“Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 8/19/1998)
I haven’t actually conducted any surveys about this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this episode has more of a classic reputation than it deserves, just on the basis of name recognition. It shares its title with a song Isaac Hayes performs here and on the Chef Aid spin-off album, which went on to become a pretty hot novelty item. In the context of the episode, the song is a promotional jungle that Chef belts out to alert visitors to his sidewalk stand of the deliciousness of a confectionary treat he’s whipped up. “Hey, everybody,” he sings, “Have you seen my balls?/ They’re big and salty and brown/ If you ever need a quick pick-me-up/ Just stick my balls in your mouth!” The song goes on for quite a ways after that, but it gets less subtle.
Chef is peddling homemade candy on the street to take advantage of all the moneyed out-of-towners who are visiting for the First Annual South Park Film Festival, which is actually the latest iteration of the Sundance Film Festival. In the opening scene, Robert Redford—I don’t think he’s ever addressed or referred to by name, but it’s him—is bitching about how his film festival has ruined Park City, Utah not just by attracting entertainment-business sleazeballs to the area once a year, but by inspiring the city to build itself up with businesses designed to cater to these parasites. Complaining that Park City’s usefulness as the kind of venue he needs has been exhausted, Redford moves his operation to the quiet, quaint, unspoiled South Park—and, of course, the second a banner is posted announcing the festival, an army of sleazeballs equipped with internal GPS descend on the town and clog up the streets.
They also clog up the sewers, and soon Mr. Hankey reaches out to Kyle for help. Mr. Hankey can’t appear before the general public because it isn’t Christmas yet, so he asks Kyle to get the word out that he’s dying, because the Hollywood phonies are polluting the fragile ecosystem under the streets with their industrial-strength bowel movements, borne of their healthy diets of tofu and couscous. Redford is unmoved by this, because he is in fact a hateful villain whose plan all along was to deliberately use his film festival to contaminate South Park, then move on to the next quaint mountain berg, then destroy it, and on and on. This, he explains, is how he takes his revenge on the world for having to live in Los Angeles. (Does Robert Redford live in Los Angeles? I sort of assumed that his physical disconnection from the place helped to account for the fact that, at the time this episode was made, he was a big movie star who’d only come down from the mountaintop often enough to act in 10 films in 20 years.)
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Mr. Hankey almost dies, but is restored to health, twice, by a taste of Chef’s chocolate, salty balls. He then delivers a speech in which he asks the crowds to show some restraint in their treatment of a tiny place like South Park, adding that “a film festival shouldn’t be about what celebrities are comin’”—damn straight—“or what film is gonna get shown”—wait, a film festival shouldn’t be about what movies are on the program? Do the people of South Park flush a lot of crack, Mr. Hankey? “It should be about people getting’ together and watchin’ movies, and people who can never get their movie seen havin’ the chance to have it seen, if only once.” This, too, fails to move Redford and the jackals at his beck and call, so Mr. Hankey slips on a hat like the one Mickey Mouse wore in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and turns wrathful avenger, causing the town to be deluged with raw sewage and literally drowning Redford in shit, which will seem like the very definition of poetic justice to anyone who’s seen Lions For Lambs.
The episode includes some actual, bracingly unfair satire aimed at the state of independent filmmaking at the time—more specifically, the state of independent filmmaking as it has traditionally been championed by Sundance, in keeping with what the generous of spirit would call Redford’s “taste.” Cartman nicely sums up the movement as “those black-and-white hippie movies” that are “always about gay cowboys eating pudding.” Wendy takes to dragging Stan to the godawful festival features—“She’ll be the death of him, Kyle,” Cartman says. “Mark my words”—and, indeed, they’re all well-meaning slogs with titles like Witness To Denial and The Body Decayeth. (A true populist, Stan is horrified to learn that festival films don't even come with previews of coming attractions.) This is smart and funny, though it’s spoiled a little by internal incoherence: There’s no way, even for the purposes of comic slander, that the man who would move heaven and Earth to get these movies seen would be the same man who, with malice aforethought, inflicts a Planet Hollywood on an edenic mountain town. At one point, Cartman sells a Hollywood sharpie the rights to the story of the boys’ efforts to save Mr. Hankey, and when the movie opens—having been completed before the festival has ended—it stars a dying Tom Hanks and a talking monkey. It makes no sense that this movie would be playing the festival instead of opening at a multiplex down the street, but at least this is both confused and funny.
But the strain of liberal-bashing in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s DNA just couldn’t resist depicting the environmental hero Redford as a cynical, deliberate rapist of mountain vistas. And though they indulge themselves with plenty of kneejerk satire of money-grubbing Hollywood whores, the libertarian “realists” in the show’s creators caused them to feel the need to ridicule the very concept of “selling out,” smugly explaining that a sell-out is simply anyone who makes money in the entertainment industry. (On the other hand, the sell-out in question is Cartman, which confuses the issues involved even more. Any way that Cartman manages to cash in is malignant by definition.) The obviousness of most of what passes for satire here is disappointing, because I suspect that there’s a pretty broad gulf, philosophically and aesthetically, between Robert Redford’s and Parker and Stone’s competing ideas of a good movie. Exploring that gulf could have allowed for some fresh humor, but most of this is as easy as getting a granola-fed, high-minded audience on the lookout for “quality cinema” they think will have mass appeal to applaud The Brothers McMullen or The Spitfire Grill.
