A South Park episode that’s a real “shit” show

A South Park episode that’s a real “shit” show

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This is the fourth of eight installments to focus on “controversial episodes.”

“It Hits The Fan” (season five, episode one; originally aired 6/20/2001)

In which “shit” causes shit to get shitty…

Erik Adams: It took me a few episodes to realize how often the characters on Nip/Tuck were saying the word “shit.” Mind you, I was catching up with the show on DVD, so maybe I figured home-video releases of the show featured the episode’s original, uncensored cuts. But after a while, the “it” started to stack up: The staff of McNamara/Troy dropped so many “shit”s and “shitty”s that the intrusion of a censor’s bleep would’ve threatened the integrity of Ryan Murphy’s Botoxed-and-augmented provocation. I didn’t have cable at the time, so I didn’t know how lax language standards at FX and its counterparts had grown, but I did have a pretty good sense of who paved the way for Nip/Tuck’s dirty mouth: four elementary-school students from a sleepy cow town in the Colorado Rockies.

As we’ve seen so far in the Roundtable’s look at controversial TV episodes, the rules about what can and can’t be said or done on television don’t just vary wildly from year to year—they vary from network to network. In the wake of South Park’s “It Hits The Fan”—in which characters say “shit” or some variation thereof 162 times—there was no grand decree that “shit” was not prohibited from the TV vocabulary. That was, and remains, a decision made by the individual Standards And Practices departments satirically portrayed by Matt Parker and Trey Stone as ancient (and occasionally clueless) warriors of decency. It didn’t change the rules, and it wasn’t the first show to test the taboo—it wasn’t even the most high-profile use of the word “shit” in recent memory. That honor went to “Vigilance And Care,” a 1999 episode of Chicago Hope in which Mark Harmon is believed to be the first person to utter “shit” on network television—albeit in the sanitized, low-impact form of the phrase “shit happens.” The Federal Communications Commission, in its unpredictable manner, saw no reason to prevent CBS from airing the episode; same for its ostensible lieutenants at network S&P. So while we have South Park to thank for blazing the trail that allowed “Holy shitsnacks!” to become one of the 2010’s most indelible TV catchphrases, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs deserves a tip of the NCIS cap as well.

The utter arbitrariness of FCC regulations and Standards And Practices decisions are at the heart of “It Hits The Fan,” which parodies “Vigilance And Care” with an opening sequence where a taboo-breaking episode of the fictional Cop Drama is treated with the gravity of the goddamn moon landing. While Kyle, South Park’s resident voice of reason, can’t understand what all the hubbub is about, the entire population of the United States waits with bated breath for one of Cop Drama’s appropriately anonymous characters to tell his scene partner “You… got some shit on the side of the side of your mouth right there.” And thus, history is made—and possibly re-made, when Kyle and his friends discover that ubiquitous use of curse words like “shit” was the cause of the Black Death. They’re literally words of curse, and the katamari of profanity that Cop Drama started could rain further plague and pestilence down upon the modern world. 

It’s not the most elegant storytelling engine Parker, Stone, and staff ever conceived, but that’s beside the point. A few years down the line, South Park would accuse another controversy-prone animated series of sacrificing coherent storytelling for cheap laughs; to me, “It Hits The Fan” points similar fingers at itself. With 16 seasons under its belt and multiple accolades on its shelves, it’s easy to forget most of South Park’s early years were powered by shock value for its own sake. (If it’s not too traumatic an experience for him, maybe Phil can speak to this in his entry.) That sense started to shift at the turn of the century, as the evolution of the show’s animation style enabled shorter turnaround times for episodes, freeing the writers to take on increasingly topical material. The show’s interest in current events increased and its satirical jabs grew sharper; while it kept itself open to flights of sophomoric fancy, South Park as a whole got a lot less silly. (By the end of season five, it even killed Kenny off—for good. Sort of.) By putting “shit” in its characters’ mouths a record 162 times, South Park provided a 21-minute illustration of the diminishing returns of empty profanity and shock comedy.

