South Park: A History of Controversy
With “South Park” scheduled to return for its 17th season on September 25, 2013 after nearly an entire year off, we realized that the show’s absence has not only left us with a major void in the comedy department, but without biting social commentary, as well. Every year, the show’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone skewer at least a few major events, celebrities, or beliefs of a large group of people, and at least part of the fun is guessing which topics will be tackled next. Moreover, which of the show’s digs will end up causing some sort of public outcry has become the other major draw, as certain viewers can be offended by something that seems so minor to most, while obviously offensive subject matter to the majority will slip through the cracks. In this article, we’ll attempt to recap as many of the show’s major controversies as we can recall, as well as give a few huge examples of jokes that somehow came out on the other side unscathed, even by the overly critical.
Obviously we don’t plan to go through every season episode by episode, but during “South Park’s” first year, it was so fresh, and yet so ludicrous and vulgar to many, that almost every episode was fraught with controversy. It was the perfect template for the many categories of controversy that would become commonplace for the show. From the initial pilot episode, which was panned by most critics as “sophomoric, gross, and unfunny” (Orlando Sentinel), the show couldn’t make a move to establish itself and its brand of humor without pissing someone off. Some episodes, like “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride,” were criticized for their themes or messages by certain groups before they even aired. Audiences began to realize Jewish jokes would be a recurring theme around “Pinkeye,” and celebrities such as Sally Struthers and Barbara Streisand took offense to the way they were portrayed and the shows general sense of humor respectively. “South Park” was even accused of plagiarism by “The Ren & Stimpy Show” creator, John Kricfalusi, for the character of Mr. Hanky, and threatened with legal action by the U.S. Postal Service for use of their logo. But all of that was just the beginning.
Clearly, this show has a potty mouth. In recent years, they’ve been able to be even more vulgar with their language, as words like “shit” are often allowed depending on the time the episode airs. Since the harsh language has become commonplace for the show by now, most of the time it doesn’t even draw much attention. When it does, however, it can be a bit baffling. For example, in the Season 5 premiere episode, “It Hits the Fan,” where the show said the word “shit” uncensored a record-setting 162 times (200 if you include when it was written), no one seemed to mind. Co-creator Matt Stone’s take was “No one cares anymore…The standards are almost gone. No one gives a shit or a bullshit.” Yet, in the Season 13 episode “The F Word” (referring to “fag”), reception was much more harsh, as many felt it was used with less tact. Even Season 11’s “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” drew little to no flack for its repeated use of the word “nigger.” So as far as the show’s language is concerned, it’s hard to gauge what will stir the pot and what won’t.
Religion is the hottest button of all hot buttons, “South Park”-related or not. But when the show does mock the beliefs of a certain group of people, it is sure to illicit at least some blowback every time. Even when they aren’t so much mocking a religion, but presenting it as-is in episodes such as Season 7’s “All About Mormons” (which resembles their later Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon”) or Season 10’s “Trapped in the Closet” (which we’ll review other aspects of later), they still draw a lot of negative attention from that particular group. Of course, the Muhammad controversy involving showing the prophet uncensored in the shows “Cartoon Wars” set of episodes in Season 10 and “200” and “201” in Season 14 drew the most controversy of all and even resulted in death threats to Parker and Stone from radical Muslim groups. Ultimately, the character was censored, even though the show had already showed him in a Season 5 episode titled “Super Best Friends,” which received very little attention at the time.
Of the top two topics most people steer clear of if they want to avoid an argument, politics would be the other one right behind religion. “South Park” refuses to steer away from any subject, and that is why the show’s creators are such great satirists. While most of the time, their views on political issues are met with great praise due to how they handle the subject matter (Season 9’s “Best Friends Forever” comes to mind), more often than not they end up upsetting other countries instead of anyone here in the U.S. A perfect example would be the Season 3 premiere, “Rainforest Shmainforest,” which upset the Costa Rican government when the Cartman character said it smelled “like ass” and was portrayed as full of prostitutes and other such trashy people. Of course, the observations made were actually just the sentiments of creator Trey Parker after a bad vacation there, but that excuse still didn’t fly. Most recently, the show upset Russian LDPR member and Deputy of State Duma Vladimir Dengin after last year’s episode “A Scause for Applause” included Jesus wearing a “Free Pussy Riot” t-shirt, which he felt sought to further humiliate the Russian Orthodox Church.
