Sunday, April 8, 2007

South Park Is A Trip

Every night at 10:30, Channel 44 shows South Park re-runs, right after the Simpsons. I've spent a lot of time appreciating the Simpsons in the course of my life, but I've never really taken a good long look at South Park...until lately. I used to think they were a little too snarky and Gen-X for their own good, but watching these re-runs I'm beginning to appreciate the show's underlying intelligence. Yes, they often fall back on easy gross-out humor, but more often than not they head into weirder, less adolescent, and generally more uncategorizable comic territory. Maybe about 30% of the jokes are easy, but about 70% of the jokes are quite layered and thoughtful. One thing I like about the show is that almost every episode explores an idea. Whereas the Simpsons and Family Guy sometimes just turn into a series of endless, random nonsequiturs (which can be funny, don't get me wrong), South Park episodes often have a definite point to make. I don't always agree with that point (Trey and Matt seem to have a strong resentment toward obnoxious celebrities that I don't particuarly share), but at the end of the day, they usually leave me with at least something intelligent to think about. Allow me to give a (rambling) example:

There was one episode where apparently Kenny had died for a reasonably permanent amount of time, and so the other three held a reality TV contest to choose their Kenny replacement. There was a segment where the three of them stood at the bus stop the way they always do, and the little countrified audio cue that tells us "We're back at the bus stop" would play while one of the contestants stood in Kenny's spot. After a second or two, Stan or Kyle would say "Next!" and then a different kid would stand in Kenny's spot, and the audio cue would come back on - the idea being, "Who stands at the bus stop with us the best?" Anyway, apparently Butters doesn't get picked for the final round, and in his bitterness he decides to become an evil supervillain named Professor Chaos. What I like about Butters is that he's more innocent than the other three kids; he can't be rebellious even if he tries. In his bid to bring chaos to the world, he goes into a restaurant and switches two different soups around, and then he hides in the corner. One of the customers says, "Hey, I ordered the Chicken Gumbo," and the guy sitting behind him says "Oh, that's what I got, they must have given me your soup and given you my soup," and the other guy says "Oh yes" and they amicably switch soups. Butters laughs pseudo-maniacally as he leaves, but later he's shocked to read the local paper and see nothing about his soup switching in there. He hijacks the jumbotron in the Colorado Rockies' ballpark and threatens that he's going to flood the world, and everyone runs around panicking, and then he turns on the garden hose and sits there, making a little puddle on his lawn. A few minutes later, the fire department pulls up. A guy says, "This is the house, right?" and then he walks over to the water line and calmly turns it off.

But that episode was clearly only a warm-up for the next episode. While watching TV Cartman is entranced by an ad for "sea people" and he has a musical fantasy where he's living in peace and harmony with the sea people as he envisions them to be (the song is in South Park's patented Care Bears-esque musical fantasy style). But when his sea people finally arrive, he's crushed and angry to discover that they're only little shrimp you can buy in any pet store. The kids decide it would be funny if they secretly fed the sea people to their teacher Miss Choaksondick. Suddenly we cut to a quick shot of Miss Choaksondick being hauled away on a stretcher dead. The kids, fearing that their little practical joke has killed their teacher, decide to ask Chef for his trusted and confidential advice. "Children, whatever it is I'm sure we'll work it out somehow," he tells them cheerfully. Then Stan says, "Our teacher's dead and they found our sea men in her stomach." Cut to a shot of the four kids, all sitting on Chef's couch, staring ahead silently, as Chef incrementally nudges the couch out his front door.

Meanwhile, threaded throughout this episode is a sub-plot involving Butters' continued attempts to be Professor Chaos. A smaller kid whose name I forget also gets rejected from the Kenny replacement contest, and in his disappointment he joins Butters as "General Disarray." The kid has Harry Potter glasses and an amusingly nerdy speaking voice. Anyway, Butters keeps coming up with evil schemes, but when he mentions one of the schemes to General Disarray, General Disarray points out that something similar had already been done on an episode of the Simpsons. Butters then steals the head off a famous South Park statue, hoping to bring more attention to himself, but when he watches the newscast, the anchor just says, "Somebody has stolen the head off a statue in Downtown South Park. This is just like the time Bart Simpson stole the head off a statue on an episode of the Simpsons. Let's use this event to spend some time talking about how much we love the Simpsons." Butters crushes his hands against his head in frustration. He tries to think of evil schemes that have never happened on the Simpsons, but after everything he thinks of, General Disarray shouts out passively "Simpsons did it!" Soon General Disarray is running around the room, stating in his obnoxiously nasal voice, "Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it!" like a broken record from the deepest recesses of Butters' tortured psyche. Finally Butters is convinced he has hatched a scheme that he's positive has never been done on the Simpsons before - something along the lines of sticking mayonnaise in people's shoes. Suddenly on the television behind him, an announcer says, "Coming up next on the Simpsons, Bart sticks mayonnaise in people's shoes." This tips Butters over the edge, and he lapses into a Simpson-induced madness. Suddenly the whole show starts looking like a hideously creepy Simpsons-South Park amalgam (it was quite disturbing in a way I find hard to describe).

