“Roger Ebert Should Lay Off The Fatty Foods” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 9/2/1998)
The title of this episode is a red flag, especially when you know that this half-hour has nothing to do with Roger Ebert. There would come a time when having produced an episode that wasn’t especially compelling or funny, Trey Parker and Matt Stone might have set it aside, tried to find a way to juice it up, or even permanently shelf it. At this point though, their natural instinct was to just run the thing, then give it a title that insults someone who didn’t much care for BASEketball. (Ebert would have his opportunity for revenge a month later, when he weighed in on Orgazmo.) It’s not that “Fatty Foods” is a terrible episode; it’s one of the more focused ones to date, and the people who made it probably had a good time. But to really get into it, it probably helps if you have, at some point during your formative years, been forced to visit a planetarium.
It also definitely helps if you’re a Star Trek geek. The planetarium in question is called the “Tantalus V. Observatory,” and is run by a sinister Dr. Adams. The boys are taken there on a field trip by Mr. Garrison, whose lack of interest in educating his students has reached the point that he’s just showing them reruns of Barnaby Jones that he taped the night before. This cannot go on, so he drags them, kicking and screaming, to “see some stupid stars.” The boys are greeted by Dr. Adams and a little girl, Missy, who has volunteered to work the projector; “I love my work,” she says in a monotone, her eyes like saucers. It turns out that Dr. Adams has rigged the audio-visual setup to hypnotize his visitors into believing anything he tells them, and he’s telling them that they love the planetarium and can scarcely bear to stay away from it for any length of time. The full extent of Adams’ power, and his willingness to misuse it, doesn’t become clear until we see him convincing some hapless visitors that they actually love to watch lasers bounce around in front of their eyes while listening to the music of Kenny Loggins.
This is all a parody of a Star Trek episode called “Dagger Of The Mind,” which has a Clockwork Orange-esque plot about a mad scientist running a clinic for the criminally insane and subjecting them to an experimental beam that is meant to pacify but, naturally, instead drives them 15 shades of crazy. In that episode, the crew of the Enterprise learn what’s going on after Mr. Spock applies the Vulcan mind meld to an escapee named Van Gelder. Here, the code is cracked by Mr. Mackey, who mind melds with a hysterical child, also named Van Gelder. There’s also a bonus random Star Trek allusion when someone points out that a minor character is called by an Asian name but looks like Ricardo Montalbán.
A good general rule might be that any couple of guys who manage to whip up a TV show from nothing and get it on the air should be free to use the space they’ve claimed for themselves to explore their little obsessions and pet peeves to their hearts’ content, especially if they’ve been as spectacularly successful as Parker and Stone were. But this comes close to illustrating how self-indulgence got a bad name, especially since there was an earlier Trek-reference episode, “The City On The Edge Of Forever,” just a few weeks prior. At least one thing here, the appearance of Missy, is hilarious if you get the reference and funny/understandable if you don’t understand it.
But too much of “Fatty Foods” has the feel of a roomful of friends who have a nice buzz going and are up past their bedtime, watching something on TV they’ve seen too many times already, laughing together and imagining that when morning comes, they’ll find a way to share this with the world. Usually, when that happens, morning comes, and everyone sobers up and starts thinking about what they seriously need to do with next week’s show. On one occasion, some guys did not sober up the next morning and plowed ahead with their idea to do something with what they’d been giggling about all night, and the result was a surprise summer blockbuster that made more than $80 million. That was unlikely smash was Airplane!, and its particular lightning bolt isn’t likely to strike again.
The episode does help to set in stone what would become a solid South Park rule, which is that when nothing else is memorable about an episode, Cartman is likely to remain bulletproof. Cartman himself misses out on the brainwashing because he sneaks off to audition for a singing commercial for Cheesy Poofs. His impassioned performance of the Cheesy Poofs jingle is worth the price of admission in itself, but it’s topped by his high-energy rendition of Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard For The Money.” The little bastard always brings out the best in his co-stars, too, as when he bursts into class to boast of his good fortune, just as Mr. Garrison is teaching the other kids how to write haikus. (“A haiku is just like a regular American poem, except it doesn’t rhyme and it’s stupid.”) “I’m a finalist in the contest,” Cartman exclaims. “I bet you don’t win/ They don’t let big fat asses/ Be on the TV,” volunteers Kyle.
