10 Times South Park Was Ahead Of The Curve

As of this August, "South Park" will have been satirizing and offending the masses for 25 years. Armed with a simple animated style and a fearless approach to comedy, "South Park" has never stopped being one of the most controversial shows on TV, and oftentimes, one of the most prophetic.

The world has changed a lot since the show debuted in 1997, which has forced the show to evolve with the changing times. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of earlier season episodes have aged like cottage cheese left on the sidewalk on a hot, summer day. There are times when "South Park" completely missed the mark (like dismissing the impact of climate change in "ManBearPig," which has since been addressed in canon) but "South Park" has also enjoyed a reputation as a deservedly groundbreaking series, leading cultural conversations that America often wasn't ready to have at the time of release.

In honor of the series' 25 year anniversary, here are 10 times when "South Park" was ahead of the curve.

The Ring

The Disney Tween Machine is a powerful force, and "South Park" was highlighting their manipulation tactics long before stars like Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus went public with the nefarious ways Disney controlled their lives as children. In the 2009 episode "The Ring," Kenny McCormick makes a vow of celibacy in order to appease his new girlfriend, who is a massive fan of the Jonas Brothers. The episode is a scathing satire of Disney's hypocritical practices of controlling the wholesome public image of their stars, while simultaneously manipulating the budding sexual desires of tween girl fans for profit. The episode is wholly in favor of The Jonas Brothers getting the f*** out of the House of Mouse, who have gone on record (now that they're allowed to) praising the episode.

Purity culture is a gross tool of manipulation rooted in Puritanical and oppressive belief systems, with "South Park" acknowledging it five years before the ABC "Purity Balls" special and a full decade before Blumhouse and Hulu's "Pure" episode of "Into the Dark" presented the practice as the horror it truly is. The episode may have been centered solely on Disney, but the messaging was a foreshadow of cultural conversations to come.

Doubling Down

Barely a year into his years as president, the Trump administration proved to be as inept and ridiculous as anyone with common-sense could have predicted, which only made his supporters even more passionate about their initial support of the mango Mussolini. In "Doubling Down," we see Heidi Turner finally break up with the sociopathic bigot Eric Cartman, only for all of her friends to mock her relentlessly in the aftermath. Heidi made the right choice by admitting that she made a mistake by dating him, but as her friends ruthlessly make fun of her for having dated him at all, Heidi starts second-guessing her feelings and eventually doubles down by getting back together with him, and becoming even more dedicated to him.

This behavior was directly inspired by Trump voters, who for fear of admitting they'd made a mistake, only doubled down on their support of the Cheeto-fleshed fascist. This exact behavior has been cited as a major reason why so many conservatives have fallen into the full-tilt conspiracy world of QAnon. This episode of "South Park" didn't give a pass to Trump supporters, but did try to open up a nuanced conversation about why his fan base continued to support him no matter how embarrassing and indefensible he became ... conversations we still aren't having as we inch closer to his inevitable run for reelection in 2024.

The Return of Chef

It has long since been believed that Isaac Hayes, who voiced Chef for nine seasons, left "South Park" because he was offended by the show's depiction of Scientology in the episode "Trapped in the Closet," but that's not what happened. According to his son, Hayes did not leave the show of his own accord. "At the time, everybody around my father was involved in Scientology — his assistants, the core group of people, so someone quit 'South Park' on Isaac Hayes' behalf. We don't know who," he said.

In the episode "The Return of Chef," Parker and Stone used old voice tracks in place of Hayes, and the episode portrays Chef as having been brainwashed by an evil organization — a clear stand-in for Scientology. The episode doesn't place any blame on Chef or Hayes for leaving the show, instead blaming the institution that ruined their friend. The episode debuted in 2006, a full decade before the documentary series "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath" would bring the organization's strange practices to public light. It's easy to view "The Return of Chef" as an episode mocking Hayes for being a Scientologist, but it's such an obvious takedown of an oppressive institution with cult-like behavior.


"HUMANCENTiPAD" is known by most for being the episode at the center of "Six Days to Air," the documentary about how each episode of "South Park" is made, with the team writing, performing, and animating a new episode in less than a week. Released in 2011, the story satirizes the reports about how tracking software is built into Apple products, and how no one actually reads the ridiculously long end-user license agreements on the products we buy, thereby giving corporations permission to do just about anything. Of course, because it's "South Park," that includes being surgically fused to an iPad through the use of a "Human Centipede." In the documentary, Parker and Stone seem to have a neutral opinion on the final episode, which has only gotten better with age.

It's genuinely alarming how much stuff we "agree" to by simply not actually reading the terms of service, and it's only gotten worse. In the years that followed the episode's debut, there have been joke agreements like GameStop owning your soul, or the seriously dangerous ways data brokers are allowed to harvest and sell our information. This is another example of "South Park" noticing a dangerous trend and calling it out early, only for society to ignore the warning and dig the hole even deeper for us all.

The Passion of the Jew

I fully believed that this episode absolutely skewering Mel Gibson took place after his infamous antisemitic rant, so imagine my shock when I realized "The Passion of the Jew" aired two years prior. The episode was meant to highlight the controversy surrounding "The Passion of the Christ," by painting Mel Gibson as a stark raving antisemitic madman. Mel Gibson's history of antisemitic behavior is well documented, but it wasn't until his 2006 arrest that the mainstream public really understood just how deeply bigoted his beliefs were. Emphasis on "mainstream public," because the Jewish community had been speaking out against him for years but were ignored.

"South Park" called him out for what he is, and refused to budge on the antisemitism blatantly on display in "The Passion." "South Park" has an extremely complicated legacy with the Jewish community considering an overwhelming amount of media illiterate people view Eric Cartman as a hero, and not the bigoted sociopath he is, but this episode is one example where they really got it right. "The Passion of the Jew" was praised by both the Anti-Defamation League and the The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, which called it "perhaps the most biting critique of 'The Passion' to date."

