“Starvin’ Marvin” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 11/19/97)
A fair number of people think they’re performing satire when all they’re really doing is clearly stating what they assume their core audience believes—mot opportunistically, necessarily, but because it’s what they themselves believe, and how could anybody who’s smart enough to like them think any differently? Sometimes, someone who says what he thinks for a living pushes past the accepted bounds of common decency, and when that happens, somebody in his camp is going to salute him for his courage, but it’s a blunt, unimaginative kind of courage, and can look a lot like thoughtless complacency borne from having been allowed to get away with too much for too long.
When Rush Limbaugh did his little riff about how women who advocate government funding for birth control medication are nymphomaniac sluts who ought to be forced to repay him for his tax dollars by providing him and his buddies down at the Raccoon Lodge with sex tapes, he was being “outrageous,” but he was also just being honest about what he thinks, expressing an attitude for which he makes no (sincere) apologies, even if he pushed it all the way into the red zone. (Granted, part of his rant was based on the notion that the regularity with which a woman takes birth control medication is directly proportionate to how often she has sex. Was that a joke, or does he actually believe it? Who the hell knows?) When Jonathan Swift mapped out “A Modest Proposal,” or Lenny Bruce asked “Are there any niggers here tonight,” they were working a little differently. Saying something outrageous, or even disgusting, when the ditto-heads are in the room doesn’t take much courage. Taking a chance that you will be seriously misunderstood does.
“Starvin’ Marvin” is probably the bravest episode to date, because it practically dares anyone who comes across it while channel surfing, or who just hears about it being discussed around the water cooler, to assume that Parker and Stone are making fun of starving Ethiopians. By this time, Parker and Stone had been subjected to a crash course in how easy it is to generate fake outrage, which means it took real commitment to their vision to go ahead with the script after they realized what, given the template for South Park characters, Marvin—an undernourished Ethiopian child who, by mistake, is sent to the boys after they respond to a TV plea that they “adopt” a starving child—was going to have to look like: a small, dark-brown smudge with a huge head and emaciated body, draped in a loincloth. At first the boys feel gypped; as an incentive to donate to charity, they were supposed to get a sports watch. But soon they’re cooing over him as if he were a new toy and arguing over he really belongs to. (“He’s my son, I adopted him.” “It was my mom’s credit card.”)
The episode doesn’t fully snap into place until the boys and their families take Marvin out to dinner and we get to see what wasteful American abundance, for which Cartman is a handy, ready-made symbol, looks like through his bulging eyes. (Explaining the concept of appetizers to Marvin, Cartman says they’re “what you eat before you eat, to make you more hungry.”) Naturally, when the Men in Black figures show up at Cartman’s house looking to ship Marvin back to Ethiopia, Marvin sells Cartman out to them and assumes his identity. Much of the thinking behind the episode comes down to the observation that, whether people are moved to tears by TV images of African famine or remain indifferent to the suffering, they don’t see the figures in those images as real people. So there’s an attitude about the genuine universality of human beings, as well as a joke, in the development that Marvin is corruptible, to the point that, after parking himself in front of the TV for a while and being catered to by Cartman’s mom, he shows real danger of turning into Cartman. Somehow, that would be more depressing than sending him back to Ethiopia to starve, so in the end, he looks into the faces of the people of South Park and suppressing a shudder, opts to return home. He takes with him the juicy carcasses of the turkeys killed in the mutant turkey revolt, about which, more, but not much more, below. This makes for a happy ending, except for Kenny’s family, who in addition to losing their son again win a can of beans in the Thanksgiving food drive but realize, too late, that they do not own a can opener.
The silliest non-mutant-turkey-related plot thread involves Sally Struthers, and this might require some context. Struthers had played Archie Bunker’s little girl Gloria on All In The Family; she’d later qualify for cult-TV footnote status for playing the woman on Gilmore Girls with the honking voice and the husband who looked as if he’d stepped out of a ‘50s jazz album cover designed by Gene Deitch. In the late ‘90s, she wasn’t seen on TV much, except for her appearances in a series of late-night pitches for a charity called the Christian’s Children Fund. She’d ballooned out a little since her All In The Family days, and this episode grew out of Parker and Stone’s unkind but not wholly untruthful observation that it was sort of funny to see someone who didn’t look as if she’d missed any meals recently asking for help on behalf of hungry kids.
Parker and Stone have never been the kind of people to pull back from taking a comic observation to its logical conclusion just because it would be unfair and might hurt someone’s feelings. Comic ruthlessness: As Lance Henricksen used to say on Millennium: It’s their gift, it’s their curse. So when Cartman is stumbling around in the desert, failing to get help from a departing Red Cross unit (which has been forced to shut down because they’ve lost their funding, presumably because they don’t have a has-been TV star, armed with footage of hungry children, shilling on their behalf) and then discovering a stash of junk food, it’s not really a surprise to learn that the whole charity business is a scam and that Sally Struthers is camped out there, gobbling up all the donations. Struthers (who is last seen here trussed up with an apple in her mouth) may have been the first celebrity to go vocal about being offended at the way she’d been portrayed in South Park, and whether you think the show made funny use of her or feel her pain (I think it may be possible to do both), there’s a reason for that which goes beyond both the savagery of the caricature and anyone’s personal thin skin: Struthers has the distinction of being the first celebrity ridiculed on South Park not as a random and meaningless famous name, but because she’d actually done something specific that got up Parker and Stone’s noses.
