×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The most controversial episode of South Park ever released

Comedy Central's long-running animated series South Park has been controversial from its very first episode. When the show debuted in 1997, audiences were still accustomed to their cartoons being no more edgy than The Simpsons (which could actually get pretty edgy), and the adventures of Kyle, Stan, Kenny, and Cartman — those foul-mouthed, morally ambiguous children who can't seem to keep from stumbling into the most bizarre situations imaginable — was pretty far beyond.

The fact that the show became a massive hit and is still going strong today should tell you all you need to know about its reception from audiences, but critics and television watchdogs have taken the show to task early and often for its vulgar, shocking, insensitive (and hilarious) humor. After more than two decades, is it even possible to pin down the single most controversial episode ever aired?

Well, we're certainly game to try, but it'll take some digging. Let's begin with the season 12 episode "Trapped in the Closet," which took on a pretty big target: the Church of Scientology. In the episode, Stan is sucked into the faux-religion after taking a personality test. The results go all the way to the top of the organization, as Stan's "Thetan levels" are extraordinarily high — leading higher-ups to peg him as the reincarnation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The episode uproariously skewers famous Scientologists Tom Cruise (who sequesters himself in Stan's closet, and, er, won't come out) and John Travolta, but it was its recounting of the Church's creation story that stirred up the most controversy, as it was at that time not well-known to the general public. Long story short, it involves the evil alien overlord Xenu trapping the souls of humans in volcanoes after flying them to Earth in spaceships that look just like 747s, and Parker and Stone made sure it was clear that they weren't making it up with a helpful caption displayed onscreen during these segments: "THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE."

The episode ends with Stan rejecting his title and revealing to the public that it's all a big moneymaking scam, and his final line made clear the reaction that Parker and Stone were expecting: "Go ahead, sue me! I dare you!" Well, that didn't come to pass, but there was some significant fallout: Tom Cruise threatened to sue, and succeeded in getting a repeat airing of the episode pulled (by threatening to quit his promotional activities for Mission: Impossible III); voice of Chef and Scientologist Isaac Hayes was forced by the organization to quit the show; and the Church of Scientology launched a covert investigation aimed at digging up dirt on Parker, Stone, and their friends and family. 

One fifth season episode drummed up controversy for a very different reason. In "It Hits the Fan," the boys (and the entire town) are captivated when it's made known that an upcoming episode of the TV series Cop Drama will feature an uncensored curse word… one that begins with "S" and ends with "T." In perhaps the greatest meta gag in South Park history, the word was also spoken uncensored throughout the episode — a whopping 162 times, with a handy counter in the corner of the screen keeping track of each instance.

The rampant utterance of the word unleashes a mysterious illness on South Park, for the boys find out that there's a reason they're called curse words, thanks to a mysterious order of English knights tasked with keeping their use in check. (Says one, "Leave it to Americans to think that 'no' means 'yes,' 'pissed' means 'angry,' and 'curse word' means something other than a word that's cursed!")

Of course, the boys manage to convince everyone to tone down their potty mouths and avert an apocalypse, and everyone is okay in the end (except Kenny… he dies). The episode predictably had the Parents' Television Council watchdog group up in arms, and its airing drew over 5,000 protest emails — but in this instance, Comedy Central stuck to their guns, defending its decision to air the episode and allowing it to be broadcast uncensored in reruns. 

Speaking of things you're not supposed to say on television, the season 11 episode "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson" pushed those limits quite a bit further. It opens with Stan's dad Randy completely upending his life with his appearance on Wheel of Fortune, by way of his attempt to solve a puzzle with the clue "People Who Annoy You." (Hint: the correct answer is "Naggers," and Randy gets it very, very wrong.)

The episode riffed on the then-current controversy surrounding former Seinfeld star Michael Richards, who had hurled a racial slur at a heckler during a standup set in a supremely misguided shot at being edgy. This very slur is spoken uncensored throughout "It Hits the Fan," which once again drew the ire of the Parents' Television Council (those guys apparently have little to no understanding of context). The episode drew praise from the the organization Abolish the N-Word, however, which said in a statement: "This show, in its own comedic way, is helping to educate people about the power of this word, and how it feels to have hate language directed at you."

Yes, South Park has certainly drawn plenty of fire from those who would misunderstand its admittedly coarse exploration of social issues. But as we all know, there are plenty of instances in which Parker and Stone go directly for "shocking for shocking's sake" — and this has never been illustrated more plainly than by the season 10 episode "Hell on Earth 2006."

The episode deals with Satan's attempt to throw the biggest, most lavish Halloween bash ever, and as such, a good portion of it takes place in Hell. We're introduced to several of the realm's denizens, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer — and, for some reason, Steve Irwin, who arrives with the stingray that killed him still sticking out of his chest.

The episode aired barely a month after Irwin's death, and everyone from media watchdog groups to mainstream media outlets called out Parker and Stone for their insensitivity. A friend of Irwin's widow was quoted as saying, "Terri is devastated Steve is being mocked in such a cruel way. Her worry is that [their children] Bindi and Bob will see it and break down. Steve had as big a sense of humor as anyone, but this goes too far too soon."

Perhaps that is so, but Comedy Central has never been afraid to let Parker and Stone go too far — except in one notable instance, which brings us to the single most controversy-stirring episode of South Park ever produced, season 10's "Cartoon Wars Part II."

The episode concluded a two-part arc which saw Cartman and Kyle teaming up to attempt to have an episode of Family Guy pulled, after it's announced that the show will feature an uncensored image of the Islamic prophet Muhammed (which the religion famously does not allow). Parker and Stone threw liberal amounts of shade at Family Guy, in particular its reliance on cutaway gags (which are revealed to be selected at random by manatees) — but in the end, the episode could be read as a defense of the rival series, especially considering Kyle's insistence that when it comes to humor, "either everything is okay [to make fun of], or nothing is."

The controversy was ignited by the fact that Parker and Stone had intended to feature the Family Guy moment in question, one of those cutaways in which Mohammed randomly shows up to give Peter Griffin a salmon football helmet. But this time, the meta angle didn't fly with Comedy Central, which balked due to the possibility of a violent reaction from some of Islam's more zealous adherents.

When the moment came, the scene was replaced with simple white text on a black card which read, "In this shot, Mohammed hands a football helmet to Family Guy. Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network."

It was pretty much the one time that Comedy Central failed to stand behind South Park, and Parker and Stone were none too happy about it. In a statement following the episode's airing, the duo said, "We have never done a show that we couldn't stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We'll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we'll see what happens to it." (via Deadline)

Well, it's been over a dozen years since the kerfuffle, and despite all of the insanity South Park has given us in those years — the Human CentIpad, Randy performing magic tricks with his sexual organs, Mr. Garrison as Donald Trump surrogate, it just goes on and on — the network has never again infringed on Parker and Stone's creative process. Apparently, it takes the prospect of offending the religious sensibilities of nearly two billion people for that to happen, and the guys will probably never do anything like that again. Probably.