Top Episodes is a new feature in which we handpick the definitive best episodes of a groundbreaking, beloved, or otherwise awesome television series. This time, we welcome you to come on down to South Park and meet some friends of ours. Sweet.
Prior to tonight’s season premiere, 277 episodes of South Park will have already aired. It’s fair to say that within that vast volume, there are a couple dozen episodes I never wish to see again, a great deal more I’ll gladly kill a half-hour with should I stumble upon any of them, and at least that many, if not more, I’d consider classic satire from, let’s face it, a cartoon about four foulmouthed fourth graders. The odd thing about breaking down South Park’s 20-year run that way is that others might agree wholeheartedly with those categories and rough percentages while talking about entirely different episodes — their favorites perhaps being near the bottom of my appreciation list and my go-tos, in their eyes, only fit for rewatching when channel surfing yields no waves.
(Read: The Top 100 South Park Songs)
For instance, the four authors of this piece, all longtime fans and writers on all things South Park, each submitted a top 10 list of episodes as a toe-dip into whittling down our options. We figured, worst-case scenario, we’d chop the contenders down from 277 to 40, undeniable progress. However, I think we all suspected that there’d be a lot of overlap. In reality, there wasn’t. Only one episode, our No. 1, appeared on all four ballots. Only one other episode, our No. 2, appeared on three of four. And the rest of our picks, to my eyes and personal taste, seemed like a random, arbitrary selection of forgotten favorites, meh choices, and even a couple complete head-scratchers. All of us have personal favorites, but critics, like us, are supposed to be able to wade past the mediocre and shine a light on the very best — and have that very best be the same very best. You might argue that our ballots lacked uniformity due to the sheer volume of great episodes to choose from, but that doesn’t account for how a handful of episodes I’ll never spend 22 minutes plus commercials watching again made it on our initial lists.
I think the struggle stems, in part, from South Park’s very ethos. Long ago, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone agreed that either everything or nothing in society is fair game to mock. Since then, they’ve overturned every pop-cultural stone imaginable, searching for the foibles and peculiarities that make us a flawed and ridiculous, if usually well-meaning, species. With a scope that broad, it’s impossible for the true gold, especially when we can’t agree on its carat, to cast the exact same glow across an entire audience. Additionally, South Park has become an institution, and with that status comes hard stances. For instance, just as many fans of The Simpsons all but dismiss later seasons, I’ve heard many South Park watchers claim that Parker and Stone had yet to find their true satirical stride until a few seasons in. Likewise, others argue that the show became too preachy in later years, a drastic departure from the superior early days when it was just a cartoon about kids being kids — as if most normal childhoods involve volcanoes, big gay boat rides, and anal probes.
We can’t all be right, can we?
Well, maybe. Some pieces of our pop culture reach a rare, exalted plane of existence. I’d argue South Park qualifies. It’s been part of our culture, our habits, and our pop-cultural lexicon for two decades now. It’s grown up as we have and watched over us — that’s what satire does, of course — as we’ve watched it. As much as we’d like to be definitive — to say, this is how it is — we’re talking about a late-night cartoon, unlike any other before it, that shows no end in sight. While we feel like we’re rounding up episodes of a classic, for all we know, we might just be scratching the surface of a series still in its infancy. So, check out our list, agree or disagree, and take it for what it is: the episodes that we — well, in each case, at least one of us — will keep returning to time and time again. It may actually be less a reflection on the show and more a revealing look at your four foulmouthed writers.
So, come on down to South Park and meet some friends of ours.
*Be sure to tune in to my South Park recaps each Thursday morning throughout the season.
20. “Safe Space”
Season 19, Episode 5
Original Air Date: Oct. 21, 2015
Welcome to South Park (What’s New?): South Park has gone PC, which means a more progressive school principal, a new-and-improved Randy Marsh on the bandwagon, and, naturally, a Whole Foods. And what do Eric Cartman, Steven Seagal, Demi Lovato, Vin Diesel, and plus-size lingerie models all have in common? Their safe spaces, of course, courtesy of Butters Stotch and poor, starving kids with iPads in the developing world. Because why should any American ever have to feel shame … when Butters and poor children can just delete their negative feedback from social media?
Song of the South Park (Best Musical Moment): Cartman and co. can post all the “ripped” topless photos they like and, thanks to their safe spaces, never have to deal with the reality that maybe people won’t be super stoked on them or, gasp, maybe they shouldn’t be such shallow, self-absorbed assholes looking for constant validation to begin with. Either way, there’s no denying their song about “bully-proof windows” and “troll-safe doors” helps make this episode a safe space for laughter.
That Seems Familiar (Parodies): The show largely parodies the basic idea of safe spaces, which, as a concept, don’t entitle someone to zero criticism and are usually places for marginalized people, not Vin Diesel, to have a voice. We also see several parodies of starving foreign children commercials as Randy Marsh and others circle further down their shameless spiral.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: He is safe, but for how long?
The Quotable South Park: “It’s a pretty brutal job sifting through all that darkness.” –Butters Stotch on transforming Cartman’s social media accounts into a safe space.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: Our bodies are designed to signal certain things. For instance, physical pain alerts us to injury, and feelings of shame exist so that we realize when we’re acting like total assholes. As Reality tries to teach us in this episode — after it sends Butters hurling naked through a second-story window — the world doesn’t exist to provide us with constant validation, and maybe, just maybe, we should feel a little shame about how we “take our spoiled lives for granted.” In many ways, “Safe Space” is an incredibly relatable episode. It’s so easy to get caught up in what other people say about us on social media or get annoyed, as Randy does, whenever we feel pressured into donating a lousy dollar at Whole Foods after dropping a couple Jacksons on frivolous chocolate-covered junk, forgetting that there are people with real problems out there. What Parker and Stone remind us of is that every once in a while, we really do need Reality to enter our safe spaces and smack us around a bit — it’s what helps separate us from the Cartmans, or at least the Steven Seagals, of the world. –Matt Melis
19. “Trapper Keeper”
Season 4, Episode 12
Original Air Date: November 15, 2000
Welcome to South Park: For such a big spectacle, “Trapper Keeper” sure keeps the action fairly close to the vest. Even so, there are a couple of strange visitors who come to South Park, specifically a doofus Kyle Reese/T-800 amalgamation named Bill Cosby (BSM-471), who’s been sent to stop Cartman’s Dawson’s Creek Trapper Keeper, and celebrity rabble rouser Rosie O’Donnell, who’s not very happy about Mr. Garrison’s harmless Kindergarten election involving her nephew Filmore. Both of these new faces, however, succumb to deaths brought on by Cartman’s narrative and both will hardly be missed.
