Since its inception nearly two decades ago, South Park has been a mouthpiece for its two irreverent, hilarious creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. After 19 seasons (and just starting its twentieth) it’s difficult for any series to remain fresh, but Parker and Stone have managed it partially by returning again and again to the well of popular culture and current events for episode inspiration. Always fearless and eager to offend, South Park has made a habit of taking down major figures in the media and news, easily alternating between gleefully silly personal attacks and pointed satire for their weekly skewerings of celebrities that take themselves far too seriously. Some caricatures outmatch the others, so we’re here to discuss the most ruthless, often spot-on parodies of real people South Park has pulled in the course of its 19 years on the air.
1. Osama Bin Laden
If there’s anyone who’s ever deserved South Park‘s ridicule, it’s the late Al Qaeda leader partly responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks. Airing less than two months after the attacks, “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants” took on the debilitating media frenzy over terrorism that took hold of the nation at that time before sending the boys to impoverished Afghanistan on a wild goat chase where they soon comes across the terrorist leader. Bin Laden is depicted as totally insane, and he quickly becomes the victim of a series of Looney Tunes-esque tortures. Sometimes the best way to react to purposeful evil is to laugh at it, and Parker and Stone turned this unquestionably evil man into one hell of a joke.
2. Tom Cruise
“Trapped in the Closet” makes a running joke of questioning Tom Cruise’s sexual orientation (as well as John Travolta’s), confining the dead-eyed celebrity to a little closet so other characters repeatedly plead for him to come out. It’s a funny take on the dead-eyed celebrity’s strangely public romantic history and his self-seriousness, but the episode is most fearless for tackling the so-called religion of Cruise and so many other Hollywood elites–Scientology.
The episode doesn’t just poke fun at the manipulative tactics and glorified sci-fi mythos of Scientology, it reveals many of the religion’s most private beliefs that are normally kept secret to slowly lure newcomers into the belief system, leading to a controversy surrounding re-airing the episode when Tom Cruise allegedly threatened to boycott an upcoming press tour for Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom unless the episode was shelved.
3. Isaac Hayes
“Trapped in the Closet” wound up even offending one of the series’ own cast members, soul singer and Chef voice actor Isaac Hayes, who is a Scientologist himself. He quit the show shortly after the episode aired and he suffered a stroke. The official press release cited South Park’s treatment of religion, but Parker and Stone insist Hayes left due to their treatment of Scientology.
“[We] never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we [lampooned] Scientology,” Stone said. “He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin.” Hayes’ character appeared one last time in next season’s “The Return of Chef,” his dialogue unnaturally scrapped together from earlier recordings to show that the beloved character had been brainwashed by Scientology. Chef dies at the end of the episode by being struck by lightning, burned, impaled, shot, and mauled.
4. Mel Gibson
South Park made fun of Mel Gibson before his public breakdowns and rants made it commonplace. The episode “Passion of the Jew” found the boys seeing Gibson’s wildly successful religious film The Passion of the Christ. While Cartman is inspired by the film to fashion himself into a neo-Hitler figure and rally townsfolk to eradicate the Jewish people, Stan and Kenny despise the movie as an exercise in boring, relentless violence and track Mel Gibson down in order to demand their money back. Not only does Gibson not comply, he goes completely insane, madly chasing the boys down and donning costumes from his films before eventually turning off his fans by smearing excrement everywhere — an interesting image from an episode whose ultimate message is that Christians should simply follow Jesus’s teachings rather than focusing on how he died.
5. Barbara Streisand
One of South Park’s earliest episode-long takedowns of a self-involved celebrity remains one of their best. To lampoon pop singer and actress Barbara Streisand’s well-known diva tendencies, Parker and Stone essentially turned her into a giant mechanical beast straight out of a Japanese Kaiju film, obtaining the mythic “Triangle of Zinthar” by torturing Cartman with her singing voice. She uses the triangle to transform into the unholy dinosaur-robot hybrid “Mecha-Streisand” before she is eventually defeated by The Cure’s frontman Robert Smith. The first season episode is effectively a prototypical one for South Park’s standard of making fun of real-life events by inserting them into a cliched film genre.
It was only a matter of time before South Park took on one of America’s most baffling reality television trends from a few years back, Jersey Shore. The characters are depicted as the empty-headed, fake-tanned, duck-lipped jokes they are, though here they’re attempting to claim the entire nation as part of New Jersey. The Situation hardly says anything other than “It’s a Jersey thing,” (which is also the name of the episode). But the most ruthless caricature must be Snooki, who is turned into a sex-crazed rat creature who furiously humps anything she can and always demands “smoosh smoosh.”
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