Comedy Central // 1997 // 310 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 7th, 2003
Friendly faces everywhere, humble folks without temptation.
While many snobs and ivory tower thinkers would argue with the basic premise, there is artistry to filth and bad taste that very few, if any of the so-called blue entertainers, even approach getting correct. Sure, John Waters makes movies that symbolize social ills in the bodily fluids and degenerate mindsets of the public he is simultaneously championing and chastising. But more times that not, his motion sickness pictures implode, relying too readily on shock to sell their message. Lenny Bruce devolved from a wickedly vile stand-up groundbreaker to a bitter legal eagle, reduced to spewing his tired trial transcripts to bored nightclub patrons in a final act of self-perceived relevance. Over the years, comedians like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy have worked the four, eight, ten, and fourteen letter word for all their raunchy relevance. But their genius also helped pave the way for such sad satire sods like Andrew "Dice" Clay, who gratuitously applied curses into his Romper Room rhymes like Rogaine across his balding pate, and Martin Lawrence, who even in 2003 has yet to figure out just where to put the jokes in between all the mofos. Honestly, about the only two people to have managed the fine line lunge between sleaze and silliness with the appropriate tongue to cheek implant are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the slacker saviors of cable cartoon comedy. Their television brainchild, a construction paper lollapalooza called South Park, introduced the world to such deranged delights as a talking, singing pile of Christmas crap and an animal sanctuary for homosexual pets. A true pioneering piece of pandering depravity, it's also one of the most clever and intelligent animated series ever created. Now finally making it to DVD in full season sets, it's time to head on down this humor highway to, paraphrase the title song, meet some fiendishly funny and filthy friends of mine.
In the sleepy mountain suburb of South Park, Colorado, four young boys come of age amidst the banal and the bizarre. Stan Marsh is the normal kid, a kind of Tom Joad without the mean mad streak running through him. He lives with his sister Shelly and his always at odds parents. Kyle Broslofski is the token Jew, a lonely Hebrew in amongst the high altitude gentiles. His mother, Shelia, is a cause-fighting agitator while his father is a successful attorney. He has an adopted brother named Ike. Then there's Eric Cartman, a foul mouthed, flatulent fat ass, constantly blaming his big bones for his rotund stature as he crams another handful of snack treats into his portly piehole. His mother is widely known as the town slut. And finally there is Kenny. An unfortunate child who seems to court death as often as his parents cash welfare checks, he is a mumbling bundle of perverted sexual knowledge who isn't afraid to share his warped wealth of information. That is, when anyone can understand him through his head engulfing parka hood.
They all attend the third grade at South Park Elementary, where a motley crew of misfit faculty and staff try and guide them through life's little imperfections. There is Mr. Garrison, a closeted educator who teaches the day's lessons with the help of Mr. Hat, his bug eyed hand puppet. There's Mr. Mackey, the tight collared school counselor, his head so filled with self-important self-help knowledge that it's literally swollen to twice its normal size. And then there is Chef, the boy's confidant and mentor. When not teaching them about making sweet love to a woman down by the fire, he is answering their naïve questions, portioning out steaming slabs of Salisbury steak and arriving just in the nick of time to save them from potential disaster. Along with fellow classmates Wendy, Pip, and Clyde, our curious kids explore the dark and daffy sides of town in their many adventures.
In the first season DVD set, the following episodes are offered:
"Cartman Gets an Anal Probe"
The boys witness aliens abducting Kyle's baby brother Ike. Vowing to get the little pisher back, they resort to exploiting Cartman's recent rendezvous with a spacecraft (and a diabolical extraterrestrial implant in his buttocks) to contact the creatures and save Kyle's sibling.
"Weight Gain 4000"
Cartman wins an essay contest (he cheated, naturally) and Kathie Lee Gifford is scheduled to award the prize. This spurs two widely different reactions amongst the South Park citizenry. Little Eric decides to bulk up on Weight Gain formula to look his best, while Mr. Garrison buys a rifle and plans revenge on the celebrity for her involvement in a youth talent show debacle years ago.
Stan's Uncle Jimbo takes the boys hunting. Along with his old army pal Ned, the gun toting poacher party proceeds to blast everything in site. But when an erupting mountaintop threatens to cover the gang in hot lava, it's up to a legendary creature named Scuzzlebutt to save the day...by weaving a wicker basket, of course.
"Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride"
Stan's new dog Sparky wants to live an alternative canine lifestyle. Stan wants nothing to do with a gay dog. When the proud, pouting pooch runs away, Stan sacrifices a chance to lead his football team to quasi-victory to search for his friend. He finds him at Big Gay Al's, a magical queer animal friendly mountaintop sanctuary. Stan learns tolerance.
"An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig"
The boys want to win a science fair competition by genetically splicing the DNA of a pachyderm with that of a swine to make little pot bellied elephants. But when they visit the mysterious Dr. Mephisto in his mad scientist lab, they get a little more than that bargained for: specifically, the crazy quack creates a town-destroying clone of Stan.
Stan's grandpa is well over 100 years old and his one wish it to die with dignity. So he constantly pesters his grandson to kill him. Stan refuses as he is much more interested in watching the latest television hit entitled The Terrence and Phillip Show. It concerns two Canadian retards that constantly fart on and around each other.
When the lifeless body of Kenny McCormick is pumped full of Worchester sauce, not embalming fluid, he returns from the dead as a flesh eating zombie. It's up to Chef and the other boys of South Park to solve the mystery of how to destroy these cannibal corpses before the evil fiends overrun the entire town.
The son of Satan transfers to South Park Elementary, where he calls out Jesus for an all out grudge match with his Hades dwelling pappy. It becomes a big pay-per-view event, but much to the Savior's chagrin, everyone in the town is betting on the man goat. It's up to the boys to help the Messiah train for this ultimate battle between good and evil.
The boys sponsor a poor African drought victim under the pretense of receiving a free digital sports watch. They get the actual child instead. While they figure out what to do with him, a rash of wild turkey attacks plague the town. Somehow, Cartman ends up in Ethiopia, where he confronts the dark forces exploiting the native population: Sally Struthers.
"Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo"
Feeling left out of all the Christian Christmas celebrations, little Jewish Kyle tries to convince his friends that an alternative Santa exists -- Mr. Hankey, a gift giving bowel movement. As the town's PC thugs slowly dismantle the entire holiday, it's up to Kyle and his Yuletide turd to save the seasons greetings.
Mr. Garrison has plastic surgery. Magically, he is transformed into a dead ringer for David Hasselhoff. In the meantime, a new female substitute teacher enchants the boys. What they don't know is that she is a lesbian. And what she doesn't know is that Stan's "girlfriend," Wendy Testaburger, is planning on keeping her little man, by whatever means is necessary.
While on a school archeological dig for Native American arrowheads, the boys discover a strange arcane triangle. Immediately, Barbra Streisand shows up, claiming it is hers. The boys won't give it up. So she kidnaps and tortures them. When they finally concede, she uses the object to transform into an 80-foot tall destructive monster. It's up to Leonard Maltin, Sidney Poitier, and Robert Smith of The Cure to save the day, and the tiny Colorado town.
"Cartman's Mom is a Dirty Slut"
Little Eric has not been himself recently. His friends catch him having a tea party with his stuffed animals. They proceed to tape the hilarious images for a chance at winning money on America's Stupidest Home Videos. Turns out Cartman wants to know who his father is. Unfortunately, Mom's not quite sure, and the local mad genetic scientist, Dr. Mephisto, can only narrow it down to a one out of several possibilities.
In 1999, a movie was released that contained, perhaps, the most consistently laugh out loud funny series of scenes in the history of motion picture comedy. After an incredibly accurate (in its singsong lameness) opening musical number, a group of young boys sneak into their local Cineplex to see an R-rated film by their television heroes. After settling in, they are assaulted by more four-letter words and foul mouthed imagery than they had ever experienced before. And they love it! Leaving the theater changed, its hilarious curse words all around as the doorway to eventual adulthood has suddenly swung wide open, letting every forbidden thing out and in. A brilliant exploration and explanation of the freedom of speech and censorship, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was (and still is) a testament to the power of language to entertain and enrage. It forced its audience to confront the copycat qualities of modern media while guilelessly removing blame from itself and other similarly themed material for the degeneration of America's youth. Filled with hilariously complex Broadway by way of the bathroom show tunes and a confrontational contempt for critics and conservatives, it remains the pinnacle of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's comic catalog. It's no surprise that the movie was as powerful and perverse as it was. For the previous three years, these subversive slackers had been preparing the world for their decidedly skewed philosophy.
