It's almost as strange to write now about the impact "South Park" had on the cultural landscape in 1997 as it was to write about the impact "The Simpsons" had in 1989. Both shows are still on the air. Both shows have had ebbs and flows, not to mention a variety of renaissances, which only an elder statesman of a television show can have. Both are also intensely over the hill, targeted towards people my age who grew up on it, and no longer a part of the zeitgeist. They merely...exist, trudging on, making money, running on all-but-used-up nostalgia.
Interestingly, "South Park" just had another supposed renaissance this past year, in its 19th (!) season, when longtime viewers seemed to unanimously agree that the formerly shattered, continuity-light if not anti-continuity show had benefited from an overarching seasonal plot, as well as finally becoming part of the cultural conversation again. So it's probably not fair to say that "South Park" is a zombie show in quite the same way "The Simpsons" is, but when the headlines read essentially "Surprisingly, 'South Park' Still Capable of Satire" you know that they're not quite the titans they once were.
Ah, but to have been there in 1997 when the show first started! That was truly a strange and exciting time. "South Park" was Comedy Central's first true killer app. "The Daily Show" was two years off, "The Colbert Report" was eight, and, to be quite frank, Comedy Central was a joke, and not in the sense that it wanted to be.
In 1997 Comedy Central was one of hundreds of cable channels, and the modern infatuation with finding a single prestige show and building your station around that had not yet really begun. "The Sopranos" hadn't even started yet, for Christ's sake. Cable channels mostly ran old movies and filler, and tried to carve niches for themselves. Comedy Central at the time was running any movie that could remotely be called funny, hours of old standup from the '80s, and their best-rated shows were imported Britcoms like "Absolutely Fabulous" and "French and Saunders." Their rare forays into original programming, like "Dr. Katz" were charming but it would be a kindness to say they had anything but niche appeal.
We were a Comedy Central house, though. My sister loved the channel, and as a result we watched it a ton. But when "South Park" appeared on the scene in 1997, suddenly everyone was watching it, not to mention gabbing about it on the playground. (I wouldn't say water cooler - I'm sure adults watched it, but probably weren't admitting it in the workplace.)
"South Park" began life - improbably enough - as a viral video, long, long before the term was coined. Today I could take a video of myself writing this stupid blogpost, upload it to YouTube in the space of, eh, a minute or two, share it on Facebook a minute after that and (if the fates align) it could go viral later that day. Rewind to 2005, that was the advent of YouTube, the first real platform for short videos. Before that, there was Napster and file-sharing, which, even with Napster, was a painfully slow process and even so, with the exception of music videos and sketch comedy, people weren't sharing short videos, they were looking for movies and TV shows. Rewind to the early '90s, and event nascent file-sharing wasn't really an option. Downloading a single photograph from a website was a painfully slow process.
In the early '90s "America's Funniest Home Videos" was about the only platform for what we would call YouTube poop today, and that shit was carefully culled for a family audience. When two young Colorado boys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, made a dirty, blasphemous video of Frosty the Snowman terrorizing children and fighting Jesus Christ with stop-motion construction paper in 1992, the distribution methods of the time ensured that it was basically something fun for their friends and college classmates to watch - a jumped-up home movie, essentially.
But good art will out (said the all-but-unknown author wistfully.) In 1995 Brian Graden, a Fox executive, commissioned a second film - "Jesus vs. Santa" - as a Christmas card for his friends. Graden showed the video to eighty friends. The video was bootlegged with traditional VHS tapes and even bit-by-painstaking-bit on the then-nascent internet. And thus was born the first modern viral video.
The success of "The Spirit of Christmas" (as the combined videos became known) led to Comedy Central acquiring "South Park." And "South Park" was an instant smash-success. The adventures of four foul-mouthed children getting into wacky, sci-fi hijinks every week led to huge ratings for Comedy Central, which sparked a moral panic (as seemed to be the case with just about every god-damned thing in the '90s) which probably just led to higher ratings. In two years' time, "South Park" was big enough to justify making the leap to the big screen. In the early days it was a true phenomenon.
"South Park's" success was a game-changer in a lot of ways. For Comedy Central, it was the beginning of their ascendance into a pop culture megalith that only now is beginning to wane. People tuned in to see "South Park" but they gradually began to stay for the rest of it, the same way my sister and I had. And soon enough "The Man Show," "Win Ben Stein's Money" and other early remoras coasted along in "South Park's" wake, paving the way for later successes like "The Daily Show."
"South Park" may seem long-in-the-tooth now, but a reason for that is that it inspired a rash of ostensibly adult cartoons with a sophomoric, even juvenile sensibility, regardless of how sharp or intelligent the writing was. Despite Barbara Bush's early pearl-clutching, "The Simpsons" was always a family show. Though goofy, "The Critic" was never something you couldn't show on ABC in primetime after "Home Improvement." And even Pat Boone would probably be fine with the muted, character-based humor of "King of the Hill."
"South Park," though was scatological, sexual, and asocial. In the wasteland of basic cable it could afford to be, because the thought was no one was watching so cable channels could be more experimental. Except then people started watching. And like "The Simpsons" before it, "South Park" would inspire a slew of imitations and loving recreations. Its success also led to more cultural cachet for its creators, who would go on to create "Team America: World Police" and "The Book of Mormon" to major critical and financial success. But, interestingly enough, though they could have moved on many times, they've never stopped making "South Park." There's something to be said for first loves, I suppose.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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