South Park is one of those shows that appears to consistently defy logic and reason in relation to television as we understand it. Generally speaking, any show that has passed its 20th season would be long past the expiration point, even for the most forgiving of fans, but South Park continues to prove that with a certain level of cultural relevancy, even an animated comedy series can stay fresh for long enough to reach the drinking age.
This is quite a feat when you actually consider it for a moment. Take a few of its colleagues for example: The Simpsons, the one-time reigning champion of irreverent satire, has become a pale ghost of itself as it staggers through it’s mid-20’s, while Family Guy ran out of steam ages before it reached even the 15th birthday it’s currently headed for. The realm of television is not a good medium for exploring extended storytelling with the same creative minds and casts of characters, and yet, here we are.
With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the greatest South Park episode ever produced, one that shockingly occurred before the mid-season break of it’s 15th year. “You’re Getting Old,” the episode in question, concerns South Park‘s erstwhile main character, Stan Marsh, a 4th grader who has reached a sort of breaking point in his life without even realizing it.
The episode begins with the introduction of “tween wave,” a new genre of electronic music that is all the rage with kids and teenagers nationwide. Of course, it sounds like shit to adults, but that just makes the kids love it even more. It’s an old adage, and one that anyone who has passed from one age category to another in their lives will recognize almost immediately. We’ve all heard phrases like “I used to be really into that” or “I remember loving that as a kid.” Most of us have probably even heard similar sentiments from our own lips a time or two, which begs the question: what happened?
Why is it that things we once loved eventually become embarrassments that we’d rather forget or things we can barely stand even as little as a few years after we first enjoyed them? This was the difficult question that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were attempting to tackle over a mere 20 minutes, late one Wednesday night on Comedy Central.
As it turns out, Stan finds himself siding with the adults the next time he puts on his earphones to listen to some tween wave. However, in one of those brilliant South Park double entendres, the music literally begins to sound like shit. As Stan struggles to enjoy one song after another, skipping tracks in a panic, he finds every drop and down beat mixed in with a healthy helping of farts and diarrhea.
This little trick is reflective of one of South Park‘s greatest tricks, that being the subversion of a popular phrase or situation with its literal match. The fact that people so commonly speak in metaphors, analogies, and turns of phrase makes it especially succinct (and funny) when the terms themselves are taken to task.
Soon after, Stan finds himself seeing a doctor, as his condition worsens. Even the guidance counselor shuts him down in the middle of a session, telling him “you’re really starting to bum me out Stan.” Never fear, though – the doctor has a diagnosis for people like Stan: being a cynical asshole. He explains that when you reach a certain age, things you used to enjoy begin to look and sound like shit. Even people you used to like can start to seem like pieces of shit to you.
The painful reality of this begins to sink in for Stan a few days later when he notices his friends ditching him. When they’re caught, Kenny and Cartman attempt to shrug it off in characteristic fashion, while his closest friend, Kyle, takes the time to level with him. Kyle puts it to Stan in no uncertain terms: he’s no fun anymore, and is actively bringing down anyone who spends time with him. They ditched him because they wanted to have fun that day, and not be bogged down by Stan’s negativity.
The brutality of this scene, and this realization, is clear to anyone who has ever struggled through mental illness in their lives. It’s hard for people to be friends with you when they don’t want to be around you, and a situation like this is a clear cutting point between what you might call a good friend and a great friend. Being that Kyle is closer to the latter, he does include Stan in the day’s events, which center around a trip to the movie theater. Unfortunately, Stan can’t even get through the trailers without trashing on the (definitely bad) offerings. Mr. Popper’s Penguins and Jack and Jill are among the previews Stan is forced to sit through before being confronted by one of the best comedic set-ups ever adapted to the screen: “The President of the United States is…a DUCK!?”
This scene is a clear highlight for the episode, as it exposes the definitive line between a maturing Stan and the friends he’s leaving behind. While Stan scoffs at trailers that legitimately end with lines like “Fuck you! You’ll pay to see it!” his friends can only echo their sentiments that he’s ruining their fun…which he is. There’s no clear division of right and wrong, no heroes or villains; they’re just friends who have changed, maybe too much to ever reconnect again.
This level of shit getting suddenly – and saddeningly – real continues as Stan heads home, only to find that his parents are fighting over his father’s latest madcap, mid-life crisis, this time to enter the tween wave music scene as a performing artist that just “shits his britches” into a microphone. When both partners realize the truth of the fight, they let it out in shouts that soon turn to a quiet admittance: “I’m not happy…and I haven’t been in a long time.”
As the episode closes, Fleetwood Mac’s mournful tribute “Snow-Covered Hill” plays as Stan’s family packs their things and heads out of town, while the rest of South Park remains blissfully unaware of their pain. Aaaaaaaand cut to credits…
It’s brutal, even for a show that has no problem with making a tasteless joke at the expense of even the most serious and sacrosanct of sacred lambs. South Park has never lacked for a beating heart under its ridiculous exterior, and that’s why an episode with this kind of harrowing message can succeed, and succeed it does.
Though the continuation, “Ass Burgers,” does a lot to undo what makes “You’re Getting Old” so powerfully effective, it actually comes home with an even more stifling conclusion: that the broad, sweeping change you’re making to fix your life might also be just as irrelevant in the grand scheme of things as your pain was just a short while back.
Has South Park ever been as funny as it was during this sublime stretch of 20-40 minutes? Well, it probably has, but it’s never been as simultaneously dark and sad with its subject, which is why this will always be, at least in the opinion of this writer, South Park‘s finest hour.
Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about games. Through some miracle he’s still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there’s hope for him, there’s hope for everyone. He’s the Features editor for Goomba Stomp, and can be found weekly on the Random Encounters podcast.