there is no way that I will ever be able to duplicate it again. When “South Park” was launched on August 22, 1997 it had been about two weeks since I had moved away from parents' house. My two college friends and I had rented a third-floor, three bed room apartment in Winthrop, MA. This place was pretty damn nice. It was a large apartment on short dollars that put subsequent places I lived in to shame.

Aside from the large rooms, one of the great things about this place was its proximity to Boston and despite my meager earnings as a fund accountant (and later a reporter for a mid-sized city weekly) we’d all venture into Boston every Friday and Saturday night determined to quench our thirsts. When we got back from the latest Boston bar adventure, we’d end up staring at the TV hoping for nudity or sports scores. One of the first nights we came back from Boston, we got something a bit more interesting.

In the mid- to late-90s, Comedy Central was still trying to find itself. It would run hours and hours of crappy 80s comedy flicks, warmed-over sitcoms and a bunch of dated stand up "specials". Every once in awhile it would debut a new series, but it usually died on the vine never lasting more than a season or two. In therms of standout performers, the biggest star that Comedy Central had at the time was Craig Kilborn who hosted “The Daily Show” and that’s because most people knew him as the sarcastic 2 am SportsCenter anchor who was among the first to escape Bristol, Connecticut. Other than that, it was a wasteland.

With shows like "Beavis and Butthead", "The State" or "The Half-Hour Comedy Hour", MTV was a better place for laughs despite the channel being known for music.

We weren’t expecting much that late Saturday night when my buddies and I were drunkenly channel surfing and wound up on some crudely animated kids cursing a blue streak, threatening to kill each other and witnessing a gigantic alien anal probe sticking out of the fat, obnoxious kid’s ass. It was a jarring enough image that we dropped the clicker and watched the rest of the episode. And then another, and another, and another, and another—Comedy Central was running a marathon that night and we were completely blown away.

We were shocked at how unlikeable the fat kid was and how much he hated the Jews (is his name Cartman or Carmen?) and we were taken aback at how the kid in the orange sweat shirt died in every single episode. I was really surprised at how bad the animation was, but I was more surprised at how I couldn’t take my eyes off the show. And there was a reason for that. Even though I was a devoted “Simpsons” disciple and often told people who ripped on the show for being “just a cartoon”that it wasn’t the medium, it was the message that made that show great, I didn’t truly realize until watching “South Park” exactly what that meant. Because “The Simpsons” has very good animation and terrific writing it wasn't until that I saw show with great writing and shoddy animation was it proved that ultimately it doesn’t matter how well the animation was done, it really was about the writing.

And “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone could really write a great story.

My friends and I became obsessed with the show at this point. And it wasn't just us. It seemed that overnight everyone knew who Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Eric Cartman, and Kenny McCormick were. If someone talked about Scuzzlebutt you knew that he understood that this was a monster who lived in the woods and had Patrick Duffy for a leg. When someone referenced Mr. Hanky you knew that that person was talking about a literal piece of shit that only appeared around Christmas. And if one of your buddies “pulled a Stan” when talking to a girl, you knew that he was so nervous that he threw up (whether literally or figuratively) all over her.

Parker and Stone were clever enough to add these really surreal moments and characters to some great story lines. Not only did it put the two creators on the map, but it also made Comedy Central a top-tiered channel enabling it to shed it’s reputation as a place where bad movies go to be rerun into infinity. Before the Jon Stewart-hosted “Daily Show”, this was the only show that kept people coming back to the channel week after week.

My roommates and I had completely different schedules but there was only one thing that all of us cleared the decks for: Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. We were on our couch watching “South Park” and laughing until our sides hurt. And while the community aspect is something that I won’t experience again, what I find most fascinating is how this show sneaked up on us. The internet was still in its infancy in 1997, it wasn’t the sprawling source of information that it is today and even if it was, I wasn’t connected to it. I wasn’t living in a vacuum as I used to read at least two newspapers a day and was able to keep up with popular culture through television and radio.

But “South Park” came out of nowhere. If I hadn’t been drinking that night, I’m not sure when I would have run into this show. I assume that it would be at least by October of that year, because Comedy Central marketed the hell out of it, but for the first three or four weeks, it was nice to seemingly be in on the cutting edge of something that you knew was going to be huge. And it was.* Now, that doesn't happen. Thanks to the internet, most people know about TV shows and movies weeks if not months before they show up.

* My wife, who was going to school at American University when "South Park" started airing, told me that her entire dorm was as obsessed about the show as my friends and I were. She said that they would use their dial-up modems to download episodes, wait the hour or two and then watch them. Because of the tiny bandwidth, it was often tough to discern exactly what was happening, but she said that they enjoyed the dialogue the most. Again, the lesson here is: message NOT medium.

