“Volcano” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 8/20/97)
If you want to know why the second episode of South Park that Comedy Central aired is called “Volcano” and features a story involving an erupting volcano, the simplest answer is that two high-profile, big-budget, now completely forgotten disaster movies about volcanic eruptions, Dante’s Peak and Volcano, opened within less than three months of each other earlier in 1997. (I saw the second one, though the only thing I remember about it is a moment when Anne Heche, playing some kind of media-savvy celebrity geologist, marched to a podium to address a gathering of reporters she was going to charm, and to signal her character’s level of smooth confidence, she snapped her fingers as she turned her head to hit them with the full force of her smile. I’d already seen, and liked, Heche in a couple of other movies, but that was the moment when I thought to myself, “My God, she’s going to be a huge star!” Heche, it turned out, had other ideas.)
When the volcano is threatening the town, the kids are up in the mountains with Stan’s gun-happy Uncle Jimbo and his buddy Ned, a Vietnam vet with a voice box whose body appears to be at least 65% inorganic material. (Jimbo dispenses such safe-hunting advice as, “Never spill your beer in the bullet chamber.” Ned’s big scene comes when, in his mechanical-man voice, he sings “Kumbaya” around the campfire—a moment that was reportedly added as padding when the episode’s running time came up short.) The funniest thing in the show to do is the satire of hunting, especially Jimbo’s explanation that, because “the Democrats” have inflicted a law on hunters that prohibits them from killing certain species of animals unless the target poses “an immediate threat,” it’s very important to yell, “It’s coming right for us!” just before blowing the head off a deer or a rabbit.
Then there’s the richest material in the episode, which has to do with the often bewildering code of conduct that grown-ups expect kids to understand, and that can make life a minefield for any kid so benighted as to want the love and approval of some adult. Stan wants his uncle’s approval, but he’s a good boy who doesn’t really want to kill anything or get drunk, and he just can’t seem to get anything right. He soon finds himself displaced in his uncle’s affections by Kenny, who Jimbo praises—bafflingly, to a kid who thinks he knows what qualities are supposed to be admirable—as “a dirty little bastard.” There’s also the appearance of the Scuzzlebutt, a benign, basket-weaving mountain monster with a celery stick in place of one hand and TV’s Patrick Duffy where one of its legs should be, that appears in the flesh after Cartman has invented it, on the spot, as part of a disastrous attempt to tell a scary campfire story. And when the town gets word that hot molten death is coming, there’s a parody of a 1950s civil defense film, in which people are advised to “duck and cover” in case of volcano attack. This little interpolation is, surprisingly, not funny at all, but the pay-off comes later, when actual lava comes pouring toward the town and some idiots try the duck-and-cover technique—they fold their hands over their head and let the lava pass over them, turning into skeletons in its wake—and that is hilarious.
In one of the more trenchant pieces of TV criticism ever delivered in the form of an animated show, South Park once went after Family Guy—a show that Trey Parker and Matt Stone clearly really, really hated their baby being compared with—and for its center-less, scattershot jokiness. South Park isn’t scattershot, but at this stage of the game, Parker and Stone were taking pieces of different story ideas that had different levels of resonance and intensity and trying to snap them together to make an episode, and the suturing doesn’t really take. The scenes about Stan and Kenny and Jimbo actually build and get somewhere, but then the episode dies a little every time the action cuts back to the damn volcano. (At the end, the people of South Park save their town by constructing a trench that re-routes the lava’s path. Parker and Stone have said that they felt fine with this illogical plot twist because the movies they were making fun of contained things that were just as dumb. That’s what’s disappointing about it—it’s just about exactly as dumb as the story points in Volcano-the-movie or some other high-concept piece of ‘90s Hollywood horseshit. It’s closer to being an example of the real thing than a satirical exaggeration.) The one thing about this storyline that does work. Like gangbusters, is the cartoon bloodshed, as with those duck-and-cover fools, or the “happy ending” that shows the re-routed lava destroying Denver. Parker and Stone had figured out that there was something about murderous black comedy that, when joined to their construction-paper look, paid off big almost every time. That’s why they kept up with the “shock effect” gag of killing Kenny, week after week, long after it had ceased to be shocking.
The other thing about this episode that’s really interesting is the way Cartman is seemingly able to bring a nonsensical creature to life with the power of his imagination. There’s a similar moment in the next episode under discussion, “Weight Gain 4000,” in which Cartman goes off a strange riff, bad-mouthing dolphins—if they’re so intelligent, he asks, why do they live in igloos—and later, independently of Cartman, Mr. Garrison makes the same “point” in grading a student’s paper. I don’t think that Parker and Stone sat down and really thought out the implications of Cartman repeatedly saying impossible shit that then comes true, or that other people pick up on as if through osmosis; I don’t think he’s meant to be like the kid in The Twilight Zone, wishing people into the cornfield. I think they just started out thinking that it would be funny if the crazy shit the fat kid pulled out of his ass was taken for having some validity.
But there’s a staticky line from these gags to the ability Cartman develops, once the show is in its full stride, to convince people of anything, even construct a game-changing mass movement out of nothing. It’s like the reverse of the way the character of Kramer developed, or deteriorated, on Seinfeld. Michael Richards once said that, when he started playing Kramer, he played him as if he were “behind” everyone else, but then he started playing him as if he were ahead of everyone, “and then I had him.” That’s accurate, regarding the first seasons of Seinfeld: In his salad days, Kramer’s indifference to social norms and apparent lack of a capacity for shame or embarrassment made it possible for him to cut to the chase and dive right into personal satisfaction in a way the other characters couldn’t. But that level of consciousness is hard to write, and after the show had been on a while, Kramer was, more often than not, just doing weird, goody shit, because he was Kramer.