Rather presciently, the permissive sensibilities of the fictional television audience in “It Hits The Fan” reflected those of its real-life counterpart. Sure, the typical watchdog organizations lobbed an assault at Comedy Central: This conversation with Stone, Parker, and network boss Larry Divney cites 5,000 emails of complaint sent to the network by the “parents-teachers council”—I assume Divney meant the conservative blowhards at the Parents Television Council, which included an excerpt from “It Hits The Fan” in a 2004 report on basic cable. (Leave it to the PTC to be three years behind the curve.) But the episode set off no large-scale protests beyond the email campaign, and by the time South Park was threatening to display a depiction of Muhammad amid the Danish-cartoon controversy, drilling one of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” into the ground seemed pretty banal.

So there’s definitely more to this episode than the controversy it did and didn’t create. Scratch enough at the surface of “It Hits The Fan,” and it starts to reveal greater truths about the evolution of language and the enforcement of taboos. If the episode aired today, I imagine a bigger deal might be made of Mr. Garrison’s “shitty shitty fag fag” refrain and what it says about the active defusing of such hateful words by the people they would oppress—something of a counterargument to the way the head of the HBC network robs “shit” of its impact through overuse. I’d also argue that, like The Wire’s “Old Cases” and the word “fuck” (link NSFW for so many reasons), “It Hits The Fan” demonstrates the sheer versatility of its central swear. And another thing: Is “It Hits The Fan” still funny? Or is it a sign of more-hectoring South Park social commentaries to come? What say ye, knights of the Roundtable? 

Ryan McGee: One of the chief pleasures of South Park comes from its mix of the profane and the profound. What seems like a ratings stunt turns into an etymological investigation over the course of 21 minutes, turning the phrase “curse word” into something baked into the evolution of our very language. The show has long explored how shortcomings in language can be used by individuals to exploit others, often in the form of a logic loop in which the germ of an idea overtakes not only South Park the town but society as a whole. “It Hits The Fan” is a great example of this, as the repetition of the word “shit” literally brings a world-ending demon back into this corporeal plane. Language doesn’t just help define the world—it shapes it as well.

The counter on the bottom left is a not just helpful eye candy, but a barometer of the word’s effect over the course of the hour. It has almost the reverse effect that the countdown in How I Met Your Mother’s seminal episode “Bad News”: Whereas the latter gains power as the numbers sprinkled throughout the episode, the former loses its potency as the episode the progresses. As Erik notes, that’s part of the point: The episode’s overuse of the word actually robs it of its power to shock, eventually transforming it into the realm of the mundane. While the characters never stopped using the word after this episode aired, the point had been made: At times, only certain words will do to accurately express a moment. Repetition doesn’t increase understanding, but rather push the user’s relationship to that meaning further and further away with each utterance. South Park is never afraid to be profane, but at its best, the show’s profanity can be profound.

Genevieve Koski: To answer your first question, Erik: Shit yeah, this shit’s still funny. This is one of my all-time favorite episodes of South Park, and I think you’re underselling it a bit when you say it sacrifices storytelling for cheap laughs. I presume by “cheap laughs” you mean the shock-humor of hearing the word “shit” on TV, but I find it hard to co-sign that when the episode exerts so much energy undercutting the shock value of that word; if anything, it gets more laughs out of the word “meecrob” than any of that other shit. 

