“Terrance And Phillip In Not Without My Anus” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 4/1/1998)
It’s because of things like the first second-season episodes of South Park that somebody invented the concept of the sophomore jinx. Most of this is deadly.
It’s painful to have to say that about “Terrance And Phillip In Not Without My Anus,” because conceptually, the episode is a delicious joke. It premièred four weeks after the previous “season finale,” which ended with a cliffhanger and a promise that the identity of Cartman’s father would be revealed. So all these people tuned on April 1, 1998 and were greeted with an announcement that Cartman’s father’s identity would not be revealed that night: April fool! You’ve been punked. To add insult to, well, insult, what follows the announcement isn’t even really an episode of South Park. It’s a glimpse of what television is like inside the South Park universe, a full-length installment of the popular Canadian ca-ca-doody cartoon Terrance And Phillip. What happened when the episode first aired makes it that much funnier: Stoked by the network’s own publicity and a thousand radio shock jocks who had taken the show to their bosom, millions of people tuned in, got pissed off, and went nuts.
Of all the times that culture observers prematurely declared that the whole annoying South Park thing was now officially over, this has to be the best. After winning the hearts and minds of their fans through their readiness to jerk anything around, Parker and Stone jerked their fans around—and set off a firestorm. Not all their fans, mind you: Millions of people saw the episode, shrugged, maybe chuckled a little, and got on with their lives. Parker and Stone were quickly accused of not caring about their fans and being selfish, dishonest, privileged, rakka-rakka-rakka.
In fact, the worst thing anyone can say about “Not Without My Anus” as a prank is that it ended up making a point that its creators apparently did not set out to make. Parker and Stone have made it clear that they were surprised and dismayed that their harmless little practical joke made anybody mad, and good for them. They didn’t do it because they were cynical and thought it would be funny, they did it because they had more faith in their audience than some percentage of that audience deserved and assumed that everyone who tuned in would think it was funny. They probably thought everyone would think it was fun to be part of a million-plus group of people getting teased. They thought everyone who watched their series—which, just to remind everyone, is a cartoon show that’s adamantly not for children—was an adult, for whom spending half an hour every week watching Stan and Kyle and the gang was just a small part of a well-balanced life.
There only remains the small matter of the actual episode, which is a problem only if you watch it. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m the first person who’s done that voluntarily in this century. As I said, “Not Without My Anus” offers a chance to see what a “controversial” cartoon show roughly akin to South Park is like in Stan and Kyle’s world, and it’s very true to the guiding premise that, in Stan and Kyle’s world, TV is really stupid. (In this, of course, it’s meant to be a lot like our world, but carried to the ultimate.) The story: Terrance and Phillip, whose vulgar witlessness renders them bulletproof, are such a source of frustration to their strait-laced enemy Scott (who, in the opening scene, fails to convict Terrance of a murder that he’s obviously committed, because the jury finds Terrances and Phillip’s fart jokes more persuasive than Scott’s steady stream of solid evidence) that he collaborates with Saddam Hussein in a plot to lure them to Iraq, where they will be murdered. Things don’t work out, and at the end, Terrance and Phillip triumph by leading a football stadium of people into farting Saddam to death.
This isn’t, strictly speaking, an episode of television, it’s a DVD bonus feature, something to read about on Wikipedia if you didn’t get to be part of the one-time experience of watching it, along with millions of other people, when it first aired. But it’s also the South Park second-season première that we’re stuck with. Which only detracts from the purity of the concept if you actually look at it from beginning to end, which no one is likely to do unless they’ve been tasked with reviewing 14-year-old TV shows. It’s 20 minutes and change, and I dozed off twice while watching it.
- In the greater scheme of things, of course, the most important thing about the episode is that it introduces the character of Saddam Hussein, whose death will have such vital ramifications in the South Park movie. The visual concept is pretty much there already, but the voice needs a little work, and let’s face it: On the scale of evil, annexing Canada, even as a first step in a plan for total world domination, just doesn’t compare to making Satan feel bad about himself.
