Death (Season 1) – When South Park first hit the air in 1997, it was instantly written off by many people as having little to offer outside of fart jokes and bad animation. In response to this criticism, Parker and Stone introduced Terrance and Phillip, an in-universe show featuring literally nothing but fart jokes and even worse animation. Terrance and Phillip made its debut in “Death,” which also introduced Kyle’s mother Sheila as a misguided activist whose outrage at the show mirrored more real-life criticism facing South Park and its lack of family-friendliness. (Despite the success of The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-head, many viewers still weren’t convinced that cartoons could be aimed at adults instead of children.) Parker and Stone loved pointing at themselves and their critics so much, they used “Death” as the basis for the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and would continue to play with meta-themes for.
“Death” marked another great first for South Park by focusing on a morally ambiguous social issue, in this case assisted suicide. Playing with such themes has become a staple for the show, and over its run it has satirized many topics in a thoughtful but biting manner.
Terrance & Phillip in Not Without My Anus (Season 2) – At the end of South Park’s first season, the audience is left with a major cliffhanger: who is Cartman’s father? The answer was promised to be revealed in the Season 2 premiere, which happened to fall on April 1st. Upon realizing the scheduled date, Parker and Stone decided it would be fun to play a little prank upon their fans. Instead of airing “Cartman’s Mom is Still a Dirty Slut” as promised, they produced an entire episode centered on the Canadian comedy duo Terrance and Phillip (see: episode listed above) with absolutely no mention of the Colorado town or its inhabitants.
Parker and Stone claim this is really their favorite episode in the series, but many fans would disagree; thousands were actually outraged enough to send angry letters to Comedy Central, and some apparently stopped watching the show altogether. The personal lives of cartoon characters are very serious business.
It Hits the Fan (Season 5) – Season 5 is commonly referred to as one of South Park’s best by fans, if not the best. Which isn’t too surprising, considering its premiere set a record for containing the most uncensored profanities on network television.
According to the writers, the original plan was to just say a certain four-letter word that usually refers to fecal matter a couple of times without bleeps, which Comedy Central’s execs turned down. When the creators upped the count to “like 200 times,” the network let them try it. The final cut had the word spoken 162 times and written 38 times within, evening out to exactly 200.
Scott Tenorman Must Die (Season 5) – If you’re a long-time fan of South Park, you may notice that at one time Cartman was merely an obnoxious, somewhat bigoted fat kid, not much of a threat to anybody. But when ninth-grader Scott Tenorman tricks him out of $10 (and later, an additional $6.12,) Cartman’s revenge is so cold and calculated that it’s virtually impossible to see him as harmless again. What made this turn doubly effective was the build-up – it seemed like everything would culminate in the eight-year-old’s humiliation like so many other episodes before, so when he ended up settling the score and then some, it shocked even the savviest of viewers.
I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t heard yet, but I’ll just say to trust Kyle when he says to never, ever piss Cartman off.
Woodland Critter Christmas (Season 8 ) – Christmas in South Park is always sure to be a good time, whether it involves anthropomorphic poo, a convicted criminal mastermind, or Canada. But nobody could have anticipated the Woodland Critters; cute, bug-eyed animals who appear to have crawled their way straight out of a Rankin-Bass holiday special. When Stan meets the Critters and reluctantly agrees to help them protect Porcupiney the Porcupine (pregnant with their savior,) he’s surprised to learn that the annoyingly sweet things are actually Satanists preparing for the birth of the Anti-Christ. It’s up to Stan, a trio of mountain lion cubs, and Santa to save Christmas and restore the balance of Good and Evil – using shotguns, abortion, and a sledgehammer.
Mixing gory violence, surprising plot twists and innocuous rhyming narration brilliantly, “Woodland Critter Christmas” quickly established itself as a fan favorite. The Critters made another memorable appearance in the season 11 three-parter “Imaginationland,” where they gleefully gave Strawberry Shortcake AIDS and made even Jason Voorhees shiver with fear.
