Tonight, at 10 pm, South Park began its twentieth season on television. That’s 267 episodes, countless Emmys, and a critically and commercially successful movie. Why is it so popular? My theory is that it takes an honest look at politics and society through the lens of a decent human being (creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone refuse to conscribe to either political party, believing that most Americans, perhaps rightly so, are slightly left socially and slightly right fiscally), while understanding that people just want humor delivered through farts and curse words by ten-year old boys. It has managed to make fun of everyone and everything, no matter the backlash, and have provided some of the best commentary in television, and has provided each side of the spectrum their own personal straw man, with Randy representing the worst aspects of the liberals and beloved character Eric Cartman serving as perhaps the most hilariously psychotic example of the far-right on television. And they do all of this in just seven days, creating entire works of animation and cutting edge satire in the same amount of time it takes Saturday Night Live to put together a five minute sketch. Not bad for a couple of stoned college kids from Colorado. There’s a joke in each episode for everyone, and so long as you aren’t easily offended, there’s bound to be something you’ll like in one of the show’s many, many classic episodes.
I myself am a huge fan of the show, with its brilliant commentary and laugh-out-loud jokes forever being a part of my life. The humor has served as an inspiration for this site, and I have many a fond memory of gathering with friends in college to play the South Park drinking game (sorry Mom). I’ve seen damn near every episode of this cultural phenomenon, and I’ve decided that the only way to properly honor this iconic program on the day it turns twenty is to dedicate my Wednesday Listicle to it. So, without further ado, I present to you all the Top Eleven South Park Episodes. (Why Top Eleven? I couldn’t break the tie for tenth).
Before I get to the actual list, I want to talk about some of my honorable mentions. In narrowing these episodes down, I was shocked to see how many I considered to be truly classic. In fact, my first list had forty-four contenders for the top spots. I won’t list all of them here, but I will mention some of the funniest and most intelligent episodes around. In terms of just straight jokes, “Scott Tenorman Must Die” is one of the darkest, funniest episodes in television history, and is really worth a watch, while the Emmy Award-winning “Make Love, Not Warcraft” was a visual treat. “Die, Hippie, Die” featured some of my favorite jokes in any episode of the show. “Starvin’ Marvin in Space” is an excellent criticism of the flawed missionary system in Africa, and “ManBearPig” is one of the funniest critiques of Al Gore and his terrible documentary in existence. To this day, I find myself humming the “Sexual Harassment Panda” theme, much to the horror of those around me. Politically speaking, there are very few television episodes as broad and brutal in scope as “Goobacks’” look at the immigration system or “With Regards to Jesse Jackson’s” look at the racial divide in America. In terms of personal taste, “Broadway Bro Down,” “Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls,” and “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerBalls” (my first episode) each hold a place in my heart, as each satirizes one of my favorite things (Broadway, Sundance Film Festival and classic literature, respectively). And of course, I can’t get through this current election cycle without pointing out the classic “Douche and Turd,” which theorizes that every election is just picking the least worst candidate (a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich, if you will), and mocking the stigma that exists on people turned cynical to the system. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trey and Matt just ran that episode the day after the election.
And now, without further ado, let’s go on down to South Park and have ourselves a good time
11. The Passion of the Jew
What’s brilliant about this episode is how easily Trey and Matt trick you into thinking they’re going to have something brilliant to say about Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ. Indeed, they tease you the entire episode by offering up each of the different interpretations of the film: some see it as an excellent and profound experience, some see it as too hard on the Jewish community (the Jewish character Kyle, voiced by the Jewish Matt Stone, begins feeling massive amounts of guilt because of the film), the most vile character Cartman tries to use the film as propaganda to inspire anti-Semitism (while he manages to gain followers, the show chooses not to portray them as actually anti-Semitic, just not smart enough to realize what the actual goal is), and finally, the show’s voice of reason, Stan, sees the truth: it’s a meh movie directed by a psycho (interestingly, this episode was released before all of Gibson’s woes, proving its predictive powers). It’s a refreshing take in the midst of all the arguments people were having over it: while everyone was busy arguing if it’s themes transcended all or if its performances were offensive to groups of people, no one really stopped to ask if it was actually a good film. I’m personally a defender of the film, and that’s not going to change, but no one could truly claim to be a film critic without admitting the truth inside the show’s points. However, I’m not giving “The Passion of the Jew” a spot on this list because its themes or commentary are any good (they are). I’m not even giving it a spot on this list because Cartman is at the top of his game here (he is). I’m giving it this spot because the entire final third of the episode, featuring a naked, crazy Mel Gibson (portrayed in cartoon form as a crude drawing with a cutout Gibson head on top) hopping around like a deranged Daffy Duck chasing after the heroes after mistaking them for the bad guys in a Mad Max movie. It’s truly a work of art, and it’s enough to earn a spot on this list. Qapla’!
