“IT’S COMPLETELY IMMATURE!” – Cartman Gets An Anal Probe
August 13, 1997
“Cartman’s dream about being abducted by aliens turns out to have actually happened, and when the aliens take Kyle’s brother, all of them must find a way to bring the aliens back and confront them.”
As much as I’ve hyped up South Park as being relevant and having lots to say — it’s main claim to fame is gross immaturity, hence the title of this first episode. And as you might have guessed from the illustrious title, this first official episode of the titular show isn’t trying to critique prevailing, destructive tendencies of the American populace. This is straight-up, gross-out humor that revels in the central conceit of the show: a bunch of foul-mouthed kids go toe-to-toe with concepts far greater than them. Forgive me if this gets annoying after a while, but I’ll spend a good amount of time pointing out how the show to come is foreshadowed by this inaugural episode.
The first season is unique because the episodes begin with live-action skits with Trey Parker and Matt Stone (although it might not now show up depending on where you watch). For E1, the two are adorned in atrociously dated hairstyles and dressed in something between pajamas and jackets stolen from a convalescence home.
The two speak in soft tones, snuggled up between a dog almost like tender lovers. They’re tucked away in a cozy log cabin, fireplace and all, talking about their start — but something’s off. They’re…too happy. After Trey says how he met Matt, we cut to a close-up of Matt, locked in a ridiculous expression before turning to the camera with a toothy grin one would make when told to imitate a dumb hillbilly yokel.
The odd mix of aesthetic and tonal sincerity and insincerity that will define South Park is all here in the opening minute. I know it’s backtracking a bit, but the theme song reinforces that tone, describing the town as a place to relax while the frenetic montage of obnoxious surrealism says otherwise.
Layers of comedy even reveal in continuity: Ol’ Scratch, the dog they keep doting over like in a cheesy commercial, changes breeds. Self-deprecating humor increases with them inferring they can’t get dates and only have each other because of the fact. Oh, and child abuse.
By the end they try to make a joke about being abducted by aliens themselves. And while the joke is a bit overplayed, the experimental editing and sound design are impressive touches. It’s unnervingly corny aesthetic is certainly a precursor for Tim and Eric.
Certainly, it’s a strange choice to open in such a way, but as mentioned above, their sense of humor comes through loud and clear, setting us up for the cartoon ahead. But that brings up another interesting point of discussion: why go live-action and not animated for the intro? Granted, corny in-person celebrity intros wasn’t uncommon in the ‘90s (and they still persist today if you watch stuff like TCM). Wouldn’t it make more sense to have an animated introduction to an animated show?
I could be overthinking this, but is it possible Trey Parker and Matt Stone wanted to cement themselves as the show’s creators by revealing themselves? Not to say that’s vain, but the choice to have the creators/animators putting themselves so prominently up front is a bold decision.
I mean, that set must have cost more than the animation budget. Regardless of the real choice, the fact remains: they chose to lampoon a cultural trope rather than stay within the fields of animation, which foreshadows their desire to not stay safe and go bold with satire.
The episode itself is a great intro to the series. Pilots are notorious for being underwhelming (AKA “sucking”). However, this first episode shows us exactly what the series will be. In many respects, it’s all right here, the blueprint for 20+ seasons. So what makes a South Park episode?
If you ignore the notion of aliens impregnating small children with satellites and communicating with cows (“the most intelligent and wise” creatures), we’re left with a quaint high-school drama that covers a lot of relatable notions.
There’s the mean bus driver, eccentric teacher, friendly chef/teacher, girl problems (complete with projectile vomiting), clique of school friends, and dealing with an annoying younger sibling. In this way, South Park really could just be a kid’s show. But this is, you know — South Park.
I suppose you could say the formula for the show is to mix childhood motifs with surrealism and eccentrically raunchy humor. And boy howdy do we get a nice dose of unearthly imagery. Aliens are something Trey and Matt will toy with across the show’s run, featuring prominently in the video game The Stick of Truth where anal probing comes back with a vengeance. While the concept was probably thought-up as just a goofy concept, the final revelation initiates the idea of social commentary to the show.
It turns out the aliens have done a study of all life-forms on earth and cows are the “most intelligent and wise.” While it’s not groundbreaking or that original, to infer that humans, with all our domineering over the earth, are less important than cows is a biting idea.
You could also argue Officer Barbrady is a commentary on the ineffectuality of the police force (notice the text on his police cruiser: TO PATRONIZE AND ANNOY, but that’s definitely overthinking it. Yet, in a post George Floyd era, cracks at police are more than welcome.