Holiday Special

The internet has revolutionized existence in ways that we'll never fully be able to comprehend, both good and bad. In the Randy Marsh focused "Holiday Special," he goes on a crusade to harass anyone who celebrates Columbus Day, as the holiday was named for a slave-trading, genocidal creep who was a garbage navigator. Unfortunately for Randy, there are images online of him dressing up as Christopher Columbus a few years prior, which sends him on a self-victimizing tailspin. This episode was a generalized look at the way white people love to center themselves as victims when called out for problematic past behaviors, but inadvertently revealed the blueprint for how so many people in real life would react when going through the same.

Randy kisses an Indigenous man to get his saliva in his mouth in order to "trick" his "DNA and Me" results to allow him to claim Native American ancestry to dismiss his history of dressing like Columbus, which feels an awful lot like the "Victoria Secret Karen" who threw herself to the ground and feigned a panic attack after she was caught assaulting a Black woman on video. Nothing on the internet ever truly goes away, and it's important that people learn to take accountability for past transgressions, and repair harm accordingly. This 2017 episode predicted the trend moving forward and satirized it before it became commonplace.

The Hobbit

Rewatching this season 17 episode from 2013 was a doozy. "The Hobbit" is a Wendy-centric episode, and focuses on the way that Photoshop and image manipulation has led to a seriously warped perception of body image and beauty standards. The episode harshly criticizes the influence Kim Kardashian's perfectly curated image has had on society by implying that she's actually just a Hobbit photoshopped to look beautiful, and sees Wendy on a personal crusade to make people aware of the stranglehold photoshop and image filters now have on the world. 2013 marked the launch of the popular FaceTune app, an image modifying app that allows people to easily (and sometimes very convincingly) restructure their entire face. Wendy Testaburger tried to warn us.

We've gotten so used to seeing ourselves filtered out, that people genuinely no longer know what they actually look like. Wendy even shows Butters step by step how Photoshop can change someone's appearance but it doesn't matter, Butters immediately falls in love with the Photoshopped version of Lisa Berger, makes her his girlfriend, and the whole school believes she looks like her photoshopped image, even when the real Lisa Berger is right in front of them. Plenty of people have been talking about the dangers of photo manipulation since the early 2000s, but "South Park" was ahead of the curve in acknowledging the very real ways it can legitimately warp a person's perception of reality.

Britney's New Look

In the wake of the #FreeBritney movement, there has been a massive shift in the cultural conversations surrounding the way pop stars and other celebrity women were treated during the aughts. In the season 12 episode "Britney's New Look," the boys of "South Park" reinterpret Shirley Jackson's harrowing short story "The Lottery," as a means to criticize how the music industry treats young women as disposable. When the rest of the world was mocking Cara Cunningham's* viral video "Leave Britney Alone!" the guys at "South Park" were agreeing with her. Sure, they parody the video and Cunningham's appearance in it because it is "South Park" afterall, but the message of "Britney's New Look" is clear: Leave the girl alone, you're killing her.

Critics at the time disliked the episode because they felt it wasn't funny enough, which is a huge misconception a lot of people have about "South Park." It's obvious that Parker and Stone did not think what was happening to Britney Spears was something to laugh at, and their message clearly went over the heads of critics and audiences alike in 2008. They also painfully predicted that the next "victim" of this machine would be Miley Cyrus, who was still "Hannah Montana" at this point in her career.

*She transitioned. She has a new name. There, saved you a Google.

The Jeffersons

Casual "South Park" fans likely remember the bevy of Michael Jackson jokes made during "The Jeffersons," especially the visual of his melted face. What they likely don't remember is the episode's central story about police unfairly targeting Black people and framing them for crimes they didn't commit. Despite the horrific visual gag of Michael Jackson's face falling off, "The Jeffersons" is extremely empathetic to the way Michael Jackson, and more importantly, his children, were subject to public ridicule in the 2000s. The episode was part of season 8 in 2004, many years before there was a widespread cultural reckoning with the systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

Black people have been talking about these systemic issues longer than anyone reading this article has been alive, but it took until the age of cell phone videos for mainstream entertainment to get on board and learn a thing or two about systemic oppression. Of course, "The Jeffersons" is not a perfect episode by any means, but realizing that "South Park" of all shows was one of the biggest mainstream shows to call out the racist criminal pipeline was oddly sobering. Jackson would pass away a few years after this episode's release, which only makes his portrayal even sadder, as the enabling of his eccentric behavior is believed by many to have contributed to his untimely death.

Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride

"Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" was not only nominated for an Emmy Award and a GLAAD Award, but aired during the first season of "South Park," a full year before "Will & Grace." The episode focused on Stan Marsh struggling to accept that his dog Sparky (George Clooney) is gay. Sparky ends up finding a community at Big Gay Al's Big Gay Animal Sanctuary, a group home for abandoned gay animals. "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" was groundbreaking not only in its messaging about LGBTQIA+ acceptance, but because Parker and Stone fough to make sure the episode went to air, believing in the episode's important story.

On the commentary track for "South Park: The Complete First Season," Parker said that Comedy Central executives had more concern about this episode than anything else in the first season, and it took a "big fight" to get it made. TV Guide refused to use the actual title out of fear that it would offend, and instead listed it as "Big Al's Boat Ride." The episode came under fire for making an antisemitic joke about Kyle during a football game, with many not realizing the line was mocking actual sports commentators who had been reprimanded in real life for making the same comment live on air. The duo consider "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" their favorite episode of season 1, and believe it's when people realized "South Park" had more to say than just fart jokes and kids cursing. "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" is super, thanks for asking!