At the beginning of each episode of Comedy Central’s “South Park” we are greeted by simple white titles against a black background that reads:
“ALL CHARACTERS AND EVENTS IN THIS SHOW –- EVEN THOSE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE — ARE ENTIRELY FICTIONAL. ALL CELEBRITY VOICES ARE IMPERSONATED…..POORLY. THE FOLLOWING PROGRAM CONTAINS COARSE LANGUAGE AND DUE TO ITS CONTENT IT SHOULD NOT BE VIEWED BY ANYONE”
This, like most everything in the South Park universe, is a warning – but more accurately, it is a joke. Following the lives of Stan, Eric, Kyle and Kenny in a sleepy little town in Colorado, South Park is like a drunken Wile-E-Coyote – at its heart it’s a dangerous animal, and will kill you, but in a looney world it’s the bad kid in the schoolyard that your mom warned you not to be friends with.
South Park has been on the air since 1997, opening with the episode “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe”. Since those early days, the show has gone on to really find its groove. Relying mostly on its own brash crudeness, there’s really not much to write home about in South Park’s earlier seasons – back then, parents were mostly just getting their heads around (gasp!) a cartoon that would curse and murder on a weekly basis.
The show relied to a breaking point on its shock factor. For the most part, back then, it was a half hour that existed purely to be brash and insignificant. That element certainly still remains in some form, but look past the veneer of crudeness, pull back the curtain on the show’s nuts and bolts, and it reveals a programme that is talking about current and relevant issues presented in the most unique and ridiculous of ways.
Over its last few seasons the serial has covered everything from Somali Pirates, aliens, addiction, Kanye, Obama, Trump, and, most recently, tackled the subject of school shootings – all big issues and all on a weekly basis.
South Park does this with an approach that lulls you in to a false sense of security: what will usually start off as what you believe to be a throwaway joke – something that could simply work as a one-liner or an off-the-cuff remark – then becomes the setup for the next 22 minutes of runtime. South Park’s constant freshness is down to their speedy work turnaround – this is a show that prides itself on being topical, so it can accurately lampoon the most up to date news – an episode starts writing that week, to then be released a few days later (their election episode had to infamously be rewritten entirely; as it was originally assumed that Clinton would win).
At this point, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the show, can do whatever the hell they want. And they’ve earned that. They have regularly lifted their middle fingers to the world and managed to get away with it – again and again.
And they know it.
At nearly 300 episodes, the show has the freedom to be as hard hitting or as bogus as it wants to be. And you feel that. It’s laidback but its comedy, as broad as it is, it is still relevant, worthwhile and important even.
South Park for me, resembles the last of the 90s heavyweight cartoons that actually still has an impact, that I tune in to without fail every single week – unlike The Simpsons, which trudges along like some yellow boxer that has taken far too many hits and refuses to retire, and, well… Family Guy has never really been topical.
And sure, yes, there are Bojack and Rick & Morty to rely on for your more philosophical and bitter needs… and they certainly are an example of grown up cartoons having evolved as time has gone on, but South Park represents something far different, still, after all these years, while remaining as naughty as when they started.
As the most recent end-credits roll, we are seen out with a caption that reads #CancelSouthPark – it’s totally tongue in cheek, and self-referential and it’s because that’s exactly what they do. Gone away are their rusty earlier seasons, the townsfolk of South Park all have such individual voices now; fan favourites like Cartman, Butters and Randy are often given their own episodes, and all attack life from their own perspectives, bringing their own spin on the mishaps of that week. Characters have discovered their voices – the writing generally has adapted and improved with time (emphasis again on how very un-Simpsons like this is…) – incidents are carried over and remarked upon, motives make sense and are not just there for the sake of a flimsy joke. Each episode now feels so trimmed of fat, while refusing to change their basic homemade-vibe animation, actually adding to the programme’s robust and obnoxious style.
South Park remains a crude king of Network television, and I look forward to anything the upcoming seasons will hurl at our faces while pushing us down in the mud and laughing.