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Goin' Down to South Park Guide S 1 E 4: 'Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride'

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Goin’ Down to South Park Guide S 1 E 4: ‘Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride’

South Park tackled LGBTQ+ issues in ’97. But does it hold up?

“CHRISTIANS, REPUBLICANS, AND NAZI’S, OH MY.” – Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride

September 3, 1997

Season 1

Episode 4

Stan becomes distracted from the upcoming football game because his dog is gay, so he turns to the gayest man in town for advice, Big Gay Al.

South Park still holds the reputation as being a show that skewers everybody; a no-holds-barred, takes-no-prisoners, risqué, offensive to the nth degree, raucous, un-PC machine gun. But in its early days, it gave us a positive view of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The basic plot revolves around Stan finding out his new dog Sparky is gay, which he fearfully wants to “fix.” Luckily, a magical appearance by Big Gay Al (imagine a gay Willy Wonka) leads to a greater understanding for Stan. While this may have been bold in ’97, the commentary is barely worth a raised eyebrow now. It’s hard to imagine anybody “learning” much less being offended by this episode’s commentary. While I can’t say for sure, I don’t think the gay community are the biggest fans of South Park or need the cartoon’s support. 

It is interesting that there’s a spectrum of reactions to Stan’s gay dog. On the far side of hatred and non-acceptance, we have Mr. Garrison, a couple of bullies, and Cartman (who’s starting to really show his colors as a nasty kid). But out of these bigots, the worst is not Cartman but Mr. Garrison who teaches his students that homosexuality is evil (and the cannon at this point is that he acts gay to “get chicks”). Although Mrs. Cartman is who Eric sites as telling him gay people are bad, so she’s not off the hook either.

Goin' Down to South Park Guide S 1 E 4: 'Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride'
Comedy Central: South Park

Stan, the protagonist, starts off upset because people are making fun of his dog and he has a misunderstanding of what it means to be gay, but he comes around in the end when he meets Gay Al — which, to be fair, isn’t the worst portrait of cis children coming to terms with the LGBTQ+ community. A lot of children who wouldn’t be hateful on their own are influenced by homophobic society and have never met an openly gay person who can advocate for themselves or the LGBTQ+ community.

Nowadays, South Park saying “being gay is cool” isn’t that helpful much less nuanced, but it was a bolder move in ’97. If South Park was truly just a mean, crude show, it’d exclusively mock gay characters instead of taking the effort to preach acceptance. Granted, Big Gay Al is comical in his over-the-top persona and some could see it as overly stereotypical, but there are many real gay people that revel in qualities that code them as gay. It may seem tame now, but I can imagine Trey and Matt doing this episode to make sure they pissed off any Conservatives who enjoyed the show so far. 

The B plot revolving around football seems like an odd choice at first, but it does tie into Stan and his gay dog, providing a contrast between the gentleness of the gay subplot and the aggressiveness of ‘Murican football (the sport of choice for straight, “red blooded Americans”).  Stan is outright told by Garrison to not worry about his dog because homosexuality is evil and to instead practice football “like a good heterosexual.”

south park 1.4.2
Comedy Central: South Park

However, South Park can’t help itself but to push even more buttons, so there’s an uncomfortable section where news commentators say a load of offensive things, and in particular, say (commentating on South Park’s losses) they haven’t seen a beating that bad since Rodney King. The riots had only happened five years earlier, so this event, which still sticks out among many other instances of police brutality post George Floyd, was a fresh wound. Shocking humor isn’t necessarily bad, but this isn’t even a clever or funny joke. I suppose it could be a commentary on offensive newscasters, but it’s a queasy moment regardless that’s in sharp contrast to the message of acceptance in the A plot.

Animation wise, this episode has some noticeable jankiness. When people walk, they don’t turn their bodies, they laterally waddle off screen. Houses and props are still exceedingly simple in design. However, the plot of this episode makes up for the lack of detail in its scope. We’ve got several big set pieces, like a football game and a boat tour of Big Gay Al’s, which points to Trey, Matt, and their animators constantly pushing their limitations to eventually get better.

Overall, it’s admirable that South Park showed a positive light on the LGBTQ+ community in an effort to piss off Christians, Republicans, and Nazis. While it’s not terribly nuanced nor revelatory today, its glimmer of positivity is refreshing. But I feel there’s more to cover here from the perspective of actual gay people, so let us know in the comments whether this holds up. Regardless, I have no doubt there’ll be plenty more, diverse perspectives brought to South Park over the years due to its relevance and evergreen place in pop-culture.

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