Looking back at some of the most notable times Matt and Trey have pushed the envelope.In writing a feature on South Park's most controversial episodes, the most surprising revelation is realizing how many episodes weren't controversial. Take the 43 times the N-word is said in "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson", or Jesus being violently killed in "Fantastic Easter Special". Or the many, many times that Christianity and Judaism have been mocked. Or the slams on beloved celebrities, politicians and on and on and on.
Somehow, South Park has mostly immunized itself when it comes to parody. The show appears to be a crudely drawn and vulgar series but over the years it has become widely recognized as a smart commentary on virtually all aspects of our culture. So much so, that being depicted on South Park has become something of a badge of honor.
Considering its place in the pop culture landscape 13 years after its debut, the fact that South Park can still be controversial is a tribute to the talents of creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. After the events of the most recent episode "201", in which the show was substantially censored by its network, we thought it was as good as time as any to round-up some previous controversies the show has created over the years.
With Apologies to the Irwin Family...
Episode: "Hell on Earth 2006"
Its not always the big issues that garner attention for South Park. In this case, the show depicted late and beloved nature show host Steve Irwin. It was quite nearly a perfect joke, in which Satan thinks its really just someone dressed as Irwin (complete with sting ray in the chest) at his Halloween party. When Satan tells the man, "You're making some people uncomfortable," we learn that this is, in fact, the real Irwin - The joke going from Wouldn't-it-be-offensive-if-someone-dressed-this-way, to Steve Irwin-is-in-hell.
Even though the joke was presented in a way where it seemed even the creators felt bad about telling it (Satan himself found it offensive), it was understandably upsetting to Irwin's family. Irwin had been dead only seven weeks by the time the episode aired and this became one of those jokes that was a good example of something that was indeed too soon.
While South Park goes after entire groups of people, this once seemed more personal, especially with Irwin's young daughter and wife themselves being known to television audiences. This was an instance when many critics who love the show seemed to agree that it had gone too far.
No Celebrity (or Religion) Left Behind
Episode: "Trapped in the Closet"
This is a tour-de-force episode that mocked scientology - a religion that does not have an especially large following, but the following it does have happens to have a large concentration in Hollywood… which is the proverbial hand that feeds Parker and Stone.
"Trapped in the Closet" doesn't just go after Scientology, but specifically Tom Cruise, one of the biggest power players in Hollywood and one of Paramount's biggest stars. Which makes things touchy because Comedy Central and Paramount are owned by the same company - Viacom (which I've always felt sounds a lot like the enemy organization in a Final Fantasy game).
The episode lampoons Scientology's core beliefs, which involve alien ghosts and dark lords and spaceships. But the real target is the fact that the religion is a profit-earning enterprise. Add to this the fact that the episode is also a thinly veiled reference to rumors of Tom Cruises homosexuality and you've got a double whammy.
The source of the controversy here is actually a controversy in and of itself. Supposedly, this episode was so hated by Tom Cruise that he refused to do any publicity for Mission Impossible III until the episode was pulled from rotation, and never put onto DVD. Well, none of this came to pass as the episode was put back into repeats and was on that season's box set. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise denied ever having anything to do with any plot to ban the episode. Whether or not the controversy was real, it did wonders for publicity and was probably the most press the show had received up to this point.
Wait, You Can't Say That!
Episode:"It Hits the Fan"
South Park's most frequent theme could be summed up as, "Everybody needs to calm the hell down." Whether it's issues of language, sex, politics, or any number of hot button issues, one of Parker and Stones favorite targets is the overreaction to these issues.
In this episode, "It Hits the Fan," the show deliberately challenges the sensitivity to the word that has four letters, starts with "sh" and is a synonym for both defecation and the act of defecating. It all started with the network show Chicago Hope using the word once. This is a 10pm show that is watched almost exclusively by adults, yet the use of a word that every audience member likely uses daily was news.
So what does South Park do? They make fun of the situation by using the word on their own program 162 times. There was also a fun gag where Mr. Garrison, now an out-of-the-closet homosexual, realized he could say a derogatory slang word for gay person because he himself was gay. But if anyone else said it, it was bleeped.
