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High-Grade Crude: 'South Park' creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker manipulate a couple of their cut-and-paste characters.

'South Park' turns technical crudity into an asset

By Zack Stentz

WATCHING A 1940s Warner Bros. or Disney cartoon is a bit like touring the inside of a Victorian house. What gets to you isn't so much the sturdy construction that's stood the test of time, but the sheer detail involved. The graceful banisters and hand-carved fireplace mantles evoke a lost world, the pre-mass-production era of highly skilled craftsmen.

Similarly, the Monument Valley-on-mescaline landscapes of a Roadrunner cartoon and the fluid movement of Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny through an opera house are themselves the product of thousands of hours of work by artists doing the sort of precision animation that only Disney can afford these days.

The labor-intensive quality of old-fashioned animation explains the preponderance of crudely drawn, farmed-out-to-Korea productions that now predominate on TV. But as anyone who's ever tried to write a sonnet or shoot a film on credit-card cash advances can attest, artistic achievement often springs from embracing instead of defying limitations.

In fact, Daria, Dr. Katz and King of the Hill derive a large amount of their power from the simplified, stylized forms of animation they use, along with their consistently good writing. The Simpsons is the best-drawn series of the current animated lot, but no one stares long and hard at the backgrounds of Springfield, U.S.A., unless it's to search for an artfully placed sight gag.

FARTHEST ALONG on the crudity scale is this season's South Park, which took fewer than six episodes to emerge as Comedy Central's biggest hit and required viewing for animation fans and hipsters.

Rooted in the creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker's experiences living in suburban Colorado, South Park has static backgrounds and crude cut-out figures. But the deliberately low-tech style is perfectly suited to portraying the antics of the foul-mouthed elementary school kids and pinheaded townspeople who make up South Park's universe.

Even if Michael Eisner lost his mind and gave the project a green light, a South Park animated by Disney wouldn't be a good thing. Lushly detailed and fluidly drawn, Kenny's gruesome deaths in every episode and Mr. Hankey's fecal frolics would go from morbidly funny to merely stomach-churning.

Likewise, no amount of computer-assisted rendering and high-priced drawing talent will make Disney's last three animated features anything more than technical triumphs, because the writing has been so uninspired. Does anyone remember the tune to Hercules' signature song, "Go the Distance"? By way of contrast, after South Park's Christmas show aired, I was humming the episode's heartwarming tune, "Kyle's Mom Is a Stupid Bitch," for weeks.

A large part of the South Park's appeal comes from the sick kick of watching animated characters being very, very bad. It's a timeworn technique. Cartoon transgression has provided the raison d'etre for Ralph Bakshi's (Fritz the Cat, Cool World) career; Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted animated festival is a consistent crowd pleaser; and European comic-book stores have long stocked pornographic parodies of Tintin that finally put to rest all those rumors about the relationship between the boy reporter and grizzled old Captain Haddock.

South Park's most direct ancestor, Saturday Night Live's Mr. Bill Show, foregrounded the sadistic element by dispensing with animation altogether and simply showing, a la the Daffy Duck classic Duck Amuck, the artist's hands as he subjected the titular clay character to various amusing tortures.

South Park, if anything, represents a mainstreaming of the Sick & Twisted aesthetic, with all the strengths and the weaknesses of the format: lots of swearing, antisocial behavior and poop jokes.

To the show's credit, when its characters throw political correctness to the wind and use every slur imaginable, it's in a way that mocks bigotry instead of endorsing it. Kyle is constantly taunted for being Jewish (upon witnessing Our Lord's return to Earth, one of Kyle's Christian friends declares, "Jesus has come back to kill you because you're a Jew!") but in a way that makes one sympathize with him rather than with his tormentors. Even the loathsome Eric Cartman is given a backstory with genuine pathos, as his obesity is shown being fed by an overly protective mother.