As mentioned before, often times celebrities are parodied on “South Park.” While many are either honored by being roasted by the show or even occasionally humbled by their portrayal, as Kanye West claimed to be before interrupting Taylor Swifts acceptance speech at the VMAs mere months after being satirized in Season 13’s “Fishsticks” episode, sometimes celebrities take their licks a bit too personally. Obviously, “Closetgate” (which is what the L.A. Times dubbed the controversy and backlash from Season 9’s “Trapped in the Closet” episode) is the most highly recognized example of this, as not only did Tom Cruise allegedly get the episode pulled from the airwaves, but it resulted in Isaac Hayes leaving the series for making light of his and Tom Cruise’s religion, Scientology. There have been other celebrity beefs as well, including but certainly not limited to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins being upset about his portrayal “buggering a bald transvestite” in Seasons 10’s two-part “Go God Go” story and outcry for the poorly timed Steve Irwin joke in the same season’s “Hell on Earth 2006,” even though “South Park” wasn’t alone.
General Lewdness/Poor Taste
Sometimes, good old-fashioned potty humor and insensitivity can be enough for some to take a cartoon a little too seriously. A few of the more shining examples of such episodes include Season 3’s “World Wide Recorder Concert,” Season 5’s “Proper Condom Use,” Season 7’s “Krazy Kripples,” and Season 12’s “The China Probrem,” in which fictional character Indiana Jones is shown being physically raped by directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to illustrate just how bad Parker and Stone thought the fourth installment in the film franchise was. But in the end, no harm; no foul. However, the Season 9 “Ginger Kids” episode has probably drawn the most flack in this department, as it was partially blamed for inciting young, ignorant bullies to participate in “Kick a Ginger Day” several years after the episode aired.
It can be quite perplexing how “South Park” manages to get away with parodying so much copy written material on a week-to-week basis, but let’s just chalk that up to a stellar legal department and a great understanding of fair use laws on their end to save time. But just because they are pretty sly when it comes to this sort of thing, it doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few instances of legal action brought against the show. Surely, every “South Park” fan is aware of the massive amount of well-known characters used in their “Imaginationland” saga. Strangely enough, though, it only spawned one lawsuit that ultimately went nowhere. Season 12’s “Canada on Strike” was also targeted for a copyright infringement lawsuit due to its recreation of the YouTube video “What What (In the Butt),” but was dismissed as well due partially to the fact that revenue lost could only be measure in Internet dollars, and hence had no commercial value, much like the episode itself joked about.
Last but not least, sometimes controversy derives simply from fans either expecting too much, or more often than not, complaining when something isn’t up to par with what they would expect or want it to be. Of course, in the case of the episode “Insheeption,” in which creators Trey and Matt actually admitted to lifting dialogue verbatim from a CollegeHumor sketch based on the film “Inception” due to the fact that they believed the dialogue from the sketch was itself lifted from the film verbatim, complaints about expecting more from the show were somewhat justified. However, in most other cases, dating all the way back to Season 1’s “Damien” episode in which fans began inexplicably accusing the creators of “selling out,” it’s just a matter of geeky fanboys being too picky and not realizing the show isn’t theirs to critique, as the creators can and will continue to do whatever they please. The same could be said for Season 2’s April Fools’ Day prank episode “Terrance and Phillip in Not Without My Anus” and Season 4’s “Pip.” When you read too much into a show that is meant to satirize and make you laugh first and foremost, much like fans did after Season 15’s “You’re Getting Old,” you’re bound to cause controversy where there should be none.