“Mecha-Streisand” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 2/18/98)
“Mecha-Streisand” was the last episode before the first season finale of South Park, but for a long time, it remembered it as the final episode of the first season. Considering that the episode that followed it, “Cartman’s Mom Is A Dirty Slut,” traumatized a nation for reasons involving the way it left America hanging, it might seem odd that I could misremember such a thing. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it takes the show’s celebrity-bashing to such an extreme that it feels as if ought to be the culmination of something, and that after finishing it, the creative team would have immediately wanted to take a breather. This could be projection on my part, because I remember watching it when it first aired and wanting to take a breather myself. I probably just remember it as the season finale because when I switched off the set, I thought to myself, “That’s that, I guess. Won’t ever be watching that show again.”
As we’ve already seen, the celebrity jokes on South Park come in many different forms. There are the specific attacks on famous people for something they’ve done; the over-the-top assaults on people who are known to inspire resentment in many people but who, one can tell, Parker and Stone don’t really care about one way or the other; and those that are completely random, such as the non-insulting but totally out-of-the-blue uses of Leonard Maltin and Sidney Poitier here. But “Mecha-Streisand” is an entire episode driven by an idea that I don’t quite understand, which is that it would be a good and noble thing to spend half an hour of TV time trying to hurt Barbra Streisand’s feelings. Most of the, well, barbs directed her way don’t even count as jokes, unless you think that calling someone a bitch and saying that she’s ugly count as jokes, in which case, congratulations, you’re Adam Carolla. If this is not the case, then how much you enjoyment you can get out of this episode comes down to whether you like Japanese monster movies. Just so you know, it helps a little, tiny, eensy bit if you really, really love the fuck out of Japanese monster movies.
Not much story to it, though what’s there is at least insane. On an arrowhead-hunting expedition, the boys find a triangular object that, when joined to another triangle that is in the possession of the power-seeking “egotistical bitch” Barbra Streisand, will turn the bearer into the most powerful creature in the world. Coming to the rescue is Leonard Maltin (not played by the actual Leonard Maltin), who has come to South Park and sought out Chef, asking if he’s seen Barbra Streisand. No, says Chef, “not since Yentl.” Streisand is indeed in town, and tries to buy the relic from the boys, but they gaze on her unspeakably hideous visage and perceive that she is the worst person in the history of the world, and want nothing to do with her. (Barbra Streisand, for the record, does not provide her actual voice.) When she reappears in disguise, the boys unwittingly insult her to her face, referring to her as “a really, really old lady who wishes she was still only 45.”
Seriously, you don’t need to be any great fan of Barbra Streisand to find this stuff more dismaying than funny. The whole thing is just dripping with hate, to the point that if you've ever woken up a day in your life without your first thought being, "Man, I sure hope Barbra Streisand died in a state of sin last night," you're not likely to find it funny, or even comprehensible. It doesn't help that there was already a Barbra Streisand-hating industry in place long before South Park was born, so Parker and Stone just seem to be piling on, especially since all they have to add to the conversation is that this famous rich Jewish woman is an attention junkie who’s a bitch with a big nose, whose singing voice can be used as an instrument of torture. It’s like when they went after Michael Moore in Team America: World Police, and with all the ammunition at hand, decided that the best way to really stick it to him would be to depict him with a hot dog in either hand.
Anyway, Streisand gets the triangle, turns into the towering robotic-dinosaur monster Mecha-Streisand, and stomps around flattening the city and battling Maltin and Sidney “not his real voice, either” Poitier, who have transformed themselves into, respectively, versions of Ultraman and the giant flying turtle Gamera whose film work brought Joel and ‘bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000 so many happy hours. She trounces both of them but is defeated by Robert Smith, of the Cure, who arrives in the nick of time and transforms into a creature similar to Mothra, and who speaks with the actual voice of Robert Smith of the Cure, because Parker and Stone think he and his band are the shit. (Disintegration is the best album ever!” Kyle shouts to Smith’s departing back.) The actual sound of Smith’s voice, and the sense you get that he’s visiting royalty, are the episode’s major redeeming traits; it’s just sweet that these mean, misguided dudes are also capable of being such wide-eyed fanboys. With the menace passed, Kyle imparts the message of the episode, which is that “People who want power, a lot of power, end up dead.” It may be the single lamest message he’s ever imparted, because how does that differentiate them from those of us who just want to sit in a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned room and watch TV?
- This is the second time in the space of three episodes that the show includes a gratuitous slap at Nancy Kerrigan. I’d assume these fall into the “totally random” category, and include that it only happened twice because Parker and Stone already forgot that they’d did it once already, but Parker apparently has said that it cheeses him off something fierce that so many people seem to think Nancy Kerrigan is so great, as if she won a gold medal in the 1994 Olympics, when she actually won the silver. This isn’t the strangest thing I’ve ever heard of anyone being angry about, but it’s in the top five.
- The animation in the big monster fight is pretty ambitious, by the standards of what the show has done before, but my favorite technical effect comes when Chef and Leonard Maltin are in a car, driving through the mountains, and we actual footage of the road disappearing behind them through the back window. Apparently this was done out of necessity, because the animators couldn't get the effect they wanted any other way, but it's strange and very eye-pleasing. (It also works as a joke on rear-projection scenes in movies, and it helps that the music for the scene is a parody of Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock. Among great Hollywood directors, Hitchcock may have been the bad-rear-projection king.)