Back with the "sea people" thread, the kids realize that they need to sneak into the hospital where Miss Choaksondick's body lies and take their sea men out of her body before anyone else discovers it there. They tell Tweak (who won the contest as the Kenny replacement) that if he hears anyone coming, he needs to shout "Hammer time!" Tweak pleads that he won't remember that, but the other kids go on. When Tweak hears people coming, he runs through the whole lyrics of "U Can't Touch This" in his head until he gets to "Hammer time!" and he shouts it out. The kids all scramble to hide, but Cartman, running out of time, hides in Miss Choaksondick's rancid stomach. When the hospital staff leaves, the other kids come out of hiding and say "Wow, that was a close one" and they go home. This leaves Cartman to rise slowly and silently from the stomach of Miss Choaksondick, like a pus-covered baby.

Talking to Chef again, the kids let slip that they were referring earlier to "sea people" and not "sea men". "Ohhhhhh," says Chef, nodding slowly to himself. "I thought you meant... oh man...'sea people' is a whole different thing from 'sea men,' children. Your teacher probably died from something else!" Relieved, the kids decide to continue with their normal lives. Cartman, however, takes some of the sea men/semen concoction that he stole from Miss Choaksondick's stomach and puts it back in his fish tank. Suddenly the shrimp are somehow fertilized by the sperm, thus creating THE SEA PEOPLE THAT CARTMAN DREAMED OF! (I love how Cartman will be just as excited with the creation of a fish/man hybrid as he is when he's watching Terrence and Philip). Egged on by the others, Cartman decides to find more semen so that he can create the ultimate sea people society. He walks into a sperm bank, and the woman behind the counter says, "We don't usually have eight-year-olds coming in here." He tries to sweet talk her into giving him gallons of sperm while clearly demonstrating that he doesn't really understand what sperm is. He comes back with a big bowl of sperm, and with a spoon he scrapes it all into the fish tank.

Suddenly the sea people civilization is thriving beyond anyone's wildest dreams, resembling something like the ancient Egyptians. Cartman tips the tank upside down and all the sea people scream in terror as they fall to the bottom. Butters comes in to Cartman's house, still seeing everything as quasi-Simpsonesque. He rants and raves that everything he thinks of has already been done on the Simpsons. Mr. Garrison and Chef explain that it's no big deal and that everything has already been done by somebody else and nothing is really original. Even Cartman's idea of shrinking himself so that he can go live with the sea people had already been done on the Simpsons. Amazed by this insight, Butters is cured, and the show looks normal again. Now they peer down at the sea people civilization and by this time it resembles ancient Greece. One side of the tank has built a giant statue of Cartman. Then they realize that the other side of the tank has built a giant statue of Tweak. Suddenly the two sides go to war and everyone is amazed at how rapidly the sea people society has evolved. Finally two giant missiles are launched, there's a series of explosions, the tank shatters and all the sea people fall horribly on the carpet. Stan says, "Wow, I guess war is the inevitable outcome of all civilizations." The show ends.

I know it was just a stupid cartoon, but this ending really made me think. Is it really inevitable that all societies will destroy themselves? Sure seems that way to me sometimes. Maybe if war is inevitable, then it's not immoral to just go around and fight in wars, because it's just going to happen anyway so you might as well take part. Then I thought, no, that's wrong, there are plenty of reasons to be moral. But my point is, I was just trying to pass the time watching South Park and I found myself pondering all these deep, philosophical questions.

That show is far out.


Herr Zrbo said...

Um, hello?? Treehouse of Horror VII, Lisa grows a whole rapidly growing society in a petri dish, Simpsons already did it!! :)

yoggoth said...

Futurama already did it too. Bender had a civilization growing on his stomach in the episode where he met god.

The thing that annoys me about South Park is the forced moral equivalence between liberals and conservatives. It feels like Matt Parker is just forcing this on there because he doesn't want to be seen as a liberal. I'd have more respect for him if he just didn't give a damn.

Read the Rolling Stone article about South Park from a couple months ago, it's interesting.

