KIDS ARE mad little buggers. Anyone who works with children will tell you so, although they may phrase it differently. Not all kids are vicious, bloodthirsty wee bastards. Just most of them. You probably were. Maybe you don't remember it, because you can't imagine a time before you had a conscience, any more than you can recall a time before you could read. Kids aren't evil, just astoundingly callous. They have next to no empathy. And whatever empathy they do have is more likely to be reserved for pets or television than for fellow humans. It's no wonder they grow up to be adults.
What is a wonder is that no-one thought of South Park sooner. An animated series about children who actually behave like children. Children on American-made telly are either Sesame Street types (happy-clappy, multicultural), Tiny Adventurers (“Let's ride our bikes down the abandoned mineshaft!”) or Issue Of The Month fodder. If South Park's leading light, Eric Cartman, had made it onto the box some other way, it would probably have been as the subject of Eric: One Boy's Story (“A single mother battles to keep her troubled, obese only child who dresses up as Hitler from being taken into care”)
South Park had to be American because, Nick Park or no Nick Park, only the Americans can do funny animation series. The Simpsons kick started a huge revival in 'toons for adults - the original comics and animation audience - as well as reminding us how whip-smart the best kiddies' cartoons can be. Simply in commercial terms, you can be certain: no Simpsons, no Beavis & Butt-Head; no B&B, no South Park. When Beavis & Butt-head creator Mike Judge moved on to the more slick and subtle King Of The Hill, there was a gaping hole in the market just waiting for a another bit of cheap, jerky, low-grade genius to come along and plug it.
And South Park is genius, no question about it. Even before regular exposure accustoms you to the cock-witheringly comical selection of running gags, it's obvious that you are in the presence of greatness. Watching the very first episode, Cartman Gets An Anal Probe, my eyes bugged out of my head and I found myself making a noise like pebbles bouncing off an asthmatic two-stroke lawnmower. The second time around, I saw it reduce a group of grown men to a carpet-chewing frenzy, from my own vantage point two inches above the Axminster. You can't believe what you're seeing. Or rather, you can't believe that somebody's gone and made what you're seeing. The fact that it's on television at all is astonishing. It's too weird and too good. And it's done with children.
THE children are Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny. Four cardboard-cutout homunculi, boggle-eyed and noseless. They share a school bus stop in South Park, a hick town in the mountains of Colorado. Stan is the popular kid, Kyle the intellectual - at least by South Park's standards. He's also Jewish. The other kids for the most part treat this fact with a kind of bemused acceptance, leaving him out of Christmas because, as they understand it, he's not allowed to join in. “It's offensive to the Jewish community,” grimaces Kyle's mom. “You are the Jewish community,” snaps back Mr Garrison the schoolteacher, a bald, bigoted looney with lucid moments and a glove puppet called Mr Hat for a friend.
Cartman is the real prize, a fat, deluded ball of rage and greed. He has eyes that screw up in wrath as his face turns crimson, and a voice like a handsaw on a steel pipe. With this voice, in a series of choice phrases, Cartman illuminates each episode with an endlesly quotable commentary that is nothing short of masterful. Whatever the topic, he has an answer. Dolphins: “Intelligent and friendly - on rye bread with some mayonnaise. Dolphins, eskimos, who cares? It's all a bunch of tree hugging hippie crap. Screw you, hippie!” Alien anal probes: “Okay, that does it! Now listen - why is it that everything today has involved
things either going in or coming out of my ass?” Stan's dog, Sparky, who is not like other dogs: “Stan forgot to mention that his dog is a gay homosexual. My mom says God hates gay people. That's why he smote those sodomies in France.” It is Cartman's mom who feeds Cartman his remarkable opinions, as well as Cheesy Poofs by the hundredweight, then costumes him as the Fuehrer for Halloween.
As Cartman explains to Stan, who regularly gets the crap beaten out of him by his big sister: “If some girl tried to kick my ass, I'd be like, Hey, why don't you stop dressing me up like a mailman, and making me dance for you while you go and smoke crack in your bedroom and have sex with some guy I don't even know, on my dad's bed?'” Like Beavis before him, he is an idiot savant with psychotic tendencies. “God dammit, you son-of-a-bitch!” he screeches, all 90 lardarse pounds of him quivering in purple, impotent fury. “I'm not fat, I'm big-boned! I'll kick you in the nuts!”