Song of the South Park: It’s not the greatest gag, but it’s now kind of impossible to hear Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” without adding a little inflection from Cartman. Thanks, Trey Parker.
That Seems Familiar: Well, if you’ve seen the greatest sci-fi films over the last 50 years, then “Trapper Keeper” should ring all kinds of bells for you. Much like Cartman’s gluttonous Dawson’s Creek Trapper Keeper, Parker and Stone liberally lift motifs, narratives, quotes, and scenes straight out of James Cameron’s Terminator series, Katsuhiro Otomo’s epic anime blockbuster Akira, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise, and Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking spectacle 2001: a space odyssey. It’s a smorsgasborg of references for geeks, one that has managed to outlast its B-story, which is an obvious parody of the whole recount chaos that came during the contentious United States presidential election of 2000 between George Bush and Al Gore. Even if that section of the episode is fairly dated, it’s still funny watching Garrison get flummoxed over such a stupid situation.
Oh, My God, They Killed Kenny: As Cartman starts mutating into his version of Tetsuo, he accidentally (?) smashes Kenny with his bedroom door, splattering him against the wall of his house. Everything happens so fast that Kyle doesn’t even get to finish his signature “You bastards!” line before he flees the scene. If we’re going with the whole Akira parallels, one might argue Kenny’s death is akin to Tetsuo killing Yamagata, only Stan and Kyle hardly feel the need to avenge Kenny. He’ll be back.
The Quotable South Park: “My name is Mr. Garrison, and I’m the new kindergarten teacher. I used to be the third grade teacher, but I had a little ‘nervous breakdown’ and went into the mountains where I lived off of ‘rat carcasses’.” Again, there is nothing that is funnier on this show than watching Garrison bring the sarcasm and the sass.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: There’s nothing particularly revelatory about “Trapper Keeper”. By the Fourth Season, we already knew that Parker and Stone were fully capable of welding cultural commentary with asinine irreverent subplots (see: “Mecha-Streisand” from Season One). But they do it well on this episode, exhibiting a finesse they would lose in later seasons, especially when they started expanding their more spectacular narratives over two or three episodes. What’s intriguing about “Trapper Keeper” all these years later, though, is that it was ostensibly just a way for Parker and Stone to comment on the then-disastrous election between Gore and Bush. Yet, whereas so many of their topical episodes have come and gone without much staying power, there’s something timeless about “Trapper Keeper”, and much of that endurance might have to do with the pop culture the episode parodied. Reason being, we’re always going to remember Terminator, Akira, and 2001: a space odyssey, and younger generations are always going to seek them out. Though, relevance aside, the episode is also a must-see for bringing out the best in the series’ two most popular characters: Cartman and Garrison. This is greatest hits stuff right here for both of ’em. –Michael Roffman
Season 6, Episode 2
Original Air Date: March 13, 2002
Welcome to South Park: Kenny’s still dead, and Butters has become, in the words of his father, the “perfect little void filler” for Stan, Kyle, and Cartman, which prompts the boys and their parents to go on a weekend ski trip to Aspen on a timeshare company’s dollar. Maybe more than anything, we see a new friendship dynamic. Within the first few minutes of the episode, Cartman both urinates and rubs shit on Butters; it’s really a pretty sound metaphor for their relationship going forward. So, yeah, that tossing of Butters’ supple, young body to NAMBLA way back when wasn’t a fluke.
Song of the South Park: Stick around for Mr. Slave’s version of “Take On Me” during the end credits, but you might not even make it that far without the help of a time-saving montage. Stan’s gotta get good fast at skiing if he’s ever going to beat Tad, save the youth center, and win Heather’s affections (who the fuck is Heather?). Luckily, cool ski instructor Thumper has a sports-training montage all set for him. And just what could be better than a montage that explains in detail just what a montage is? Hell, even Rocky had a montage.
That Seems Familiar: Well, it should! Just as the later “Stanley’s Cup” was a send-up of just about every sports film ever (one in which Stan finds himself on the wrong side of the inevitable happy ending), “Asspen” mocks an ’80s genre that almost always saw young people — whether they were on the slopes, at the beach, or away at camp — facing a shutdown at the hands of the rich and corrupt. From the cheesy credit graphics to “Take On Me” soundtracking the group’s arrival to the spot-on stock characters and plug-and-chug formula, Parker and Stone prove they’ve watched more ’80s flicks than you can count up on a Wellington Bear calculator. Oh, and, yeah, that’s Pet Sematary’s Jud with some useful info about the history of the K-13 ski run, and the cute, dorky girl’s breasts are a callback to Total Recall: “Quaid, start the reactor!”
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: Kenny’s dead. He is no more; he has ceased to be. To kill him again, you’d have to resurrect him next episode just so he could die another cruel, gruesome death. What kind of a sick gimmick is that? … Oh, yeah.
