“IT’S COMING RIGHT FOR US!” – Volcano
August 31, 1997
“The kids go hunting with the rather trigger happy Jimbo and Ned. Little do they know that a volcano is on the verge of erupting.”
When one thinks of films South Park parodies, a ‘50s Billy Wilder film doesn’t come immediately to mind. But it should after this episode, which mirrors Ace In the Hole, an excellently dark social drama starring Kirk Douglas.
Whether the parallels are intentional or not, it would make sense, since “Volcano” has both barrels aimed at ’50s and ‘70s conservative Americana values. Even more impressive is the fact that this episode carries over a couple themes from the previous episode. Apparently Trey and Matt were experimenting with carry-over ideas even in the first season.
And like I mentioned before, South Park is able to ground itself by framing its silliness in relatable contexts. In this instance: camping/hunting as well as childhood jealousy in the attempt to impress loved ones.
Stan’s Uncle Jimbo takes the kids on a hunting trip along with his war buddy, Ned, “to keep the kids safe,” which obviously means South Park has something to say on gun culture. It’s very over-the-top, with Jimbo offering the kids beer and giant guns, telling them to shoot innocent wildlife so long as they pretend the animals are attacking them to get around liberal laws (reminiscent of “stand your ground”).
However, Stan can’t bring himself to kill, a la ‘70s cinema like Deliverance and The Deer Hunter. What keeps this thread from being just a trope is Stan’s frustrations with not being able to impress his uncle, especially since Kenny goes right along with Jimbo’s antics and is rewarded for it. The arc comes full circle when Stan blasts a friendly, helpful Scuzzlebutt in the face, eerily declaring that it was easy. (“I’m a dirty bastard too!”)
I’m not sure if this is a specific reference, but there’s an Andy Griffith Show episode where Andy Taylor tries to sell his house by not telling prospective buyers about certain problems with it. Opie, Andy’s son, ruins the sale by pointing out the house’s problems because his dad previously told him to be honest earlier when selling a bike.
Andy tries and fails to explain why houses are different than bikes — and there’s a twisted version of that here when Jimbo unsuccessfully tries to tell Stan that, arbitrarily, some things you kill and others you don’t. Whatever fits the agenda.
This episode was made in ’97, but its content would be forever marred by the Columbine shooting in ’99. Trey has said the visual of kids pointing guns at each other was written because it’s just funny, but the idea of kids cavalierly being given access to weapons of destruction by uninterested family/guardians is a chilling visual that’s a little hard to “just watch” and laugh at without cultural context.
But when it was made, obviously the commentary was directed toward redneck and Conservative notions about gun ownership. They say they need massive magazines to stop the “bad guys,” but that implies they’re the “good guys,” and it’s hard to believe that most of the time, especially when they just use their guns to kill animals and halt gun control after every mass shooting. Trey and Matt’s background in the Midwest is clearly invaluable to their incisive satire and gives them an edge over many other coastal comedians.
A furthered theme is the lambasting of crooked politicians, especially in the face of disaster. Mayor McDaniels continues to be obnoxious, citing her education of Princeton as justification for her media obsession. Instead of caring more about the rescue of the trapped children, McDaniels leaps in front of every available camera (not unlike Kirk Douglas’ loathsome character in Ace In the Hole) so she can flaunt how devastated and “caring” she is. Nowadays, a politician even bothering to pretend to care is an outdated notion.
Unfortunately there’s a cheap shot at her mixing up gynecologist with geologist, which could be construed as sexist (in fact her whole character could be seen as a lambasting of women in power), but it’s doubtful that Trey and Matt are actually misogynistic. Then again, you don’t have to be willfully resentful to degrade women, which points to society and what is considers acceptable over time.
A final note on the media theme: the reaction of the South Park citizens to media attention is of joy, impacted with well-timed, ironic cutaways. It shows McDaniels is just as morally dubious and in the same boat as the citizens she desperately wants to put distance from. Despite her Princeton education, human nature is the same wherever you go, and the citizens of South Park, no matter how over-the-top and seemingly absurd they act, is a mirror of us.
If you’re like me, you might have been wondering if there are in fact volcanos in Colorado. Apparently — there are! Well, there is. The Dotsero volcano is the only active one in the state, so as absurd as Volcano seems, it’s semi realistic.
Here’s a curious detail about Scuzzlebutt. Cartman thinks he made the creature up, but when it shows up in front of him, he’s totally surprised. Yet, many of the townspeople recognize him with droll acknowledgement. Is this just a nonsensical comedy twist or is it indicative of how cultural legends/facts can seep into our brains so much that we don’t even realize it?
As for plot logic, there are a couple moments that are a tad janky. A key one is when Cartman dresses up as Scuzzlebutt and is mistaken by Jimbo as the real thing. Cartman is chased and shot at by Jimbo, but my question is: why can’t Cartman just get out of his ramshackle disguise? Instead, he just runs around hoping he doesn’t get shot. There isn’t even a line from Cartman, like, “I’m stuck in my costume” to cover this illogical moment.
In terms of visuals, it’s fun to see an early Randy Marsh with such a huge forehead. The animation continues to be smoother, but there are still some moments where the animators’ limitations show (ie, very limited backgrounds). But hey, the team really shot for the stars in terms of scale, and that’s commendable.
For positives, there’s a nice POV shot when Jimbo looks down the barrel of his shotgun. And the retro PSA previously noted is aesthetically on-point. One of Trey and Matt’s (and their teams) greatest strengths is copying and parodying other aesthetics with precision but not at the expense of comedy.
Like what we do here at AIPT? Consider supporting us and independent comics journalism by becoming a patron today! In addition to our sincere thanks, you can browse AIPT ad-free, gain access to our vibrant Discord community of patrons and staff members, get trade paperbacks sent to your house every month, and a lot more. Click the button below to get started!