Kenny is an enigma. Permanently hooded, only his eyes and his muffled voice give any clue as to his personality. His role is to talk the kind of filth that no show in the history of television has ever attempted, and to die. Every episode, Kenny meets a violent end. Sometimes he dies twice. In one inspired opening scene, he dies within seconds. His demise triggers the show's most famous catchphrase of all: “Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You bastards!” He is then instantly forgotten as his friends' childish minds move on to other things. You forgive them, of course, because they're just kids. Part of the fun with Kenny is trying to figure out what he's saying. With a bit of effort, it's not that hard. In the theme song, every week, for example, he sings, “I like girls with big fat titties, I like girls with big vaginas.” Nobody in South Park has any trouble understanding him. “What a filthy little bastard,” chuckles Stan's uncle Jimbo admiringly, as Kenny chugs down a can of petrol. Kenny's family is very poor.
A regular harvest of two-dimensional fruit-loops runs riot around the four main characters. Kyle's mom, who ruins everything (thus Cartman's bravura singing performance, “Kyle's Mom Is A Stupid Bitch”). Cartman's mom, cover star of Crack Whore magazine (“She said she was young and she needed the money.” “Those pictures were taken, like, two weeks ago, dude.”) Chef, purportedly voiced by Isaac Hayes, a huge and randy Soul Man who is also the school cook. Wendy Testeburger, the object of Stan's adoration, snickeringly referred to by Cartman as Holly Hobby. Jesus, who hosts his own show, Jesus and Friends, on local public access TV.
Unlike Springfield, which is dazzlingly diverse, everyone in South Park looks and sounds pretty much the same. Most of its inhabitants are voiced by creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, which somehow becomes part of the joke, along with the fact that the characters are seen only full-face or in profile, and move about accordingly. The show makes a virtue of its cheapness. Even the gags are cheap. Because South Park cracks wise about race, sex, politics, sexuality and censorship, some people have mistaken it for satire. But it has none of the premeditation or moral snootiness of satire. It simply jabs a skewer into anything it finds absurd, and makes no distinction between a joke about farting and a joke about the Ku Klux Klan. That's one of the reasons why it's so wildly funny and so deadly accurate (“It isn't a comedy,” said a policeman in the real South Park, Colorado, “it's a documentary”). It has no fixed agenda, no message. A laugh's a laugh on South Park and everything is fair game. It has caught the mentality of its nine-year-old protagonists and nailed it to floor.
NOT surprisingly, South Park almost didn't happen. The first TV idea Parker and Stone pitched was to Brian Graden, then a producer at Fox, home of the Simpsons, and it was based around a talking turd. This literal gobshite would later appear on South Park as Mr Hanky, The Christmas Poo - a holiday mascot for all faiths. Fox, understandably, didn't go for it. There's Different, and then there's Really Different. But in the entertainment world, where the rule is never to try anything that someone else hasn't made money from first, even Slightly Different has trouble getting through the web of timidity. The pair had made a proto South Park animation called The Spirit Of Christmas, but were told again and again, as Stone has put it, “No-one wants to watch kids. Kids want to watch animated animals. Adults want to watch
animated adults. Why don't you make it about families, like the Simpsons or something like that?”
But Graden, to his credit, saw that Stone and Parker were onto something. He commissioned a second version of The Spirit Of Christmas to send out as a video Xmas card to his mates. This was really the first episode of South Park, with the four main characters fully formed, and trademark details already present - Kenny got brutally slaughtered and his bloody corpse eaten by rats. It also betrayed the influence of British shows like Monty Python on Parker and Stone, with Jesus admitting to Santa in the strangled tones of John Cleese, “I've been a right bastard.”
The Spirit Of Christmas II became the most hotly bootlegged item in Hollywood, and its makers found themselves being invited to meetings all over the shop. They eventually signed up with cable channel Comedy Central, where South Park could be given a free rein. By the end of its first series, despite only being broadcast to only a fraction of American homes, it was beating major network shows in its time slot. When it comes to producing programs likely to outrage the highly vocal and indignant bluenose minority, cable channels in the States have a huge advantage. You can't receive them unless you specifically seek them out and pay for them.
South Park has been compared to Ren & Stimpy for its toilet humour and hallucinogenic appearance. In fact it descends from a completely different strain of cartoon. Parker and Stone are no great admirers of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, who accused them (wrongly) of nicking his own talking turd idea. Ren & Stimpy is primarily a kids' show enjoyed by adults, and its animation style owes a lot to the Tex Avery school of infinitely elastic bodies, extravagant double-takes and overtly physical timing gags. More than it does to LSD, at any rate. South Park, on the other hand, is aimed squarely at adults, and is not so much tinged by acid as bathed in it. The sharp angles, lurid colours, insane aggression and impossible but curiously logical situations will be immediately familiar to anyone who's suffered a bad trip. One friend of mine can't watch it at all because it gives him instant flashbacks.
