Entering its 20th season, South Park has proved more durable and relevant than anyone could have predicted when Cartman got anally probed back in the late-'90s. Part of the reason for that is the creative team’s fearless pursuit of topics, stances and discussions that make people uncomfortable, furious and/or murderous.
Here, counting down, are the show’s 15 most controversial episodes, from 1997 to today...
15. "Goth Kids 3: Dawn of the Posers"
The controversy: Let’s start off light – well, dark. The main controversy here was that, for the first time in 15 years or so, Matt Stone and Trey Parker missed a deadline. South Park’s tight schedule allows minimal room for mistakes, and an inconvenient blackout during post-production meant there was no new episode ready for screening.
The fallout: South Park fans are a passionate lot. While some groups might have taken a “things happen” approach, some groups were furious at missing their dose of cartoon hilarity. (Doubly so when the episode aired a week later and wasn’t much of a crowd pleaser.)
14. "Terrance and Phillip in Not Without my Anus"
The controversy: Season one ended on a cliffhanger, so fans had waited a long time to learn the identity of Cartman’s father. Instead of having that question answered, we were treated to a full-length episode of idiotic Terrance and Phillip fart jokes.
The fallout: Originally airing on April Fool’s Day, this was the first instance of Parker and Stone trolling viewers. Comedy Central received 2000 angry emails within the week – not that the prank did any lasting damage to viewing numbers.
13. "Pinewood Derby"
The controversy: South Park employed racial stereotypes in its portrayal of various world leaders in this episode about aliens trying to recover space cash stolen by humans across the world.
The fallout: The depiction of Mexican president Felipe Calderón as blowing his share of the space cash on water parks annoyed the powers-that-be at MTV Latin America. They used a Mexican law stating national symbols like the flag must be displayed with respect - as well as a fine of US$4900 - to justify canceling the broadcast.
12. "All about Mormons"
The controversy: The clue’s in the title. The boys meet a new classmate, Gary, whose family are Mormons. The main controversy caused by the episode, though, stemmed from the retelling of how the religion was founded – which points out holes in the story with a soundtrack of “dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb...”
The fallout: The Church of Latter-Day Saints called the episode “a gross portrayal of Church history” but shrugged the whole thing off as a distraction that wouldn’t actually damage them. And, of course, the episode eventually led to the development of Stone and Parker’s hit musical, The Book of Mormon.
11. "Scott Tenorman Must Die"
The controversy: In a huge escalation from the naughty boy of previous seasons to full-fledged psychopathic villain, Cartman tricks an older kid into eating the chopped-up bodies of his parents.
The fallout: A great deal of critical acclaim and strong pivot towards darkness in the show’s humour. (So, no fallout as such.)
10. "The China Probrem"
The controversy: There’s some light racism about Cartman fearing a Chinese invasion of America – as well as the rogue “R” in the episode title – but the main jaw-dropper here is multiple scenes where George Lucas and Steven Spielberg literally rape Indiana Jones. This was in reference to the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (sorry, that title should have been preceded by a trigger warning).
The fallout: Mostly it was media beat-up, with a multitude of pundits asking whether the show’s creators had gone too far, and wondering how Paramount or DreamWorks would respond. Interestingly, very little of the post-screening discussion mentioned the offensive Chinese costumes worn by Cartman and Butters...
9. "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson"
The controversy: Without beating around the bush, this episode features multiple uses of "the N word" – starting with Randy saying the word in the final round of his appearance on Wheel of Fortune (the correct answer was “naggers”).
The fallout: Pretty positive, with the co-founders of Abolish the “N” Word saying Stone and Parker had captured the essence of how it feels to be on the receiving end of the slur, as well as the broader impact of the word on individuals. No word on what Jesse Jackson thought of his on-screen portrayal, though.
8. "Super Best Friends"
The controversy: When magician David Blaine convinces the boys to join his cult, the Blaintologists, it’s up to a superhero-style group of religious icons to thwart an upcoming suicide pact. Oh yeah, and one of those icons is Muhammad, who is portrayed as a Middle Eastern man with flames shooting from his hands.