As noted, though, the bulk of the episode’s humor—and its ultimate “message,” such as it is—comes from the use of escalation, the repeated use of the dreaded word in ever grander and goofier permutations. And the plot follows suit, following a pattern South Park all but defined, and would go back to many, many times in ensuing episodes: Present an idea in a manner that highlights its underlying absurdity, then take that absurdity to its most fantastical extremes in order to magnify how silly the initial idea is. “It Hits The Fan” starts out by mocking the idea that the utterance of a simple word on TV could titillate an entire nation, then pivots from that into a bigger idea that such controversy is manufactured by marketing executives. It could have stopped there, positing a battle between the show’s resident angry mouthpiece, Kyle, and the HBC executives (not unlike the one waged in “Cartoon Wars,” the episode Erik cites above); but by taking those ideas to their literalized extremes—the “word of curse” and the Knights Of Standards And Practices—it amplifies the ridiculousness of the idea that a simple word could have such power.

It does this so well, in fact, that the concluding “what have we learned here” speech from Kyle (with an assist from the others) doesn’t rely on the sort of heavy moralizing that’s often presented in the show’s more, to borrow Erik’s term, hectoring episodes. It’s actually quite cheeky and self-deprecating, what with Cartman’s concluding, “So please, everyone, from now on, you’ve got to try and watch your language”—a bit of preaching South Park itself had no intention of ever practicing. If South Park had a hard stance on this so-called “issue,” this is where it would be expressed, and the fact that it’s turned into a joke underscores how much the show ultimately doesn’t care what anyone thinks about all this. Shit, the idea that anyone would care is laughable.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: South Park is one of the greatest pure satires that pop culture has produced in the last 20 years, and certainly one of the most imaginatively ruthless satires that has moved serious units of T-shirts, toys, and other ancillary merchandise. But it truly did start out as a one-dimensional novelty item, a pop stunt whose whole appeal was based on the giggly shock of hearing these barely animate, cute little Colorforms saying objectionable things in squeaky voices. The show wouldn’t have lasted this long if it had stayed on that level. But as Parker and Stone raised the bar for themselves to keep their show fresh and relevant, one thing remained consistent: They love to fuck with people. There are certain targets they never tire of going after, because they relate to things that really do piss them off. (I suspect that part of their problem with Seth MacFarlane has to do with their sense that, at the end of the day, he couldn’t care less what his shows actually “say,” so long as he gets his 22 minutes of content up there every week.) Part of what makes their work so fascinating is seeing how they balance their artist side with their self-promoting, showmanship side—which is what’s fascinating about a lot of commercially successful pop-culture talents.

“It Hits The Fan” is a very smart, funny piece of television, a worthy season opener, but it’s also a calculated ratings stunt, something that was transparently intended to get people calling in to radio shows saying, Can you believe this was on TV?!”Part of what’s funniest about the whole thing is that it was so much more successful as TV comedy than it was as a ratings stunt; as Parker and Stone have acknowledged, they thought it would get more of a rise out of people than it did. My favorite thing about it is the behind-the-scenes story that, according to Parker and Stone, Comedy Central objected to the episode when it only featured a few uses of the word “shit,” but that their objections melted away as the word count piled higher and higher. To have the kids say “shit” a few times would just be a violation of broadcast rules, but to have them say it more than 100 times would make it clear, even to the densest viewers, that saying “shit” was the whole point of the episode—which made the profanity “meta,” and thus all right.

South Park probably has less interest in involving viewers on the level of character and actual storytelling than any good narrative show on TV. For Parker and Stone, it comes down to the joke, and that works for them, because their humor does have an integrity and an internal logic to it that MacFarlane’s doesn’t. What’s funny is that part of the audience still insists on being involved with their characters and with what passes for storytelling on the show, even as it becomes harder and harder for them to upset people with their subject matter. They didn’t mean to anger anyone with the falsely advertised promise to reveal the identity of Cartman’s father, because they didn’t think anyone really cared about the identity of Cartman’s father. But that’s still the episode that probably inspired the most people to publicly announce that they’d never watch the show again. More recently, I thought that there’d be an outcry after “The Coon,” whose opening narration invokes an especially nasty racial slur while seeming to ridicule the liberal fantasy that the newly elected Barack Obama was some kind of superhero-savior figure. Nobody seemed to even notice; the next morning, discussion of the episode centered on speculation over the true identity of Mysterion, something that clearly meant bupkis to Parker and Stone. These guys have devoted a heroic career to charting the increasing difficulty of intentionally pissing people off.