“Weight Gain 4000” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 8-27-99)
If “Volcano” is a muddled, uneven episode with the seeds of greatness in it, and the pilot is, at the very least, something new under the sun, “Weight Gain” is as disposable as South Park episodes get. The technique is halfway between the raw, rough-edged freshness of Parker and Stone’s pre-computer work and the new-and-improved look of the later episodes. So there’s not much incentive to pay attention to anything but the content, and there’s nothing much there. But it is interesting as an artifact of the late ‘90s, one that shows how fully Parker and Stone had their hands on the culture’s pulse. The difference between this and their later work is that, here, their connection to the zeitgeist made it possible for them to create an episode that embodies something that, if they were to make it today, they might be more inclined to satirize.
In a nutshell, “Weight Gain 4000”—the title refers to an energy supplement that Cartman loads up on in anticipation of an essay award ceremony that will get him on TV, a storyline that exists solely for the sake of the final image of a naked Cartman, as big as a house, sprawled face-down on his bed with his ass crack in the air, talking to Geraldo Rivera—is an episode about getting a charge out of hating Kathie Lee Gifford. Some background may be in order for those who only recently joined the ranks of sentient living beings. Kathie Lee Gifford is some kind of TV host who sings. She’s married to Frank Gifford, a football player I've heard about, because I read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. At the time this episode aired, she was co-hosting a morning show with Regis Philbin, a TV personality I’ve never given much thought to, but toward whom I am disposed to feel a little warmly, because Craig Ferguson seems to think he’s okay. Her name was attached to a line of clothes sold through Wal-Mart, and there was a minor scandal a year before this episode aired when it was reported that sweatshop labor was involved in their production, though I doubt that this was done specifically at her decree. Also, although I never saw her show with Philbin, I have it on good authority that she talked about her kid a lot.
In short, she’s a celebrity non-entity about whom it’s hard to feel anything, one way or another, especially since, unlike some other celebrity non-entities who try to get work in movies, she’s not likely to turn up anyplace I’m going to have to be reminded she exists. But the late ‘90s saw a remarkable increase in the intensity of loathing that many people felt obliged to feel toward disposable and easily ignorable celebrities. The plot involves Mr. Garrison’s quest to assassinate Kathie Lee (whose name appeared, misspelled, on the blackboard in the pilot) because she beat him in a talent show when they were kids, and the big show-stopping laugh getter comes when Kathie Lee arrives in town in a Popemobile-like vehicle with a protective bubble, and Mr. Garrison says, “Damn, I guess I’m not the only person in American who’s thought of killing Kathie Lee Gifford.”
The celebrity-bashing strain in Parker and Stone’s humor was just getting started here; in time, they’d adjust it so that they weren’t selecting their targets more or less randomly by drawing names from a hat, but actually making pointed fun of genuinely notable figures, such as Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise, who really had impacted the culture in a way that was more or less fucked-up. I should mention that this episode has a rep: At the time, some prominent critics, such as Tom Shales, singled it out as the first evidence that the show could actually be funny. But when I look at it now, I just remember the feeling I had when I decided that I needed to bail on the chat board at Salon, which was once a big thing in my life, because I was tired of scrolling through posts about how much somebody wanted to see Diane Wiest or Jamie Kennedy skinned alive and dipped in salt.
- “Weight Gain 4000” was actually completed before “Volcano”—and that’s the order in which they appear on the DVD release—but Parker and Stone apparently urged Comedy Central to broadcast “Volcano” first because they thought the animation was so much improved and they must have wanted to reassure viewers that, if they just hung in there with them, professional standards were on their way. It is amazing how much slicker the show was getting, though the look was only “slick” in comparison to the hand-made pilot. In terms of the technique, “Weight Gain” marks a considerable advance on the pilot, though there’s nothing in it as impressive as the lava flow in “Volcano”, and there are a few missteps such as an awkward-looking profile view of Mr. Garrison on his way to his date with destiny.
- “Volcano” introduces Randy, who as the town geologist serves the stock function of the character who first detects that a disaster is coming and rushes to alert the authorities about it. (The parody of disaster films is somewhat crippled by the absence of one of the most irreplaceable clichés of the genre—inexplicably, the Mayor of South Park believes him instantly.) The bare bones of Randy’s personality are already in place, at least in the early years. (Having registered that doom is upon the town, he takes a second to finish his coffee before rushing to the Mayor’s office. He’s gotten a lot more excitable since then.) But it fails to mention at any point that he’s Stan’s father. Presumably, when Parker and Stone decided it was time to show Stan’s father, they chose not to waste a perfectly good character design.
- South Park and The Simpsons are probably different in more ways than they’re alike, but one thing they had in common from the start was a jaundiced view of the mob, especially when someone is asking their opinion or pointing a camera at them. Informed that the voters of Springfield are simultaneously demanding lower taxes and better services, Mayor Quimby asks an aide, “Are these morons getting dumber, or just louder?” (“Louder, sir,” the aide says.) A TV reporter describes “a ticking time bomb of hot lava waiting to engulf these people and end their miserable lives with one last fleeting moment of exceedingly painful, burning agony,” and the crowd yells in approval: “We’re on TV!”