I don’t know about you, but I’m at that point in the pandemic where my brain is fed up with all the comfort TV I have been feeding it in an attempt to soothe it. What my pandemic brain wants now is snark. No, I don’t mean Lewis Carroll’s wacky mythical creature—I want irreverent, cutting wit, with a side of social commentary. Humour that, in addition to making you laugh, makes you shake your head and say to no one in particular, “wow, they really went there.” And for me, no one does that better than South Park.
I had stopped watching South Park regularly somewhere around Season 14 (no real reason, I just lost touch), so I had a lot to catch up on—they’ve just started Season 25! The following favourite episodes are in no real order, I love them all. Revisiting these was exactly what my pandemic brain needed, and now you get to come remember them with me, you lucky people.
“Mr Hankey’s Christmas Classics”
This was the earliest one chronologically in my list, so it might as well go first. And really, this episode was the one that first clued us in on the fact that Trey Parker is a musical freaking GENIUS…yes, I WILL use that word to describe anyone who can take “The Dreidel Song” and build countermelodies on it until it becomes tantamount to “A Weekend In the Country” (it is common knowledge among musical theatre nerds that Stephen Sondheim was a big fan of Trey and Matt’s work).
I can’t ever hear “O, Holy Night” anymore without hearing it in Cartman’s voice, and “mmmkay” has become part of the canon lyrics to “Carol of the Bells”, as far as I’m concerned. And who doesn’t love a piano bar holiday duet between Jesus and Santa, when Santa decides that Duran Duran’s “Rio” counts as a Christmas song too? A lovely little sentimental Easter egg hidden among the snark too—in the final song, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, they do a quick montage of all the South Park characters voiced by the then-recently late Mary Kay Bergman, as a subtle tribute to the actress.
“All About Mormons”
Might as well stay with the musical theme for another episode. This episode is basically proto Book of Mormon, of which I am a big fan. I’ve known people who dismiss the musical out of hand because it makes fun of someone’s religion. And…yes, it does do that. But both the episode and the musical make big points of describing Mormons as really nice people, and even if these beliefs don’t really make sense, who cares, because they make their lives better. In the episode (Mormon family moves to town, Stan briefly makes friends with Mormon kid, Stan’s dad decides they are going to be Mormon now, and we get The Origin Of Mormons told to us through song), when the Marshes ultimately reject being Mormon, the Mormon family tells them how great it is that they have their own beliefs. And the Mormon kid tells Stan, “Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense. And maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life. And a great family. And I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up. Because what the Church teaches now is loving your family, being nice, and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan. But you’re so high and mighty, you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.”
This one is in Season 7 too, and this one was one of those episodes that had me going “oh my GOD” all the way through. First of all, it was the introduction of the South Park goth kids. Second of all, they found an ingenious way to drop the c-word for the first time on the show…Wendy breaks up with Stan, and, trying to get her back, Stan sends Jimmy (who has a stutter) to tell her she is a continuing source of inspiration to him. It doesn’t go well. Stan, who hasn’t particularly cared about having a girlfriend (he’s eight, after all), now that he doesn’t have one, is of course devastated, and after the obligatory Air Supply montage, he leans into the blackness of his pain by joining the goth kids. His friends try to cheer him up by taking him to Raisins, which is Hooters…for 8-year-olds. Yes, it is called Raisins for the reasons you think it is. And when the head Raisins girl trains the newbie in how to work boys for tips, I thought “oh dear…they’re on to us.” I have never personally worked at a Hooters, but I have worked at places that were comparable, and that hit home in an hilarious way.
The other great thing about this episode is my man Butters. I LOVE Butters. Butters being Butters, he gets a crush on one of the Raisins girls, and doesn’t realise that all the flattering things she says to him are just her way of working him for tips. When he realizes the ugly truth (cue Air Supply again), Stan suggests that Butters join him and the goth kids in embracing death and pain. But Butters says, “No thanks, I love life…I’m sad, but at the same time, I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like…it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. The only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt something really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good. So I guess what I’m feeling is like a beautiful sadness.” Butters knows things.
“Biggest Douche In the Universe”
This episode actually performs a public service, in my opinion. So-called psychics like John Edward do more harm than good, and the technique of cold reading is not talking to your deceased loved ones, it is a party trick. I have personally done this party trick to rooms full of people, and, just like Stan does in the episode, I spent the entire time clearly stating THIS IS A TRICK THAT I AM DOING BECAUSE I AM IN NO WAY PSYCHIC. And just like the people in the episode, the audiences ignored that, and wanted me to tell them more fake magic. The B plot with Chef’s parents trying to exorcise Kenny’s soul out of Cartman is fun too, complete with anecdotes about the Loch Ness Monster, and fake movie trailers for Rob Schneider movies that make about as much sense as his real ones.