Donna Bowman: I’m not as certain as Ryan about whether the counter at screen left is either funny or a helpful thematic nudge, chronicling the dwindling potency of the word over 22 minutes. There’s a reason I hate, hate, hate the countdown gag from Bad News”—it distracts from the story and turns the arc of the episode into a linear progression. If the counter doesn’t move for a while, are you paying attention to what’s going on and appreciating, if such a thing can be imagined, non-shitty humor in the episode? Or are you stealing glances and wondering how long it will take before the numbers start moving again?

But quibbles with the metadata aside, I thought this was a frequently brilliant half-hour of television. The stuff (okay, shit) about which grammatical forms and literary functions of the word are allowed, and which are forbidden, perfectly capture our strenuous exercises in cultural hairsplitting. Remember when Bono said that winning the Golden Globe was “fucking brilliant” and the FCC issued a ruling saying that NBC wasn't liable because he didn't mean it in the sexual sense? That was two years after this episode, and yet at times I could have sworn Parker and Stone were satirizing it. You also cannot beat the crowds breathlessly watching Cop Drama without giving a single fuck about anything but when the taboo word would be uttered. Between Cartman's cynical surmise that they’ll save it until the very end, and the offhand, mumbled “you’ve got some shit on the side of your mouth right there” in the final seconds, the sequence skewers how our media-about-the-media Moebius-strip of a culture vacillates between “groundbreaking moment” and “Wait, was that it?” within seconds. No doubt the reference isn’t just to Chicago Hope but to the furor and anticipation over Jimmy Smits’ bare butt in NYPD Blue’s 1993 pilot. 

It’s telling, however, that the issue of who gets to say slurs like “fag” remains unresolved even as the walls protecting us from bad words and side boobs have fallen. My favorite bit, actually, is the non-bleep of the word when Jimbo Kern says it. What better way to point out that identity politics will never provide the clear-cut lines we so desperately want?

David Sims: What I love about this episode is exactly what Erik pointed out—it’s just as critical of South Park as it is of the rest of us. It’s how South Park so often gets away with being preachy (it’s just about the preachiest show on television)—by making sure to note that it’s just as full of shit as everyone else. By the fifth season, the show had evolved beyond its goofy, puerile origins (the first couple seasons are unwatchably bad and dull, I think), but that’s how South Park got on the air and made its mark. And as Phil noted, this episode is partly rooted in the same sensibility—people are going to tune in just for the shocking spectacle.

The mockery is justly fired in all directions. There are South Park episodes that have a moral delivered directly to the camera, but that’s not how I take this one. Kyle’s indifference to the whole “shit” spectacle is the viewpoint I sympathize the most with. The network’s triumphant joy in causing controversy and getting ratings and the creaky Knights Of Standards And Practices warning against plague and devilry both seem equally absurd. It doesn’t help that “shit” is a profanity that barely lands. It doesn’t have that hard “k” sound of some of its harsher cousins, although I will agree that it’s slightly more shocking to see it written out. But considering that it’s a profanity that can also just mean “stuff,” well, it’s hard to get worked up.

South Park is often way too preachy and smug for me to truly adore it, but one thing that’s pretty consistently true is that it’s very, very funny. It can even land a subtle laugh, like in the opening minutes when Cartman makes a little face at being called “dillboy.” Or Chef’s puzzled look when he’s asked where shit comes from. “Uh, from your ass, children.” That shit’s funny.