The Quotable South Park: “If you french fry when you should pizza, you’re gonna have a bad time.” I like to think cool ski instructor Thumper’s words of wisdom were running through Mike’s, I mean Ike’s, head as he crashed through that ski lodge wall. Oh, cookie monster.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: Well, we could go on about how this episode reveals once and for all that timeshare companies are secretly taking over the world one free-weekend-condo offer at a time. But you already know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. What’s more notable here is that, yes, South Park might be best known for its scathing satire and knocking smug celebrities down a peg or three million, but episodes like “Asspen” also show that Parker and Stone are pop-culture junkies with a soft spot for even our dumbest fare and fads. You can see that as Stan slowly gives into the who-gives-a-fuck plot to beat the baddie, save the center, and get the girl. Only in cheap, crummy (usually softcore) movies from a certain time do these scenarios ever play out, but dammit, if you ever find yourself in one, you’ll be damned if you’ll let that jerk get with Heather! Wait, who? –Matt Melis
17. “Woodland Critter Christmas”
Season 8, Episode 14
Original Air Date: December 15, 2004
Welcome to South Park: It’s Christmastime in South Park, and Stan happens upon a forest clearing full of adorable, cuddly animals, left despondent when it appears that their lack of a manger and a nearby mountain lion will stop the birth of their savior. Unfortunately for Stan, when he reluctantly decides to lend a helping hand in the spirit of the season, it turns out that all the cuddly animals are also practicing Satanists, hellbent on delivering the Antichrist. Oh, and that mountain lion that Stan kills at their behest? A mother of three.
Song of the South Park: Some of the funniest South Park songs are the transparently lazy ones, when Parker and Stone have clearly barreled their way to the end of a production deadline by farting out the first melody line that pops into their collective hivemind. “Christmas Time Is Once a Year” falls into that category, a perfectly saccharine (and short) holiday ballad that contains basically no songwriting beyond the title phrase.
If this sounds familiar to you beyond the episode, it’s also the song that plays in The Stick of Truth during Randy’s abortion mini-game.
That Seems Familiar: From the sing-song rhyming narration to the adorable character designs, “Woodland Critter Christmas” pays distinct homage to the innocently precious Rankin/Bass holiday specials of yore, sans the stop-motion animation. According to the episode’s DVD commentary, the 1979 special John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together was a point of influence, as was the cult horror film Event Horizon.
And really, all stories about a zealous collective attempting to birth the spawn of Satan owe at least some debt to Rosemary’s Baby.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: Season Eight was an uneventful time for Kenny deaths; he’s visible in class during the story’s climactic reveal, but that’s it for the young man this time around.
The Quotable South Park: “Oh look, there’s Santa Claus! Yay! Let’s eat his flesh!”
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: “Woodland Critter Christmas” is one of the best examples of how funny the aimless, largely purpose-free episodes of South Park can be when handled well. As a season finale (and the last Christmas episode for a decade), it’s something of a shrug, but it’s that unassuming status that makes the nightmarish mid-episode reveal all the more hilarious. It’s a goofy gimmick, until it suddenly and without warning mutates into one of the show’s more outlandishly gory episodes of its middle period. Stan’s increasingly terse responses to the cloyingly playful narration might be an easy joke, but it’s one that Trey Parker (as writer) wrings for all it’s worth, building up to the even more ridiculous reveal that the show’s Satanic fantasy is a long, elaborate con from Cartman, a holiday writing assignment designed to once again berate Kyle’s Judaism. It’s ridiculous, it’s sophomoric, and it’s quintessentially South Park. Plus, there are few things more inherently funny than a cute woodland animal encouraging his friends and viewers to “Hail Satan!” –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
16. “Here Comes the Neighborhood”
Season 5, Episode 12
Original Air Date: November 28, 2001
Welcome to South Park: Rich people. Or, as the adults in South Park prefer to call them, “richers.” And yes, these new arrivals also happen to be black. In some of its smartest commentary on racism, South Park finds its citizens thinly masking their hatred as concern for their own community. When they want to scare away the “richers” — whose ranks include Snoop Dogg, Will Smith, and new primary character Token — a mob led by Mr. Garrison first places flaming lower-case “t”s in their front yards. You know, for “time to leave.” When that doesn’t work, they dress up in ghost outfits that look suspiciously like the robes worn by the Ku Klux Klan to scare away the rich folk.
Song of the South Park: “Why Can’t I Be Like All the Other Kids” honors the South Park tradition of mournful piano ballads sung by children. In the vein of Kyle’s “A Lonely Jew on Christmas”, Token feels like an outsider, but due to his higher financial bracket rather than his religion. After yearning to eat diced hot dogs for lunch and play with sticks and pine cones like his classmates, he decides to invite more rich families to South Park, which kicks off the episode’s central conflict. What starts as melancholy quickly becomes triumphant — at least until Garrison and the other adults get involved.
That Seems Familiar: Will Smith gets his own version of The Street Warrior, his home adorned with several knockoff posters of his own films (The Legend of Baggy Pants, Guys in Dark Suits, etc.). But the episode’s finest and most prominent pop-culture parody comes when, feeling ostracized by the other rich kids (who are much richer than him), Token goes to live with the lions at the zoo.
The big cats’ leader is a pop-culture mashup of several kings of the jungle. He perches on a rock like Mufasa (The Lion King gets referenced earlier in the episode); has the name Aslan from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and, in keeping with Trey Parker and Stone’s obsession with Rankin/Bass specials, has a voice that echoes like King Moonracer’s in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And if you think that last one’s a stretch, just look at the episode’s plot. Like Rudolph and his friends, Token — feeling like a misfit — has to bow before a lion and ask if he can join its community. The lions’ love of bad jokes, though? That’s all Parker and Stone.
Oh, My God, You Killed Kenny: While Kenny is only seen lying dead in this episode after a spirited game of Roshambo without anyone remarking on it, he dies permanently (at least for a while) in the next episode, aptly titled “Kenny Dies”.
The Quotable South Park: “We’re not going to rip on you for being rich anymore. Because you got your feelings so hurt for being ripped on, now we think you’re a pussy.” –Kyle and Stan to Token at the end of the episode.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: That anyone who thinks they live in a post-racial society is full of shit. So many racists who complain about black people insist they only mean “a certain kind” of black person — one who’s poor, unruly, and causes trouble. By reversing these stereotypes and making all of the black people in South Park rich and polite, Parker and Stone show that racism is never truly about economic status; it’s about the color of someone’s skin. The point gets painfully sharpened in the final seconds of the episode, when Mr. Garrison says: “At least I got rid of all those damn ni…” The screen cuts to black before he can complete the racial slur, but he’s already made the town’s true intentions known.