- Mr. Garrison: “Remember, there are no stupid questions, just stupid people.”
- The less said about the killer-turkey subplot, the better; it never really gets off the ground, two horror movie parodies in two consecutive episodes is a little much, and to hear Parker and Stone tell it, they apparently stuck with it just because they couldn’t bear to lose the image of both Chef and the head turkey stirring up their troops while wearing Braveheart face paint. But because of that one detail, it does merit respect as the first salvo in the show’s ultimately heroic campaign against Mel Gibson.
“Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo” (season 1, episode 9; 12/17/97)
South Park was famously born from a video Christmas card, so the bar was already set high for the series’ first Christmas show. “Mr. Hankey” is an episode of firsts and mosts: the first appearances of the mush-mouthed (and onion-headed) guidance counselor, Mr. Mackey and Father Maxi (as well, of course, of Mr. Hankey); the first full-fledged musical episode, with the debut of Cartman’s signature number “Kyle’s Mom Is A Bitch”; and the first skewering of a celebrity that seems to be motivated by genuine malice. (Parker and Stone may have thought that Sally Struthers’ charity appeals were sort of ridiculous, but in the swiftest and simplest way possible, they leave no doubt that they wouldn’t mind killing Philip Glass.) In the “most” category, it sets some kind of record for prime time scatology, but it’s also the most that Parker and Stone had ever communicated their backhanded love for classic animation, with the early-Disney vibe that Mr. Hankey gives off. (And when Kyle is carrying Mr. Hankey around in a box, and Mr. Hankey just looks like an ordinary turd to anyone he tries to show him to, it’s hard not to think of Chuck Jones’ One Froggy Evening.)
But what’s weirdly, beautifully affecting about “Mr. Hankey” is the way it really does convey a child’s feeling of alienation and loneliness and wanting to join in when everyone else looks as if they’re having fun. Maybe other episodes had been meant to treat the kids as actual characters with honest emotions, rather than just scraps of cardboard talking dirty and doing what they needed to do to drive the story along, but, except for parts of “Volcano,” this is the first episode that really makes me feel that. Kyle isn’t permitted to participate fully in Christmas because he’s Jewish—though, as he tells Mr. Mackey, it’s “not on purpose”—so, after wandering through town singing about his plight (“I’m a Jew/ A lonely Jew/ I’d be merry/ But I’m Hebrew”), he’s visited by Mr. Hankey, who “comes out of the toilet every year and gives presents to everyone who has a lot of fiber in their diet.”
Everyone tells Kyle that Mr. Hankey isn’t real, and Kyle has to hear it so much that he comes to believe that he must be nuts. Mr. Hankey assures him that this is not the case—“Not real? Well, gosh, if I weren’t really real, could I sing this jolly Christmas song?”—though the audience is left hanging, wondering if it’s Kyle smearing the word “NOEL” on the bathroom mirror with feces and throwing turds in Cartman’s face and into Mr. Mackey’s coffee cup. It isn’t clear that Mr. Hankey really is real until Chef settles the question by telling the kids, and us, that, yep, he’s real. By that time, Kyle had been locked up in a psycho ward for being “a clinically depressed fecal-philiac on Prozac.” When Mr. Hankey shows up on the window of his cell, his response is, “Oh no, I’m not sane yet!” But Mr. Hankey is now visible to the whole town, and he cheerfully scolds them because they’re “focused so hard on what’s wrong with Christmas that you’ve forgotten what’s right with it!”
In South Park’s telling, what the people think is “wrong” with Christmas is that they’re forced to live with other people’s interpretations of what it’s about. Until Mr. Hankey steps in, the holiday is all but shut down in the town because Kyle’s mother objects to the public celebration of a Christian holiday, while the Christians, led by Father Maxi, object to any attempt to “take the Christ out of Christmas.” It gets to the point that Mr. Garrison can’t use Christmas lights in his school nativity play, because “they’re offensive to epileptics.” Though it doesn’t make the episode any less funny (or sweet), it’s one of those South Park episodes where the approach to the issues involved feels very dated; Parker and Stone were reacting to an uptick in news stories about protests against things like government-funded nativity scenes as a violation of the separation of church and state, and as atheistic hedonists (or, at least, dedicated supporters of kids being allowed to have fun), their attitude was: Back off, let the stupid Christians raise a few crosses this time of year, and that way, Christmas can be a big public event and the kids, who know it’s really about Santa Clause and presents, can have their fun, which is really the important thing. They couldn’t have guessed that, in terms of noise at least, the momentum would turn out to be with the people outraged at the outrage over public shows of Christianity, and that, if they’d done this same episode ten years later, they’d probably have been pilloried on Fox News as godless soldiers in the War Against Christmas.
- This is also the first episode in which Kenny makes it safely to the end. Not killing Kenny was Parker and Stone’s idea of a Christmas gesture, and it’s sweet, but there’s something double-edged about it: By bringing up increasingly ridiculous situations in which Kenny might be killed, they get the viewer on the edge of his seat, expecting the worst, right up until the final seconds of the show. They’re saying, “In the spirit of the holiday, we’re gonna spare the little guy this week,” but at the same time, they’re addressing the audience: “That’s okay with you, we hope. Because we act as if you’re really looking forward to seeing this kid get it.” (And then, just as you may be breathing a sigh of relief, they pull the final zinger: Jesus sitting all alone in his TV studio, sadly singing, “Happy birthday to me…”