“Cartman Gets An Anal Probe” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 8/13/1997)
South Park premiered on Comedy Central in mid-August, 1997. I can remember seeing the commercials for the show starting to pop up earlier that summer, and they were certainly attention-getting: just the kids lined up, staring blankly at the audience, looking like they were designed by Colorforms. There was something about those images, combined with the uninformative but oddly suggestive title and the fact that they were on Comedy Central, that somehow communicated the idea that something that looked childlike and innocent—in both the “purity of youth” and the “amateurishness of the barely employable” senses of the word—was going to be used to package something unbelievably smutty and vile. I’m not sure how Trey Parker and Matt Stone got this message across so efficiently, but it probably had something to do with how goddamn hot it was that summer.
Part of what made the show seem so unusual when it was in its first full flush of success was the way that it managed to be everywhere while also seeming so thoroughly disposable. It was like an endlessly replicable virus that passed through the system quickly, with no permanent ill effects, but leaving behind its scars in the form of scores of magazine covers. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker, one of the more perceptive TV critics in the days before The A.V. Club came along to show the world how it’s done, compared the show to Beavis & Butt-head—which might have been taken as a compliment, except that he seemed to mean it strictly in faddish sociological terms, as the current animated thing that had squeamish parents’ and educators’ knickers in a bunch—and wrote, “I think one reason Park has such enthusiastic word of mouth… is that, because the show is tucked away on a still relatively obscure channel, each viewer thinks it’s his or her own private discovery, and seeks to share it with the world. But South Park is also the essence of a novelty act: If you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen ‘em all.”
A year and a half later, Tucker would write, with a sigh of relief, that South Park was “finally fading.” Not long after, the Bigger, Longer, and Uncut movie would come out, officially announcing South Park’s Renaissance period. But only in retrospect: many observers who acknowledged the movie’s brilliance as the apotheosis of the South Park concept also though that, not that they’d done more with their little snot-rag art class project than had seemed possible, would have to drop the sapped tree and move on to a project more worthy of the talent they turned out to have after all. It is possible that, in 1999, I myself was one of those people. Luckily, at the time, I was just some jackass spouting off in a corner of Starbucks, and so, unlike Ken Tucker, I have left no paper trail. Now that South Park, with 230 episodes under its belt, is an institution, it sounds funny that anyone could have written it off as a passing fancy and even foretold its imminent and overdue demise. But I’m not sure that Ken Tucker was wrong, based on what the show was at the time, and what’s more, I’m not sure that Trey Parker and Matt Stone would say that he had been so wildly off the mark.
Nor was South Park the only institution-in-the-making that was just then getting off to a shaky but impressive start on Comedy Central, and that seemed to hold the promise of nothing more than amusingly snarky ephemera: The Daily Show, in its original Craig Kilborn-hosted incarnation, had premiered a year earlier. The difference is that, after Kilborn left, a largely new crew of writers and comedians inherited The Daily Show and really whipped it into shape, whereas Parker and Stone, in an amazing turn of events in these cynical times, had fun milking their little exploitable property and the fame it brought them—anybody remember when they even got to play at being movie stars in the immortal BASEketball?—but then, having loosed this golden goose on the world with their names attached, decided that they had a responsibility to roll up their sleeves and make it better. It’s almost as if, in the course carrying out one of his anti-Semitic, paranoia-inducing, get-rich-quick schemes, Cartman happened to cure cancer. And not even by accident!
“Cartman Gets An Anal Probe” is startling to look at now, partly because of how strange it is that something so visually crude got on the air at all. Comedy Central’s interest in Parker and Stone, based on the Internet success of the pair’s “video Christmas card,” The Spirit Of Christmas, but they weren’t interested enough to put their own money into their work up front, so Parker and Stone did the pilot pretty much by hand, with a minimum of computer sweetening. At a time when there was a burgeoning subculture devoted to promoting alternatives to “corporate culture”, the result is something that resembles TV samizdat, a product of the same Internet-age, pre-YouTube D.I.Y. ethos that would later cough up the rough, snuffling beast called Jackass. It’s very crude, and maybe the best thing you can say about the pilot is that there’s a perfect match between form and content.
Having attracted the attention of a major entertainment company by having little kids indulge in extreme profanity and casual blasphemy, Parker and Stone were determined not to disappoint, and they made a calculated gamble in deciding that it was more important that there official TV debut be shocking than that it be funny. The episode is scarcely a couple of minutes old before such endearments as “dildo” and “fat ass” are flying hot and heavy; the most restrained thing about the episode is that it isn’t titled “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe… Up His Fat Butt!!” The anal probe business is one more sure sign that this was made in 1997. (Another is a line that would be repeated in the TV commercials once the series got under way: Kyle getting his little brother, Ike, to throw himself out of an alien spacecraft by yelling, “Do your imitation of David Caruso’s career!” Comedy Central really ran its commercials into the ground back then, and for awhile, hearing that line, followed by the sight of little Ike plummeting downward, was what the sight of David Caruso putting on his sunglasses while Roger Daltry roared in the distance would become a few years later.)
