I have a very personal relationship with “South Park.” When I was in college, a classmate who had interned in Los Angeles brought back “The Spirit of Christmas” short on a VHS cassette. I thought it was the funniest, most adorable thing I’d ever seen. By the time that Comedy Central started promoting “South Park,” I already recognized those construction paper cutout kids. Watching Trey Parker and Matt Stone create a television hit and become successes in other aspects of entertainment has felt like watching your kids grow up and make good.
At first the gimmick of “South Park” was watching kids swear and be racist or scatological, and they took that to new heights with the likes of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo, but it evolved into more than that. As production on “South Park” got quicker, as in entire episodes completed in a week, it became a real time cultural satire on the day’s news. They could satirize movies like The Passion of the Christ and The Lord of the Rings while they were still in theaters. In 2001, they even did a season premiere on Osama bin Laden himself.
The social commentary of “South Park” can be as profound as their Terry Schiavo episode “Kenny Dies,” which gave me two intellectual orgasms. One when I realized before the first commercial break that they were actually doing Terry Schiavo, the other when they revealed their ultimate message at the end, which was the one thing none of the politicians or media had the sensitivity to suggest. Then they could do an episode about Oprah’s ass and vagina conspiring against her, and that was wonderful nonsense itself.
The Best Episode Ever of “South Park” manages to encapsulate both their perceptive commentary on the cultural zeitgeist, and the absurdity of things that are accepted as reality in this cartoon universe. The Best Episode of “South Park” is titled “Fat Butt and Pancake Head,” or perhaps better known more casually as the Ben Affleck and J-Lo episode, or Taco Flavored Kisses.
It begins simply enough. Cartman presents an oral report on Latino culture, which everyone assumes will be offensive because it’s Cartman. And it is. Cartman puts lipstick and a wig on his fist and calls it Jennifer Lopez, does an offensive Latin caricature accent and talks about tacos and burritos, which is really all he knows about Hispanic culture. Kyle, who actually gave a report he worked on and hoped to win this contest, is aghast. But the judges have a good sense of humor and Cartman actually wins.
So far this is typical Cartman behavior, and only in South Park could he be rewarded for being racist. Cartman is this generation’s Archie Bunker. We know he’s awful, but we love him for showing society’s worst nature, and ultimately being punished for it. But not just yet.
Empowered by his win, Cartman records a video for “Taco Flavored Kisses” at a mall booth. Also typical of “South Park,” the music is quite good. Even simulating cheesy generic mall pop, it’s catchy, despite its racist lyrics. Later, the episode’s love song is actually sweet, with its punchline still about tacos. Cartman sends the video to the record company who decides it’s so good, this is the new J-Lo. But they can’t have two J-Los, so they need to fire the original J-Lo.
“South Park” will follow the most ridiculous premise to its logical conclusion. If Cartman made a J-Lo video, then of course the record companies would consider it a hit and of course they would give a hand puppet a recording contract. It’s time to move on to the hot new thing, as happens in the industry, whether the hot new thing is an actual person or a nine-year-old’s hand. They take some overt stabs at Lopez’s reputation for mistreating people, and even have an executive put the word “talent” in air quotes when referring to her. Hey, satire hurts. Parker and Stone can be vicious.
The celebrity episode “Trapped in the Closet” is more famous, perhaps because they poke fun at a much bigger star in Tom Cruise, or because that episode got so much attention for daring to take on Scientology. It was great, but I think “Fat Butt” combines the celebrity with the kids’ story more organically. In “Closet,” it all just happens to Stan. In “Fat Butt,” Cartman is causing all of this. He continues to act like the hand puppet is an independent entity, and eventually making him do things he doesn’t want to.
J-Lo isn’t going to take this lying down so Lopez herself, in an animated caricature with a highly exaggerated voice, goes after this new J-Lo. Cartman can’t even stop his hand from mouthing off to the angry J-Lo. He assumes the role of Jennifer Lopez, and all that entails: the fame, the fortune and the boyfriend.