For my money, of the 4 major animated comedies--Family Guy has the funniest moments, Simpsons has the best memories, and Futurama feels like I personally wrote and lived it. South Park is #4, but still a classic.

Little Earl said...

Yeah, I read that article in Rolling Stone too. They came off as pretty...immature, I would say. They're like the angry high school kids who think everything is a big joke and who don't actually want to take any sides because all sides are stupid anyway. But the strengths of their show outweigh the limitations, I think. As long as they're funny and raise some issues, I don't really mind whether or not I agree with them politically. Channel 44 is the same station that airs America's Next Top Model and Gilmore Girls. South Park is a guilt-free time killer by comparison, because I still feel like I'm using my brain when I watch it. I'm not asking for a show to be ideologically perfect at that hour. I also think that there are sides to the show that Matt and Trey perhaps failed to reveal in ther interviews?

The thing is that the humor in Family Guy, Futurama, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, etc. often seems easy, because it's not tied to anything. Funny, yes, but easy. It doesn't seem that hard to me to string a bunch of random jokes together for 30 minutes. But to do that while making a larger point - that's what South Park seems to achieve at its best. The other shows also do this as well, but South Park episodes seem to have a little more DIRECTION. It's just a taste thing.

yoggoth said...

You could say that about Family Guy and Aqua Teen but Futurama always has a plot. Although it's set in the future, the topics are almost always based upon some contemporary issue and it has a larger point more often than South Park in my experience.

And hey, you just described an episode that doesn't seem to have any larger point. Seamen/semen and postmodern questioning of creativity?

Little Earl said...

Good point.

But seriously. You sound like quite a fan of Futurama there. I probably saw about ten or fifteen episodes back in the day, and it was pretty good, you're right. But I've always thought of Futurama as just "more Simpsons." Maybe you see a larger difference between the Simpsons and Futurama? I also worry that the culture at large doesn't rate Futurama as highly as you do.

I guess my point is that the humor in the other shows is a lot more verbal and dialogue-centered, whereas with South Park it's more of that strange combination of cheap animation, pasted photos, bad voiceover work, and silly musical cues in addition to the writing that makes it funny. They invented their own style. You also get the sense that Matt and Trey just sit around every week and think, "Who do we totally want to make fun of today?" Maybe they want to rip on Scientology, or push the buttons on censorship. So they sit down and just say whatever's on their minds - but it always starts with a basic IDEA. They may throw random stuff in along the way, but there's almost something to it in the end. In a way, they treat the show like their own national, cartoon blog. I like that aspect of it, and I never quite get that from the other shows (which take months to put together beforehand, of course).

yoggoth said...

Yeah, I do like that thrown together quality. But I still don't see how South Park is more plot or idea driven than Futurama. For ever idea based episode there is one based upon nothing but gross-out humor. The gross-out ones are actually some of the best.

Yes, Futurama is like more of the Simpsons in a way, but it's also got it's own feel. It's more elitist and intellectual which is fine by me. It also deals with more complex emotional issues at times. And it's got Nixon's head as a character.

Why does it matter if the culture are large doesn't rate it as highly as I do? The culture are large rates Frasier and Friends higher than any of these shows.

Little Earl said...

From Slate's review of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Movie:

"ATHF bears some resemblance to South Park (I'd love to see a Venn diagram of the two shows' overlapping audiences), but it lacks South Park's economical storytelling and ripped-from-the-headlines topicality."

What was I SAYING, people?

ninquelote said...

It's been a while since I have read your blog, but I felt it was time I began again.
This is not something I will say very often, but I have to completely agree with little earl on this one. I too have been watching more South Park since I got cable, and I have to say it is even funnier than I remember when we were in college.
South Park is like that crude, shocking comedian that you can't help laughing at because they don't hold anything back, and they have no specific slant in mind except that everybody has it coming.
The Simpsons would be the equivalent of that same comedian writing a book. More structured and carefully thought out.
Futurama to me was always very boring. I didn't catch on to that show at all; it just wasn't my kind of humor. I always thought of it as just an extension of the Simpsons, but not as interesting.

yoggoth said...

I think everyone should give Futurama another chance now that the glory of the Simpsons has faded a bit. Or maybe I just identify with it more than most because of some of the characters and subject matter.

yoggoth said...

Oh, and good to have you back Ninq.

ninquelote said...

Thank you

faeriedust said...

I, too, have recently discovered the joys of south park after dismissing it as inferior to the simpsons for some years. It's rather hilarious, and i laughed out loud at your written rendition of the episode.

I like the show because i laugh while watching it, but at the end of almost every epidsode, i'm like..."Oh yeah. Our society probably will destroy itself" or some other equally disheartening conclusion.