Retrospective

25 years ago, the worst sci-fi TV pilot ever launched a pop culture phenomenon

Revisiting South Park’s first episode, the cutout animation comedy showed little of the genius ahead.

“A witless offering,” slammed The Hollywood Reporter. “If only the kids’ jokes were as fresh as their mouths,” Entertainment Weekly remarked. “A general air of malicious unpleasantness,” blasted The Washington Post. The scathing response to its opening episode in August 1997 suggested South Park wouldn’t make it past a single season, let alone still be churning out episodes at 25. And yet, this month, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker will appear alongside the likes of Ween and Primus for a concert celebrating the cartoon’s silver anniversary.

The above review excerpts would suggest the press, perhaps perturbed by seeing a bunch of animated third-graders out-curse Andrew Dice Clay, acted in a reactionary manner. But if you revisit “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” in all its adolescent puerility, you kinda have to “respect their authoritah.”

Indeed, while South Park would eventually become renowned for skewering, subverting, and satirizing almost every aspect of modern society, its Comedy Central debut was little more than an excuse to repeatedly utter the word “dildo.” And its animation style is so rudimentary it now seems remarkable the episode was deemed fit to air.

You have to cut its creators (particularly the more artistically-minded Parker) some slack for the latter. The creative pair spent three months holed up in a Denver studio painstakingly cutting and pasting hundreds of paper cutouts to produce just 22 minutes of TV. (The initial edit was nearly half an hour!). It’s why the non-speaking characters, including future favorite Butters, barely move and why the pilot looks as DIY as the viral festive shorts that first put the gang on the map.

Cartman in less familiar Kewpie doll mode.Comedy Central

Both Fox and Comedy Central courted Stone and Parker after “The Spirit of Christmas” nearly broke the early internet. Parker later admitted they felt the pressure to “push things maybe further than we should” in a bid to repeat the short film’s success. That’s no doubt why you only have to wait 6 seconds to hear a sex toy reference, why irritable bus driver Mrs. Crabtree is repeatedly described as a “bitch,” and why the central storyline revolves around an alien life force inserting a probe up Cartman’s butt.

“We made three people cry.”

Given these facts, it’s little wonder the first of South Park’s 318 episodes (and counting) fared dismally in test screenings. In fact, Brian Graden, the TV executive who helped develop the show, told Entertainment Weekly in an oral history that “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” was responsible for the worst focus group he’s ever seen. “We made three people cry,” recounted Graden. “They were saying that it’s inappropriate for children to say those kinds of things.”

Cartman and Kyle in South Park’s pilot episode.Comedy Central

Following the test screenings, Comedy Central demanded a different ending, resulting in another six days of laborious construction-paper work for Parker and Stone. These last-minute changes seem unlikely to have placated those tearful viewers. After all, the debut’s finale still includes Cartman farting out a giant satellite dish and Stan inspecting the contents of his vomit with school crush Wendy Testaburger. It also involves Kenny getting attacked by extraterrestrials, trampled on by a herd of cows, and fatally run over by a cop car. (At the time, no one knew he would magically regenerate only to suffer a similarly dark fate every episode.)

However, it wasn’t just the Middle America-riling, gross-out humor that left critics saying: “South Park is bad, mkay.” Most of the more innocuous jokes — such as Kyle instructing his baby brother Ike to jump to safety (“Do your imitation of David Caruso’s career”) or Cartman’s discovery that Scott Baio has given him pinkeye — fall flat, at least upon modern rewatch. (Nothing ages a comedy more than a shoehorned pop culture reference.) While the more absurdist touches — such as when Cartman turns into an “I Love to Singa”-singing kewpie doll — feel like Stone and Parker were simply throwing jokes at the wall to see what stuck.

Admittedly, some things did stick. From “Screw you guys, I’m going home,” to “Oh my God! They killed Kenny! You bastards,” South Park’s debut episode spawned some of the show’s greatest catchphrases and running gags. Many of them double as the perfect introduction to some of the show’s greatest supporting characters. Officer Barbrady’s typical cluelessness: “This is nothing out of the unusual. Cows turn themselves inside out all the time.” Chef’s inappropriate sex jam. Mr. Garrison’s (and Mr. Hat’s) alternative history lesson: “Christopher Columbus helped the Indians win against Frederick Douglass and freed the Hebrews from Napoleon and discovered France.”

Chef just before launching into his first inappropriate sex jam.Comedy Central

But these flashes of genius are few and far between. You can certainly understand why Comedy Central was reluctant to commit to a full series. Only the much-improved and computer-animated follow-up “Weight Gain 4000,” which also deviated from a planned The X-Files-esque narrative arc, convinced execs the show had potential.

Not that its audience was so discerning. Indeed, while executive Brian Graden had hoped the premiere would attract around 200,000 viewers, the Nielsen ratings came in at a whopping 889,000. By the time “Cartman’s Mom Is a Dirty Slut” finally resolved its Season 1 cliffhanger, South Park was pulling in approximately 6.4 million! Thankfully, Parker and Stone had realized that laughs, narrative, and shock value don’t have to be mutually exclusive.