“Clubhouses” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 9/23/98)
This near-perfect episode draws heavily on two of the show’s most precious resources: Cartman and boy-girl relations. It begins with Wendy informing Stan that her friend Bebe likes Kyle—she’s fixated on his “hot ass,” to the point of passing him a note in which she expresses her desire to “wear it like a hat”—and urges him to build a clubhouse so that the four of them will have a place where they can “have meaningful conversations and sip cognac by the fireplace.” Stan isn’t sure that’s the sort of thing that goes on at clubhouses, but Wendy assures him that it is. “Just how many guys’ clubhouses have you been in?” he asks, uncertainly.
Wendy gets Stan completely on board when she promises that, safe within the confines of the clubhouse, they can play Truth Or Dare. When Stan tries to get Kyle to see the appeal of this, Kyle is completely immune to the idea: “Dude, what kind of sick joke is this!? Girls suck ass.” Rather than admit to Kyle that he himself believes otherwise, Stan tells his friend that it’ll be great because they can force the girls to do gross shit, like eat bugs, which may just leave them scarred for life. Soon, the boys are up in a tree, merrily hammering away at the floorboards. After they’ve hammered for a while, Kyle turns to Stan and says, “We should use nails, dude.” “My mom won’t let me,” says Stan.
Cartman is excluded from their fun, so, having drafted Kenny to take care of the actual labor, he builds his own clubhouse, which he proudly christens Ewok Village 2000. He sends Kenny out to troll for babes, and soon the two of them are sitting in the rickety nightmare they’ve constructed with a couple of sassy teenagers who are looking for a place to sleep because they’re pissed off at their mothers. For a couple of minutes, watching Cartman listen to the girls jabber on about their moms, seeing what a good listener he can pretend to be and seeing how perfectly he senses when to interject a “Sweet!” or “Kick-ass!,” it’s possible to think the little son of a bitch actually has some game. However, he breaks the spell when he says that he too never takes shit from his mom: “I’m like, I’m not a little kid anymore. I’m 8 years old. And if I want to finger-paint, I’m gonna finger-paint!”
Great moments aside, what elevates this episode to the stars is the way the boys’ incomprehension is mirrored by that of Stan’s parents, whose marriage hits the rocks after a kitchen argument that quickly spirals out of control—“In 15 years,” Stan’s mother says angrily, “that is the first time you’ve ever said ‘Whatever’ to me!”—until it reaches the point of no return: Stan’s father using the C-word. Within minutes, it seems, Stan’s mother is informing her son that he’s now a child of divorce (Stan: “This is all my fault, isn’t it?” “Yeah, kinda.”) and introducing him to his new stepdad, a passive-aggressive loon named Roy. Luckily, the boys have recently discovered a new favorite TV cartoon, Fat Abbott, a pitch-perfect parody of Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids (“Rudy, you’re like school in summertime.” “School in summertime?” “Yeah, bitch, school in summertime! Open your [Bleep]ing ears”) that is full of handy life lessons. Closing out one episode, the host tells a rapt Stan, “Fat Abbott and the boys really learned a lesson today. If you have a stepdad riding your ass, just snatch him in a bear trap. See you next time, eatin’ the pudding.”
There’s an equally instructive comparison to be made between “Fatty Foods” and “Clubhouses”: Both episodes steadily escalate until they’re at equal levels of insanity. But one is based on recognizable human emotion, and the other is about ironic, nostalgic affection for an old science-fiction show. Oddly enough, the former ultimately feels much wilder and less constrained, and is considerably funnier. Hey, hey, hey.
- The perfect Cartman rant, in reaction to being told by the other boys that they don’t want to play with him: “That’s fine! I like playing with myself. I play with myself all day!”
- The classroom scene has often been the deadest point in a South Park episode, but the one here is a real beauty, with Mr. Garrison’s warning-threat, “Don’t lie, Stanley. Lying makes you sterile,” and Cartman mewling, “Mr. Garrrr-ison, Stan’s behavior is having an adverse effect on my education.” When Mr. Garrison asks Stan if he’s been paying attention and challenges him about what he was saying, Stan replies, “You said that though Charo appeared on The Love Boat 12 times, the episode with the Captain and Tennille got higher ratings.” Mr. Garrison is nonplused. Kyle leans toward Stan and whispers, “Good guess, dude!”
- Preparing for the grand opening of the clubhouse, Stan consults Chef about how to play Truth Or Dare with a girl you like. “You have to say ‘truth’ the first few times,” says Chef, “or else you’ll seem too eager.” That might actually be the best advice Chef ever gave any of the boys on the show. I know it helped me.