“Cartman’s Mom Is Still A Dirty Slut” (episode 2, season 2; originally aired 4/22/1998)
The episode that actually reveals the truth about Cartman’s parentage—at least, until Parker and Stone decided to change it (see stray observations below)—was scheduled to air two weeks after the season première, but Comedy Central freaked out over the negative reaction to Parker and Stone’s little joke and insisted on kicking it up in the rotation. As a result, a one-joke season première that is so meta as to practically be non-existent was followed a shaky, often terrible episode that looks like the work of people trying to have a little fun for themselves while in the process of writing themselves out of a corner, which is probably just what it is.
Few of the good bits are as funny as the worst running gag is exasperating. It begins with a narrator doing a standard-issue, cheesy parody of an old-style soap opera, complete with musical sting: He points out that one of the people we see gathered together is Cartman’s father. Could it be Mr. Garrison, or is it Chef, or is it… Then, just as Dr. Mephesto is about to reveal the results of Cartman’s DNA test, a shot is heard, and Mephesto crumples to the floor. Musical sting, and the narrator asks, who could have shot him? Was it Mr. Garrison, or was it… This old routine, which barely rates a smile the first time, gets trotted out again and again, to the point that somebody mentions the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? just so that the announcer can butt in for the millionth time with, “Who framed Roger Rabbit? Was it Mr. Garrison? Jimbo?…” By then, you want to say to Parker and Stone, yeah, but listening to Barbra Streisand is torture, right?
Meanwhile, Cartman’s mother, having been driven to reconsider her worthiness to even raise a child, is having sex with various politicians in an attempt to have the law changed so she can retroactively abort her 8-year-son—though the punchline is that, by the time she has President Clinton in bed next to her, she realizes that she never meant “abort,” she was thinking of “the other A-word”: adopt.
There are two breaks in the sludge, when the show taps into a couple of rich veins of bad-taste comedy. One comes when the production crew of America’s Most Wanted comes to town to reenact the shooting of Dr. Mephesto, with a cast that includes the washed-up Eric Roberts as Mephesto’s little mutant-monkey sidekick. When the building housing them and most of the town’s authority figures, from the Mayor down to Mr. Garrison, is snowed in, the locals can’t wait for their chance to go all Brazilian soccer team and turn to cannibalism. The TV crew is disgusted with their low threshold for suffering but can’t really object when they eat Eric Roberts, since, as the Mayor points out, “nobody gives a shit about” the Oscar-nominated star of The Coca-Cola Kid. This would only be funnier if the show’s version of Eric Roberts looked and sounded just a teensy bit like the real Eric Roberts, but maybe this was Parker and Stone’s way of proving that they themselves didn’t give enough of a shit to actually consult any footage of the guy they were making fun of.
Still, all the belly-laugh stuff goes down at the hospital where a staff consisting of one doctor and an armless nurse is struggling to save Mephesto and anyone else who staggers in from the snowy wasteland. (Summing up the situation, the doctor looks around the waiting room and says, “All these people in here are completely [bleep]ed, metaphorically speaking, of course.”) The gross-out slapstick in the operating room is the kind of thing that made South Park legendary. But it comes with so much padding, and so detached from any worthwhile context, that one could be forgiven for having assumed, at the time, that the show was running on fumes.
- For the record, Mephesto (who, told that he was shot, explains that the culprit was probably his brother, again) reveals at the end that Cartman’s father is his mother, who was in fact a hermaphrodite with a working penis at the time of Cartman’s conception. This raises the question of the identity of Cartman’s mother, which Cartman, thank Christ, has no interest in pursuing. 12 years later, as part of their 200th-episode celebration, Parker and Stone revealed that this was misinformation and that Cartman’s mother was, in fact, his mother, and his father was Jack Tenorman, making Cartman the half-brother of his unfortunate nemesis Scott Tenorman (of “Scott Tenorman Must Die” fame). Upon this news, the world managed to not slip off its axis.