The plot is deceptively simple: The aliens who gave Cartman an anal probe (and, in the process, inserted a giant satellite dish that unfolds from his rectum, as well as leaving him with the unwanted ability to fart fire) also abduct Ike, and the boys, at the urging of Chef, go out and get him back. (The presence in the cast of Isaac Hayes as the voice of Chef, a smooth-R & B version of the socially marginalized by wise black advisor character who, in children’s entertainment, goes back to before Song Of The South, is the single weirdest out-of-left-field move the show made in its birthing stages. He would soon come to seem essential to the show, though they’ve now gotten along fine without him for five years. More to the point, I’m pretty sure that, if they’d had a different set of connections, Parker and Stone would have made do with Curtis Mayfield or Rufus Thomas. The thought of what they might have done with Ike Turner sends chills up the spine.) Part of the original concept of the show was that South Park was a hot spot for extraterrestrial and supernatural phenomena, but the show as conceived and created so fast that this vital angle was dropped by the time Parker and Stone moved on to the next episode. Lucky for them, and us: turning the show into a construction-paper version of The X-Files would have boxed them into a much tighter corner. Besides, as they were later to lament in an episode title, The Simpsons did it already.
It’s a good thing that Parker and Stone had good natural instincts, because aside from what they were hearing from their inner voices, they didn’t really know what they were doing. The episode is chock-full of absurdity for absurdity’s sake (over which was laid a thick protective coating of offensiveness for the sake of being offensive), but some of the absurdity was the result of having to cut the original pilot down from 28 minutes to 22, because nobody had explicitly pointed out to Parker and Stone that, in creating a half-hour show for a basic cable network, they needed to leave room for commercials. One of the jarring little things in the pilot is Pip, the weird little English boy in town, who dresses and wears his hair like Jackie Coogan when he was co-starring with Charlie Chaplin. Pip was apparently a bigger player in the story before it was recut, but here, he just turns up in the classroom long enough to be lit on fire by one of Cartman’s deadly boomers. That wouldn’t be a problem if he looked like the other kids, but seeing him running around the room engulfed in flames when you’re still waiting for an explanation for, or at least an acknowledgment of, the strangeness of his appearance makes for a huge, gaping “WTF?” moment.
If there’s anything in the pilot that smacks of genius at anything beyond self-promotion, it’s in the romance between Stan and Wendy—or rather, in the way that the show manages to use its focus on gross-out humor to put a new twist on a standard trope of little-kid entertainment by having Stan blow chunks every time he tries to summon the nerve to talk to Wendy. (The sight of a glob of green vomit come flying out of Stan’s pie hole sums up everything right about the show in its early stages. The closing scene of Stan and Wendy making relaxed small talk about the contents of his puke sums up everything wrong.) The other moments that stick out now are the ones that feel the least like the show we’ve all come to know and love, such as the mock-Peanuts image of Stan staring into the camera with a goony moon-face to show that he’s smitten with Wendy, and especially the running gag about what happens to anyone who’s hit with the aliens’ control beam: Their faces turn into kewpie dolls, with rouge spots on their cheeks, and they perform “I Love To Singa,” the old Harold Arlen/ E. Y. “Yip” Harbourg number that lives on in the hearts of cartoon geeks, because it inspired a Tex Avery cartoon of the same name. In moments like that, Parker and Stone don’t seem like geniuses, or brazen opportunists, either. They seem like a couple of cartoon geeks with no big plan or grand ambitions, just having fun. As it turned out, it wasn’t the worst starting point they could have had.
- The hostile school bus driver appears to have a bird nesting in her hair, just as the guy who sings the theme song in the opening credits has a fish on a spring atop his hat. I once read an interview with Matt Groening in which he recalled the original but quickly replaced company hired to animate the pilot for The Simpsons tried to "help" by inserting all manner of wacky detail into the episode. I'm guessing this is the kind of stuff he meant.
- Now that introductions are out of the way, we'll be slowing things down—way, way down, woman, and taking our sweet time, oh yeah—and working our way through The Early Days two episodes at a time. Next week: Kathie Lee Gifford comes to South Park, and I will endeavor to explain why there were people who would have expected you to have a reaction to this.