Trey Parker and Matt Stone's ode to the First Amendment would get massacred by modern film critics.
One of my least favorite movie review cliches is to say something is “more relevant now.”
Was it not relevant at all when it was first released? Usually it indicates that the critic is too lazy to research the historical context of a film, or is simply using the movie to reinforce their ideology.
Ever notice how think pieces on “A Face in the Crowd” and “They Live” sprout like crabgrass after every election? Unfortunately I have no choice but to recourse to such cliches when discussing “South Park: Bigger, Longer &Uncut.”
When I first saw it exactly 20 years ago, I was too busy laughing to care about the message. Watching a special 20th anniversary screening, I still laughed but it was tempered by the awareness that the problems of censorship have only worsened instead of improved.
Most contemporary reviews praised the movie for its courage but today, with most calls for censorship and prudery coming from the left, it would likely get savaged.
When “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone made the film, they were drawing on their own personal experiences with censorship. Their first movie, the fitfully funny but still awkward and amateurish “Orgazmo,” had somehow been slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating despite being totally innocuous beyond its porno industry setting.
They deliberately tried to see just how far they could push the MPAA by breaking “Scarface’s” record for onscreen profanity.
NOTE: The following clips from “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut” feature mature language.
At the time, the left still held on to the notion of free speech absolutism and just three years earlier, “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” had been hailed as the best movie of 1996 by many of them (as well as by National Review, and by the infamously acerbic John Simon, no less).
That film was viewed as a direct rebuke to the Republican Revolution of 1994, as was 1998’s overrated “Pleasantville.” Unlike those other movies, “Bigger, Longer & Uncut” was made after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and the predominant sentiment on the Left was that it was no one business but their own and we were racing towards a new puritanism.
They wouldn’t be this libertarian again until the Katie Hill scandal broke.
While they might not be outright conservatives on the level of Johnny Ramone, they nonetheless share a similar punk sensibility that rejects not just leftist authoritarianism but its basic pieties.
Let’s face it, Cartman’s catchphrase “screw you guys! I’m going home” is as authentically punk as you can get.
When they made “Team America: World Police,” many critics revealed their true “free speech for me but not for thee” colors. Remember, this was a time when objecting to the smug grandstanding of the Dixie Chicks was viewed as tantamount to Kristallnacht, and there was constant hysteria about the squelching of dissent despite the omnipresent protest rallies.
Most critics with integrity praised the movie; those who put politics above art panned it. It was perfectly OK for Michael Moore to make a wretched documentary full of obvious lies and innuendo, but depicting Moore as a suicide bomber to mock his desperate attempts at sabotaging the political system was clearly beyond the pale.
But back to “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”
The movie was one of three key turning points in the growth and maturity of the show. The first had been Terrance and Phillip, an Andy Kauffman style prank on fans hoping to learn the identity of Cartman’s father.
Although the viewer outrage helped fuel the movie’s plot and inspire many later series jokes poking fun at fan overreactions, it was also clearly a sobering experience as well.
They realized that although the characters up until then were as flat and two-dimensional as the paper cutouts they were modeled on, they had somehow struck a personal chord with viewers.
Later episodes “Free Hat” and the “Imaginationland” saga dealt specifically with this, on how fictional stories and personages become so entrenched in the public consciousness that their creators can no longer claim exclusive ownership.
The third turning point was “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” still widely hailed as their finest episode and certainly one of their funniest. Not only was it their first episode using new software that would greatly improve the level of animation, but it marked their permanent move into character focused comedy.
Cartman’s persona shifted from being merely a pint-sized Archie Bunker to an evil cross between Leo Gorcey and “Spanky” McFarland, with Butters later taking on the role of both Huntz Hall and Alfalfa Switzer.
“Scott Tenorman” proved to be the show’s “Annie Hall” moment. For the next eight years, Parker and Stone would continue to mature into truly perceptive satirists, with their best episodes during this period bearing as much resemblance to their early shows as Woody Allen’s later films did to “Bananas” and “Take the Money and Run.”
Coming between these two episodes, the movie helped Parker and Stone realize their creative potential. For the first time, they were able to experiment freely with animation, but more importantly, it gave them a chance to flex their musical talents.
