South Park is an absolute pop culture phenomenon. Since first airing on August 13, 1997, the animated show has always managed to remain culturally relevant by simultaneously parodying and defiining the zeitgeist at any given time.
Watching its growth over the years has been a wonderful thing, from the childish fart gags and crudely drawn amination of the early series to the fantastically sharp-witted satire and still crudely drawn animation of the latter period. The longevity and quality control of the show is pretty much peerless, and it’s made all the more impressive that every episode of the show comes from the minds of just two men, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have managed to stir up such huge outrage and controversy from merely a few paper cut cartoons of schoolchildren.
There have been 317 episode of the show so far to date. Most of them are great, but these, in our opinion, are the ten greatest.
Mecha-Streisand (Season 1, episode 12)
When you go back to the very early seasons of South Park now, it’s amusing to see how quaint they seem today. It’s hard to understand the grief the makers of the show were getting at the time when most of the shows are fairly juvenile. Still, there’s a real charm to those early seasons all the same, and the finest moment from those days is Mecha-Streisand.
The story of the mysterious Triangle of Zinthar turning up in South Park and leading to an epic battle between a robotic Barbra Streisand, actor Sidney Poitier and The Cure’s Robert Smith, who, naturally, turns into a giant moth creature to win the day. It is not only a hilarious parody of Japanese monster movies; it was the first time that the show really let loose on celebrities. As such, it still stands up alongside the more evolved episodes today.
Chef Aid (Season 2, Episode 14)
Another early episode and another packed to the rafters with musical guest spots. When Chef (voiced by soul icon Isaac Hayes) finds out that the latest hit by Alanis Morissette, Stinky Britches, was a song that he wrote years ago, a legal battle ensues, which Chef loses and is forced to pay $2m damages to the record company. His many friends from his time in the music world turn up in South Park to perform at Chef Aid to help raise the funds.
An episode that is mostly remembered thanks to the contribution of Joe Strummer, Meat Loaf, Elton John, Ween, Primus, Rancid, Rick James and Ozzy Osbourne (who bites Kenny’s head off, naturally). But it’s really on this list due to the brilliant parodying of lawyer Johnny Cochran and his Chewbacca defense, and thanks to the Chef Aid album it inspired, which contains many of the songs performed here and other great cuts from System of a Down, Perry Farrell and Master P.
Scott Tenorman Must Die (Season 5, episode 4
Considered by many to be the single greatest episode of South Park, Scott Ternorman Must Die is a landmark piece of grossout writing and storytelling by Parker which created a benchmark for what would come in the show's future. Essentially the story of Cartman hopelessly and endlessly trying to get revenge on 9th grader Scott Tenorman, after he had sold him some pubes.
The show incorporates everything from a guest appearance from Radiohead to a wiener-eating pony in Cartman’s quest, but it’s the payoff at the end (which we won’t spoil) that is so hilariously deranged, that you could never have seen it coming. A perfectly tight, taut, simple script and real evolution of Cartman’s character, this fully deserves its legendary status.
All About Mormons (Season 7, Episode 12)
Parker and Stone have spoken about their experiences growing up in Colorado, with its large Mormon community, some of which inspired this episode. They also went on to pen the hit musical The Book of Mormon, which is far from flattering in its critique.
Here the story of an overly friendly Mormon family who move into town, with the all too perfect Gary befriending Stan and leading to accusations of religious brainwashing, asks all manner of questions about the legitimacy of the Mormon beliefs, but also ends with the writers themselves holding their hands up to their own prejudices.
It’s a fantastically nuanced piece of writing that showcases what South Park does at its very best; skewering literally everyone whilst flagging up the innate hypocrisy in possessing such judgmental attitudes. And if all that escapes you, the “dum-dum-dum-dum-dum" song that describes the Mormon faith is enough to justify its place here.
The Passion of the Jew (Season 8, Episode 3)
On the surface, the show looking at the extreme reactions to the 2004 film The Passion Of The Christ, but really this is here as prophetic look into the future. South Park has mocked plenty of celebrities over the years for their various bizarre behaviors, but they have never predicted how a celeb would be viewed as accurately as they did with The Passion Of The Christ’s director Mel Gibson.
With the kids all having watched the movie, Kyle feels guilt over the way his Jewish ancestors treated Jesus, Cartman sees it as justification for his antisemitic views, whilst Stan and Kenny travel to meet Gibson to get their money back after finding the film to be exploitative crap.