10. Trapped in the Closet
Arguably the biggest fan favorite in the series, South Park was rarely as harsh as when they went after Scientology. In the A-plot, a depressed Stan is tricked into joining Scientology. During the “vetting process,” it is discovered that his Thetan levels are on par with L. Ron Hubbard’s himself, convincing the community that he is the rightful heir to lead the Church. He learns about Scientology in a glorious sequence reenacting the Church’s teachings, getting more and more ridiculous to the point that Trey and Matt actually put a disclaimer across the screen stating “This is what Scientologists actually believe.” Stan takes on the mantle with pride and starts writing a new book, but horrifies the Church’s leaders by planning to cut the payment process. In reality (on the show, lest I be sued), Scientology is made up in order to scam people into giving them tax free money. The leaders laugh at poor Stan for believing their bullsh*t. So Stan outs them as the frauds they are. The result? The episode ends as the Scientologists boo him and the leaders announce plans to sue him. It would be hilarious if that weren’t or the fact that’s how it actually worked in reality. Of course, I can’t discuss the episode without discussing the titular B-plot. In a spoof of Scientology’s purported homophobia, Tom Cruise, horrified that the heir to L. Ron Hubbard describes his acting as “Fine, but you’re no Napoleon Dynamite,” takes solace in Stan’s closet, resulting in an entire episode of people trying to convince Cruise to “come out of the closet,” only for him to rebuff them and claim, “I’m not in the closet.” Eventually, John Travolta tries to help Cruise, only to end up in the closet himself. It’s a silly, stupid subplot, but it’s themes are richer than they deserve to be. It was a bold episode all around, and it may have lost Parker and Stone friends (longtime collaborator Isaac Hayes quit the show in protest), but its message and humor are an important stance against a corrupt institution.
One of the sillier episodes in the South Park canon, the episode came at a time when Starbucks was considered the death of the American small business. In fact, it took on the stereotypical plot of small vs. big business. However, this episode added a special twist to it: here, the villain is the small business owner. Starbucks isn’t successful because it starves out small business, Trey and Matt argue. They’re successful because they offer quick, efficient, and quality service in the face of unprepared and less focused on quality. In fact, the owner of the coffee shop, Mr. Tweek, is depicted as just as greedy as Starbucks, if not more so. And despite his attempts to sabotage or destroy his rivals, Starbucks is impressed with his work ethic, and hires him to run the branch. It’s a shockingly pro-business message, and Trey and Matt handle it with humor and class. Of course, the A-plot isn’t what people remember from this episode. That would be the B-plot, taking on the idiocy of starting a small business without a proper plan. Here this is portrayed by a group of gnomes who steal underwear from Mr. Tweek’s son, Tweek. The gang goes down to confront the gnomes, who explain they need it for their business, explained with the following model:
- Steal Underpants
There are few words in the South Park lexicon as those words. It’s a stupid episode that takes a common trope and turns it on its head-just as South Park is wont to do.
8. Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants
God bless South Park. A month after 9/11, as the country is ravaged with depression and horror, they come in with an honest, jingoistic, and hilarious take on the whole event. While never ignoring the fact that our country had made some mistakes in the handling of the terrorists, and calling out the attempts to redub our quest for justice as “bringing freedom around the world,” the show still focused on the message of a righteous cause-no matter what we had done, or what we would do, the terrorists had messed with the wrong people, and we wouldn’t let them get away with that. It was precisely the message the nation needed to hear in the face of all the horror in the world. And most importantly, it gave us the greatest takedown of Bin Laden the world has ever seen. Drawing on propaganda cartoons by Disney and the Looney Tunes (specifically Der Fuhrer’s Face), the episode features a very Bugs Bunny-esque Cartman “settling the score,” engaging Bin Laden in a battle of wits straight out of an old cartoon. I was only seven when 9/11 happened, so I didn’t have a chance to watch this episode live, but I can only imagine how cathartic it was for Americans to watch a Bin Laden caricature attempting to molest a camel and be called a c*cksucker to his face. While it may not be the greatest episode of all time, there are few episodes of the show more important to America as a nation than this one.