While this episode doesn’t specifically tackle any pop culture ideas or icons, there are a couple fleeting references that, I must admit, I didn’t recognize at first. There’s a jab at David Caruso’s career tanking (which is true I guess, because I had to look him up before recognizing him).
And then Scott Baio of Happy Days is attributed to giving Eric pink-eye on The Visitor’s ship. The cultural context is lost on me, so I’m genuinely not sure what the point was other than inserting a celebrity into the scenario.
I’d also like to mention Chef’s “Make Love To You Woman” song. Here’s yet another South Park motif begun in the first episode: Trey and Matt’s love of suggestive, cheesy songs. If you squint hard enough, you might find a commentary on the inadequacy of teachers, but I’m pretty certain that was not planned beyond setting up an innuendo gag that Chef will continue to serve.
But it goes without saying: it’s pretty uncomfortable to hear a grown man sing about sexual conquest in front of 4th graders. Obvious, I know, but worth saying. It’s shocking stuff and admittedly funny in how raunchy it is (darn catchy too). But as surprising as Chef’s behavior, there’s plenty of YouTube humor out right now from the likes of Lele Pons that unironically, ACTUALLY traffics in selling sex to 4th graders. Prophetic?
We have two “emotional” through-lines. The first is Stan’s budding relationship with Wendy, but the one I’d like to focus on is Kyle’s search for his little brother, Ike. Kyle is frustrated by his sibling tagging along, going so far as to kick him through two sets of bus doors in the game, “Kick the Baby.”
Don’t worry, Ike is fine due to Looney Tunes logic, but the point remains that it’s not exactly a joyous relationship, especially with Ike’s protests. But once he’s kidnapped by The Visitors, he freaks out.
At the end of “Anal Probe,” Kyle tells The Visitors, in the first of his many orchestrally backed ending monologs that he learned to appreciate his brother through the trauma of losing him: “At first, I was happy you took him, but I’ve learned something today: that having a little brother is special.” But this doesn’t work, so Kyle just cusses them out. Once again, a fantastic example of subverting our expectations while also delivering solid character work.
I mentioned that surrealism is integral to South Park’s tone. In fact, it’s so important, the kids and Chef readily accept alien activity. Of course the gang are shocked at first, but most of them instantly believe that extraterrestrial life is viable.
While many fantasy, scifi, and adventure stories in general spend too much time getting the main characters to accept and believe supernatural occurrences, South Park borrows from the fundamentals of “magical realism,” which is a subgenre/style that utilizes supernatural occurrences interacting with daily life. For instance, David Lynch’s work could be defined as such. When characters experience surreal events, they don’t flip out like we would in “real life.”
The supernatural strikes the characters as strange, but they move on as if we in the “real world” saw something mildly odd but not impossible. This treatment is key to South Park, since it allows the stories to keep moving instead of pausing for exposition and questions about the world every second.
There is one character that doesn’t believe in the alien activity, or at least, resists believing. That kindly gentleman is the infamous Eric Cartman. Before he was engineering the destruction of the Tenormans, garnering neo-Nazis, and being anti-Semetic on the reg, Eric was just a whiny, “fat” kid. He’s rude and crude, but not more than Kyle or Stan (who goes so far as to call his bus driver a “bitch” numerous times). But that’s not what I want to focus on.
Despite the mounting evidence that an alien satellite has been placed inside him after being abducted, he simply refuses to believe until the very, very end in the show’s final seconds. The idea of a rude, obnoxious figure refusing to believe facts just because it makes them uncomfortable points me continually to Trump and his cult. The ex, corrupt president has so insidiously branded himself into the American consciousness, it’s hard not to see him in figures like Eric, despite the fact that Trump was not much more than a cameo appearance in Home Alone 2 in 1997.
In a weird way, Eric in this episode could be a good teaching tool for kids. A whole discussion could be had about human nature and how those whose pride is hurt by certain ideas will be willfully ignorant just to save themselves some form of twisted dignity. But that would require you to watch South Park with your kids, which would be, to quote Cartman, “totally weak.”
Lastly, animation wise, this is very rough in comparison to modern South Park. The movement is jerkier and quite strained and slow. Mouth movements aren’t perfectly synced and/or expressive. There’s a drop shadow to the characters, which preserves the original South Park aesthetic when Trey and Matt made a Christmas short as proof-of-concept. But it’s charming and makes certain, more complex moments stand out, like Ike being kicked toward the screen or a satellite unfolding from Cartman’s anus.
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