South Park and the Cult of Celebrity

Animated comedy's landmark 200th episode is an all-star affair – offering a hilarious reminder that no show is better at skewering the famous

Even before "South Park" hit television, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone made clear that no celebrity would be safe in the quiet, little, white-bred, redneck, mountain town.

Perhaps the two biggest stars of all – Jesus and Santa Claus – battled in “The Spirit of Christmas,” the 1995 animated short that caught the attention of TV executives and led to the show, which marked its 200th episode on Comedy Central Wednesday night.

The anniversary special featured a revenge-of-the-celebrities spectacle in which scores of stars lampooned in "South Park" over the last 13 years returned to wreak havoc – by filing a class-action lawsuit against the town.

"I say enough!" declares Tom Cruise, a favorite "South Park" target. "All of us together can put a stop to the slander coming from that town, once and for all!"

The episode proved a hilarious reminder that no TV show is better at skewering celebrities – and our fame-crazed culture. Parker and Stone's fascination with celebrity makes for a funhouse mirror reflection of an obsessed public and media that alternately worships and vilifies the famous.

In the confines of "South Park," Barbara Streisand is a giant mechanical monster run amok. Mel Gibson is a gun-toting religious zealot with a wild streak out of "Mad Max." Bono is a self-righteous bore who is full of himself – and of a certain other substance that makes him a formidable opponent in a scatological contest.

Since the 1997 debut of “South Park,” we’ve seen celebrity mania plumb new depths, thanks largely to the Reality TV craze and the Internet’s promise of space and speed to promulgate the silliest of gossip. "South Park," meanwhile, has become more pointed in its often-outrageous depictions of a star-culture out of control.

Mel Gibson returned in 2007 for the three-part "Imaginationland" series, an edgy look at terror fears. Last season's take off on “The Sixth Sense,” in which little Ike is haunted by recently deceased entertainers like Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze, tapped into the morbid mass mourning of fallen stars. Last month's satire of the Tiger Woods mess excoriated the bizarre ritual of rehab, public apology and penance for disgraced celebs.

Wednesday night's episode seemed very much about settling old scores with censors and celebrities – particularly Cruise. In 2006, a repeat of an episode making fun of Cruise and Scientology was pulled, reportedly after the powerful actor complained (though the show – titled "Trapped in the Closet" – has aired since).

The 200th episode begins with the kids on a school trip to a candy factory, where Stan spots Cruise working on the assembly line. "Tom Cruise is a fudge packer!" he exclaims.

Cruise assembles an all-star lineup of "South Park" foils including Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Kanye West. The celebrities say they'll drop the suit – but only if the town turns over the Prophet Muhammad. The stars want to tap into Muhammad's "power not to be made fun of," Cruise says.

"South Park," of course, has touched on the Muhammad-cartoon controversy before: a 2006 two-parter called "Cartoon Wars" ridiculed the fear surrounding use of the Muslim prophet's image.

It looks like the latest episode – which ended on a multiple cliffhanger involving Muhammad, the return of the angry "Gingers," a revelation in Cartman's paternity and an impending attack by an reinvigorated Mecha-Streisand – also is destined for at least another chapter.

Meanwhile, all celebrities remain fair game in "South Park," where the real stars will always be Stan, Kyle, Cartman and pals.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.


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