“Death” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 9/17/97)
In general, Seth MacFarlane seems like a much more attractive guy than such professional proponents of arrested-adolescent boneheadness as the two Adams, Sandler and Carolla, but in a recent New Yorker profile, he does offer a strong example of why, even though everybody knows it’s easy to make an ass of yourself trying to analyze comedy, if you do it for a living, you might want to give it some thought. Asked about the ethnic humor in Family Guy and his other shows—which tends to be scattershot and unfocused, like most of the humor of any kind in his shows—MacFarlane says, “We are presenting the Archie Bumker point of view and making fun of the stereotypes—not making fun of the groups,” before adding, “But if I’m really being honest, then maybe there’s a part of me that’s stuck in high school and we’re laughing because we’re not supposed to. I don’t know the psychology. At the core, I know none of us gives a shit.” The “being honest” clause is meant to put the person who doesn’t automatically laugh at stupid racial jokes on a higher moral plane than anyone who doesn’t, because the assumption is that the person who doesn’t is just being a hypocritical dick. After all, none of gives a shit.
“Death” introduces Terrance and Phillip, the amateurishly drawn animated TV stars whose entire act pretty much consists of farting on each other and giggling about it. The episode is notable mainly for two things: It provides a rough draft of the South Park movie, whose plot also involved an angry-parents campaign led by Kyle’s mom to drive Terrance and Phillip into the sea, and it shows how quickly the speed of things picked up as soon as the mid-‘90s turned into the age of the Internet. This is the sixth episode of South Park, the one that wrapped up Comedy Central’s original commitment to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and already the show was going meta, doing an episode commenting on the reaction that the earlier episodes had generated. This is impressive, but comparing “Death” to the South Park movie shows how much you can sharpen your attack on your enemies if you give yourself more than a year to work on your response, as opposed to a month and change.
There are a lot of ideas flying around and colliding into each other here, and most of them could have used a little more thinking through. Presumably, the Terrance and Phillip show—which is puerile on every level, the technical one included—is meant to show Parker and Stone’s critics what the show they’d been describing, a pitiful-looking stew of cuss words and fart jokes, would really look like, as if confronting their attackers with a parody vision of a real piece of shock-value-for-shock-value’s-sake crap would cause anyone to see the light and admit that South Park was something that honest people were putting real, hard work into. At the same time, the kids laugh at Terrance and Phillip because they’re kids. They’re the age that people whose sensibilities aren’t any better developed than Seth MacFarlane’s or Adam Sandler’s are supposed to be, and it’s fine if they have their little break after school every day, watching the toons talk dirty. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to stay that way (even though some people do, and even make a good living at it), and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re going to be “influenced” in a way that compels them to try to murder their grandfather, as Stan is accused of here, or burn down their trailer home, to cite the best-known incident from the great Beavis And Butt-head panic of just four years earlier.
All of this is hard to argue with, even if it’s not particularly funny. What confuses the issue is that the town of South Park has been hit hard by a virus that gives everyone “explosive diarrhea,” and even as the grown-ups condemn Terrance and Phillip, they can’t stop snickering over how everyone has the runs. Is this supposed to show that Parker and Stone’s poopy jokes are more sophisticated than Terrance and Phillip’s? Since the grown-ups’ guffawing over “the green apple two-step” just makes them look like asses, I’m guessing not. The idea seems to be that they’re hypocrites for pretending that the sounds of gastric distress aren’t enough to make somebody hysterically happy, though if they sat down and guffawed along with Terrance and Phillip, Parker and Stone would presumably have the same disdain for them that they’re known to have for, well, Family Guy. In the end, after a protest in which the people of South Park go to New York and take turns committing suicide by taking turns catapulting themselves against the side of the “Cartoon Central” building, the network capitulates and replaces Terrance and Phillip with reruns of the old Suzanne Somers sitcom She’s The Sheriff. The episode concludes with Kyle’s mom hearing Suzanne Somers calling someone a butthead and heading back to New York to restart her protest, a lame gag that has the side effect of canceling out the key insight that parents are hardwired to freak out at stuff in kid’s entertainment that wouldn’t even strike them as offensive in an adult context.
In a parallel storyline, Stan’s 102-year-old grandfather hates his continuing existence so much that he begs Stan to kill him, something Stan doesn’t want to do until Grandpa gives him a taste of what it’s like to be old and infirm by locking him in a room and forcing him to listen to Enya-like music: Stan describes the experience as “cheesy and lame, but eerily soothing at the same time.” The fact that all this is going on while the grown-ups are out in the streets protesting makes the point that if the parents really cared about their children, they’d stay close to home and monitor their behavior instead of running around staging protests for what they believe to be their kids’ own good. In this specific instance, it’s not a bad point, but I hate to think about the larger ramifications of it. The euthanasia storyline does at least come with a crystal-clear line of thought attached to it: The show’s position is that people who want to die have the right to kill themselves, but nobody who’s suicidal should ask a child to help him snuff it. Again, I have no argument with this. I just wonder how often it comes up.