South Park resembles Beavis & Butthead in its crudely effective style and lack of movement. Most of the humour is in the dialogue, although it's another sign of the show's genius that it risks and accomplishes so many sight gags on the back of such a basic technique (Terry Gilliam's mobile cut-outs on Python probably had a hand in influencing that.) Unlike Ren & Stimpy and Animaniacs, or the old Warner Bros and MGM cartoons which they both draw on, South Park is essentially a comic strip that moves around a bit. And that comic strip is unmistakably Peanuts, with a broken crowbar jammed up its virtuous little arse. Charles M Schulz must spit rancid blood every time he hears the name.
If this kind of animation has a source, then it may well be the stream of odd short films produced by the National Film Board Of Canada. The NFBC has been derided for financing a huge number of documentaries about fir trees or Our Friend, The Beaver, as well as some truly terrible abstract/ allegorical animations which rank with the most baleful output of Eastern Europe. But it was the NFBC who years ago got behind the notion of cheap animation shorts whose minuscule budgets abetted their deadpan humour. The Big Snit, George and Rosemary, Juke-Bar, Get A Job and The Cat Came Back are all bargain-basement gems (although compared to the rest, The Cat Came Back is positively lavish, the NFBC's Fantasia.) Comedy Central's other, more cerebral cartoon hits, Dr Katz and The Critic, could never have existed without their Canuck predecessors. The idea that Canadians have contributed anything to Western culture, aside from ice hockey and a few folk singers, is so unthinkable that nobody outside Canada ever thinks it. But just as most American comedy stars seem to have arrived from north of the border via Saturday Night Live, so the USA's neighbour has supplied it, uncredited, with a whole method of film-making. You can almost forgive them for Alanis Morissette.
And finally, like humankind itself at the end of the long chain of evolution, comes South Park. A show so good it pisses liquid fire on everything before it. One of the highest, and lowest, achievements of modern civilisation. This, ultimately, is what Leonardo laboured for, what George Grosz, Honore Daumier and William Hogarth strove to achieve. Either that or it's a bunch of dumb gags about sphincters. But it isn't half funny.
Was it ever any good? Aimed smack at the teenage market - Shaggy even had face fuzz - it was more wholesome than stewed prunes, and just as emetic. Then they brought in Scrappy to woo the kiddies and it got even worse. But Scooby Doo was the first major animated series to focus on non-adult humans, and it was years before another one came along.
Brilliant in every way, and appreciated by children and adults alike. The assorted toddlers have beautifully and convincingly realised personalities, while the monstrous Angelica's star quality has been eclipsed only by the arrival of Cartman himself.
COW & CHICKEN
Livestock they may be, but Cow and Chicken are also human children, the genetic throwback offspring of parents who exist only from the waist down. Cow, seven years old and 460 pounds avoirdupois, is the proud owner of enormous udders. Chicken (age 11; weight 64 ounces) usually gets crushed beneath them. They spend their time accidentally outwitting the bright-red, bare-arsed Devil. It's amazing that people let their children watch this stuff. Then again, it's so unsettling that maybe you need the stomach of a ten-year-old to really enjoy it.
Johnny is a man-mountain body-builder who talks like Elvis and lives with his momma. He may be fully-grown but he is a child in all but his appearance and his fondness for women. He has the emotional age of six and the libido of a polecat. Another top-notch series from Hanna-Barbera, who are undergoing a rennaissance after years of producing complete shite.
DEXTER & DEEDEE (DEXTER'S LABORATORY)
Dexter and his sister DeeDee are a fantastic pair of creations. Dexter, the child genius, has hidden inside his parents' modest house a vast, mad scientist laboratory of the kind usually confined to Ian Fleming super villains. Despite being American, he speaks in a vague Mittel-European accent, that being what mad scientists do. Deedee is as normal as Dexter is bizarre. She is a bloody nuisance and a better sister to him than he deserves. Very deadpan, very funny. Dexter's Laboratory also features Dial M For Monkey, which has nothing to do with children and is really very amusing..
THE WARNER BROTHERS AND SISTER (ANIMANIACS)
Yakko, Wakko and Dot Warner have been trapped in a water-tower on a movie lot some sixty years, after being declared too unstable even for the golden age of WB's cartoon flicks. Naturally, they're still aged about eleven, and have escaped to inflict havoc upon the modern world. Other Animaniacs' strands include Goodfeathers, a flock of mobster pigeons. Could their unintelligible capo, The Godpigeon, be the source of inspiration for the joke about Kenny's voice?
AJAX, CHARLES AND MAMBO
Duckman, television's wordiest cartoon, is erratic but now and then sparks into fireworks. These three, or one-and-two-halves, are Duckman's kiddies - a dopey but insightful fatso (Ajax) and a two-headed Siamese duck-thing (Charles and Mambo, prodigies with the misfortune to be battling it out in the same body.) Their father is hopeless, but they love him all the same. The show might be funnier yet if they didn't.