South Park exploded into the national consciousness in 1997, becoming the most popular, outrageous, and controversial animated series to hit airwaves since Beavis and Butt-Head. The brainchild of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park began in 1995 as a five-minute animated short commissioned by a Fox network executive and distributed throughout the industry as a video "Christmas card." The short, titled The Spirit of Christmas, was endlessly dubbed as it passed hands throughout Hollywood, becoming an underground sensation; ironically, Parker and Stone -- fearing that their depiction of hand-to-hand combat between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ would incense many viewers -- did not even add their names to the finished product to avoid controversy.
The Spirit of Christmas introduced both South Park's distinctively primitive animation style -- its figures and backgrounds all created on construction paper cutouts -- and the show's primary characters, foul-mouthed third-graders Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny. Stone and Parker ultimately signed with the cable network Comedy Central to produce a weekly South Park series that debuted on August 13, 1997 with the episode Cartman Gets an Anal Probe; seemingly overnight the program became a national phenomenon, its characters even appearing on the cover of Newsweek magazine. The series' raunchy language and off-color plot lines also became the target of considerable controversy, which of course only made it more popular, particularly among the younger set.
By early 1998, South Park was everywhere -- the highest-rated program in Comedy Central history, it was also one of the highest-rated series on cable, drawing unprecedented viewership. A deluge of merchandising soon flooded the market, including T-shirts and home videos. Rumors also circulated about a feature film and, in fact, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was released in 1999. The film achieved the distinction of "Most Swearing in an Animated Film" in the 2001 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records, while also receiving a Best Original Song nomination for "Blame Canada" at the 72nd annual Academy Awards. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut did actually win a number of film society awards, including Best Animated Feature from the New York Film Critics Circle, Best Music from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and Best Original Score from the Chicago Film Critics Association -- and the tune "Uncle Fucka" won an MTV Music Award for Best Musical Performance.
South Park's connection to the pop music scene was a major element of the series from its inception -- Primus' Les Claypool performed the theme song, Isaac Hayes voiced the recurring character Chef, and guest stars included the Cure's Robert Smith -- and so it came as little surprise when Chef Aid: The South Park Album was released in late 1998. The record featured contributions from Elton John, Master P, and Ween, among others. Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics -- an album released in conjunction with a series episode of the same name -- followed in 1999, the year that the South Park crew also premiered on the silver screen. Meanwhile, the TV series continued unrepentant into the new millennium, marking its 200th episode -- appropriately titled 200 -- on April 14, 2010. The episode led to threats from a radical Islamic website against Parker and Stone for its depiction of the Prophet Muhammed in a bear suit. ~ Jason Ankeny