As a milestone of the medium, South Park the TV series is a show filled with outrageous, over the top anarchic humor that still remains firmly cemented in reality by focusing on the grade school gross out interaction of its four nine-year-old protagonists. It's an examination of early childhood dynamics and a rebellious attack on authority. It's a slap in the face of manners. It's a nod and a wink to ethics and morality. It's a parade of gregarious garbage pail gags and perfectly observed social satire. True, much of what is said and done rings of the juvenile and sophomoric, but then most humor is based somewhere near the toilet, if not actually in it. It's a program that can milk laughs out of feces, friendship, farts, and foreign affairs. Like The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead (and to some less subtle degree, Futurama), South Park is a consistently mutating examination and deconstruction of modern popular culture, accented by fart jokes and singing shit. Like Matt Groening and the other writers populating Springfield with all manner of mind bending media meditations, Trey Parker and Matt Stone view the entire entertainment arena of the last 40 years as a fertile playground for their Jew and semen jokes to flourish in. If Homer and his farcical family of Freudian fever dreams represent society at its most hidden Joe Average, South Park is the dissident underbelly of disconnected youth, a world of adult lies and Jackass style stunts. It's a place that would rather dissect the sexual aspects of Marilyn Manson than those of Monroe, where social symbols like Barbra Streisand are dismantled in favor of statues of Gamera and temples to Satan. Like Kerouac, Lennon, McCartney, and Cobain, South Park is the voice of its own dissatisfied and bored lost generation. It's also funny as hell.
This is not to say it is a perfect presentation (unlike The Simpsons, which becomes braver in biting the hand that feeds it every season). More times than not the targets it aims for (animal rights, gun nuts, religion) are accurately and satirically skewered. But other times, the attacks become mean spirited and aimless. Often a joke or situation is beaten into the ground to satisfy Parker and Stone's desire for self-gratification. Other times, they throw a brick and miss the storefront window by a country club mile. Yet in this first season collection of episodes, one can witness the speakers finding their voice, fine tuning their tactics and assails to polish their approach. Never losing sight of the inherent humor in hearing third graders swear like sailors, the original series constantly overplays this premise, as it does the endless Kenny deaths (the unlucky indigent child is constantly dying at the hands of fate's faux funny accidents) and Stan's proclivity of vomiting whenever a girl speaks to him. It is interesting how tired these surefire smile tactics become when viewed in one, continuous package. And it's also fascinating how quickly they were abandoned by the writers in favor of more character driven diversions. Still, with a target as hated as Barbra Streisand or Celine Dion, you are guaranteed to witness some sad, stiff Palomino having his rigor mortised hide repeatedly trampled again and again to satisfy the creator's inner issues. South Park is a true reflection of its mastermind's miscreant mentality. And sometimes that's a very bad, self-indulgent thing.
But other times, it is perfectly fine. From the beginning, Parker and Stone indulged one character almost exclusively, rendering him instantly memorable. Within the show's youthful hierarchy, he is the true original spirit. Eric Cartman: a foul mouthed toad with a strange, misdirected heart and a more than healthy appetite, he is the glue that holds the fragile mix of the mundane to the mindless so that it all gels into one splendidly comic concoction. Using the idea of the jolly, butt of a joke fat kid as a ripe for re-examination cliché, Parker and Stone provide his character with an obvious mean streak, a traumatic home life, and an active fantasy world. He is a wicked sprite, a misguided and prejudiced pile of processed snack foods that wears his bias on his several chins. And yet he is always a child: vulnerable, confused, and disgustingly honest. In the scripts for the show, he becomes the ventriloquist's dummy to Parker and Stone's inner psyche, saying the things they never would or could, but know need to be brought up. He has also created some of the most memorable moments and catch phrases in the history of the series, from his Christmas special show stopper regarding Kyle's meddling mother and her female dog tendencies to his angry scolding of a potpie loving pet cat. Epitomizing everything that's rock solid and borderline bullshit about the show, Cartman outshines the other members of the gang in this first season DVD set. Parker and Stone obviously knew which side of the bread their butterball was on. Kyle, Stan, and Kenny would all have to wait for future seasons to shine.
