On Aug. 13, 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone unleashed a group of vulgar Colorado kids on the world. South Park, a breath of fresh, foulmouthed air, was, at the time, equal parts countercultural battle cry and expertly executed fart joke.
Twenty years later, the show is a bona fide mainstream success, with last season's premiere drawing some 3.7 million viewers — the highest-rated episode since 2006, according to Forbes. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny, and company are scheduled to return for their 21st season Sept. 13 on Comedy Central; the South Park crew is under contract to produce episodes through Season 23 at least.
Over the show's two-decade, 277-episode run, its creators have taken on everything from celebrity culture and brand loyalty to voting and political correctness. They have skewered Scientology, the Mormon Church, and atheism in equal measure. They somehow made us laugh after Sept. 11.
They killed Kenny — again and again and again.
And South Park has grown into an institution — one that popular culture expects to take on the problems of the day, if only to see who gets jabbed the hardest. For many my age — ah, the dreaded millennials — the show has been a cultural touchstone.
Yet, as the show prepares to hit the small screen next month, its perceived role as satirical arbiter of modern morality feels increasingly hollow — as though America doesn't need South Park as it once did, or at least not in the way its creators are talking about tackling the 21st season. Like seemingly everything else these days, it's because of President Trump.
After an underwhelming 20th season, which featured the series' first extended use of serialized episodes to lampoon the 2016 presidential race between Trump and Hillary Clinton, the creators have decided to go back to "kids being kids."
Parker told the Los Angeles Times in June that last season had the South Park guys burned out on both extended story lines and material relating to Trump, as they "got stuck in it somehow." To the master satirists, satire has "just gotten boring" in the face of a Trump presidency because, Parker said in an ABC Australia interview, "what was actually happening was much funnier than anything we could come up with."
"This season, I want to get back to Cartman dressing up like a robot," and messing with Butters, Parker said. "Because to me, that's the bread and butter of South Park: kids being kids, and being ridiculous and outrageous, and not, 'Did you see what Trump did last night?' Because I don't give a … anymore."
But that I-don't-care-anymore reasoning feels like a cop-out — a way out of an uncertain and difficult-looking future, much like Season 20's nostalgia-inducing Member Berries. Parker and Stone kept South Park comedically afloat through such major events as 9/11, the Iraq war, and the ongoing gun-violence epidemic. To now ignore or significantly reduce the emphasis on Trump after a strong initial focus on him seems like an abdication of the responsibility the show has earned for itself as comedic chronicler of pop culture.
As a fan, it's sad to see. South Park has felt dangerous for much of its 20-year existence. It is especially upsetting that the show is pulling back on Trump at a time when comedians such as Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are making headlines with their own takedowns of him.
Surely the comedic well of jokes about the president has not run dry.
But in South Park, it apparently has. Perhaps it would be better to let the show retire gracefully, rather than drag it out across several more subpar seasons, as with The Simpsons — which, as it approaches 30 years on the air, has long since lost its early charm thanks to series extensions and diminished writing.
Once South Park does inevitably conclude, millennials themselves will have to grow up some as well. No longer will we have the show that many of us have looked to as a jumping-off point to discuss current events across a majority of our lives. We'll have to make sense of them for ourselves.
That might not be an entirely bad thing. Across its 20 seasons, South Park has arguably "raised a generation of trolls" and spawned the center-right bros known as South Park Republicans, the A.V. Club points out. Generally, taking your political identity from a television show probably isn't a good idea, and a small segment of voters will likely have to reevaluate that choice at some point — without Parker and Stone's help.
At the end of South Park, Parker and Stone will be freed to pursue even more of the other projects they have undertaken during the show's run: Orgazmo, BASEketball, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Team America: World Police, and The Book of Mormon, among others. These days, those other outlets seem a better fit for the pair, two of the most innovative and consistently funny comedy writers in modern entertainment.
America might not need the South Park it's been pitched, but it could definitely use the guys who pitched it — just without the cursing fourth graders.
South Park turns 20: The best episode from each season
We've rounded up the best episode from each of the show's 20 seasons — and with 277 episodes aired to date, there's bound to be some disagreements. Check out the list below:
"Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride," Season 1, Episode 4
This episode centering around Stan's dog, Sparky (voiced by George Clooney). The topic may sound sophomoric, but it earned South Park Emmy and GLAAD Award nominations for its take on tolerance.