7. Woodland Critter Christmas
Yep, this one. Arguably the most infamous episode in the show’s lexicon, this show aims to be nothing more than a spoof of old Christmas specials, right down to the rhyming narration. Indeed, it was supposed to be a throwaway episode when Trey and Matt ran out of good ideas. And yet, it has become so much more. Designed as a Christmas story told by the deranged Cartman, the story quickly goes off the rails from a simple animal story to a horror show, as it’s revealed the friendly woodland critters in the vein of Rudolph are, in fact, Satanists trying to bring about the birth of the Antichrist, sacrificing each other to the devil and engaging in horrific acts of debauchery. Throw in for good measure such a disturbing take on abortion so bizarre I can’t tell if it’s a pro-life or pro-choice stance (arguments can be made either way), and you have one of the most twisted “Christmas Specials” of all time. I won’t give any more away, it’s something you’ll just have to experience for yourself (and trust me, I do. It’s the only episode of the show I have saved on my hard drive).
This is one of the better episodes of South Park in the past eight years. Taking on the decline of the economy, the show has two of the greatest plotlines in all of television history. In the A-plot, Randy becomes convinced that the economy is punishing us because of our rampant spending. This takes on religious meaning, and the town starts to cut back to the point it resembles Jerusalem in 32 A.D. Realizing the ridiculousness of these beliefs, young Kyle begins to preach that you must be responsible for yourself and your fellow man, angering the leaders in charge who consider this “heresy.” If you can’t tell for yourself, the episode becomes an allegory for Jesus. In the end, Kyle sacrifices himself for the debt of everyone by buying the entire country’s debt, but is shocked to learn that Barack Obama is taking all the credit for his deeds. Meanwhile, Stan learns that his dad spent all their money buying a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville Margarita Maker. He tries to return it, but each person along the way reveals they sold the debt down the line, becoming a spoof of the housing market. Eventually, Stan finds his way to the Federal Reserve, where he learns that the entire economy is decided by cutting off the head of a chicken and letting it run around on a giant board game while Yakety Sax is played on kazoo. Watching it land on the “Bailout!” square is one of the most poignant images in TV history. This is South Park satire at its finest, and is one of their funniest episodes in the later years.
5. The Death Camp of Tolerance
Last year’s season of South Park received notoriety for its brutal takedown of P.C. culture. However, the show has been doing that since its inception, and no where is that more clear than in 2002’s “The Death Camp of Tolerance.” When Mr. Garrison, the long-suffering-turned-manipulative gay teacher of the students discovers that he can sue the school if he is fired for his sexuality, he decides to amp it up so he has no choice but to be fired. Unfortunately, despite the kids’ obvious discomfort with the presence of Garrison’s gimp, Mr. Slave, in the class, the ultra-liberal parents refuse to act, as their kids are simply “not being tolerant.” In fact, when the kids complain about Garrison’s act of gerbilling in the classroom, they are sent to a camp to teach them to accept everyone, which is essentially a concentration camp filmed “Schindler’s List” style. That’s an extreme and bizarre joke, but it helps drive home the episode’s message: tolerance means you don’t actively attempt to control or harm other people. It doesn’t mean you have to accept or like their lifestyle. It’s an important message for both sides of the aisle: It lets those uncomfortable know they have to allow people to live their lives by their own morals, while telling the other side that just because they have the right to be who they are doesn’t mean everyone has to approve. That’s a deep and logical message that everyone can learn from. And this is coming from an episode that also features a Hobbit-style quest of a gerbil to escape a gay man’s ass before he perishes, complete with a quest song.
4. It Hits the Fan
It seems odd for a show that curses as much as South Park to make an episode in favor of slight censorship, and yet here we are. After hearing the word “sh*t” on television, the characters all begin using the word as often as possible (200 times in 30 minutes, to be exact). However, they unknowingly release an ancient monster fueled by curse words in the process. Furthermore, the Black Plague resurfaces, fueled by the bile spewing from their mouths. In the end, the characters learn that swear words should be reserved for moments of anger, as overuse will ruin the word’s meaning and emphasis. It’s not the deepest message the show has ever done, but I didn’t put it on the list for being deep. I put it on the list for the fact it uses the word “sh*t” in 200 different ways, and even includes a counter in the bottom corner of the screen. That takes balls.