A few episodes have been genuinely groundbreaking, especially the one featuring Big Gay Al's Big Gay Animal Sanctuary. In a scenario familiar to many a PFLAG member, young quarterback Stan rejects his new dog for being gay (ER doc and South Park fan George Clooney provides the mutt's whimpers and barks), and the pet runs away ("Maybe he went to a pride march," Cartman speculates), only to find shelter and acceptance at Big Gay Al's.

Stan retrieves his pet and returns to his football game in triumph, declaring to the bewildered crowd in his victory speech, "It's all right to be gay." Between laughs, the episode had more to say about homosexuality in bigoted small-town America than Sling Blade and this season of Ellen put together.

And the Thanksgiving episode, in which the kids mistakenly adopt "Starvin' Marvin," a hungry Ethiopian child, was a long-overdue jab at Save the Children-style piousness and other forms of sanitized, armchair hunger relief.

ALL TOO OFTEN, however, the reaction engendered by South Park is more astonishment ("How are they getting away with this?") than outright mirth. Shocking the squares is all fine and good, even in the comfort and safety of a 10pm perch and a mature-audience-advisory notice.

Try as they might, though, the show's creators have never managed to equal the cheerful blasphemy of their first effort, the much-bootlegged animated greeting card they made for a Hollywood producer. Titled The Spirit of Christmas, it featured Jesus and Santa Claus fighting it out Mortal Kombat-style over who best embodies the holiday.

This season's Yuletide episode went for Ren & Stimpy-style scatology instead, featuring "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo," a dancing, falsetto-voiced turd who comes every year to visit "children with fiber in their diets." Funny stuff, but closer in spirit to an 11-year-old boy's barf jokes than to genuine social satire.

Cynics might even argue that South Park's redlining of the gross-out meter is a purely market-driven move, inspired by the successes of Ren & Stimpy and Beavis & Butt-head Do America, but those of us who remember the dark days of TV animation, pre-Simpsons, find it hard to complain too loud.

And technical crudity doesn't always walk hand in hand with clever writing. The innumerable cartoons produced by Hanna-Barbera in the 1960s--and such '70s successors as Captain Caveman and Hong Kong Phooey--might be remembered fondly by boomers and Xers, but for reasons more related to nostalgia and retro kitsch-o-philia than artistic merit. View them again in their resting place on the Cartoon Network, and you'll see just how witless and shoddily animated childhood favorites like The Jetsons actually were.

Indeed, aside from the witty Space Ghost: Coast to Coast animated talk show and a funny Pulp Fiction parody starring Scooby Doo's Shaggy and Droopy Dog, the Cartoon Network's main purpose is to remind us just how lucky we are to live in the age of South Park, Beavis & Butt-head and, of course, The Simpsons, which is still far and away the wittiest, most original animated program in existence.

(When Rupert Murdoch is called before the Heavenly Creator to be judged, the Almighty will surely pause a moment while weighing The Simpsons' value against blots like Married With Children, keeping the British Tories in power and Neve Campbell's acting career. Then He'll hit the switch that opens the trap door.)

Like The Simpsons, South Park knows that the best way to deflect criticism is by beating critics to the punch through self-mockery.

Both shows often present cartoons-within-cartoons that make the actual programs look wholesome by comparison. You think The Simpsons encourages violence and antisocial behavior? Then get a load of Itchy and Scratchy, which (to steal George Bush's memorable phrase) really does make the Simspons look like the Waltons.

In the same vein, the characters of South Park are themselves fans of a cartoon that is even more crudely drawn and scatological than they are: The Terrance and Philip Show, which elicits gales of laughter from Kyle, Cartman and company for its endless repetition of the same fart joke-- "Next on Terrance and Philip; Terrance farts on Philip's head, and they both laugh!"

In the extreme self-referentiality of Terrance and Philip, South Park's creators have gone beyond self-parody to show us the specter of Sick & Twisted-style animation devouring its own tail.

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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