South Park has been making waves since its debut in 1997, and creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone haven’t slowed their relentless assault on pop culture since. The show immediately gained a following, even if most viewers only cared about the bad language and method of Kenny’s demise. Over the years, that following has burgeoned into throngs of loyal fans, and many of them have actually come out a bit wiser for it — because underneath the zany antics and toilet-humor of South Park there often lies a moral to the story. These are the 12 most controversial real-world topics that South Park has dealt with head on, usually within days of their most heated real-world debates or incidents.
While many episodes of South Park manage to rile up a decent amount of people (usually mothers), the now infamous Scientology episode is among the few that managed to piss off an entire “religion,” and also cost the show one of its dearest cast members. Chef, played by none other than Isaac Hayes, was himself a Scientologist when the episode was run, and left the show in anger when the writers refused to back down. The episode lambasted the organization’s beliefs, doctrines, head members and dubious financial practices. Stone and Parker even had a ball devoting a sub-plot to Tom Cruise refusing to “come out of the closet.” It’s a classic, to be sure, but it was also a fantastic eye-opener for millions of people who had never bothered to learn what Scientology was all about beforehand.
Terri Schiavo and Right to Die
The Terri Schiavo case was nothing short of a media circus, and its effects still echo to this day in the minefield of litigation surrounding terminally-ill patient-care. The episode originally aired only 12 hours before Schiavo actually died, and put a hilarious, ridiculous spin on one of the most devastatingly depressing news topics that the country had experienced for quite some time. The theme of the episode was simple; that Kenny was all but gone, being kept alive by tubes, while Cartman (claiming the rights of a BFF) was fighting for him to be taken off life-support. Meanwhile, Kenny was stuck in limbo, while the Apocalypse was beginning with an all-out battle between Heaven and Hell — with Kenny at the center of it all. Heaven wanted Kenny to die so they could have him on their side in the coming battle, but the media circus drummed up by religious fervor was keeping him in a vegetative state and unable to assist the angels. It was truly ridiculous, but well-played.
Opening the 12th season of the show, the episode “Tonsil Trouble” put a spin on AIDS that was ridiculous enough to make AIDS funny. Cartman got infected with HIV in a blood transfusion, and he intentionally infected Kyle when he made fun of him for his malady. The two of them then find themselves in a situation they hadn’t foreseen, as nobody gives them any pity because AIDS is out of date, and cancer is now the disease that is fashionable. The boys start lying and say they have cancer instead, and make their way to the home of Magic Johnson, who Cartman believes can save them since he’s had HIV for so long yet remains healthy (against all odds). The boys discover that Johnson sleeps on piles of money due to a general distrust of banking institutions, and Cartman has an idea for a cure to AIDS. In the end, they’re all cured by a direct injection of distilled money, and rich people across the world rejoiced.
South Park likes to hit hard at the biggest issues, and it usually reserves such attacks for big endeavors. “Imaginationland” was one of those endeavors, and it was a huge success. Originally, “Imaginationland” was a three-episode story arc, but it was later re-released as an uncensored movie of the same title (after it won an Emmy and massive critical acclaim). The arc was based on the premis that terrorists had launched an attack on our imaginations, and had successfully unleashed the evil imaginary creatures into the world of the good imaginary creatures. While Imaginationland is in a bloody state of terror-stricken chaos, the US Government launches its own attack — on all imagination, in an effort to ensure that none of the evil creatures can get free. The whole story was a brilliantly masked parody of the present state of affairs in real life today, with the terrorism scares and government crackdowns in response. On top of that, the episodes were nothing short of epic, since they had nearly every iconic figure of recent fictional history, including those from comics, cartoons, movies, books, and religions.
Language and the FCC
In the early part of the decade, America was abuzz with the oh-so-startling use of profanity in NYPD Blue, which the network marketed in an attempt to get more viewers. South Park didn’t skip a beat, and followed suit with its episode “It Hits the Fan” — as the word shit was uttered 162 times throughout the episode. The story was based on the idea that everyone was going batty over the upcoming episode of Cop Drama, a fictitious show that was scheduled to air that night and use the word for “the first time ever” on television. The show made fun of the FCC, public gullibility and pandering to the full extent that South Park has come to be known for.
An issue that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight, same-sex marriage has been in the spotlight for a number of years now, and South Park has taken many digs at the topic. One episode in particular was especially provocative as it featured a recently sex-changed Mr. Garrison and his ex-lover, Mr. Slave — along with Big Gay Al, of course. Mr. Slave had gone to stay with Big Gay Al after his split with Mr. Garrison just before the operation, and the two had developed plans to get married just as soon as Colorado passed a bill allowing them to do so. Garrison, now a “woman,” wanted Mr. Slave to marry him/her instead, and proclaimed that two gay men couldn’t get married because it was against the sanctity of marriage. The show was blunt, brutal and hilarious; it was also genius and struck a chord.
Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons Controversy
The massive controversy that followed the depiction of Muhammad in cartoon format was something that simply could not be ignored, especially when rival cartoon series Family Guy was trying to push the envelope with their own portrayal. Jesus is often lampooned in both shows, and is even a regular character on South Park, but Muhammad had become so taboo that network executives were literally too scared to allow it for fear of a Muslim backlash. In the episode, Family Guy writers (which are a group of manatees in an aquarium) refuse to back down and write Muhammad into the show, while Fox executives powerlessly stand aside. Cartman leads a campaign to get the show taken off the air citing safety concerns should a terrorist attack occur because of the “insult” of depicting Muhammad in such a way, while President Bush is unable to do anything about it due to a long-lost and mysterious “First Amendment” that effectively binds his hands in the matter. The whole thing made great fun of the ridiculous fear-mongering surrounding the matter.
Abortion is one of those things that we’ve come to live with, and usually try to ignore for the most part due to the frenzied masses that make it so controversial. South Park went a step further, and made light of in several episodes. One episode in particular comes to mind though, and that’s “Woodland Critter Christmas” — a truly ridiculous Christmas episode in which Stan finds himself in the middle of a Disney-style story, complete with rhyming and adorable woodland animals, where he must teach small mountain lion kittens how to give an abortion to stop the Antichrist from being born (from a porcupine). The kittens are unable to deliver the abortion on time to stop the birth, but the point remains and it was made in a way that could make a priest hide a chuckle or two.
Of all the subtle digs at immigration that the show has made over the years, nothing came close to the massive comedy delivered when immigrants from the future came back in time to look for work in “Goobacks.” The phrase gooback being born as the time-travelers arrived with a slimy goo all over their bodies as a result of time-travel (an obvious comparison to crossers of the Rio Grande). When one of the children uses the phrase in front of his parents, he’s grounded and told not to be “timecist” for his remark. Meanwhile, more and more people from the future continue to come through portals and take up jobs for pennies on the dollar, inciting mass protests and cries of “they took our jobs.” The show lampooned both sides of the issue to a great extent, showing not just the hardships endured but also the damages incurred by both parties — and inevitably showing in a very comedic fashion what the effects of unregulated immigration can have on a society.
Another hot-button issue that frequents the show, Catholic priests and child molestation is an extremely sensitive topic and continues to be in the news today. In the episode “Red Hot Catholic Love,” the parents of South Park find themselves disturbed by the local priest’s plans to take the young boys on a boat-trip as a “young men’s retreat.” The media at the time had been almost nothing but stories of alleged molestation at the hands of Catholic priests, so the parents all immediately jump to the conclusion that their priest, Father Maxi, is a child molester. They call in a specialist, who questions the children at school as to whether or not Father Maxi had “tried to put anything in their butts.” The children are dumbfounded, and Cartman’s mind wanders into discovering that he is able to eat food rectally, and defecate orally, which he never would have thought of if he hadn’t been posed such an odd question. Father Maxi get ostracized by the town’s parents, which had all renounced their religion before having one bit of evidence that Maxi had done anything wrong, and he goes to the Vatican to try to put a stop to any molestation that was actually taking place. He finds that he is among the minority of priests who don’t molest children, and that the Church is actually headed by a gigantic evil spider. Basically, the episode took the growing distrust of all Catholic priests and blew it so out of proportion that it became wholly ridiculous — to prove a point.
This topic, becoming ever-so-relevant as time passes, was covered by South Park writers in a surprisingly well-done double-whammy that slapped not only the RIAA, MPAA, FCC and record companies, but also took some pretty huge potshots at the Christian music industry as a whole. The boys get the bright idea (via Cartman) that they can start a Christian rock band and make millions of dollars, because people who listen to Christian music are so gullible that they will pay for anything that seems legit, despite how horrifying bad the “music” is. When the boys try to get their parents to pay for music CD’s for them to listen to so that they may learn what kind of sound they want their band to have, they’re told that it’s simply too expensive. They learn that they can simply download the music for free, and listen to their hearts’ content on their computers. The moment they download their first file, the house is stormed by government agents in black masks, with rifles, helicopters, and battering rams. They’re arrested for illegal file-sharing and hauled away in a black van, but don’t even know what they had done wrong. The hilarity ensues from there, but the point was well-made.
Few topics are broached more often than racism in South Park. The show has covered it from the very first season, and continues to do so today — using memorable characters like Chef or Token (the only black child in town) to make a point. Of all the many episodes that used racism as a plot key, “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” was the one that stood out. In the episode, Stan’s father goes on Wheel of Fortune and does quite well. When the time comes for him to piece together a single word for the bonus round, he gets the clue “People Who Annoy You,” along with enough letters to spell out N_GGERS after he makes his initial guesses. He then proceeds to reluctantly guess what he thought the word was, and blurt out the word “niggers” with excited glee, in front of a live audience and broadcast, as he thought that he had just won the game. To his astonishment, the word was naggers, and the show immediately cut to commercial as Stan covered his face in shame. The remainder of the show was devoted to Stan attempting to smooth things over for his “stupid” father for making such an error, especially in front of the entire country. It’s a classic, and truly hilarious, even while making a point.