Of the thirteen episodes offered here, there is not a single bad show. All are very good, offering a careful combination of the fresh with the familiar, the political with the poot. Three shows in particular are so outstanding that they have become all time South Park classics. They each move beyond the commode-based comedy of a normal outing (even if one spends most of the show almost completely in the potty) to resonate warmth and insight. The notion of a gay dog and how its adolescent owner deals with his own bow wow homophobia sparks "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" into a ripe diatribe about intolerance, sports, and Disney's Jungle Cruise attraction. Stereotypes are challenged and homespun sentiments are unraveled as the entire town is forced to choose between holding onto their outmoded mindsets, or learning to accept lesbian monkeys and bisexual bears for what they (and their human counterparts) really are: just animals/people. "Death" is the ultimate response to the critical drumming the series faced in its first few weeks on the air. Tied loosely around the controversial subject of assisted suicide, the show's main focus in the introduction of the La Petomanes of children's television, the constantly gassy Canadians Terrence and Phillip. Their show within the show is mindless, vulgar, stupid...and brilliant. It coalesces everything everyone accuses South Park of being into a constant barrage of butt trumpeting. Even when the secondary story about Grandpa's death wish peters out, the awful olfactory funniness of the cracker ripping T & P marks the creation of yet another set of timeless characters (much like Cripple Fight would do three seasons later) that directly address the show's cultural impact. If South Park is really nothing more than a series of fart jokes, then The Terrance and Phillip Show must be some manner of trouser cough calamity.
But by far the best episode of the bunch (and one that foreshadowed the big screen masterwork done in Bigger, Longer and Uncut) is "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo." Everything great about South Park, from its unrelenting vileness to its remarkably accomplished musical scoring, is highlighted in this tale of Santa's little fecal matter helper. Kyle's lonely lament about being a Jewish kid at holiday time is one of the best, most keenly observed songs about failing to fit in ever conceived. But that doesn't mean that every tune is a timeless testament to complex emotion. Cartman's cruel chant-along, "Kyle's Mom's a Bitch," is so simplistically silly and yet deliciously crude that it becomes a "why hasn't it been done before?" moment of transcendent splendor. The main theme's overriding attack on political correctness is further solidified by using a talking, tuneful piece of waste product as the only entity truly imbued with the spirit of giving. Like Parker and Stone's first foray into animation, The Spirit of Christmas, this most undermined of the holidays, bastardized by commercialization and political grandstanding, needs one clear proponent. So what if it's a talking Hershey squirt? At least it understands the true meaning of the season. In the end, Mr. Hankey is really what South Park is all about. It's about the juxtaposition of the crude with the clever, the obvious with the thought provoking, to deconstruct the carefully crafted world of crap that surrounds us. While over the course of its run it has gotten preachy and occasionally downright obtuse, it is still a hilarious look at the foibles of youth and that which makes the juvenile inside all of us laugh.
There is good and bad news in this latest release from Warner Brothers home video. The good news in that, finally, South Park is being released in complete season DVD sets, unlike the previous "best of" compilations that focused on a particular theme or character. Another welcome aspect of this new re-release is the wonderful full screen image, which only occasionally shows video mastering problems. Detail lines in the computerized recreation of Parker and Stone's construction paper animation process are often lost or blurred and the transfer can seem fuzzy at times. Still, when you can see the handmade quality of the pilot, including the three-dimensional effect of paper onto paper, what's here is much better than what you are seeing weekly on the broadcast television screen, even if you have digital cable. The sound is also well done. From the bass-thumping pump of Primus' opening theme song to the numerous Chef solo outings within each episode, the music really comes alive in the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. But there is nothing else especially evocative about the sound quality. Voices are clear and background ambience kept to a minimum, so no one would ever consider this DVD an experience in immersion. Each episode in the series is introduced in a tongue in cheek manner by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (all inserts are apparently old material shot for the first Rhino releases of these titles) that, while very funny, offer nothing really insightful or explanatory about the shows themselves. They would save that information for the enclosed commentary track...
...Except there is no enclosed commentary track. One of the most controversial aspects of this DVD release was the last minute decision by Warner's to drop, completely, the commentaries from the DVD set. Parker and Stone recorded 13 separate tracks for the discs release, each addressing the specifics of individual episodes. Why they were dropped is God's own private mystery. There is nothing outrageous or remotely scandalous about them (more on this in the rebuttal). Hoping to recoup a little positive publicity, Comedy Central offers a chance to pick up the alternative audio tracks on a five CD set that costs $3.95 to order directly, or one gets them free if they order the DVD set through the cable channel's online store. What paltry additional extras Warners offers are truly pathetic. We get Christmas themed music videos featuring Cartman and Ned singing relatively unfunny versions of classic carols. There is a "let's poke fun at Jay Leno's chin" exclusive from The Tonight Show which features the talk show host's own voice, which has never sounded as irritating and phony as it does here. We also get promos for South Park from its first season on Comedy Central, which are interesting in their historical perspective, but become reprehensible when they turn into ads for the mostly faux-funny other programs on the network. Talk about sneaky. Finally, the one bright spot amongst the added features is a five-minute excerpt from the boys' appearance at the 1997 Cable Ace Awards. Self effacing, irreverent, and flying directly in the face of the very people who asked them to host, it is a genuinely funny moment in what is otherwise a very lackluster package of poorly thought out extras.