- In the middle of the apocalyptic chaos caused by the warring giant celebrities, with pieces of buildings flying around and whatnot, Kenny kicks a tetherball, which wraps itself around a pole, with the rope looping around his neck and garroting him. Now that’s funny! (This is not sarcasm. I know sometimes it’s hard to tell on the Internet.)
- Streisand, who was foolish enough to respond publicly, and negatively, to the episode, reportedly brought all this on herself by speaking out against the passage of an amendment to the Colorado State Constitution designed to prevent any legislation or executive action that would allow for gays to be protected against discrimination. (It was later shot down by the Colorado Supreme Court, a judgment that was upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court.) Presumably, Parker and Stone were outraged at the very idea of a celebrity voicing a political opinion, something that Parker and Stone, who are celebrities, would never dream of doing in a million years, not in an interview or any kind of public forum, and certainly not in their work. (This is. Sarcasm, I mean.)
“Cartman’s Mom Is A Dirty Slut (Part 1)” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 2/25/98)
The season finale was widely taken for an instant classic when it first aired, and I don’t mean to tear it down and stomp on it, but I think it may have been built up a little. Maybe because it was the season finale, some critics who were slow to warm to the show were looking for a good excuse to jump in and praise it. (This episode is also great material for people trying to gin up sociopolitical think pieces about pop culture, based on the observation that the screwed-up, greedy, manipulative bully has no father figure to look up to.) It’s by no means bad, but its central joke is repetitive and mechanical compared to some of the others.
In a nutshell: Cartman, in case you missed all that, has no father, as a consequence of his mom being a dirty slut. She can track the occasion of his conception down to the night of the 12th annual Drunken Barn Dance—as someone who has been to a barn dance, I can tell you that anyone who attends any other kind needs professional help—but after that, things get hazy. At first, she tells Cartman that she thinks his father is one Chief Running Water, who lives on a nearby Native American reservation. So Cartman, psyched about having a father, starts parading around dressed like an early Rita Coolidge album cover. But Chief Running Water tells him that he never made it with his mom; they were about to make love in the barn when she became distracted by the sight of Chef, new in town and resplendent in his mile-wide afro. So Cartman, whose uncharacteristic ability to go with the flow on this one can be taken as a sign of just how important it is to him, goes to see Chef, wearing a huge clock around his neck and a high-top wig that makes him look like whichever of those two guys in Kid ‘n Play looked like a frightened pencil. But Chef informs him that, after Cartman’s mom ditched the Chief, she was distracted by Mr. Garrison (who, as seen in a flashback, was still getting results from the Rogaine.)
To be fair, this stuff might seem funnier if it didn’t have to compete for attention with the scenes of Cartman in emotional and psychological distress, which might be the funniest scenes, in the series’ history to this point, of Cartman doing anything. In need of reassurances that he is loved and deserving of being loved, he throws a tea party in the back yard, surrounded by stuffed toys and holding up both ends of the conversation. (“Thank you, Polly Prissypants. You are my best friend.”) All his inanimate friends love and flatter him, too—at least, until Clyde Frog calls him “a big fat piece of crap,” revealing himself to be the group malcontent. Gazing upon this troubling scene, which they quickly assess as very sad and desperate and funny as hell, Stan and Kyle videotape it so they can have Cartman’s behavior studied by professionals, before deciding to submit it to the hit TV series America’s Stupidest Home Videos, in hopes of winning the $10,000 weekly top prize.
Cartman, meanwhile, has been reduced to dreaming of somehow raising the $3000 that Dr. Mephisto charges for a DNA test that would determine his father’s identity. When Cartman learns that Stan and Kyle have done this, he is displeased, and sits on his end of the couch red-faced and trembling, like an overripe tomato about to burst open in the sun. The $10,000 goes to Stan’s grandfather, for his hilarious video of Kenny’s violent death on the railroad tracks, but as runners-up, Stan and Kyle still get $3000, which they contribute to the DNA test fund in an attempt to mollify Cartman. The episode ends with the news that the list of suspects has been scientifically narrowed down to Chief Running Water, Chef, Mr. Garrison, Officer Barbrady, Ned, Jimbo, Dr. Mephisto, Dr, Mephisto’s little friend Henry, and the 1989 Denver Broncos, but that the truth will be revealed in the very next episode. I’m so excited! How will I stand the wait!?
- Jay Leno contributes a credited guest appearance as a cat, doing a little mewing. You may remember that Jerry Seinfeld turned down an offer to play a turkey in the Thanksgiving episode. This raises the possibility that Jay Leno actually has a better sense of humor than Jerry Seinfeld, a possibility that makes me feel the world is much more likely, at any point, to slip off its axis.
- The sharpest joke comes in the office of Mr. Mackey, who, told by the kids that there’s something the matter with Cartman, replies, “That’s a real news flash,” and then falls to musing on how it could be that having a single mother and an absent father could be so upsetting to the lad. On the wall behind him, there are posters bearing such mottos as “DADS ARE DANDY” and “IF YOU DON’T HAVE A DAD”—with the word “dad” spelled out on a balloon held by a beaming tot—YOU’RE A BASTARD.”
- I don't think I've ever seen America’s Funniest Home Videos, but I remember when it premiered early in the ‘90s, and this episode made me wonder if it could possibly have still been on the air as late as 1997, when this episode aired. I tried to check it out at Wikipedia, but it says that there the goddamn thing is still on the air today. That can’t be right.