I bet everyone remembers where they were the first time they saw a South Park episode. For me, it was the first time I saw The Spirit of Christmas, the short video-card Trey Parker and Matt Stone did in the early 90’s that got them noticed.
From this very early video, we see the beginning of one of the most irreverent, hilarious, and socially conscious cartoons ever. There’s the ongoing commentary about Kyle’s Judaism, “He’s come to kill you because you’re Jewish Kyle”, Cartman’s foul foul mouth, even the frequent guest characters Jesus and Santa. And of course the immortal phrase “Oh my god! You killed Kenny!.
There is an even earlier iteration of the Spirit of Christmas, where Cartman is Kenny and Jesus battles Frosty instead of Jesus.
However, both shorts do have the moment of brevelation which so many subsequent episodes contained.
From those humble paper cutouts has come a show that gave us Mr. Hankey, Cheesy Poofs, Starvin Marvin, and Butters. Since the show premiered in 1997, they’ve covered every topic from alien abduction to the economic crisis to puberty to Paris Hilton. In fact, it’s probably easier to think about the topics the show hasn’t covered.
In honor of South Park turning old enough to drive, I thought we’d take a walk down memory lane, looking at both the funniest and most important episodes of each season. And yes, these will all be completely subjective.
Season 1 – in which we are introduced to the world of South Park and the characters who live therein
It’s hard to look at season 1 and pick either the funniest or the most important. This was the season that really lay it all down for us – who these boys are, who the town was, and what the rules were. We got used to Kenny dying and coming back to life, to Mr. Garrison talking through Mr. Hand, and the adult being as childish and idiotic as the kids. But since I have to choose…
Funniest: Weight Gain 4000. Mostly this is for Cartman and beefcake. Also, who doesn’t want to shoot Kathy Lee Gifford?
Most Important: Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo. The musical aspects of this show still stand out and the volatile subject matter (mostly feces + Christmas) really showed how Matt and Trey would do anything for a laugh, or to prove a point.
Runners-Up: Mecha-Streisand, Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride, Cartman’s Mom is a Dirty Slut
Season 2 – in which the world of South Park expands and manages to get even weirder
Having established the basics, Matt and Trey seemed to use season 2 to experiment and see how far they could start pushing things. Gay cowboys eating pudding, anyone?
Funniest: Chickenlover. Booktastic bus, the chickenlover himself, and Cartman coming into his own by demanding people respect his authoritay. Just preposterous.
Most Important: A tie between Terrance and Phillip in Not Without My Anus and Gnomes. I chose Gnomes because it is a great early example of Matt and Trey using the show for social commentary while maintaining the show’s inherent absurdity (see Chef Aid too). Terrance and Phillip was an episode that caused a huge uproar; season 1 ended with the cliffhanger “who is Cartman’s dad?” and rather than give us an answer, season 2 started with an entire episode devoted to the Canadian fart fanatics. Fans were furious, but it put the show on the map.
Runners-Up: Conjoined Fetus Lady, Chef Aid, Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls
Season 3 – in which things get stranger, the boys do some traveling, and we get a three-episode arc
This was a very tough season to judge and I could very well turn around and pick totally different episodes tomorrow.
Funniest: Another tie between Korn’s Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery and Red Badge of Gayness. The image of Cartman hauling the Antonio Banderas blow-up love doll through the graveyard humming Christmas carols has been known to pop into my head on many occasions…many inappropriate occasions. I have been wanting to try Jagerminz S’more-flavored Schnapps for many years now. And General Cartman Lee’s Ken Burns-esque letters about Stan and Kyle were a stroke of genius.
Most Important: Cat Orgy/Two Naked Guys in a Hot Tub/Jewbilee – this meteor trilogy hints at future greatness such as Do the Handicaped Go to Hell, Imaginationland and other longer story arcs.
Runners-Up: Chinpokomon (this was very close for funniest), Hooked on Monkey Fonics, Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics
Season 4 – where the boys move up a grade and we meet Timmy
Funniest: Cartman Joins NAMBLA. I think all that needs to be said is Cartman joins NAMBLA.
Most Important: Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?/Probably. These episodes show how wily Cartman has become since season 1. His ability to sway the masses has become a big part of his character and he starts being less stupid and a jerk and more crafty and a jerk. These are also the episodes that show us Matt and Trey’s incredibly odd image of god.
Runners-Up: Timmy 2000, Trapper Keeper, Helen Keller: The Musical (Gobbles!)
Season 5 – where we reach a turning point and see how truly evil Cartman is; plus Kenny dies
Funniest and Most Important: Scott Tenorman Must Die. A lot of people think of this as one of the best South Park episodes ever. But this is also a definitive episode for Cartman. Building on his craftiness from season 4, the Scott Tenorman episode turns Cartman from a jerk into true evil. His complex plan to get back at Scott Tenorman smacks of genius, but even Matt and Trey think this is one of the darkest episodes that they have done.
Runners-Up: It Hits the Fan (which has Scott Tenorman not aired this season been the most imporant), Butters Very Own Episode, Kenny Dies
Season 6 – where we meet Professor Chaos, build a ladder to heaven, and John Edward gets his comeuppance
Funniest: Simpsons Already Did It. Could also be most important but I am sticking with funniest for Cartman’s sea people dream and his grand welcome for said sea people. It’s also a reminder that there’s very little out there that’s original, it’s all about how you present it. And remember, the Simpsons stole too…
Most Important: Red Hot Catholic Love. Not only does this episode take on the entire Catholic church abuse scandal, but it ties in the B plot of Cartman figuring out how to defecate out of his mouth into this plot line, which is in support of religion rather than completely eschewing it. South Park has preached rationality more frequently than pure revolution.
Runners-Up: A Ladder to Heaven, Free Hat, Asspen – which has the first version of the montage song from Team America
Stay tuned for the funniest and most important episodes from seasons 7-12 tomorrow, as well as thoughts on tonight’s premiere.