This was one of those non-controversial controversies. People talked about it because it seemed like it SHOULD have been controversial. But the episode made such a salient point about the use of such a benign word that nobody really gave a, well, you know…
Desecration, Thy Name is South Park
Episode: "Bloody Mary"
The Season 9 episode, "Bloody Mary", asks the question, do you believe in Miracles? This specific miracle involves a statue of the Virgin Mary - bleeding heavily from the anus. You don't have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to know this is pretty offensive stuff. You've got the Pope inspecting the private regions of Mary, you've got Randy getting doused in what appears to be anal blood. The ultimate revelation is that Mary isn't bleeding from the anus, but from the vagina. And since this kind of thing happens all the time, it is deemed not a miracle.
It might not be considered at true controversy when the most vocal group upset about this is the Catholic League. Lead by Bill Donohue, the Catholic League gets offended by just about any perceived slight to the Catholic faith. It might have something to do with the fact that Donohue himself seems to be an attention grabbing media hog, who has never seen a microphone he doesn't like.
As a sign of South Park's growing cultural influence, Donohue was actually flattered when South Park included him in a later episode, "Fantastic Easter Special." This episode featured Kyle violently killing Jesus, and Jesus then beheading Donohue himself (who had been made the new Pope) - with a glaive, no less, from the 80s fantasy flick Krull. Was this offensive? Sure. But Donohue liked his inclusion enough that he has a still from it in his office. Go figure.
The Family Guy Factor
Episodes: "Cartoon Wars, Part 1" and "Part 2"
The biggest reason this episode was controversial is due to Comedy Central's pre-emptive censorship. However, the biggest clamor about the episode from many viewers was not the possible depiction of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, but instead the outright attack on fellow animated shows The Simpsons and especially Family Guy. The deeper, more complex issue of religious intimidation and censorship was overshadowed by Family Guy fans vs. South Park fans, with many fans who enjoy both caught in the middle.
The episode itself aired shortly after the controversy that surrounded a Danish newspaper printing an offensive cartoon of Mohammed. That cartoon lead to riots and death threats in Europe, which understandably had Comedy Central a bit wary of running a depiction of the prophet for the sole purpose of a throwaway gag. While the depiction was likely not offensive in nature, any depiction can be considered blasphemy.
In the plot of the episode, Family Guy ends up actually running the clip of Mohammed in a cutaway gag in which he gives Peter a football helmet. Nothing bad ends up happening, despite the great fears of the residents of South Park. The irony of course is that while nothing happens in the episode, Comedy Central the network decided to censor the scene by blacking it out, with the following words appearing on screen, explaining what we would have seen: "In this shot, Mohammed hands a football helmet to Family Guy. Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network."
In this instance, the biggest controversy happened AFTER the censoring. That's not the case with what was to come.
This has to top the list because it is, as far as we know, the only episode of South Park to actually lead to (thinly veiled) death threats. The mere SUGGESTION of showing the prophet Mohammed in the episode lead to a (now defunct) Muslim extremist website suggesting Matt and Trey could suffer the same fate as slain Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. The grievous offense was suggesting that the prophet was inside a bear costume, which they viewed as insulting and a form of showing a visual representation.
The website, Revolution Islam, insists they weren't threatening Parker and Stone. They just showed a photo of the murdered body of Van Gogh and said, "Could this happen to the South Park creators?" And then provided information about their home in Colorado and the location of Comedy Central in Los Angeles. Stay classy, extremists!
While it was episode "200" that brought the spotlight on the series (once again), it was episode "201" that ended up getting censored nearly to death. The entire end of the show was censored by Comedy Central. All references to Mohammed where bleeped. Kyle's ENTIRE final speech was bleeped. It was seemingly done in a way that was a kind of meta-joke about censorship. It wasn't until a statement from Matt and Trey that we learned this was not the case. Comedy Central got scared.
It's hard to blame the executives at the station for not wanting to put their employees at risk. At the same time, it's painful to see an American cable network being bullied by thugs and murderers. At the time we wrote this piece, the full contents of the episode remain unknown. Matt and Trey said the final speech was about intimidation… but it was censored due to intimidation. In this case, we are actually witnessing South Park's ability to remain relevant unfold in real time. And perhaps someday we'll hear what it was they actually had to say.