15. “Conjoined Fetus Lady”
Season 2, Episode 5
Welcome to South Park: Seeing how the episode’s titled “Conjoined Fetus Lady”, it’s only appropriate to start with the lady in question, Nurse Gollum. Yes, Parker and Stone named the character with the dangling fetus on her head after one of the ugliest creatures from J.R.R. Tolkien’s repertoire, and at the time, it was somewhat of a deep reference given that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was still a few years off from hitting theaters. Now, before you go and call this episode insensitive to those with Conjoined Twin Myslexia, you might want to Google that term as you’ll learn it doesn’t exist. Anyways, in addition to Golum, we also get to see a darker side to Pip, the first speaking lines for Kevin Stoley and Token Black, in addition to early incarnations of Annie and Butters, referred to here as Jordan and Swanson, respectively.
Song of the South Park: Oh, without a doubt, it’s gotta be “Conjoined Twin Song”. Not only is it the funniest moment of the episode — those photos in the accompanying slideshow truly seal the deal — but it’s one of Parker’s earliest attempts at what can best be described as a mutated Neil Diamond/Bruce Springsteen impersonation. Granted, he’s revisited this “sound” multiple times throughout the years, but he’s never sung another line this warped again: “You’re my conjoined twin dead thing hanging off your head woman.” If only we could get Neil or Bruce to sing that.
That Seems Familiar: Tolkien reference aside, this episode is light on the pop-cultural references, which isn’t too surprising given that earlier episodes traditionally leaned more on original premises. Still, Parker and Stone squeezed a few into the narrative, from a random Star Trek: First Contact/Moby Dick quote (Cartman says, “Sure! Captain Ahab has to get his whale, huh?”) to how the entire American-Chinese dodgeball competition echoes the Ivan Drago match in Rocky IV. Plus, if you look closely at the World Champion dodgeball trophy, you might notice there’s a golden copy of Orgazmo at the top, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Parker’s mostly forgotten 1997 comedy.
Oh, My God, You Killed Kenny: Sadly, South Park’s poorest son of a bitch is no match for the Chinese dodgeball team, who splatter his body across the wall early into their heated World Champion match. It’s a graphic death as per tradition, only this time, Kyle can barely whimper out a “You bastards” as he succumbs to his own near-fatal injuries. The real gag, though, comes from one of the two Chinese commentators, who responds to the grizzly death by saying, “Oooh, my, I haven’t seen an American die like that since Abraham Lincoln!” Dude, that is not cool.
The Quotable South Park: “Sheila, could you pass me the dead fetus?” Gerald Broflovski still existed on the fringe at this point, but quotable gems like this one prove he’s always been a viable resource for laughs in South Park. That smile he gives Gollum when everyone leaves the table is about the closest thing to nuanced physical comedy these early episodes were able to muster. Brilliant.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: Cultural sensitivity is such a recurring subject on South Park that it’s essentially become a pre-requisite of any one of its new episodes. Yet, long before PC Principal or “The F Word”, there was this little slice of life about … a young woman with a dead fetus hanging off her head. Now, because of this incredibly bizarre visual gag, it’s easy to forget that this episode also contains an entire dodgeball subplot wired with all sorts of micro-narratives, from Pip’s unlikely rage to Chef’s winning addiction to all the meta Chinese stereotypes that Parker and Stone toss in to drive their point home. What point is that? How we often try to do the right thing socially, only to act like selfish, insensitive schmucks. You see this in the town’s misguided “Conjoined Twin Myslexia Week”, which winds up defining Nurse Gollum strictly by her physical deformity much to her chagrin. But, what this episode subtly suggests is that nobody has a clue, as evidenced by Chef’s questionable lesson to the kids: “You see, it’s not okay to make fun of an American because they’re black, brown, or whatever, but it is okay to make fun of foreigners because they are from another country.” Yikes, where’s Garrison when you need him? –Michael Roffman
14. “Breast Cancer Show Ever”
Season 12, Episode 9
Original Air Date: October 15, 2008
Welcome to South Park: Late in Season 12, we find Wendy studious and compassionate as ever, and Cartman, well, when he’s not feeding kids chili made out of their parents or personally carrying out a final solution against an entire race of people, he’s been known to be, at times, let us say, slightly immature and offensive. And when he interrupts Wendy’s announcement about Breast Cancer Awareness Month with jokes of “killer titties,” he may finally have gone too far and need an ass kicking. As one of the goth kids says, “It’s about damn time.”
Song of the South Park: Watching Cartman take face shots off the metal jungle gym and get his block knocked clean to Middle Park to the propulsive grinding of Oasis’ “Fucking in the Bushes” makes for one of the most visceral and cathartic moments in the show’s history.
That Seems Familiar: The idea of a student going to great lengths to avoid getting beaten up after school by a bully has been done time and time gain, and Parker and Stone borrow that concept here from the lost-to-the-’80s film Three O’Clock High, only now audiences are free to root against the one about to be pummelled. More specific are the slug-em-out shots borrowed from Snatch and one of the great South Park allusions of all time, a shout-out to There Will Be Blood. Wendy, sitting alongside her bloodied prey (aka Cartman), announces: “I’m finished.” Suffice it to say, she drank Cartman’s milkshake.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: Kenny was barely an extra in this one. Death must have been preoccupied by the very real possibility that Wendy might kill Cartman.