The songs are delightful pastiches, some parodying two sources at once. For instance, “La Resistance” spoofs both “Les Miserables” and “West Side Story” and Mr. Mackey’s big number crosses “The Sound of Music” with “The Music Man.” “Blame Canada” spoofs George Cohan’s “Over There,” specifically the stirring rendition in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
“I’m Super” appropriately parodies campy Esther Williams aquatic ballets in a variety of wartime films.
Although I love musicals, I hadn’t seen enough of them at the time to recognize many of their homages, which only made this retrospective viewing more enjoyable.
It’s somewhat jarring to see how different the movie is from later seasons. For one thing, the animation, except for the CGI depiction of Hell, is much cruder than in later seasons of the show. It looks particularly quaint compared to that in such episodes as “Good Times With Weapons” and “Major Boobage.”
Butters is a mere background character with no dialogue, and Gregory was likely created with the intention of being a major character in subsequent episodes. Instead, this was his first and final appearance, although I have a fan theory that he aged in real time and became PC Principal.
Then there’s the presence of the late Isaac Hayes as Chef, a wonderful character who got me into the show in the first place. Hayes obviously has a lot of fun with the role, and it’s unfortunate his departure proved so acrimonious.
But that was just another case of the creators sticking to their guns and not bowing to any pressure to be silenced.
Hays left in protest over an episode mocking Scientology, although his reaction was positively cordial compared to that of Tom Cruise. As Parker and Stone remarked at the time, they have mocked every faith and belief system with equal impunity and irreverence.
Not even agnostics have been safe.
What has kept their humor from getting mean spirited is that while they will mock beliefs they consider to be wrong or silly, and certain individual practitioners (their take down of psychic fraud John Edward is a personal favorite), they usually avoid indicting groups of people as a whole.
Their worldview is not unlike that of Zappa, who saw issues not as right versus left or right versus wrong, but freedom versus fascism and reason versus the ridiculous.
In “Bigger, Longer & Uncut” they properly indict a belief that is genuinely dangerous: the idea that we would be safer and better off with some forms of speech being banned.
Around the time the movie came out, I read “Kindly Inquisitors” by Jonathan Rauch, a book that has had a tremendous impact on my own views. As both a Jew and a gay man, Rauch does not deny some forms of speech are hurtful, but, he says, he would rather live in a world where people are free to develop norms of politeness instead of having government decide for them.
Because once you impose regulations on some speech, you have justified regulating all of it. Although Parker and Stone would revisit this theme repeatedly, most notably in the two-part “Cartoon Wars” episode, they first articulated it in the movie.
The race to blame fiction for real life tragedy and to ban free expression “for the children” only leads to more conflict and violence. We see this happening in the real world right now, with contemporary cancel culture doing nothing to improve tolerance and civility, and only intensifying the martyr complex of actual bigots.
Parker and Stone would later reach their creative peak with Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon,” where their love for musicals was most evident.
Unfortunately this was also the point where the quality of “South Park” badly slipped. Concentrating on their Broadway success, season 15 was their weakest since the third, when their energies were poured into the movie.
Only one really outstanding episode was produced, “Broadway Bro-Down, ” and not surprisingly, it was co-written with “Book of Mormon” collaborator Robert Lopez. One also senses that from the moment the Obama era began, they were struggling to keep up with rapid pace of social justice silliness.
The show has mostly recovered and continues to be the bravest show on TV, taking on Hollywood appeasement of Chinese censors full throttle, and mercilessly mocking literal PC babies, but it no longer goes for belly laughs.
They’re clearly more interested in developing character and story arcs, and seeing how the humor can emerge from them. At times, it seems as distant from its early seasons as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was from “Lou Grant.”
“South Park” is a different show than it was 20 years ago at the height of its craze, and in many ways a better one. Even the show’s merchandise is better (if you don’t believe me, after you’ve played “The Stick of Truth,” try playing “Chef’s Luv Shack”).
Parker and Stone have matured into truly thoughtful writers and remain articulate proponents of the right to laugh at anyone and anything. Alas, defending freedom of speech is no longer a laughing matter.
A.A. Kidd is a sessional university instructor in Canada who proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He appreciates classic movies, hard science fiction and bad puns.