3. All About Mormons
The South Park Mormon episode is so popular it pretty much inspired an entire musical of its own (The Book of Mormon, obviously). However, the episode, following Stan’s confusion at the overly happy and generous Mormon family that’s moved in down the street, also features the show’s best exploration of faith. The episode gives fans a look at the history of Mormonism, explained through a musical flashback. The narrators end each verse with a stereotypical “dum dum dum dum dum.” This seems like nothing, until you realize that they are actually saying “dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb,” mocking the gullibility of people in the 19th century. In fact, the only time the lyrics change are when someone questions Joseph Smith, which receives the chant “smart smart smart smart smart.” It seems like an open and shut satire of Mormon culture. However, if that’s what you expect from this brilliant show, then you haven’t been paying attention. The final message of the episode is not only a defense of Mormonism, but religion in general: sure, it’s ridiculous and illogical, but it provides people with happy families, good memories, and makes them good people. Isn’t that a superior life than being logical and depressed? Despite being agnostics themselves, Trey and Matt are smart, caring people, and no matter how much they tease, they have a great deal of respect for Mormons, and religious people in general. And that’s a form of satire I can get behind.
2. Best Friends Forever
Some of the most brilliant episodes of South Park have come just days after the event that inspired them. A famous example is when there was a shot-for-shot remake of the Elián González raid the day after it occurred. However, the best example of this talent is “Best Friends Forever,” which premiered just days after the Terri Schiavo’s plug was pulled. The episode features the drawn out court case and media frenzy over frequently deceased Kenny’s comatose body. Cartman wants to pull the plug on him in order to get his PSP through the will. Kyle and Stan want to spare their friend’s life. And the final page of the will, leaving demands over what to do if he went into a coma, is missing. This entire scenario is complicated, as Kenny was supposed to command the army of angels in the final war against Satan, but can only do so if he is allowed to pass away peacefully. Therefore, the angels must convince the media that Kenny must die, while Satan encourages the Supreme Court to put a halt on the action. As the argument rages on over what is right and what is wrong, the final page of the will is recovered, with Kenny’s only demand being “If I go into a coma, please, for the love of God, don’t plaster me over the TV. It would be too insulting.” It drives to the heart of the entire Schiavo debate, as we realize that no matter who was right and who was wrong (although the episode implies that natural death is the most humane response), the fact we publicized a woman’s comatose body and eventual death is the most disgraceful and inhuman result of all. And all this from a comedy about potty-mouthed pre-teen boys.
1. Go, God, Go!/Go, God, Go XII!
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the two greatest equal-opportunity offenders in the business. They have poked fun at every religion out there, including Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, Judaism, Buddhism and Scientology. However, the only time they have ever gone after a belief system (or lack thereof) with any sense of venom or anger was a two part episode “Go, God, Go!” which takes a detailed look at atheism. The episode plays across two time frames: the present and the future. In the present, Mrs. Garrison is wooed by renowned atheist Richard Dawkins, who believes that evolution proves that there is no God. He also believes that if this is proven true, and everyone just followed science, then it would be the end of war and prejudice. He proclaims his teachings to the class, and when Stan points out that “Evolution is the answer to the how, but not the answer to the why,” leaving room for the existence of God, Garrison and Dawkins send him to the corner with the dunce cap, as punishment for his foolish thoughts. Meanwhile, Cartman has frozen himself in order to make it to the future, when the new Wii is released. He finds himself in the year 2546, where everyone is atheist, and swears by declaring “Oh my science” and “Science damn it” (a sendup to Brave New World, I’m sure). Three groups of atheists have declared war on each other, effectively disproving the atheists argument. This joke is taken even further when it is revealed that the groups (including one of hyper-intelligent otters) are fighting solely over the name of the one true science. This is both a brilliant satire of the similarities of religion and a scorching takedown of human nature-the reason we fight and kill is not because of religious beliefs, it’s because that’s how human beings are. Getting rid of religion won’t change who we are-in fact, it may make us worse. It features each character at their funniest and (in Garrison and Cartman’s case) dumbest, it features brutal celebrity spoofs, and it features a dark, yet fairly intelligent message. This is a shining example of South Park avoiding the easy joke, and for that reason, it is, in my opinion, the best outing the show has ever had.
That concludes this list of the greatest episodes of South Park. Got a favorite episode of your own? Let me know in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll leave you all with the James Cameron song, just because he is, in fact, the bravest pioneer.