The Quotable South Park: Principal Victoria’s speech encouraging Wendy to stand up to Cartman is one of the more moving moments in the show’s history. It’s not just that the topic, breast cancer, is a serious one that touches many of us at some point in our lives. Principal Victoria is giving us a blueprint for rooting out and fighting against pure evil. It’s a message that we’d all be well served to pay attention to, especially in times like these.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: Part of why we enjoy Cartman is because we know he can’t win. He’s a satirical vessel through which we see racism, misogyny, avarice, deceit, cowardliness, and people’s other worst traits and impulses exposed and punished. And though he does come away with the occasional victory (even here, bloodied and pummelled, he spins reality through his twisted head until he actually believes his schoolmates like him), we know he’ll be left devastated in the end. When South Park keeps its world in check, it also keeps the world it satirizes in line. It reminds us that even if someone wicked like Cartman should, say, become president, it only means his face will crunch all the harder when it one day meets that jungle gym teeth first. As Principal Victoria reminds us, people like these are “fat, little lumps that need to be destroyed.” Message received, ma’am. –Matt Melis
13. “The Return of Chef”
Season 10, Episode 1
Original Air Date: March 22, 2006
Welcome to South Park: After some (off-screen) time away with the Super Adventure Club, Chef returns to South Park to reclaim his job at the elementary school. But it seems that only Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny can notice the weird changes in their onetime friend and mentor. His voice seems … off. And as they soon notice, his typical obsession with sex has morphed into pedophilia. It’s up to them to return Chef to his normal self and to figure out exactly what in the hell the Super Adventure Club did to him.
Song of the South Park: No songs this time around. This is one of those “Parker and Stone have some shit to say” episodes.
That Seems Familiar: The most obvious parody arrives in the episode’s closing moments, when the now-deceased Chef is revived by the Super Adventure Club as Darth Chef, complete with a sleek black suit and his signature red spatula. Hell, the show even brings in Peter Serafinowicz (the onetime Darth Maul) to voice Chef’s tragic final form.
SAC figurehead William P. Connelly bears a striking resemblance to Paul Hogan’s hero in Crocodile Dundee as well. The Super Adventure Club, however, is absolutely not a reference to any kind of bizarre Hollywood-centric cult in any way, though. Nope. None whatsoever. Please don’t sue us.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: There’s only one major death in this episode, and it isn’t Kenny’s. Though there is an “Oh my god, you killed ___! You bastards” to be found regardless.
The Quotable South Park: The entirety of Kyle’s eulogy for the character is worth revisiting:
“We’re all here today because Chef has been such an important part of our lives. A lot of us don’t agree with the choices Chef has made in the past few days. Some of us feel hurt and confused that he seemed to turn his back on us. But we can’t let the events of the last week take away the memories of how much Chef made us smile. I’m gonna remember Chef as the jolly old guy who always broke into song. I’m gonna remember Chef as the guy who gave us advice to live by. So you see, we shouldn’t be mad at Chef for leaving us. We should be mad at that little fruity club for scrambling his brains.”
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: Despite the show’s general ethos of killing any and all idols, at all times, some of South Park’s best stuff has emerged as the result of Parker and Stone setting aside the ironic detachment and allowing themselves to express genuine outrage, sadness, and emotion in general. “The Return of Chef”, the opener to the show’s 10th season, is a maelstrom of feelings, and the result of Isaac Hayes’ extremely public renunciation of his longtime role as Chef.
Outraged that Hayes, a Scientologist, would abandon them after nine seasons of all-targets television over jabs at his own religious practices, Parker and Stone responded by cutting together one final episode around his character, using his own recycled voice clips to turn him into a child molester brainwashed by a cult. Could it charitably be called petty? Absolutely. Yet, in the wake of “Trapped in the Closet”, the duo were clearly uninterested in playing ball with the notoriously litigious organization, and having a day-one cast member release a statement about their religious intolerance likely came off as a personal insult of supreme caliber.
Independent of the context behind its creation, “The Return of Chef” is both a brutally funny half hour and an oddly touching sendoff for the character, even given the palpable anger behind it. The aforementioned eulogy, delivered after Chef is thrown from a bridge while waffling over the SAC’s promises of eternal life, is one of the show’s more resonant moments to date. And in their wholly tasteless way, the creators made one thing absolutely, perfectly clear: Nobody is above the ire of South Park. Even their friends.
Also, as Hayes’ son suggested in a Hollywood Reporter oral history of the show last year, Hayes might not have even made that statement. It might have been made for him. So in that sense, “The Return of Chef” gave its actual target everything it could deserve and then some. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
12. “It Hits the Fan”
Season 5, Episode 1
Original Air Date: June 20, 2001
Welcome to South Park: The whole world is abuzz because the HBC crime series Cop Drama is going to use the word “shit,” uncensored — a first for the network. In a metafictional twist, it was a first for South Park, too. Until then, the word — like most of the show’s more extreme profanity — had always been bleeped out. Parker and Stone keep track of its usage via an onscreen counter, which hits 162 by the time episode ends. By then, the constant swearing has resulted in a catastrophic plague, the death of Drew Carey, and a group of knights who come back from the dead to protect South Park from literal curse words.
Song of the South Park: After hearing Cop Drama’s liberal use of “shit,” Mr. Garrison — who, at that point on the show, had only recently come out of the closet — feels emboldened to constantly say the word “fag.” He rubs it in the face of every straight person he meets, taunting them for not being allowed to utter the pejorative themselves. His little ditty may have no music, but is instantly memorable for only consisting of the words “Hey there/ Shitty shitty fag fag/ Shitty shitty fag fag/ How do ya do?”
That Seems Familiar: HBC is an obvious stand-in for ABC, home to The Drew Carey Show and Cop Drama, itself a riff on “gritty” police procedurals of the ’90s such as NYPD Blue.
Oh, My God, They Killed Kenny: Poor little Kenny is oh so close to making it through the entire episode, despite catching the “shit”-induced plague. Then, moments before the credits roll, he vomits out his intestines, finally succumbing to his sickness (and the glorification of profanity).