Trapped In the Closet (Season 9) – It’s no secret that South Park likes to poke fun at pretty much any religion within reach. From Catholicism to Atheism, if someone believes it, Parker and Stone are gonna mock it. Most viewers have long ago accepted this fact, and for as much ridicule as some religions received, there’s been considerably little backlash. But the Church of Scientology was not exactly laughing after “Trapped in the Closet” harshly criticized the organization and called it a financial scam. Neither was Tom Cruise, who was depicted as a clueless and fanatical Scientologist who locks himself in a closet and refuses to come out for most of the episode.
After the show aired, Cruise and the Church of Scientology, infamous for its litigiousness, were outraged. Legal threats were thrown around until Comedy Central pulled the episode from its rebroadcast schedule. “Trapped in the Closet” is also largely believed to be responsible for the departure of Isaac Hayes, voice of Chef and dedicated Scientologist, from the show, which leads directly into our next episode…
The Return of Chef (Season 10) – After Hayes quit South Park, Chef appears one final time with his dialogue made up of old sound bites. In this episode, Chef is killed off – by being thrown off a cliff, set on fire, impaled, and mauled by wild animals and shot numerous times. Oh, and he was a member of a brainwashing pedophilia group before all this happens.
The episode isn’t entirely bitter towards Hayes – at Chef’s funeral, Kyle gives a eulogy claiming that he could not be blamed for his decision to leave South Park in the first place (he was, after all, brainwashed by a greedy organization,) and asks everyone to remember him as his old, happy, singing self. Still, “The Return of Chef” is hard for many South Park fans that had grown to love the character over the years, and Hayes’ death in 2008 (before he and the creators could make amends) made it much more real and tragic.
Cartoon Wars Part I & Part II (Season 10) – A lot of people remember this 2-episode arc for parodying Family Guy. But the real issue was the censorship of the Prophet Muhammad, whose image is banned from depiction by Islamic texts. “Cartoon Wars” was made in response to the controversy surrounding a Danish newspaper that had published a cartoon of Muhammad. South Park responded with their own depiction of the Prophet through an in-universe episode of Family Guy. The message they attempted to send was about free speech and anti-terrorist actions – if a picture is censored because of threats, terrorism wins.
The irony? Comedy Central decided to censor the scene involving Muhammad with a message stating their unwillingness to allow the Prophet’s image on their network. Parker and Stone, strong advocates of the First Amendment, were not pleased.
The super-double-whammy irony? Muhammad was not only seen (and heard) 5 years earlier in the episode “Super Best Friends,” but his image was featured in the show’s opening credits for several seasons. That was before anyone cared.
200/201 (Season 14) – This one is probably one of the most controversial moments in TV history.
4 years after “Cartoon Wars” aired, South Park hit a major milestone with its 200th episode. While some programs would take that opportunity to air a clip show, Parker and Stone did their own variation – a 2-episode arc recalling plot points from past seasons. The main storyline sees everyone who has ever been offended by the town of South Park resort to terrorism in order to kidnap the Prophet Muhammad for his ability to avoid mockery.
Once again, Parker and Stone fully intended for Muhammad to actually be seen, but after receiving veiled death threats, Comedy Central chose to censor “201,” blocking out his image as well as all bleeping any mention of his name and Kyle’s “you know, I learned something today” speech, which supposedly did not mention the Prophet at all, but was about fear. The censorship led to a firestorm of controversy – did South Park push too far this time, potentially endangering lives? Was this a victory for terrorism? Will the issue serve as a precedent for other radical groups to follow?
There were no reruns of “201,” and Comedy Central denied Parker and Stone the approval to air an uncensored version of it on the South Park Studios website – as of now, every episode from the show’s run is available except for “200,” “201,” and “Super Best Friends.”
(Interestingly, many people were too distracted by the Muhammad ordeal to notice how Jesus and Buddha were depicted in the same arc – as an Internet porn fan and a cocaine addict, respectively.)
And that’s just a super-short list of defining moments in South Park’s history of notoriety. I have to say, this was actually a very difficult list to compose. Notice how we were able to get through it without mentioning Cartman’s attempts to incite a Holocaust, or the proclamation of AIDS finally being funny, or an episode titled “Cripple Fight?” South Park has set new standards for being offensive, and it’s always interesting to see who they’ll target next and what the reaction will be. Just one of many reasons it’s been able to enjoy a 14+ year run!