Next Wednesday, the 19th season of South Park will air on Comedy Central. Millions of people will watch it, millions of others won't. At this point, the show is a genuine cog in the chuckle-wheel that is the comedy establishment, almost rote in its quest to offend and prod. But things were not always this way.
I grew up during the tail end of the 90s culture wars, so of courseSouth Park was verboten in my conservative household. My parents had long ago forbidden The Simpsons, believing it turned an obedient child into a rude one, like those other kids down the street. The ones who said "damn" and "ass" and threw rocks at the windows of vacant houses. This, of course, made it 50 times more alluring.
But by 1997, The Simpsons was already winding down its run as an exciting, controversial cartoon. It had already turned obedient kids into rude kids. But where The Simpsons advocated a mannered, TV-PG hooliganism, South Park was anarchy. In my parents' eyes, it turned kids who were already corrupted by rudeness into the type of kids who ended up in jail.
No matter how much cultural noise was generated by the reign of Jon Stewart and the rise of Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central doesn't owe its legacy to them—it owes it to Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
In other words, the early days of South Park crossed the moral Rubicon. I was scared to watch it. When I inevitably did, it seemed like my parents were right. The older kid who showed it to me may very well be in jail right now. He used to just recreationally steal things. He would go into grocery stores, go up to the liquor bottles, and walk them right out of the store. His secret was his lack of shame. He would simply stroll out as if to say, "It's OK, don't freak out, I'm just stealing this." Of course he loved South Park.
When you step back from South Park as cultural touchstone and look at South Park as a TV show in 1997, it's shocking that it lasted so long. Its cardboard cutout animation was primitive, and not in a cute way. Those early episodes look dirty, uninviting, and disreputable. They made Hanna-Barbera's loveless "were these drawn by counterfeiters in a warehouse?" productions look downright glitzy. It had some of the most grating, belligerent voice-acting ever on television. Its tone was pervasively filthy, scatological, and amoral.
But the fact that my parents, and parents around the nation, knew about it and found the time to hate it meant it must have been an unprecedented hit. And it was. Almost overnight, it was the hottest thing in town. It only took five months to become Comedy Central's biggest show ever, averaging more than two million viewers per episode. The debut of its second season got 6.2 million viewers. (And the television landscape is totally different now, so I hold this up for cognitive dissonance rather than comparison, but Stephen Colbert only got 400,000 more viewers than that on his first episode of Late Night.)
Point is, no matter how much cultural noise was generated by the reign of Jon Stewart and the rise of Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central doesn't owe its legacy to them—it owes it to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They single-handedly pulled the channel out of a black hole of Absolutely Fabulous reruns and a Craig Kilborn-helmed Daily Show. They defined the network. They gave Comedy Central a reason to exist.
Without that historical context, the things South Park got away with and continues to get away with look impossible. They were able to jump right over the usual ascent to mainstream credibility. They were a multimedia franchise, with toys, T-shirts, and a movie in the can by 1999. They got Joe Strummer to sing for them in an episode. They got George Clooney to play a dog in another. Hell, they got Norman Lear to consult on the show in 2003.
And while it's easy to reduce the sordid story of Isaac Hayes's role in the series to the Scientology fiasco and the grotesque way his character was killed off, the fact that he was on the show for a decade is ultimately insane. Isaac Hayes is the man who co-wrote "Soul Man," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," and "When Something is Wrong with My Baby" for Sam & Dave. Without Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave might not have even happened. Isaac Hayes is the man who made Hot Buttered Soul, the album that saved Stax after Sam & Dave's departure from the label and the death of Otis Redding. Isaac Hayes had to follow Otis Redding, and he succeeded. That's impossible. Then he wrote the theme from Shaft, a song so good that writing it should have been impossible, too.
And here he was in 1997, agreeing not just to be on the same planet as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but agreeing to say whatever they wrote for him to say. Within a year, that meant recording the defiantly vulgar novelty song "Chocolate Salty Balls," produced by Rick Rubin of all people.
What's crazier still is that this isn't even in the ballpark of the most controversial things the show's ever done. That impossible high-water mark was cleared routinely, owing to its week-long production schedule, which made South Park the first cartoon that could get in the news cycle and kick the hornet's nest at will. Take, for example, "Hell on Earth 2006," which joked about the death of Steve Irwin just seven weeks after the fact.
It lent the show a hyper-topical relevance that no other cartoon had. The get-it-out-in-six-days policy gave Parker and Stone a platform where, if they wanted, they could just up and force people to pay attention to them. They changed the whole idea of the significance a half hour show on cable could have. They had escaped the curse of instant obscurity afforded much of the era's original cable programming, like, say, HBO's Dream On.
But what makes the show an institution, in spite of its persistent danger of being so topical that it becomes ephemeral, is the internet. Parker and Stone inadvertently future-proofed the show against the decline of cable. South Park was perfectly suited to internet consumption in a way no other 90s shows were. They had the early internet's dispassionately antisocial aesthetic locked down before the internet took over. The jokes and pace were loud and fast—it said what it wanted to say as crudely and conversationally as possible. The show's rudimentary animation style meant you couldn't ruin its intricacies with digital compression, mainly because there weren't any intricacies to ruin. This was an enormous priming force toward the mainstreaming of internet distribution. Back when Blockbuster still seemed like a viable brick-and-mortar business, a year before the Lewinsky scandal, people were already pirating episodes of South Park.
As huge as the show was for cable, it's on the internet where South Park makes the most sense. All the moral panic and 90s culture-war opposition seems quaint in the age of streaming pornography. Saying "shit" 162 times in a single episode is not novel in a venue where saying "shit" 162 times in a row constitutes a perfectly valid sentence. What once seemed shocking on television becomes more clearly the work of two college friends trying to make each other laugh. It's all suddenly normal, devoid of any shock potential.
Now that theirs is the prevailing cultural sensibility, Parker and Stone can safely say they got here first. So even if South Park somehow gets erased from Comedy Central or syndication tomorrow, that means it'll be around forever as a historical artifact: a show for the internet before anyone even knew what that could possibly mean.
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