The portrayal of Gibson as a naked, screaming, pant-shitting loon makes everyone realise that maybe we shouldn't be taking him too seriously. And this actually came some time before the actor did his best to destroy his reputation via some drunken misogynistic and anti-Semitic rants. Not only are the writers hilarious, they appear to be pretty good judges of character too.
Make Love, Not Warcraft (Season 10, Episode 6)
Parodying the culture of online gaming, the boys find themselves obsessed with bringing down the most powerful World of Warcraft player on the platform. With the game’s developers Blizzard actually providing some of the animation for the WOW sequences, it provided an essential touch in making the whole thing feel authentic.
While Parker and Stone are clearly poking fun at the stereotype of the typical online gamer, they are a little less withering than usual here, possibly due to their relationship with Blizzard, which continued long after the show.
The result is an episode that remains hilarious, but actually encouraged a lot of people to want to get involved with the game. It also gave us the now instantly recognisable meme of the online PC gamer with absolutely no life, which is still used to bring many an online troll back down to Earth to this very day. So, cheers for that chaps.
With Apologies To Jesse Jackson (Season 11, Episode 1)
It’s unclear exactly when it was that Stan’s father Randy Marsh became more of a central character in South Park, but his evolution into a witless, irrational drunk with a more prominent role in the show has certainly led to some of the more outrageous moments in its history.
In this highly controversial episode Randy unwittingly utters a racial slur on live television, which leads to all manner of chaos; him kissing veteran Black political activist and pastor Jesse Jackson’s backside, being attacked by some anti-racist rednecks and Cartman wrestling a little person topless whilst Disturbed’s Down With the Sickness plays in the background.
Even though it’s as wild as any installment of the show, there is a considered point at the heart of the story, as the writers muse on the nature of the contextualisation of words, white guilt and the policing of language.
The Imaginationland Trilogy (Season 11, Episode 10, 11 & 12)
With the success of Parker and Stone’s forays into cinema via Cannibal! The Musical through to the iconic Team America: World Police, it seems a shame that we haven’t seen more feature length outings from the pair.
The closest we’ve come since then has been the incredible the Imaginationland trilogy. This three parter was an hour in length overall and saw the boys transported to Imaginationland, where endless pop culture references were brilliantly paraded in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and the government try and stop America’s imagination running wild.
There were also welcome returns from Al Gore, Mel Gibson and the Woodland Critters from Season 8’s Christmas special. Despite some brutal imagery and a subplot where Cartman demands to have his balls sucked by Kyle, this is actually a surprisingly sweet story, with Parker and Stone creating a rather touching homage to the pop culture that inspired them.
Medicinal Fried Chicken (Season 14, Episode 3)
A perfect storm of shockingly gross-out humour, satirical commentary and pop culture parody, Medicinal Fried Chicken manages to tick every box of what makes a great South Park episode.
Inspired by the legalisation of medical marijuana and the uptake in applications for eligibility, the show compares the situation with the conversation on potential restrictions on junk food in certain parts of the US. When a KFC is banned and replaced with a medicinal marijuana store it leads to Randy deliberately giving himself testicular cancer, giving us the sight of him bouncing on his massive testicles into the store, and Cartman entering into the black market to sell KFC in scenes that directly replicate Scarface. Again, the ludicrous nature of the situation is brilliantly sent up in the most hilariously OTT way.
200 and 201 (Season 14, Episode 5 & 6)
You may well not have seen either of these episodes in their unedited entirety, if at all, thanks to a blanket ban of the shows in most regions, but 200 and 201 deserve a place on this list for arguably being the most defiant and controversial piece of television in history.
To celebrate the landmark of reaching their 200th show Parker and Stone go all out; bringing back pretty much every character in the show’s history, doubling down on their most contentious moments and weaving it all together in a thought provoking, if ultimately somewhat depressing, statement.
The plot centres around Tom Cruise and several other celebrities demanding they are delivered The Prophet Mohammed by the inhabitants of the town. Iit’s a belligerent refusal to bow down to scare tactics, with Kyle’s fantastically scathing final monologue about the power of violence being one of many censored elements of the show.
Stone and Parker were furious at Comedy Central’s refusal to allow it out unedited, although the threats from radical Muslim groups and the heightened security needed at their headquarters in the aftermath suggests that the caution was well founded. TV rarely gets as brave or resistant as this.