Which, of course, brings us back to the commentaries. It's now time to take Warner Brothers to the woodshed for a good old-fashioned ass whooping. There is absolutely no excuse -- none, zip, zero, nada -- for not including these commentaries on the DVDs. True, Parker and Stone are as potty mouthed as their screen alter egos and they do have that anti-corporate natural tendency to tell it like it is. But it's not like they are slandering famous people or desecrating Comedy Central or Time Warner in a venom fueled attempt at back biting everyone who helped or hindered them. In reality, the commentaries function as a history of the show, how it was created, how it came to be on cable (and not Fox, who also wanted the show), and the battles they have fought over creativity and content. It also has some celebrity filled examinations of sudden fame and the jerks and perks that come along with it. Parker and Stone sound like honest, competent adults, still amazed that a gross-out comic they created in college is now an international phenomenon. And they have wonderful anecdotes about why they chose the people who they ridicule and the meaning behind some the shows more "colorful" characters. One of the most intriguing sections of the commentaries is how totally out of touch the creators feel with their audience. They lament favorite shows that the public detests. They admit to thinking episodes sucked, only to see them embraced as classics by the fan base. And they resign themselves to the knowledge that anything they think is funny or clever will be rejected by the audience in favor of material they despise.
These are wonderful tracks. Including them would have successfully filled in the gaps that the lack of other substantive extras left behind. But no, for some odd reason, Warners said no. Playing devil's cabana boy for a moment, there are possible, potential reasons, based on over-generalized educated guesses, as to why these episode length narratives were dropped. It may have something to do with the use of foul language. The "F" bomb is a natural modifier and adjective for the twosome, and since the majority of the televised language is beeped, it seems pointless to let young adults who can't hear the characters' curses indulge in the creators' constant stream of vulgarity. Warners may also have wanted to avoid further hurting the feelings (and stirring the legal cauldron) of one Barbra Streisand, as the commentary for "Mecha-Streisand" is, basically, one long tirade by Parker and Stone over their absolute disgust at her personage. Maybe they didn't like the multiple references to celebrities as "douches" and "phonies" and programs and movies as "pieces of sh*t." Or maybe they felt the commentaries were too "inside," offering industry secrets to a public who really shouldn't know how badly fudged up Hollywood and the television entertainment factory really is. In essence, Parker and Stone are being punished for being painfully honest. They expose the world behind South Park as being a dark, lonely environment of exploitation and lost dreams. For fans of the show, or anyone who wants to know what happens when you "make it big," these commentary tracks are a must own. The machinations that one has to go through are just another nail in Warner's coffin of DVD carelessness. (Can anyone say snapper case?)
If South Park is guilty of one thing, it's that lightning in a bottle copycat mentality that runs through Tinseltown the minute something of this sort makes it big. Within seeming microns of the show becoming a success, a spawn of weak cartoon crud came pouring forth from the un-imagination machine's very bowels, substituting disease and disgust for wit and style. Even South Park itself found it necessary to respond to the wave of expectation, both in its audience and the critical public, by pushing the envelope right down into the gutter, where it has stayed a little too long. Now in its seventh season, the bloom is off this Japanese tulip and a sense of decay and rot has begin to set in. Newsgroups and webheads would call it "shark jumping" or selling out, but the truth is that, as society slowly starts to become more South Park-esque, South Park itself stops being irreverent and starts being irrelevant. When a show featuring people swimming in sewers and sewing their butt cheeks together is the latest cultural rave, what more can four profane children from Colorado have to offer? Still, even in all its currently misguided steps, South Park is one of the triumvirate of animated programs that changed the way America looked at modern cartoon comedy. South Park: The Complete First Season is the very funny foundation to this foul-mouthed landmark. As Cartman and the gang would say, this is one DVD package that is, commentary issue aside, totally sweet.
South Park: The Complete First Season is acquitted on all charges and is free to go. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are commended by the court for being brave enough to throw their filthy farce into the fire, week after week, praying only to be slightly singed. Warner Brothers is sentenced to...oh HELL, what's the point. They'll never learn anyway. Court adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 310 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "A South Park Thanksgiving" as Seen on The Tonight Show
* Cartman "O Holy Night" Music Video
* Ned "O Little Town of Bethlehem" Music Video
* On-Air Promos
* The Boys Present at the 1997 Cable ACE Awards
* The Real Official Site