Todd VanDerWerff: For three or four years there (roughly around the time this episode aired) South Park was pretty close to my favorite show on television—and that was after I found the first handful of seasons pretty stupid, every occasional funny idea defeated by the show’s overall laziness. The turning point, for me, was in the film version of the show, which finally united all of the show’s purposefully juvenile humor (which has always been the most wildly hilarious element of the series) with an overriding political and social point-of-view that can almost be described as Trey Parker and Matt Stone just spouting off about whatever they’re thinking about that week in a way that will irritate the most people in the most hilarious way. (I suspect nothing tickles Parker and Stone more than seeing people get up in arms over something they saw on a cartoon on TV.) It’s interesting to look at Bigger, Longer & Uncut and compare that film to this episode, because the two of them have fairly similar points to make about how arbitrary our lines in the United States can be between what’s acceptable and unacceptable.

I sensed that exasperation with the earlier days of the show in this episode, too, Erik, and I particularly liked the scene where the characters realize that the more the word “shit” is said, the more it loses any power to shock. Yet you’re also right that the word “fag,” which has largely been scrubbed from TV in the last several years, now feels more shocking than “shit,” which pops up all the time and seems all but certain to cross over to even broadcast network TV in the next few years. (Now that everybody on Fox is saying the word “dick,” it's only a matter of time.) We keep bumping into issues of societal evolution—something we’ll confront even more next week with Amos And Andy, which was swept off the air because of societal evolution (among other things). Sometimes, that evolution happens because people get better about recognizing fellow human beings as just that, and sometimes, that evolution happens because Lucille Ball appears pregnant on TV and everybody realizes that people can be rational adults about dealing with these sorts of things. But other times, it’s completely arbitrary, and it’s in that gray area that Parker and Stone have the most fun.

Or, to bring up another South Park episode entirely, remember when AIDS was funny because 22.3 years had passed since it first popped up in the news? Envelope-pushing humor inevitably becomes mainstream, status quo kind of humor. Making a joke about AIDS in 1987 is far different from making one today. Continuing to push at the envelope has its own problems, but Parker and Stone’s greatest accomplishment has always been knowing that it’s an ever-shifting target.

Stray observations:

The comedic highlight for me has to be the kids’ complete lack of understanding of how context alters meaning. The breakdowns of why the word “shit” is okay in some cases but not others is strong writing, but the innocent ways in which the kids fail to comprehend the subtleties is a nice reminder these are children after all. [RM]

I like the way the episode draws attention to the peculiar logic among censors that an obscene word is less offensive if its meaning is more abstract: “Shit” is okay so long as it doesn’t actually refer to excrement. In the movie ratings business, the same rule applies to the word “fuck.” Or as Albert Brooks said in explaining what he went through on his 1985 movie Lost In America, “If you say, ‘I’m going to fuck you over,’ that’s a PG-13. If you say, ‘I’m going to fuck you over the desk,’ that’s an R.” [PDN]

Forget “shit,” I’ll remember this episode for exposing the 14-year-old bros of the world the unfortunate comeback “Get the sand out of your vagina,” a phrase I hate all the more for the fact that it overshadows what should be the takeaway insult of “Hit The Fan”: “You’re so full of meecrob.” [GK]

I like to think the construction of the episode’s first utterance of the word “shit,” where it’s bookended by “goddamn”—one of TV’s previous language taboos—followed by a bleeped “fuck”—presumably the next language taboo to be broken—was done on purpose. Even if it wasn’t, it’s still a neat little bit of metatextual commentary. [GK]

I love the network guy’s canned speech about freedom of expression as he hands everyone turtle mascots. Every word is emphasized with perfect hypocrisy. [DS]

And if anyone’s curious, our own “shit” count stands at 39. [EA]

Next week: Todd VanDerWerff presents us with the least offensive Amos And Andy installment he could find, “Kingfish Sells A Lot.” After that, Donna Bowman hears that Ellen has some sort of major announcement to make with “The Puppy Episode.” (“Kingfish Sells A Lot ” is available on YouTube, where you can also find both parts of “The Puppy Episode.”)

Filed Under: TV

More TV Roundtable