"Chef Aid," Season 2, Episode 14
Series favorite Chef is sued for harassment after trying to get his name on an Alanis Morissette track, and the boys throw a Live Aid-type event to help him pay the legal costs.
"Sexual Harassment Panda," Season 3, Episode 6
Folks who have seen this episode won't be able to read the title without hearing mascot Petey's song. An anti-sexual harassment panda, Petey gives South Park an education in the subject, leading to lawsuits throughout the town, and Kyle's dad, Gerald, getting rich.
"Cartman Joins NAMBLA," Season 4, Episode 5
Feeling cooler and more grown-up than his friends, Cartman joins the North American Man/Boy Love Association in the search for some more mature companionship.
"Scott Tenorman Must Die," Season 5, Episode 4
After purchasing pubic hair from ninth-grader Scott as a misunderstood way to enter puberty, Cartman decides to enact a ghoulish revenge plan that involves cooking, cannibalism, and, oddly enough, band Radiohead.
"Simpsons Already Did It," Season 6, Episode 7
Pal Butters appears as his evil alter-ego Professor Chaos, but can't seem to come up with any dastardly plans that weren't featured on The Simpsons.
"All About Mormons," Season 7, Episode 12
Series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are also known for Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, but they've been hilariously deconstructing the religion since at least 2003.
"Douche and Turd," Season 8, Episode 8
Written for the 2004 presidential election, this episode posits that voting often comes down to two bad choices by way of an election for a new school mascot. The choices: A turd sandwich or a giant douche.
"Trapped in the Closet," Season 9, Episode 12
Otherwise known as "the Scientology one," this episode gives an explanation of Scientology's beliefs amid an incident that has famous Scientologist Tom Cruise literally trapped in a closet. (Yes, R. Kelly gets made fun of, too.)
"Go God Go," Season 10, Episode 12
This episode and its follow-up, "Go God Go XII," focus on Cartman after he accidentally puts himself to sleep for 500 years while trying to avoid the wait for the Nintendo Wii and wakes up in a future dominated by factions of atheists at war over what to call their lack of religion.
"Imaginationland" Trilogy, Season 11, Episodes 10-12
A three-parter that serves as the series' most ambitious work since 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, this episode has the boys travel to a place populated by fictional characters that is soon attacked by terrorists as way to cripple America's imagination.
"Major Boobage," Season 12, Episode 3
A send-up of the 1981 adult animated film Heavy Metal, this episode includes Kenny "cheesing" — or huffing male cat urine to get high — and entering a magical land filled with evil monsters, fantastic settings, and, yes, breasts.
"Fishsticks," Season 13, Episode 5
Jimmy Valmer comes up with a joke that cracks up just about everybody but Kanye West, who doesn't get the punchline ("fishsticks" sounds like something a little dirtier).
"Medicinal Fried Chicken," Season 14, Episode 3
Stan's dad Randy decides to give himself testicular cancer by standing in front of a running microwave in order to get a medical marijuana prescription, but ruins things for everyone after his genitals grow too enlarged with cancer to enter a dispensary.
"You’re Getting Old," Season 15, Episode 7
Stan turns 10 and becomes depressed with growing up, and begins to hate everything he once loved. An exploration of cynicism and aging, this one is among South Park's most emotional episodes.
"A Nightmare on Facetime," Season 16, Episode 12
Something of a Shining parody, "Nightmare" follows Stan as he works at his dad's newly purchased video-rental store on Halloween and tries to tag along with his friends' trick-or-treating via Facetime.
"Black Friday," Season 17, Episode 7
Game of Thrones and American consumerism are the focuses in this three-parter, which features a Black Friday sales event that splits the kids into groups that prefer either Xbox One or Playstation 4.
"Grounded Vindaloop," Season 18, Episode 7
Cartman goes to great lengths to trick Butters into thinking he is stuck in virtual reality, only to be told by an Oculus Rift customer service rep that he is the one in a simulation.
"Sponsored Content," Season 19, Episode 8
Jimmy takes on the new school principal, PC Principal, with an article in the school paper trying to expose his politically correct ways as a sham to get laid in this episode that mocks online ads, clickbait, and sponsored content.
"Member Berries," Season 20, Episode 1
A lesson on the pitfalls of nostalgia 20 years into the series, given in the form of past-obsessed Member Berries — a sentient superfruit that weasel their way into town by reminiscing about the old days.