No one really cares about the titular plot of this one (confusion between giving away free hats, and letting a baby-killer named Hat out of prison). The real reason this episode rocks is that after seeing the Special Editions of Star Wars and E.T., the boys go on a mission to save films from their own creators, to stop them from being constantly updated. The episode even features an appearance from real-life Trey and Matt, where they explain that they too have plans to make South Park better, more expensive, and replace everything with walkie-talkies and Ewoks. The real gold comes from parody sequences—first, the boys go to George Lucas’s house to try and convince him not to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark (to the tune of that scene from Return of the Jedi). When that doesn’t work, the boys and the copy of the new film are marched through the desert, and Tweek gets to fill the shoes of Indiana Jones when he threatens to blow up the film, all he wants are his friends back. The episode culminates with everyone but the boys perishing from viewing the new Special Edition (“Don’t look at it, you guys! It’ll be terrible!”), complete with face melting. Like the man said, it’s beautiful.
“Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?”/”Probably”
This two-parter is a bit of a spiritual sequel to the movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, in that it sees the return of Saddam Hussein as Satan’s now ex-boyfriend. There are two storylines going on throughout—the one in Hell has Satan in the middle of a love triangle as Saddam comes back from the dead (“Where did you think I was gonna go? Detroit?”) to get in the way of Satan’s new relationship with a far-too-nice-for-the-king-of-Hell guy, Chris. Chris is voiced by Dian Bachar, and it’s nice to have a wee Orgazmo/BASEketball reunion, for those of us who are into that kind of thing. At the end, Satan visits Heaven to get relationship advice from God (I LOVE South Park’s depiction of what God looks like), and everyone who has felt wounded by Book of Mormon poking fun at their religion should feel vindicated by this—in this version of Heaven, the only religion that got it right and made it there was in fact, the Mormons, so neener neener neener (only, Mormons would be too nice to say neener neener neener).
Meanwhile, on Earth, the boys are having the be-Jesus (see what I did there?) scared out of them by Father Maxi, who tells everyone that if they don’t eat crackers, drink wine, and confess their sins, they are going to Hell, no matter what. I always find it rather sweet that in the midst of all this religious yikes, an eight-year-old boy (no surprise that it’s Butters) has the distressing concern about their near-nonverbal friend Timmy. If the only thing Timmy can say is his own name, how can he confess his sins? Will Timmy automatically go to Hell? When the boys see Father Maxi being several shades of shady with a lady parishioner in the confessional, they decide to take matters into their own hands. Cartman makes one heck of an evangelical preacher…with the corruption that usually goes with it.
“Fantastic Easter Special”
Another brilliant parody episode, and I’m a sucker for anything faux Biblical. And since this one raked The Da Vinci Code over the coals (Professor Teabag, tee hee), it hit me right in my Masonic feels too. Stan, wondering where the connection is between Jesus dying on the cross and colouring eggs for Easter, gets caught up in a secret society called the Hare Club For Men, protecting the Christianity’s biggest secret (known and painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, of course)—that St Peter was a rabbit, not a human. A deep cut I absolutely love is that the Lodge sequence is a parody of the Lodge sequence from Peggy Sue Got Married. You don’t need to know this to appreciate it, but if you are one of the three people who remember that movie besides me, it is extra funny. One of the convenient things about living in the town of South Park is that Jesus is your literal neighbor (with his own talk show), so prayers to him usually get answered. Problem is, only Resurrected Jesus gets to have superpowers, so when they get captured by the bad guys from the Vatican, it falls to Kyle (once again, the Jews get this job, and Kyle is NOT thrilled about it) to kill Jesus so he can rise again and save the day. And save the day he does, kicking ass ninja style. And, as promised, Eric Cartman never finds out about Kyle killing Jesus.
“The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers”
Never in the history of film and television have a porno and another movie been rented, without them getting mixed up, sent to the wrong place, and hilarity ensuing. Add to that some eight year olds in homemade costumes committed to playing Lord of the Rings, and you’ve got, as Matt and Trey call every episode when they introduce them on S1 DVD box set, a hoot and a holler (this one is in S7, but still). Stan’s dad rents two tapes, and sends the boys on a Quest to take the One Videotape to the House of Butters, while he and Stan’s mom have a romantic evening at home. Randy doesn’t realise his mixup until after Butters has watched a good portion of the porno (it’s called Backdoor Sluts 9). In an attempt to try and discreetly cover, Randy sends the heroes to get the One Videotape back…only now Butters doesn’t want to let his Precious go (Butters as Gollum is the most perfect thing ever). I always find it a funny detail that everyone’s dad knows exactly what Backdoor Sluts 9 is, and how raunchy a porno it is.