The Quotable South Park: “Oh, and Mitchell? You’ve got some shit on the side of your mouth right there.” —Cop Drama
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: The episode’s final PSA suggests that Parker and Stone think profanity is overused on television. But that’s more tongue-in-cheek than anything. After all, part of South Park’s early fame came from its potty-mouthed children. What “It Hits the Fan” is really railing against is mistaking novelty for prestige. Was NYPD Blue a game-changing show? Of course. But viewers both past and present talk more about its supposed grittiness than its memorable characters, intricate plotting, and carefully constructed universe. Those are the elements that deserve praise — not just the profanity and nudity, both of which we can get in real life on an everyday basis. That’s the point of the “shit”-counter: to show the characters’ hypocrisy (and thus our own) when it comes to the more salacious elements of pop culture. –Dan Caffrey
Season 1, Episode 12
Welcome to South Park: You’d think that the Sundance Film Festival had moved from Park City, Utah, to South Park, Colorado, what with Barbra Streisand, Leonard Maltin, Sidney Poitier, and The Cure’s Robert Smith coming to town. Not exactly. Although we discover that Streisand has a four-million-dollar condominium up in the nearby mountains, she’s not there to watch cowboys eating pudding. No, she’s trying to get the boys’ recently unearthed “Triangle of Zinthar”, an Anasazi artifact that will allow her to complete her ancient relic, the “Diamond of Pantheos”, which gives her supreme control over the world as Mecha-Streisand. The good news is that she has to get through Maltin, Poitier, and Smith, who all have their own secret powers. Are you laughing yet?
Song of the South Park: Well, there’s the field slave song that Cartman sings early in the episode. It’s an incredibly racist moment, but that’s partly why Cartman is such an evil son of a bitch. But really, if we’re going to go with anything, it’s the Gamera parody that the Japanese shopkeeper sings as the monsters do battle across downtown. It irritates the hell out of Chef, who usually has center stage for this sort of thing, but it’s hilarious to see how he can make a new theme for every ensuing superpower. Anyone who hasn’t hummed this to themselves while sweeping outside is no true fan of South Park.
That Seems Familiar: Oh, you must watch a lot of Japanese Kaiju films. The whole thing’s a send-up of that genre, specifically 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Parker and Stone even do mock-ups of iconic creatures; there’s the obvious Mecha-Streisand, Maltin’s Ultraman, Poitier’s Gamera, and Smith’s Mothra. Poitier is even accompanied by two small fairies, aka Shobijin (“small women”), that act as his own personal guides. To think, this entire freak episode happened because the two creators couldn’t pass up the opportunity to mock Streisand after she over-generalized the entire state of Colorado, calling them a “bunch of hicks” and vowing to never visit the state again after they passed the controversial Amendment 2. It’s not that they disagreed with her political views — hardly — but, as we would learn over the years, the two will never ignore smug celebrities.
Oh, My God, You Killed Kenny: These were the days when Kenny’s deaths were less of a requirement and more of a defining moment for each episode. As such, they got a little creative for “Mecha-Streisand”, injecting a little self-awareness as we watch Kenny dodge all of these harrowing incidents that would have otherwise been perfect fodder for his death. His moment finally arrives after he randomly opts to play tetherball — despite the fact that monsters are fighting nearby — and the rope scoops him up and he dies of asphyxiation. An irreverent death for one of the series’ most irreverent episodes..
The Quotable South Park: “Well, I’ll be a teenage girl backstage at an Aerosmith concert. Leonard Maltin in my cafeteria. I’m Chef.” Some might say the show has never been the same since the late Isaac Hayes left, and they’d be right. With Hayes, you always got a stamp of approval on any premise, whether it was asinine or not didn’t matter. It was kind of reassuring to know that there were others in on the joke, not just Parker and Stone. This episode is a prime example.
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: Like Eric Cartman proves in “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, you don’t want to fuck with Trey Parker and Matt Stone. A whole decade before Twitter arrived, the two creators were issuing their own furious thoughts with new episodes of South Park, turning the tides on whatever subject they wanted. With “Mecha-Streisand”, Parker and Stone tossed mud on a beloved icon in Barbra Streisand, who by all means reacted the same way anyone might have in her position. Whether or not they were right in doing so is besides the point; it only goes to show they simply didn’t care, and that punk rock attitude has been emblematic of this series from the get-go.
What’s more, the episode is confidently irreverent, poking fun at the star-studded extravaganzas of network television without even trying to secure a single star. Well, that’s not true; Smith actually contributed his voice, but over the phone, and he wasn’t even given the full teleplay. Would it have mattered? Not really. “Mecha Streisand” is such a confounding half-hour of television that it hardly makes sense on screen let alone on paper. In hindsight, it’s the template for what has become The South Park Narrative, their go-to spectacle where shit gets so out of control and there’s no ceiling in sight. We’d see it again with “Trapper Keeper”, with “Towelie”, with “Red Sleigh Down”, and the list goes on. But it always goes back to that fateful day when the pre-eminent Funny Girl was slain by the gothic singer of “Fascination Street” in a battle nobody could have dreamed up. –Michael Roffman
10. “Trapped in the Closet”
Season 9, Episode 12
Original Air Date: November 16, 2005
Welcome to South Park: One day, Stan finds himself so bored that he agrees to take a “free” personality test at South Park’s center for Scientology. Before long, the religion is convinced that Stan is no less than the reincarnation of church leader L. Ron Hubbard. Soon Stan has to deal with everything from pushy church leaders to a famous actor who takes Stan’s light criticisms of his work so seriously that he locks himself in Stan’s closet and won’t come out.
Song of the South Park: The episode’s clear dual meaning ties to R&B singer and alleged serial pedophile R. Kelly’s then-hit operatic serial Trapped in the Closet, which Parker and Stone pay homage to here when Kelly shows up in South Park to deliver an episode-centric rendition. And to eventually lock himself in the same closet as Tom Cruise, after pulling out his gun, of course.
That Seems Familiar: Aside from Trapped in the Closet, the episode is one long piss-take of Scientology as an institution, brilliantly working its way up to the showstopping “This is what Scientologists actually believe” sequence based around the Operating Thetan III documents, the secret doctrines of the religion.
Also, Tom Cruise and John Travolta end up in the closet together, at the behest of what they think is their religion’s dearest leader. Read into that whatever you may.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: Kenny’s spared, which is more than can be said for every Scientologist around the world by the end of this half hour.
The Quotable South Park:
Stan: “I’m not really religious.”
Church rep: “Oh, we see Scientology as more an alternative to psychology than a religion.”
Stan: “So how come that sign says ‘Church of Scientology?’
Church rep: “Oh, that’s just this thing.”
