On Wednesday, all 23 seasons of South Park come to HBO Max. To mark the occasion, we’re looking back at the show’s sometimes-complicated legacy and ranking our favorites.
The 2000 Academy Awards were already wild well before South Park showed up. That was the year 80 percent of the filled-out ballots were lost three weeks before the ceremony and had to be frantically replaced; the year 55 Oscar trophies were stolen just two weeks before the show, leading to an FBI investigation and a $50,000 reward being claimed by a junk scavenger, Willie Fulgear, who happened to stumble upon the ditched loot. (One of the men subsequently arrested for the theft turned out to be Fulgear’s half-brother, but that connection wasn’t figured out until after Fulgear was sent to the awards as the toast of the town. “Willie, you’re a born star!” said Arnold Schwarzenegger upon meeting him on the red carpet.)
Somewhere during all this, Trey Parker and Matt Stone stepped out of a limo together. They were arriving in Hollywood in more ways than one: Less than three years before, their cutout-animation show South Park, about four foul-mouthed elementary school kids in small-town Colorado, had premiered on the then-fringe network Comedy Central. Almost immediately it caused a sensation for how far it pushed FCC regulations, generating as many fans as critics, and legitimizing the power of nontraditional TV just as the dynamics of the medium were shifting toward more adventurous projects.
Before selling the show’s pilot, the tastefully titled “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” Parker and Stone were barely hanging on financially in Los Angeles, where they had moved together in 1994 from Colorado to pursue film. (They shared a 1985 Buick, and at one point they say they were surviving on a single meal a day.) But within a matter of months they were near-household names, gracing the cover of magazines like Rolling Stone—well, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny were, anyway—and steamrolling their way to a major motion picture deal with Paramount. The two had made it, even though they were certainly not what Schwarzenegger might call “born stars.”
And here they were on Oscar night, symbolically joining the A-list against all odds because the product of that Paramount deal, 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, had miraculously been nominated for an award: The musical’s centerpiece, the Rodgers and Hammerstein–inspired “Blame Canada,” was up for Best Original Song. (The nomination officially went to Parker and Marc Shaiman, the film composer who wrote the music of the movie with him.) This was the type of moment most Hollywood hopefuls never even come close to sniffing, let alone claiming by their late 20s. So what did they do with this precious, possibly fleeting invitation into the spotlight? Naturally, they put on dresses and took acid.
“We were so, like, punk rock—you know, like, against all of that stuff,” Stone remembered to The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. “But Trey was nominated for [an Oscar], and that’s cool. So how do you go but not go? How do you not be a part of it? Drugs.”
To those who had not yet seen South Park, either in show or movie form, perhaps the image of Parker and Stone in drag, wearing gowns modeled after iconic ones styled by Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow, might have seemed harmless. However, the truth, as is more easily understood after decades of interviews clarifying their personal and political beliefs (or lack thereof), is that the duo resent any form of the establishment—and that includes the self-serious Oscars itself. (“I was really kinda bored,” Parker later remarked at an afterparty.)
Their nihilism and contrarianism have proved to be occasionally quite frustrating over the years, often serving as a twisted, reversed version of what we now might refer to as the “very fine people on both sides” philosophy. (One quote they will never escape came from Matt Stone in 2005: “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.”) But that night their rebelliousness was effective—a form of performance art serving as a reminder that award shows are inherently stupid, even when they’re as prestigious as the Oscars. And more plainly it was an effective way to flip the conventions of the event upside down, as is their prerogative with … pretty much everything. (Also, just on a base level, the gall of taking psychedelics before going to an event with that much paparazzi can’t be understated.)
For most, that preshow gag would’ve been the end of the story. Except there was still that little matter of the nomination: “Blame Canada,” along with the other Best Song nominees (including Aimee Mann, for Magnolia, and Randy Newman, for Toy Story 2) was to be performed during the show. And for those uninitiated with Parker and Stone, the performance was going to tell them pretty much everything they needed to know about why these two pasty dudes with dilated pupils were changing the future of the entertainment industry.
Beneath the jokes and antics of that evening, there was a tragedy lingering close to Parker and Stone: In November 1999, four months before Oscar night, Mary Kay Bergman, the voice actress of effectively all the women characters in the show as well as the movie, died by suicide at age 38.