- If there’s a hero in this episode, it’s the network executive—he’s called “John Warsog” and is modeled on Comedy Central’s Doug Herzog—whose “official response” to the protests is to tell everyone to fuck off, adding, “If you have any questions, you can address them to that brick wall over there.”
“Pinkeye” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 10/29/97)
This was the first episode produced after Comedy Central picked up the show beyond its initial six-episode order, and it has a confident, happy skip and a bounce to it. It’s much better-looking than the earlier episodes—there’s a spooky shot of Zombie Kenny staggering through the woods underneath a big gray moon that Tim Burton might not be embarrassed by—and the whole thing feels as if it were made by people who felt that they knew what they were doing and had some job security and could relax and enjoy themselves a little. That’s not necessarily a recipe for great work, and I understand that Parker and Stone have said they were disappointed with the finished product.
It’s just a doodle compared with what they were to prove themselves capable of, and the writing more or less flatlines part of the way through, requiring the show to coast on the spectacle of the kids using chain saws to gorily dismember zombies. But as a holiday special—celebrating both Halloween and the return of the show—it’s a lot of fun. TV viewers learn to cut holiday episodes a certain amount of slack if they work for the season, and this one does. The exchange at the end between Stan and Kyle about the “true meaning” of Halloween is funny, but it also makes you think that Parker and Stone, the guys who set Jesus and Santa against each other, wanted to express their appreciation of Halloween as a pure kids’ holiday, one that’s all about candy and dressing up and scary stories, without anyone being able to spoil it by demanding that everyone remember what the day is really about.
There’s also one great thing here, and that’s Cartman’s full character starting to bloom. There have been traces of it here and there, such as his kneejerk way of tagging anybody he wants to shut down a “hippie,” but the show has mostly been content to tag him as a stupid, greedy fat kid who pitches a fit if there’s any chance he might not get what he wants. You get to see the real Cartman starting to burst out of his cocoon when the school Principal (making her first appearance on the show) spots him coming to school in a homemade Hitler costume and drags her into her office, where he’s made to watch a film about how “Dressing Up Like Hitler Isn’t Cool.” The film includes footage of crowds paying tribute to der Fuhrer, and there’s a wonderful shot of Cartman staring at this in wide-eyed, open-mouthed joy. He was never going to be anything but a mean, manipulative, self-serving little bastard, but he’s learning to dream big.
Parker and Stone were only just starting to think big themselves, and this episode has some frustrating moments when they nibble around the edges at something you'd love to see them sink their teeth into, especially when Cartman’s mother starts to sing while decorating her house, and later when the zombiefied Chef leads a chorus line in a parody of “Thriller.” Both moments fade away too quickly, before they have the chance to explode into the kind of musical numbers that have since become a Parker and Stone trademark. But the show gets over on its look, which is incredibly appropriate to the material, whether the Halloween spirit is being conveyed by green-faced men tearing into someone’s head with their teeth or a row of schoolchildren all wearing furry Chewbacca masks. And as we’ve already established, you can’t go wrong with bloody slapstick executed in the carboard-cutouts and Colorforms style. Watching parts of this episode made for the only time in my life that I’ve ever wished that somebody else had directed The Evil Dead.
- This episode also marks a jump forward in defining Kenny’s character as “the poor kid.” (“Why is your family so poor, Kenny?”) Given Torie Bosch’s recent think piece in Slate on whether “the zombie apocalypse” in The Walking Dead is, metaphorically, “a white collar nightmare”, it’s a funny coincidence that this happens in an episode in which Kenny is Patient Zero for a zombie plague hitting South Park. Or could it be more than a coincidence? Get real.
- The episode also nails down the characters of Cartman’s mom (featured on the cover of Crack Whore magazine) and Chef, who spends the episode dressed for Halloween in an Evel Knievel outfit. Of course, the scene in the 2010 Halloween episode of Parenthood in which Dax Shepard went trick-or-treating dressed as Evel Knievel was a direct homage to “Pinkeye.” Or maybe not. But there’s a rumor going around the office that whenever somebody mentions Parenthood in a review, Todd takes us all out for ice cream.
- “You know, I think death is least funny when it happens to a little child.”
- The anti-celebrity jibes come faster and more furiously here than at any time since the Kathie Lee Gifford episode, but I think they’re much funnier here, because they’re so totally random. Instead of taking a shot at someone they themselves obviously couldn’t care less about but who seems to inspire a great deal of antipathy in a lot of other people, Parker and Stone just seem to be flipping through an old copy of People and letting their fingers fall on a page—“There! Him.” Believe me, people who enjoyed wildly overscaled attacks on famous people had a lot to choose from in 1997, but nobody else was calls for the heads of Tina Yothers, Jackie Collins, and Edward James Olmos. This fill-in-the-blank quality makes it both more surreal and less cruel.
- Kyle, at Kenny’s gravesite: “He was too young to be taken from us.” Stan: “Dude, you’re the one who cut him in half with a chainsaw.”