- Incidentally, the best thing on that Chef Aid album is Cartman’s cover of “Come Sail Away.” I don’t own it, because to get the track from iTunes, you have to buy the whole album. I’m sure Parker and Stone had nothing to do with that decision, but they might have the power to get it overturned, and since we’re talking about the joys to be had from spreading art around without thinking only about the profit motive, and they brought it up, I just thought I’d mention it…
“Chickenpox” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 8/26/1998)
This episode starts out as a pretty simple sick joke and eventually circles back, but in the middle it develops into a fairly thorny exploration of the mysteries of the economic class structure, which can be so bewildering to kids, and which adults may only pretend to make better sense of. For a stretch, though, you could be forgiven for getting the impression that the point is that God made poverty to give Cartman something to riff on, and that, all in all, it’s a pretty fair trade. Stan’s sister, whose existence a regular viewer can easily forget about for weeks, if not months, at a time, is in the hospital with chickenpox, and the doctor gives her parents the standard lecture about how most kids get it when they’re small and it’s no big deal, but can be more hazardous if contracted when older. As it happens, Kenny also has the pox. So all the boys’ moms agree to send Stan, Kyle, and Cartman to Kenny’s for a sleepover, so they can contract it from him, and they won’t have to worry about it later on.
The only problem—well, aside from the fact that, as parents, these people, in the words of the doctor, suck—is that Kenny, the designated “poor” member of the group, and his family appear to live in the closing credits of Dogville. When the boys literally cross over to the other side of the tracks, it’s like passing into another dimension, where there’s garbage and busted-up furniture in the front lawn and everyone talks with cracker-Okie accents. Cartman takes a break from singing “In The Ghetto” under his breath in order to enquire as to the location of the Nintendo. Don’t have one, says Kenny’s father, but “We got a ColecoVision plugged into the black-and-white TV.” “Oh my God,” says Kyle, “this is like a third-world country!” Then everyone sits down to dinner, which consists of an insufficient number of frozen waffles. “Sir,” says Kenny’s father, addressing God, “since we have been faithful to you, we know that you will someday send us some good fortune one of these days.” Cartman lets loose with a cuss word, and Kenny’s dad admonishes him: “We don’t say [Bleep.] at the table, you little asshole!” “Apparently you don’t say ‘side dishes’ either,” mutters Cartman. Turning in for bed, Cartman tells the ailing Kenny, “You better stop bein’ so poor, or I’m gonna start chuckin’ rocks at ya.”
The next day, Cartman and Stan are both sick as dogs, but Kyle feels fine, which gives him the chance to pursue a perplexing riddle that has begun to nag at him: Why do some have so much and others so little, and more to the point, is it true that Kyle’s father and Kenny’s father used to be best friends when they were teenagers, only to stop having anything to do with one another after Kyle’s father landed in the middle class? Kyle’s father tries to explain it all for him with one of Parker and Stone’s trademark “Are you serious? Because, really, even as I’m laughing, I can’t tell for sure” lectures, about how the world is made up of “gods and clods”—you may remember that, in Team America, it was “dicks and pussies”—and no matter how high you may rise thanks to the judicious application of your talents and ambition, you’ll still need somebody to pump your gas for you. Thus, Kenny’s family is happy to just have a place in the system, “and we’re all a functioning part of America.”
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Kyle’s father, his wife has been wrestling with this issue herself, and decides to resolve it by arranging the equivalent of a forced play date between the two men, so they can see that they’re still friends. A few smart remarks later, it turns out they’re not—things start to go bad as soon as Kyle’s father says something about how great it is that the weekend is here, which is Kenny’s father’s cue to say that “When you’re unemployed, weekends are meaningless”—and the two men come to blows. But Kyle’s father begins to have second thoughts about the vibe he’s been laying down when he returns home and reads the school paper his son has been working on, which proposes that we should “put all the poor people into camps,” and then “there won’t be any hunger or poverty or homeless people, because they’ll all be dead.”
If this were a conventional TV comedy, there’d then be some attempt made to make sure everything was hunky-dory. Kyle’s father would sit the kid down and give him a man-to-man talk about the need to have compassion for those less fortunate, concede his own failings as a role model, thank his son for setting him straight, and maybe save Kenny from a burning building. There’d probably be a tearful reconciliation scene between Messrs. Broflovski and McCormick, who might never speak to each other again for however long the series would run. To their credit, Parker and Stone are too honest to play that game. They brought up something troubling and irreconcilable in order to wring laughs from it, and they weren’t about to cheapen that with some half-assed little scene based on the lie that it might really be reassuring and easy to settle after all. The only problem is that they don’t have any great ideas about what how to wrap things up without such a scene; they run out the clock by having the boys, who’ve found out what the point of the sleepover was and are angry about it, bring a whore into their homes to contaminate their parents’ toiletries, so that all the kids wind up in the hospital with chicken pox and all the grown-ups get herpes. I don’t know if the Parker and Stone of later years would have bothered to make this episode at all, if they couldn’t come up with a stronger through line. But maybe they would. It’s not consistent, but when it’s hot, it’s hot.