That description of Bergman’s contributions to South Park isn’t an exaggeration. She was the inventor and gatekeeper of pretty much every central female character in the early seasons, each of them wildly different and most of them now iconic: Liane Cartman, Sharon Marsh, Carol McCormick, and Wendy Testaburger, to name a few. She also was behind Sheila Broflovski, who sings lead on “Blame Canada,” which made Bergman a main initial candidate to sing on the telecast.
Parker and Stone, who counted Bergman as a close friend, were crushed. (“It’s gonna take four or five people to replace her,” Parker said in a panel just weeks before the awards, emphasizing how integral she was to the South Park world.) By the time the logistics of the Oscars performance had to be figured out, Parker didn’t want to sing the song himself. Someone who could fill really big shoes was needed. So they asked Robin Williams.
At that point, Williams was a veteran of the Best Song category, having been the singer of “Friend Like Me” from 1992’s Aladdin, which was nominated (and lost to “A Whole New World,” also from Aladdin). But this performance was unprecedented in a certain way: With various sarcastic insults to Canadians littered throughout, as well as one glorious and essential use of the word “fuck,” the song would need to be censored for the telecast.
“I hope we don’t have to change the words,” Marc Shaiman told The Guardian a few weeks before the show. “It would be ironic to have to change the words in a movie about censorship.”
Shaiman was right about that. The song, which is more or less the thesis statement of the movie (and arguably the whole series), follows an accident in which Kenny is killed imitating a scene from the new Terrance and Phillip movie Asses of Fire. (Kenny is attempting to light a fart on fire, as one does, and fails spectacularly.) Kyle’s mom, Sheila, finds out about the origin of Kenny’s demise and decides to create Mothers Against Canada, bursting into song about how the depraved Canadians are rotting their American children’s minds—the joke being that blaming that innocent, hockey-loving country up north is just as arbitrary as blaming any other single entity. (“Should we blame the government? / Or blame society? / Or should we blame the images on TV? No, blame Canada!”)
Much like The Itchy & Scratchy Show for The Simpsons, The Terrance and Phillip Show can be understood as a meta-reference to South Park itself—a way for Parker and Stone to poke fun (OK, fart) at their critics for accusing them of being too obscene, particularly for young viewers, who watched the show in droves regardless of its TV-MA rating. In this regard, then, Asses of Fire can be understood as a stand-in for Bigger, Longer & Uncut, shrewdly predicting the ensuing protests and scandals that the filmmakers already knew were coming. For instance, the same way the fictional kids sneak into the R-rated Asses of Fire, there were reports of rampant rule-breaking minors finding their way into the actual South Park movie. (“I think Wild Wild West is going to sell a lot of tickets next week,” Parker joked to the Los Angeles Times just before the film’s release.)
Parker and Stone battled bitterly with the MPAA to get their initial NC-17 rating lowered to an R (“We did cut the word ‘hole’ from ‘asshole’ as per our conversation,” one memo from Stone to the MPAA reads), and eventually won, although the organization’s president later said he regretted it. Given the theme of the movie, the irony of this saga is almost too on-the-nose to even mention.
But it’s worth emphasizing it within the context of the obscenity discussions that were swirling out of control in the ’80s and ’90s: Seemingly unaware (or unwilling) to notice the similarities between prior, frequent moral-panic scares of the 20th century, the likes of Tipper Gore and Joe Lieberman thought the best use of their time was analyzing the ways in which media was damaging the American youth—and how to stop it.
The years leading up to Bigger, Longer & Uncut were filled with surreal images of artists like Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and, uh, John Denver testifying before Congress about parental advisory stickers in 1985. With 2 Live Crew being declared legally “obscene” in 1990 and arrested just for performing. With the makers of Mortal Kombat, Midway, pressured into adding “Friendship” finishing moves for Mortal Kombat II in order to quell congressional disapproval brewing in 1993.
Then, just two months before Bigger, Longer & Uncut was to be released, the Columbine massacre occurred. Both Parker and Stone had grown up in Colorado, so the news hit home for each of them, but explicitly for Stone, who was raised in Littleton and attended a neighboring high school just miles from Columbine High. (He says he took his SATs in Columbine’s cafeteria.) Stone was so shaken up by what happened that he had to take a few days off from the movie production: “Nothing seemed funny after that,” he explained to The New York Times in 1999.