Suddenly everyone was wearing a “South Park” t-shirt, the mall was overstuffed with “South Park” tchotchkes*, they were on the cover of “Rolling Stone” (when that meant something) and everyone was imitating Cartmen’s voice or quoting the show (“Oh my God! You killed Kenny!” or “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” or “Sweeeeeet”). By March 1998 it was starting to get to be a bit much and the show was growing stale.

* I had Kyle, Cartman and Kenny key chains sitting on my computer, a post card of bit character Pip on my bulletin board at work and a “South Park” sticker on my wall. So, I was definitely a part of this merchandising madness and I am convinced my boss thought that I was a 12-year-old.

The one shining light was on April 1, “South Park” was finally going to reveal who Cartman’s father was. A lot of people that I knew were terribly excited about this and couldn't wait for the show to air. When April 1 came, the show wasn’t about Cartman’s father rather it was a joke episode centered around the South Park boys’ favorite cartoon those farting Canadians “Terrence and Phillip”. After the first five minutes of this episode passed, my roommates and I kept waiting for the big reveal. After the first commercial break came back with more Terrence and Phillip, we knew that the big reveal wasn’t going to happen.

This angered a lot of fans, so much so that Comedy Central sent out a press release the following day promising that the conclusion to the first part of “Cartman’s Mom is a Dirty Slut” (which aired on February 25) was going to air on April 22. It sucked, but three weeks was better than never so again, the clock ticked down to finding out who Cartman’s father was. The episode never lived up to the hype (these things never do) and it turns out the Cartman’s mother was a hermaphrodite who impregnated herself.

This letdown, combined with the Terrance and Phillip debacle*, soured me on “South Park”. I would catch it now and again, but I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me—once a show loses a viewer’s trust, it’s hard to get it back. To me Stone and Parker were just a bit too clever for themselves and overplayed their hand. I was pretty done with the show.

* After a few years have passed, I can see now that the Terrance and Phillip April Fool’s Day show was actually brilliant. Parker and Stone were riding high on the show’s popularity and as we would see in subsequent seasons, they rip on everything. Fooling your own fans is tough to do, but they did it. And more importantly, they did it really well. In my circle of friends, finding out who Cartman’s father was was as big of a deal as finding out who killed JR Ewing or what was in Al Capone’s vault (how’s that for timely references). When the T&P episode was aired it was like a big fuck you to the fans, but in a way that borrowed from the classic William Shatner SNL skit where he told a roomful of Star Trek fans, “You need to get a life. TV isn't that important.” This message is never truly understood at the time and only after you separate from your obsession do you truly get the meaning.

During the next few years, I stayed away from “South Park” and looked down my nose at people who still watched it. I just found the entire show to be a copy of “The Simpsons”, which looking back wasn’t true. Especially since “South Park” devoted an entire show to the criticism and made the point that “The Simpsons” have been on for 20 years and have over 400 episodes and that there are only so many stories that can be told.

A few years into my self-imposed “South Park” exile, a friend of mine was talking about the show and asked if still watched it. I said no and gave my myriad pompous reasons to which he countered that I should give it another shot, he said it was still really funny. That night I sat down and watched an episode and he was right, it really was funny.

I became a big “South Park” fan again, only this time is different because it seems like there is a much smaller group of fans. Because of that the newer episodes are a bit different than the older ones. There is more a topic du jour where Parker and Stone stand on their cartoon pulpit and lob bombs at that week’s hypocrites. The show takes less than a week to write and animate, so turn-around time on various topics are insanely quick.

While that week's targets are easy and really unnecessary, for the most part Parker pens episodes that make solid points. When he does do one of these episodes, the episode tends to devolve from a well-thought out argument into one where a universally detestable (like Paris Hilton or Snooki from "Jersey Shore") gets their comeuppance. And while that's nice (and cathartic) to see, you almost want to tell him that he's better than that and there's a better way of satirizing the rich and stupid.

And the duo are equal opportunity offenders. You would expect a couple of Colorado-born, young-ish, pothead cartoonists and social commentators to be lean to the left side of the political spectrum. But they aren’t, I believe that Parker (the main writer) is a Libertarian, so his ideology is with neither the Republicans nor the Democrats. And this is a good thing.

While “South Park’s” message and satire is a bit heavy-handed and a little too black-and-white at times, it’s still a thought-provoking show. It forces the watcher to be literate on not only pop culture but on the world around them. And that’s a good thing.

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