Throughout its 24 years on air, South Park has become synonymous with controversy. With a backlog of more than 308 episodes, the show has made headlines for a variety of reasons over the years – and in 2019 was fully banned in China.
Look back at the Comedy Central show’s history and you’ll find no shortage of eyebrow-raising moments. This has led to a broader conversation over the past few years questioningSouth Park’s relevance in the present context. Essayist Lindy West questioned the way the series has “fetishised irreverence” in a 2019 interview with Esquire, telling the publication: “Obviously irreverence has its place, but some things do deserve reverence. That sort of untethered omnidirectional irreverence is not particularly helpful when you’re trying to salvage a wildly unjust, oppressive, and unequal society.”
At the same time as it has stirred controversy and generated frustration, South Park has collected a number of accolades, including five Emmy Awards, a Peabody, and – yes – an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, following the release of the 1999 comedy film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
In recent months, South Park has, of course, tackled the coronavirus pandemic, first with a one-hour Pandemic Special which aired in September 2020 and became the show’s best rated episode in seven years, attracting 4.4 million viewers.
South Park returns for another special episode on Wednesday (10 March), this time centering around the coronavirus vaccine. Titled South ParQ Vaccination Special, the programme will air at 8pm ET/PT on Comedy Central as well as MTV2.
As South Park heads into its second coronavirus-related special, we look back on the most notable controversies the show has stirred over its two decades on American screens.
“It Hits the Fan”
The season five premiere ofSouth Park made TV history in an unexpected way: with a run time of approximately 20 minutes, the episode includes 162 iterations of the word “s***” or variations of it. For those who might struggle to keep track, a counter at the bottom left corner of the screen updates with each new instance.
After the episode aired in June 2001, The New York Times noted: “That the characters of South Park are foul-mouthed is well documented by now. But, before last week, foul language was always bleeped out, save for the first consonants of some naughty words.” Bill Hilary, then Comedy Central’s executive vice president, told the newspaper: “If you analyse the word, what does it mean? It’s like, what’s the big deal; it makes you think, ‘Why is it such a strong word?’”
Matt Stone said he andSouth Park co-creator Trey Parker said they wrote the episode because “we think it’s funny”.
“All About Mormons”
This 2003 episode takes viewers through the history of Mormonism after a Mormon family moves to South Park. In an apparent reference to the episode, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints later condemned South Park for delivering “a gross portrayal of Church history”.
When Stone and Parker further explored the religion with the musica Book of Mormon in 2011, the church responded differently. As noted at the time by The Universe, the student newspaper for the LDS-owned Brigham Young University, it launched a series of ads referencing the show, including one with the slogan: “You’ve seen the play … now read the book.”
“Trapped in the Closet”
A decade before sweeping investigations into Scientology were published and broadcast on TV screens, South Park tackled the movement in an episode titled “Trapped in the Closet”. Dating back to 2005, the episode depicts Stan’s fictional experiences with the group, which seeks to make him its new leader.
Isaac Hayes, who had voiced theSouth Park character Chef since 1997, departed the show in 2006 shortly after the episode aired. Hayes, who was a Scientologist, did not directly reference the movement but said in a statement at the time: “There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins.”
After it aired in December 2005, “Bloody Mary” was described by Gawker as “perhaps the most outrageous and offensive South Park episode of all time”. What does it involve? Well, Randy, Stan’s father, is ordered to attend Alcoholic Anonymous after being arrested for drunk driving, while in Bailey a statue of the Virgin Mary appears to be bleeding “out its a**”. Pope Benedict XVI later goes to investigate the situation.
The Catholic League, a conservative Catholic organisation that frequently reacts to depictions of Catholicism in the media, accused South Park in a press release of having “defiled Our Blessed Mother and offended Catholics nationwide”, calling the plot “unbelievable”.
“With Apologies To Jesse Jackson”
This 2007 episode opens with Stan’s father Randy saying the n-word live on national television while taking part in a game show. The episode deals with the ensuing fallout, and Randy’s poorly handled attempts to right the situation.
Jill and Kovon Flowers, who co-founded the Abolish the N-Word Project, a public relations campaign to end the use of the slur, told CNN in 2007: “This show in its own comedic way, is helping to educate people about the power of this word and how it feels to have hate language directed at you.”
“Band in China”
Parker and Stone responded with a sarcastic faux apology that read in part: “Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now China?”