The boys manage to return the One Videotape to the video store, unseen by anyone apart from Butters and “Talingharr the Black” (this is extra funny now, because S25E2 just revealed that the real name of this character is Tolkein, named after his father’s favourite author, and not Token, and apparently everyone knew this except Stan, and why would anyone name their kid Token, and OH MY GOD WHOEVER THOUGHT IT WAS TOKEN IS TERRIBLE AND RACIST)—he watched it for five minutes and came back without his costume saying, “I’m not playing anymore. I’m out.” And the parents, who have been trying to chase the boys down, because heaven forbid they see such a movie without their parents explaining the adult sex acts and “putting them into a proper context”…and they do, not realizing that none of the boys have actually seen the porno, so their explanations of double penetration and the like do more harm than good, and make the boys more confused about the weird things adults get up to than ever.
“Trapped In the Closet”
I really should have thought to count how many times they tell Tom Cruise to come out of the closet in this episode—whatever the number is, it’s pretty high, and it NEVER STOPS BEING FUNNY. I remember reading Dianetics back in the day (I think I bought a used copy off the street for a buck), thinking “what the hell am I reading”, and chucking it away. That said, just like with the Mormons, I have zero problem with anyone’s faith if it is: A) helping them get through their day; and 2) not hurting anybody else (not really sure that second thing can be said of Scientology). This is a show that pokes fun at everyone’s religions, but when Scientology came into play, people got twisted knickers about it. The idea that Stan is the reincarnation of L Ron Hubbard, so he can write a second book of Scientology to further the “global scam” isn’t any more offensive than any of the other shots they have taken at Christians, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, etc. Yet it was this episode that allegedly caused Isaac Hayes to quit the show, for Tom Cruise to throw a hissy fit and try to have it pulled from syndication…and yet it was nominated for an Emmy. Go figure.
This Season 12 episode featured three of my favourite things—Butters, the goth kids, and making fun of Twilight. Basically, the goth kids get pissed off because the Twi-hard vamp kids are stealing their “thing” (adding to it plastic fangs, and fake blood made from Clamato). Butters, who is upset because his parents have unfairly grounded him (again) has offered himself to the vampires, asking to become one of them—being Butters, he doesn’t get that it’s just a fandom thing. He thinks they are real vampires, and when they take him to Hot Topic and give him a makeover, he thinks he has become one too. He tries to feed off Cartman (“Mom! Butters is gay and he tried to give me a hickey!”), and strangely, vamp-Butters is able to stand up to Mom and Dad, who are concerned that their son has been transformed into “something we cannot ground”.
Ultimately, Butters decides he wants to be human again, so he offers to help the goth kids get rid of the vampires by destroying their lair—setting fire to the Hot Topic (complete with a proper goth song to go with it) and burning it down. Lastly, the goth kids ask for a special assembly, to once and for all clarify the difference between goth kids and vampire kids. “Let us make it abundantly clear. If you hate life, truly hate the sun, and need to smoke and drink coffee, you are goth. If, however, you like dressing in black ‘cause it’s fun, enjoy putting sparkles on your cheeks, and following the occult while avoiding things that are bad for your health, then you are most likely a douchebag vampire wannabe boner.”
Yes, Kenny dies on South Park on a regular basis. But in Season 10, he actually died permanently for a while, of an actual illness, and they did a whole episode about it. And while the episode is pretty good, the reason it makes it here as an honourable mention is for when Cartman, trying to get stem cell research made legal (we think, so he can help Kenny), speaks before Congress. The result is the best use of “Heat of the Moment” by Asia EVER. If more Congressional appeals were done this way, I think a lot more would get accomplished.
“The Passion of the Jew”
I can sum up my affection for this episode in one quote from Kyle—“I feel so much better about being Jewish now that I see Mel Gibson is just a big wacko douche.” Seriously, everyone was going nanners over that movie, and I agreed with the South Park boys on this—it was a snuff film. The B plot of the episode, with Cartman trying to exterminate the Jews…well, that’s why it only gets an honourable mention.
“Cartoon Wars,” Part 1&2
I’m not a fan of Family Guy. I’m with Cartman on this one. Remember how I said earlier that the thing that was a reference to Peggy Sue Got Married was funny anyway, even if you didn’t know if was a reference to something? That’s why I don’t like Family Guy—because they don’t take that extra step, to make their in-jokes funny to those of us who might not get the in-joke. I could absolutely buy that the show was written by manatees. The whole thing was validating as hell. What’s ironic is that HBO Max isn’t streaming these episodes for the same reason the episodes were made in the first place—an image of Mohammad was shown. I got them off Amazon Prime instead, and when it got up to the bit where there is meant to be a two-second shot of Mohammad, it wasn’t even there. Instead, there were title cards that said “In this shot, Mohammad hands a football to Family Guy. Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammad on their network.” So really, HBO Max COULD have shown them, because the offending image isn’t even in there.
“A Song of Ass and Fire,” All Three Parts
It was Season 17, and everyone and their brother was doing Game of Thrones parodies. South Park joined that party, and brought with them the best contribution to the GoT spoof party—the “Wiener Song”. And now it will be stuck in your head. You’re welcome.
I could go on—25 seasons, after all—but these are my very favourites. What are yours? Let me know in the comments!