A major focus in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher, was the media the shooters consumed and how it might have pushed them over the edge. There would be a meticulous list of what games (Doom) and movies (Natural Born Killers) they liked, but the biggest emphasis was on what music they listened to. This led to Marilyn Manson becoming the focus, even though it was later pointed out that it didn’t appear Harris and Klebold had any affinity for his music.
Manson was already a public enemy of ’90s censorship protests before Columbine, so this development escalated things to the point that his career would never be the same. He tried to defend himself, eloquently, in an op-ed in Rolling Stone (“What inspires Bill Clinton to blow people up in Kosovo?” he wondered), and some, like the critic Ann Powers in the The New York Times, backed him up as well (“The attempt to … associate an interest in extreme rock with mental illness [only confirms] the fears, or fantasies, of many fans that they are doing something terribly wrong,” she wrote). But the damage had been done. Some schools and districts banned Marilyn Manson shirts—“Parents are welcome to challenge me in court,” one superintendent stated of her decision—and Manson was pressured into canceling the remainder of a tour. Censorship won.
This was the landscape into which Bigger, Longer & Uncut was released. Traumatized and frightened, many Americans wanted to know how such a fucked-up thing could have happened. For some, like Parker and Stone, the answer was in the question itself: “When anything like the Columbine thing happens, everybody—us included—is so confused and saddened,” Stone said to Rolling Stone in 1999. “People want an explanation. … And the explanation that some people are fucked-up—that’s a scary answer, but it is the answer.”
For others, however, the answer was clearly that, unlike the Leave It to Beaver–type shows that they’d watched in their youth, kids nowadays were watching their favorite character getting probed, anally, and then buying T-shirts to mark the occasion. (In the first six months of South Park, Comedy Central claims to have sold $30 million worth of shirts alone.)
All of this brings us back to the Oscars, where a song about this delusional desire to censor increasingly fearless media was in need of rewriting simply in order to be aired. In the end, Parker and Stone played ball with the offending curse word—Williams turned his back when he would’ve said “fuck”—and in turn the Academy allowed for him to walk out wearing tape over his mouth, and to let loose in jabbing at Canadians like Anne Murray and Celine Dion.
There was some internal apprehension about what would happen (“When you had the brilliant Robin Williams up there, you never 100 percent knew that it was going to go exactly as it did in rehearsal,” Sid Ganis, who was on the Academy Board of Governors at the time, recently remembered), but the performance went off without a hitch, becoming an instant classic. Williams locking arm-in-arm with dancers dressed as Canadian Mounties, high-kicking in unison before nailing the poor man’s version of the Michael Jackson tiptoe landing, is easily one of the most absurd—and best—moments in Oscar history.
“Blame Canada” didn’t take home the award that night; it instead went to Phil Collins for Tarzan (who would pay a deep price for that on the next season of South Park). But Parker and Stone were the clear winners. To borrow a turn of phrase used by the duo themselves every time someone asked about their dresses: “It was just such a magical night.”
South Park is unique in that, unlike pretty much every other animated show that’s run for an extended period (The Simpsons, Family Guy), it’s still directly made by its creators. (It’s also unique in that it’s still occasionally pretty brilliant.) In fact, it’s actually become increasingly channeled through its creators over time. Across 23 seasons, the only period in which outside writers were relied upon was during the second and third seasons, when Parker and Stone were busy with projects like BASEketball and Bigger, Longer & Uncut and thought they would do what everyone else does in the industry by getting some help.
They still talk about how much they hate most of those seasons, and since then they’ve had limited writers’ room help (which notably included a young Bill Hader in the late aughts), instead choosing to adopt a “fuck it we’ll do it live” attitude. Simultaneously, they’ve basically been given carte blanche by Comedy Central to do whatever they want, as long as it’s approved by legal before air. “We have a lot of friends in the TV world with way bigger shows than ours,” Parker noted on a panel in 2010, “and when they hear the freedom we have, they’re like, ‘Well, who reads your scripts?’ ‘Nobody. Lawyers have to read our scripts.’ But they’re like, ‘Well, who gives you notes?’ ‘Notes? Nobody gives us notes.’ It’s pretty great.”