The fallout: At the time, surprisingly, there wasn’t much fallout at all. But when things heated up nine years later, with "201" (see below), this episode was removed from online streaming as well as syndication.
7. "Hell on Earth 2006"
The controversy: Satan holds a massive party in LA, but the main thing that made this one controversial was the inclusion of recently deceased Steve Irwin appearing on the guest list alongside Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and other evildoers. If that wasn’t enough, he has a stingray protruding from his bloodsoaked chest.
The fallout: The Irwin family, understandably, weren’t that happy with it. Comedy Central went out in defence of the episode a few times, suggesting there was more controversy over this than many other subjects they’ve covered. There was also some talk about the ep not being show in Australia, but that turned out to be scuttlebutt.
6. "Proper Condom Use"
The controversy: You might think you’ve guessed what the problem was with this episode from the title, but it gets worse. Mr Garrison shows kindergartners how to apply a condom – with his mouth – and Cartman “milks” Kenny’s dog while saying, “Red rocket!”
The fallout: The Parents Television Council, an American pressure group, complained about the scenes of young children being taught about sex. One British channel banned the episode, and it isn’t syndicated in the US. Oh, and SBS originally aired it at 9pm instead of the usual 8.30pm. Wowsers.
5. "Bloody Mary"
The controversy: A statue of the Virgin Mary not only bleeds menstrual blood, but sprays massive amounts of the stuff in the face of Pope Benedict XVI. Unfortunately the holy liquid can’t cure Randy’s alcoholism.
The fallout: The US Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights went on the warpath, demanding an apology from the Comedy Channel and trying to have the episode permanently banned from repeats and DVD (this didn’t happen, obviously). There was also a kerfuffle in New Zealand, which failed to stop Kiwis seeing Mary visited by Aunty Flo.
4. "It Hits the Fan"
The controversy: Back in 2001, everyone was excited because Chicago Hope was going to let the word “shit” pass unbleeped. Not to be outdone, South Park did likewise – but they didn’t stop at one instance of the profanity. By the time the credits rolled, an on-screen tally chalked up 162 spoken “shits”. It’s also written 38 times, for a total of 200.
The fallout: No one seemed to care that much, actually.
3. "Cartoon Wars Parts 1 and 2"
The controversy: This two-parter about a Family Guy episode that planned to make Muhammad a character, causing the entire US nation to fear terrorist reprisal, was built around a cliffhanger that was based in real life that formed part of the advertising for Cartoon Wars Part II: “Will television executives take a stand for free speech? Or will Comedy Central puss out?”
The fallout: The network did indeed bow to their fears of being attacked, and the proposed footage was replaced with an on-screen message revealing their decision. The ensuing discussion was dominated by Christian groups being generally furious that their religion was still being mocked by the channel, and throwing the word “hypocrite” around.
The controversy: In another two-parter that drew upon various past episodes, South Park tried once again to depict Muhammad on the show – and part of the joke revolves around a “censored” box that protects the wearer from ridicule.
The fallout: Four years on, Comedy Central hadn’t changed their policy on depicting Muhammad, making this episode one of the most censored of the series. Also, various extremist Muslim groups warned Stone and Parker that they risked being murdered for their blasphemous actions.
1. "Trapped in the Closet"
The controversy: Who would’ve thought insinuating that Tom Cruise is gay – by putting him in a literal closet – would cause such a backlash? Of course, it was combined with a thorough decimation of Scientology’s belief system...
The fallout: For starters, Isaac Hayes – who played Chef – quit because of the mockery of his religion. Tom Cruise apparently threatened to back out of promoting Mission: Impossible III if the episode was repeated (he later denied this). Turns out Scientologists aren’t as easygoing as Mormons.
South Park's most controversial episodes air Monday, 12 September through Friday, 16 September, twice a day, at 8:30pm (AEST) on SBS 2.
Season 20 begins Thursday, 22 September at 8:50pm on SBS 2. All episodes will be fast tracked to SBS On Demand on Mondays.