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: South Park has never been shy about taking institutions to task, even those close to home (see #13). So when Parker and Stone heard talk of other shows being pressured to avoid taking on an organization notorious for suing any and all bad press into submission, Scientology may as well have fired up a large neon sign advertising itself as the show’s next major target.
“Trapped in the Closet” goes for some easy shots throughout, specifically as it relates to the long-running allegations of bearding that have followed its two Hollywood guest stars, but when it virtually halts in the middle to unspool the deeply bizarre story of Xenu and the church’s promises of absolute healing, the episode bares its teeth with a vigor the show had rarely achieved up to that point and would struggle to match in the following years, even as it grew more politically minded by the season.
It’s one of the show’s most brazen episodes, a loud and defiant “fuck you” to Scientology that marries the show’s general skepticism about organized religion with Parker and Stone’s knack for pushing the right buttons. And judging by the hand-wringing responses all around, from the episode’s temporary pull from syndication to alleged threats from Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom (also the owner of Paramount Pictures, where Cruise has had a star deal for years), “Trapped in the Closet” hit them especially hard.
But hey, it got them an Emmy nomination, and the episode would eventually return to air. So who ended up laughing last? –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
09. “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe”
Season 1, Episode 1
Original Air Date: August 13, 1997
Welcome to South Park: Unless you were one of the few to have seen the two earlier Spirit of Christmas shorts — including the original, which had Kyle as a gentile and dubbed the Cartman-looking character “Kenny” — all of South Park seemed like a strange, new land manifested from cardboard and cursing when the show premiered in summer of 1997. For my generation, believe it or not, the original airing is one of those handful of times we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we experienced something life-altering. So, 9/11, Obama’s election victory, and the premiere of South Park. Looking back now, it’s surprising to see how empty the opening credits appear, which didn’t last for long, as Parker and Stone would continue to populate the opening sequence with the many characters introduced in the show each week.
Song of the South Park: It’s hard to believe that South Park has now been without Chef longer than he actually appeared on the show. But we’ll choose to remember both Chef and the man behind the apron (the late, great Isaac Hayes) at his best: getting carried away while singing unrelated, sexually charged songs of advice to the children with the aroma of salisbury steak, buttered noodles, and pecan pie wafting through the cafeteria. Kick ass!
That Seems Familiar: Originally, the first episode’s “visitors” were intended to play a regular role, but the creators didn’t want the show to come across as an X-Files parody. That said, Cartman’s blushing belt-along, “I Love to Singa”, comes right out of a 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon of the same name.
Oh, My God, They Killed Kenny: Kenny fades a direct shot from a UFO, survives a cow stampede, but can’t overcome a hit-and-run by South Park’s finest, Officer Barbrady. #KennysLifeMatters might have become a movement, but we just didn’t have the technology at the time. We’ll get there … some day.
The Quotable South Park: “I’m not fat. I’m big-boned.” We didn’t believe Eric Cartman 20 years ago, and now he’s so comfortable with his body image and Rascal scooter that not even James Cameron can raise the bar and make him care enough to hit the gym or lay off the chocolate chicken pot pies and powder sugar donut surprise. Poor Cartman’s “Future Self.”
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: All South Park fans know at least a few people who won’t watch the first season anymore. They’re either put off by the rudimentary animation, bored by the sophomoric narratives, or prefer the more scathing satirical fare Parker and Stone began serving up in subsequent seasons. I probably fell into that camp at one time or another, but returning to a show like “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” reminds you of just how unique a vision this program had when it first aired. Less than 45 seconds into the episode, we hear a fat kid with a gruff voice call a football-shaped little brother a “dildo,” a Jewish boy snap back at him for it, another kid wonder what a dildo is, and a bundled boy mumble an unintelligible response that all four laugh at. In less than a minute, Parker and Stone totally clue us into their world and tell us so much about Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny who, unbeknownst to us at that time. we’d go on to pass hundreds of Wednesday nights with. It’s joyfully juvenile, brilliantly scripted, and, upon repeat viewings all these years later, so much more in its own right than an infantile predecessor to the show we know today. –Matt Melis
08. “Good Times with Weapons”
Season 8, Episode 1
Original Air Date: March 17, 2004
Welcome to South Park: It’s become common practice on South Park for Parker and Stone to produce the majority of an episode in an entirely different style of animation than their own. “Korn’s Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery” adopts the retro cleanliness of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!; “Make Love, Not Warcraft” has the exact same graphics as the video game of the title; and “Major Boobage” places Kenny in the crude sex-and-violence indulgence of Heavy Metal. But none of these top “Good Times with Weapons”, where the boys’ martial arts play fantasies come to life in sleek, muscly anime.
Song of the South Park: Taking a note from Dragonball Z and countless other anime shows that eventually aired in the United States, “Let’s Fighting Love” mashes up Japanese words with a few phrases in English. Nonsensical as it sounds (especially during a ninja montage), it sort of makes sense when it’s all in the same language. For example, the third verse roughly translates to “This song is a little stupid/ It’s hard to make sense of/ The English is all messed up/ That’s okay, we do it all the time!”
That Seems Familiar: The entire episode could be a parody of any number of anime masterpieces, from Dragonball Z to more adult fare such as Ninja Scroll. Outside of the anime realm, Butters’ fantasy version of his alter ego, Professor Chaos, looks suspiciously like Magneto from X-Men.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: With an episode title like “Good Times with Weapons”, you’d think Kenny would get cut in half by a katana or his skull bashed in by nunchuks. But alas, Season Eight was part of a three-year stretch where Kenny only got killed once per season. It’s actually Butters who receives the brunt of the abuse here.
The Quotable South Park: “W-w-what’s the matter, fellas? Are you ninjas or p-p-p-p-p-pussies?” –Jimmy Valmer
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: The final joke of the episode is that none of the adults in town are concerned that the boys were able to buy and use actual martial arts weapons for their playtime. They don’t even care when Kenny embeds his ninja star right in Butters’ eye, which leads to the boys dressing him up like a dog, so they can sneak him into the vet for medical care. No, what really bothers the adults is that, in his attempt to sneak past them with his “invisibility” powers, Cartman ends up showing the whole town his little-boy penis. This is very much in line with Parker and Stone’s tried-and-true belief that society is way cooler with kids being exposed to graphic violence than sex.
