South Park (Classic): “Spooky Fish”/“Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson!”
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South Park (Classic): “Spooky Fish”/“Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson!”

Time sure does fly in South Park. It feels as if it was barely three months ago that the show was celebrating the holidays, and here we are with a matching set of Halloween and Christmas episodes. The Christmas episode isn’t up to the level of the previous tales of Mr. Hankey, and the Halloween episode is something of a mess—a largely happy mess—but the holidays do continue to bring out the best in our boys.

“Spooky Fish” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 10/28/1998)

Stan’s mom’s Aunt Flo is visiting, and has gifted Stan with a goldfish. The goldfish turns out to be a homicidal maniac, and every time Stan turns out the light in his bedroom or turns his back to the thing, another dead body of some random stranger is lying on the floor. Badly misreading the situation, Stan’s mom thinks that Stan is committing the murders and tries to protect him by dragging the bloody bodies out into the backyard and burying them, muttering “Such a good boy… such a handsome boy…” When Officer Barbrady stops by, explaining that he is investigating a string of mysterious disappearances and asks to inspect her backyard, because “Missing people always turn up hiding in somebody’s bushes,” she konks him on the head with a shovel and chains him up in the basement without his pants, an image I have already tried to remove from my brain by jamming a coat hanger in my ear.

The stuff with the fish is worth a few nasty chuckles. The classic stuff here is all Cartman, though. He stars in what amounts to the concluding installment of the second season’s trilogy of Star Trek homages; this is the baldest of all them, and by far the funniest, and if Parker and Stone were to make the case that they only did the first two Star Trek episodes to properly warm up for this one, I’d agree it was worth it. (I’d probably think it was worth it if they insisted that everyone who watched this episode first had to allow Parker and Stone to come to their homes and punch them in the face.) One fine day, Cartman shows up with a goatee, acting nice and solicitous toward everyone. He apologizes for having missed school that day, explaining that his mother was feeling poorly and he had to stay home to take care of her. He then asks the boys if they have any homework assignments for him. Later, he will join in with enthusiasm as the boys work on their entry in the school’s pumpkin-carving contest, even though they left it to Kenny to procure a pumpkin, and all he could manage is a squash. Cartman carves it with gusto, while singing a little song: “You guys are my best friends / Through thick and thin / We’ve always been together... / Best friends are we!”

Of course, this is Cartman’s doppelgänger from an evil parallel universe. Nobody catches wise, though, until the real Cartman, sans goatee, and the doppelgänger confront each other, in a shot that painstakingly recreates the look of primitive split-screen technology. The real Cartman is eager to be done with this polite interloper, while the doppelgänger, whom Stan and Kyle reflexively refer to as “Evil Cartman,” dreads the thought of returning to his home world, where the goateed doppelgängers of Stan and Kyle are mean to him and Chef is “a skinny white insurance salesman.” Stan and Kyle are just as reluctant to lose Evil Cartman, especially since the real Cartman is making himself even more unbearable than usual by working the non-word “hella” into every sentence.

Things come to a head at the pumpkin-carving contest, where the evil versions of Stan and Kyle appear, hell bent on removing Evil Cartman from this world. They are armed with a “gingification gun” that shoots things with a ray that, presumably, sends them to the parallel universe. Stan gets ahold of it and dispatches his and Kyle’s doppelgängers, while Cartman gets into a wrestling match with Evil Cartman and tears off his goatee, so that the boys can no longer easily tell which is which. One of the Cartmans makes a plea that Stan fire on both of them, since it’s the only way to ensure that the meaner Cartman does not remain to befoul this beautiful world. Upon hearing this, Stan makes the Solomonic decision that only a good Cartman would be prepared to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and shoots the other one. The remaining Cartman looks at his friends and, in a familiar sing-song voice, says, “You guys are hella stupid.”

Stray observations:

  • It develops that the fish is just one of several animals that have gone on killing sprees after being sold by the Ancient Indian Burial Ground Pet Store. Interviewing the pet store owner, the boys ask if he actually did just build his store on an ancient Indian burial ground. “Aw, hell no,” says the owner. “First I dug up all the bodies, pissed on ’em, and then buried them again, upside-down.” Asked why he did this, he shrugs: “I was drunk.”
  • This episode was originally broadcast in what Comedy Central promoted as “Spooky Vision,” a format that has been retained in the versions available on home video, on Netflix, and—the Parker and Stone Seal of Approval—the South Park website itself. What this means is that, throughout every single fucking second of this goddamn episode, the word “SPOOKY” is vertically superimposed on the left side of the screen, the word “VISION” is running down the right side of the screen, and there are pictures of Barbra Streisand on all four corners of the frame. (They’re photos, thank Christ, not the caricature used in the “Mecha-Streisand” episode, which are hard to look at while eating.) Just like the endless, endless, never-by-God-ending references to Streisand’s extreme age and grotesque physical appearance in “Mecha-Streisand,” this is absolutely hilarious all the way through, and not the least bit distracting at all!
  • Stan’s mom’s red-haired Aunt Flo visits regularly, but only once a month, and for some reason, whenever she comes, Stan’s mom turns into a total bitch. Do you get it? They’re really talking about menstruation!
  • Aunt Flo’s presence in this episode is partly redeemed by one of the random, sickest jokes that has ever knocked me off the couch. It turns out Aunt Flo is a little trembly, because she has Parkinson’s. Cartman—the real one, naturally—jumps into her lap and shouts, “Check it out, guys. You don’t even have to put a quarter in her!”
  • “Up yours, evil twin!”

“Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 12/9/98)

Cartman and his mother are driving to Nebraska to visit their family for the holidays, and for reasons that are never made clear and that become even murkier as the episode proceeds, all the boys seem to think this is a kick-ass way to spend Christmas. Stan’s mother refuses him permission to go, so he throws a tantrum—“They can’t tell me what to do. I’m 8 years old!”—sneaks out of the house, joins the road party, and tells anyone who asks that his parents are dead. (He means in the Livia Soprano “dead to me” sense, but this is South Park, where the adults are literal-minded but capable of rolling with any punch that isn’t directly personally at them.)

Our heroes’ arrival in Nebraska is signaled by having the primary colors drain out of the screen and a billboard that carries the message, “You Are Now In Nebraska, Sorry.” Things do not improve with Christmas dinner at Cartman’s grandmother’s. It is “a house full of Cartmans,” all of whom are fat, grabby, and sound a lot like Cartman himself, with the exception of his grandmother, who sounds like a cross between Cartman and Katharine Hepburn. Cartman tears open his Christmas gift from Grandma and hollers, “This isn’t a present, it’s a shirt”; his great-grandma, meanwhile, “smells like vitamins and pee.” The highlight of dinner itself is the appearance, via satellite TV, of Uncle Howard, checking in from the state penitentiary. “You look good, Howard,” someone says. “No, I don’t,” replies the contrary bastard.

Uncle Howard turns out to be the boys’ unlikely vehicle of deliverance when he busts out of stir with his friend Charles Manson (yes, that one). Upstairs, the adults, who don’t know about the new arrivals, are watching a TV news report about the daring prison escape and about how Manson (represented by actual news footage) is the world’s ultimate bastard, but the boys are getting to see another side of him: He may sometimes rant about how when he stands “on the mountain, and [says] do it, it gets done,” but he also bonds non-murderously with Kenny (“How would you like to come with me to a more secluded spot?”) and can’t get enough of TV Christmas specials. He even volunteers to drive the boys to the mall—after hot-wiring a car—so they can see an advertised visit from Mr. Hankey, who’s become quite the big noise since his movie came out.

Unfortunately, “Mr. Hankey” turns out to be just some guy in a turd costume, and Kyle, outraged by this blasphemous image, urges the children gathered around to turn on him (“Behold your false prophet!”) and setting off a riot. The cops who show up to quell the disturbance recognize Manson, resulting in a televised car chase back to the house. The police surround the Cartman family residence and issue an ultimatum: “All right, Manson, we know you’re in there. Come out peacefully and we’ll shoot you.” Their iron grip on the situation is complicated by the arrival of Stan’s mom, who grabs a megaphone from a cop and starts yelling about how she feels about her son’s desertion, his telling people she’d died, and the five-hour drive from Colorado to Nebraska. “I’m glad I’m not you right now, kid,” Charles Manson tells Stan.

Throughout the episode, Stan has been unrelenting in his sourness toward both the idea of family and the holiday season, viewing both these much-loved phenomena as sources of nothing but humiliation and annoyance. Manson, who hasn’t had the chance to be part of a holiday shopping crowd in a long time, and who once tried to piece together his own ideal “family,” with what, in the spirit of the Christmas season, we’ll just call mixed results, would have him reconsider. Manson’s wisdom touches Stan’s heart, and helps him to reconcile with his parents. It’s like seeing the really misbegotten first draft of some family-values sitcom, except instead of calling a second draft after everyone asked the writer what he was thinking, everyone said, “Screw it, I want to get this done and be home for dinner.” After a brief musical number that makes Manson feel as if he’s “in my own Christmas special,” he and Uncle Howard surrender to the police (who have just shredded Kenny in a hail of gunfire), and the episode ends with everyone turning up at the prison to serenade Manson with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” “Dude,” Stan says to Kyle, “this is pretty [bleep]ed up right here.” Sure, but in kind of a good way, right?

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