Over nearly two decades, South Park has earned its fair share of fans and critics. A Canadian judged once described South Park as a “vulgar, socially irreverent program that contributes nothing to society.” The advocacy group Parents Television Council condemned the show as a “curdled, malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit” that “shouldn’t have been made,” and Action for Children’s Television founder Peggy Charren claimed that the show’s use of language was “dangerous to the democracy.”
However, the show remains one of the most powerful sources of social satire on television today and series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone refer to themselves as “equal opportunity offenders,” lampooning everything from stem cell research to the Virgin Mary’s butthole.
1. “Stunning and Brave”
“I don’t give a shit about being PC or anti-PC,” Matt Stone told The Independent in 1998. “We tackle subject matter that we think is funny and unique. We make statements through our humour, but we’re not out to make statements.” Seventeen years later and that message still rings true. In the season 19 premier, South Park took on Social Justice Warriors and overly politically correct climate with their episode about Caitlyn Jenner. The episode “points the finger at the faults of everyone else on both sides of the PC argument,” wrote Jonathon Dornbush of Entertainment Weekly, “And, if ‘Stunning and Brave’ is any indication, the show will continue to do so while remaining hilarious.”
2. “All About Mormons“
In a 2003 episode of South Park, Parker and Stone tackled one of their favorite subjects: Mormons. After a family of Mormons moves to South Park, the episode details the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and pokes fun at the church’s dubious origins.
However, the episode ends on a slightly pro-religious note when Gary, one of the Mormon children, tells Stan “Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that… All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.”
3. “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”
During an appearance on Wheel of Fortune, Randy uses a certain racial epithet, leading to a large public backlash. Over the course of the episode, the n-word is said 42 times. According to Matt Stone, “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” is about the fact that white people cannot truly understand the full depth of meaning behind the n-word, “If there was a word as hateful as the n-word [in how it] applies to black people, if there was a word like that against white people, [they] would make it illegal.”
In an interview with CNN, Kovon and Jill Flowers, co-founders of the organization Abolish the “N” Word (which is associated with the NAACP), praised the episode, “This show in its own comedic way, is helping to educate people about the power of this word and how it feels to have hate language directed at you.”
4. “The Passion of the Jew”
In a 2004 parody of Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ, South Park highlighted the film’s underlying antisemitic message. The episode was praised by the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward, which called it “perhaps the most biting critique of ‘The Passion’ to date.”
5. “Le Petit Tourette”
In the season eleven episode, “Le Petit Tourette,” Cartman pretends to have Tourette syndrome in order to get away with saying whatever he wants. Before the episode aired, the Tourette Syndrome Association (TSA) “fully expect[ed] it to be offensive and insensitive to people with TS,” however after watching “Le Petit Tourette,” the TSA conceded that “the episode was surprisingly well-researched,” noting that several plot points “served as a clever device” for providing accurate facts to the public.
6. “Timmy 2000”
In 2005, a poll was conducted on Ouch!, a BBC-sponsored webzine devoted to disability issues. Users were invited to vote for “The Greatest Disabled TV Character,” and the winner in a landslide was South Park’s own Timmy. Ever since the first Timmy-centric episode, “Timmy 2000,” South Park has served as “the source of the most progressive, provocative and socially relevant disability humor ever presented on American television,” wrote The Seattle Times.
Initially Comedy Central was reluctant to include a character with a cognitive disability, but Parker and Stone won the network over after they stressed the importance of featuring a mentally impaired character who is “happy to be [himself]”, and promised to represent him “as part of the gang and not as the subject of cruel schoolyard humor”
7. “It Hits the Fan”
In response to the media attention surrounding Chicago Hope‘s use of the word “shit”, South Park dedicated the season five premiere, “It Hits the Fan,” to cramming as many “shits” into an episode as possible. In total, the words “shit” or “shitty” are uttered 162 times and written an additional 38 times, this averages out to about one “shit” every eight seconds.
Executives at Comedy Central were initially resistant to the idea of using the word “shit” once or twice, but when Parker and Stone suggested that they would “say it like 200 times, they [Comedy Central] were fine with it,” as they felt the profanity would be justified.
Despite the record-setting amount of “shits,” the episode actually garnered very little backlash, aside from 5,000 disapproving e-mails. “No one cares anymore,” explained Matt Stone, “The standards are almost gone. No one gives a shit or a bullshit.”
8. “Best Friend Forever”
In 2005, South Park won an Emmy for the episode “Best Friends Forever”, which satirized the media’s attention of the Terri Schiavo case. Due to the show’s unusually fast production schedule, the episode actually aired less twelve hours before Schiavo passed away.
In the episode, Kenny suffers permanent brain damage and Stan, Kyle, and Cartman argue about the fate of their friend. Rather than focusing on the opposing political arguments, Parker and Stone instead chose to focus their attention on the media’s ability to turn a very personal, private matter into a public spectacle. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that Kenny’s living will asks that if he were ever in a vegetative state, “please, for the love of God… don’t ever show me in that condition on national television.”
9. “Trapped in the Closet”
In 2005, South Park aired an episode that lampooned the Church of Scientology and several prominent Scientologists including Tom Cruise and John Travolta. During the episode, Stone and Parker had to actually include a disclaimer that read, “this is what Scientologists actually believe,” so the audience wouldn’t think it was satire.
The episode garnered a lot of backlash. After “Trapped in the Closet” aired, Stone and Parker were followed and investigated by the Church of Scientology and Tom Cruise reportedly threatened to back out of his promotional obligations for Mission Impossible III if Viacom aired a rerun of the episode. Viacom caved and stopped a rerun of “Trapped in the Closet,” which prompted Parker and Stone to issue the following statement poking fun at the religion: “So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun! Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!”
After “Trapped in the Closet” aired, Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist and the voice of Chef, announced that he was leaving the show. “This is 100 percent having to do with his faith of Scientology… He has no problem — and he’s cashed plenty of checks — with our show making fun of Christians,” Matt Stone commented, “He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin.” Stone and Parker later satirized Hayes’ departure in the episode “The Return of Chef”.
10. “Cartoon Wars Part 1/Cartoon Wars Part 2” and “200/201”
In 2006, the South Park episode “Cartoon Wars Part 2” received significant backlash for its planned depiction of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. However, when the episode aired, it was censored by Comedy Central and featured a black box that simply read “Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network.” Four years later, South Park revised the topic in the episodes “200” and “201”. However, the episodes were heavily censored after Stone and Parker received death threats.
At the end of “201,” Kyle gives a speech about the dangers of caving into terrorism which has been leaked uncensored online, “You see, I learned something today. Throughout this whole ordeal, we’ve all wanted to show things that we weren’t allowed to show, but it wasn’t because of some magic goo. It was because of the magical power of threatening people with violence. That’s obviously the only true power. If there’s anything we’ve all learned, it’s that terrorizing people works.”
Mohammed was previously depicted uncensored (and even portrayed in a positive light) in the 2001 episode “Super Best Friends.” While the episode received no backlash at the time, like all South Park episodes featuring Mohammed, “Super Best Friends” is no longer available online.