While that’s a fine message and all, it’s also somewhat of an afterthought in “Good Times with Weapons”, an episode that values truthful silliness over a concrete political message. The episode’s success lies in how accurately it depicts children playing. At a certain point in our youth, we all treat something dangerous and stupid as if it’s just a game, whether it’s dueling with knives, throwing firecrackers at each other, or drag racing. It all feels like an adrenalized fantasy until someone gets hurt. Parker and Stone take that to the extreme by juxtaposing the thrilling anime sequences with the grueling torture of poor Butters. –Dan Caffrey
Season 8, Episode 5
Original Air Date: April 14, 2004
Welcome to South Park: In an attempt to learn Butters’ deepest secrets and humiliate him publicly, Cartman dons the costume of a high-tech robot named A.W.E.S.O.M.-O. But when Butters accepts him unconditionally as his new best friend, and wants his new BFF to travel to California with him, Cartman is forced to over-commit to his new role, at the expense of his health and sanity. Soon everybody from Hollywood producers to the military want a piece of this remarkable new robot.
Song of the South Park: Butters goes full Randy Newman with “My Robot Friend”, crooning about how “he’s metal and small/ And doesn’t judge me at all.” It’s an oddly sweet digression from the show’s usually filthy musical compositions. (Cartman’s Britney Spears-esque performance at the end of the episode is an extremely close second.)
That Seems Familiar: Oh, all kinds. A.W.E.S.O.M.-O being mistaken for a “pleasure model” is a nod to Blade Runner, and the upright interrogation sequence invokes Ghost in the Shell. Likewise, the name itself is a riff on Honda’s famed ASIMO humanoid experiment.
The Hollywood sequences are full of nods to studios and performers, including Cartman’s ideas being turned into Punch Drunk Love and Mr. Deeds references. (He also outright steals from Cast Away at one point.) And when the scientist refuses to destroy the consciousness of a “robot”? Straight out of Short Circuit and so many other sci-fi stories of robotics.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: Given that the episode is almost completely a two-hander between Butters and Cartman, Kenny is safe this time around.
The Quotable South Park:
Producer: “Watch this. A.W.E.S.O.M.-O, given the current trends of the movie going public, can you come up with an idea for a movie that will break $100 million box office?”
Cartman: “Um … okay, how about this. Adam Sandler is like in love with some girl. But it turns out that the girl is actually a golden retriever or something.”
Executive: “We’ll call it Puppy Love.”
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: It’s not often that Cartman gets one-upped on the show, but when he does, it’s usually with a vengeance. Rarely has he been trumped as thoroughly as he is by the end of “AWESOM-O”, though. His scheming (to destroy an incriminating videotape of himself) is no match whatsoever for the aggressive optimism and innocence of Butters Stotch, who quickly takes to his new robot pal as an avatar who can make the otherwise dorky and withdrawn young man feel in control and even cool, by comparison.
“AWESOM-O” is a perfect example of South Park’s ability to sprawl without losing the plot entirely, when it’s at its best. It’s at once a sweet tale of friendship, a blackmail saga, a government paranoia thriller, and a bit of especially barbed Hollywood satire in one 22-minute burst. Yet it’s also one of the more timeless episodes, and one of the rare moments in which Parker and Stone allow themselves to indulge in a bit of outright earnestness. Butters might be oblivious, and Cartman still a monster, but the kinship Butters comes to feel for his robot friend is real. Cartman, meanwhile, lets a scientist die to keep up a ruse that he blows just a few moments later anyway.
And since it’s generally so rare, watching Cartman truly get everything he deserves at the end of “AWESOM-O” is entirely satisfying. The general using an outdated slur to drive the point home might not have aged particularly well, but Cartman being publicly humiliated will never go out of style. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
06. “The Passion of the Jew”
Season 8, Episode 3
Original Air Date: March 31, 2004
Welcome to South Park: When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ comes to town, the boys all have wildly different reactions to the film. Kyle starts hating his own Judaism, Stan and Kenny want their money back from none other than Gibson himself, and Cartman tries to exterminate the Jews.
Song of the South Park: “The Passion of The Jew” may not have any proper songs, but when Stan and Kenny meet Gibson, Parker and Stone pull from the whackier side of his Lethal Weapon performance by having him go full-on Daffy Duck. Every time the boys open a new door in Gibson’s mansion, he adopts a different musical persona, including a sad clown and a parody of the samba music sung by the Chiquita Banana woman. And because this is Mel Gibson (or a cardboard cutout of him, anyway), the cartoonery soon goes to a dark place of self-hatred and only wanting to be tortured. It’s like an episode of Looney Tunes, only with more nipple-pinching and shit-smearing.
That Seems Familiar: Aside from spoofing numerous Gibson performances (Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, and The Road Warrior all get their due), “The Passion of the Jew” effectively satirizes its namesake film. Then again, can it really even be called a satire? When Kyle has nightmares about the movie, the visceral violence and sneering depictions of the Jewish High Priests aren’t far from the source material. In fact, they’re tamer.
Oh, My God, They Spared Kenny: Another one from Season Eight, which means another South Park episode where Kenny gets away scot-fucking-free.
The Quotable South Park: “I feel so much better about being Jewish now that I see Mel Gibson is just a big whacko douche.” –Kyle Brovlovski
Episode as a GIF:
What We Learned Today: The episode criticizes those who commit acts of hatred (however unknowingly) in the name of religious virtue. Look, I actually enjoy The Passion of the Christ quite a bit as a horror movie, but when it came out, it was absurd to see religious parents who normally wouldn’t let their kids watch The Simpsons encourage them to see one of the most graphically violent films ever made, all in the name of Jesus. Is that the same as a legion of South Park citizens following Cartman’s genocidal crusade? Hell no. But it all stems from the same hypocrisy: bending one’s own morality because they think their religion tells them to. That’s how wars get started, people. –Dan Caffrey