Parker has always been the central mastermind of the show—Stone himself admits that his own role is something like David Lee Roth to Parker’s Eddie Van Halen—and is firmly in the driver’s seat week after week to steer one the most massive and influential platforms in media however he so chooses. (The most recent season of South Park was still the top cable comedy for young adults.) And year after year, he has chosen to wield that power somewhat antagonistically, addressing the changing attitudes in culture often with dismissive characters like PC Principal.
Because of this, there are countless moments throughout the history of the show that are reprehensible, to say the least. (There’s a moment in Bigger, Longer & Uncut where Cartman briefly appears in blackface that is especially hard to watch in 2020, just to pick one detail.) Basically, for every stance they’ve gotten right—like this past season when they refused to back down to China—there’s another one that’s aged like a bowl of Cheesy Poofs left out in the rain.
Anyone who has chosen not to condone South Park for any variety of legitimate reasons should be well understood, particularly as the world has shifted from the boomer paradise of the ’90s to the millennial hellscape that the 2020s are becoming. The stakes are very high these days, and acting like every issue is equally dumb from both sides just isn’t something they can afford to do anymore. Not when one in 1,000 Black men will be killed by police; when 68 percent of people on unemployment are making more than they were before they lost their jobs; when the president is using Nazi iconography in ads for his reelection campaign.
Marilyn Manson famously told Michael Moore in 2002’s Bowling for Columbine that, rather than saying anything to Harris and Klebold, if given the chance, he would instead opt to listen to them, because “that’s what no one did.” In 2016, Klebold’s mother, Sue, echoed the same sentiment to NPR: “I think what I needed to do with Dylan more was to just shut up and listen,” she said. “To try to get him to say to me what he was feeling and thinking about something, rather than to automatically [jump] to a way to make him not feel that way or to fix the way he felt.”
It will always be folly for people to use something like an independent TV show as a scapegoat, especially when that show wrote a whole movie over 20 years ago hilariously explaining how pointless it is to find scapegoats for larger societal issues in the first place. But for a long time, it felt like South Park could be so much better—so much more relevant and productive—if Parker and Stone would just be willing to be empathetic and listen to anyone but themselves.
And in 2018, during Season 22, they actually did just that. In a two-part episode—“Time to Get Cereal” and “Nobody Got Cereal?”—the boys repent to Al Gore for not listening to him about ManBearPig, which, in essence, was Parker and Stone’s admission that they had been wrong to make fun of climate change in the initial “ManBearPig” episode in 2006. (Gore said on The Daily Show that “he appreciated [the gesture] a lot.”)
“We just felt like, of all of our episodes, that one has not aged very well,” Stone told The Hollywood Reporter this past year. “And we came up with a funny idea of how to use ManBearPig as a parable. I always felt like if we were going to rewrite that or comment on it or atone, whatever you want to call it, it’s in kind. In other words, we didn’t want to say in some interview, ‘Well, we don’t feel so great about that episode.’ It doesn’t feel as good as ‘Fuck that, we’ll do a whole two-parter.’”
“And it is not just atoning,” Parker added. “We beat ourselves up pretty good. We could just do an entire season atoning. It’s been fucking 22 years. We’re pretty different people now.”
Both Parker and Stone have young kids these days—and perhaps they’re starting to understand how difficult it is to adhere to their own lesson in “Blame Canada,” looking within before blaming others for the fucked-up world their kids are brought into. (“We must blame them and cause a fuss / Before someone thinks of blaming us!” the parents sing in “Blame Canada.”)
Just a few years ago, Parker was still combative about the prospect of his possible cancellation—both cultural and literal: “The witch hunt is coming,” he told the L.A. Times. “Our day is coming. One of these days, out of nowhere, we’ll do something and they’ll go, ‘How dare you!’—and we’ll be done.”
Maybe this will indeed be how South Park ends. But the show deserves a better ending than that. And if Parker and Stone continue to figure out how to not turn into the same delusional parents they railed against in 1999, they deserve to get that better ending. They’ve certainly earned the opportunity, at least.
But if it doesn’t work out that way, you’ll know who is to blame.
Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Billboard, and elsewhere.