In a pop culture world where yesteryear's edgiest animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy have respectively lost their bite, Comedy Central's South Park continues to find way to create controversy with just 22 minutes a week. That's quite an accomplishment for any show, let alone one that's been on the air for 23 seasons. Yet creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone continue to find ways to ruffle feathers and drum up condemnations from celebrities, religious leaders and even entire countries. (Just look at how its recent episode "Band in China" got the show legitimately banned in China.)
The secret, it seems, is to be as offensive as humanly possible to everything and everyone while ensuring that absolutely nothing is off limits. Targeting the entire world has gained South Park a lot of outspoken critics over the years, and has sparked a lot of controversy as well. In no particular order, here are some of the most offensive and infamous South Park episodes that really stirred the pot and kept people talking.
"Trapped In The Closet" Season 9, Episode 12
Most South Park episodes are controversial, but few have stirred up as much drama as "Trapped In The Closet," which centered on the origins of Scientology, providing an unflattering representation of the religion's teachings and methods. The ep also touched on allegations that actor Tom Cruise was secretly gay or "in the closet," as it were. South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone knew there could be legal repercussions, so they credited all the staff in the episode's credits as John or Jane Smith.
The episode shockingly resulted in the departure of Chef voice actor Isaac Hayes, who was a Scientologist. Rumors have persisted that Hayes didn't make the decision to quit the show, but rather someone on his behalf did, as Hayes had suffered a stroke around that time. It was also rumored that Tom Cruise stopped a scheduled rebroadcasting of the episode when he allegedly refused to do publicity for Mission: Impossible III if the repeat aired. (The M:I movies are distributed by Paramount, which shares Viacom as a parent company with Comedy Central.) Cruise later denied the claims and the episode eventually aired again, but it remains one of the meatier controversies in South Park history.
"It Hits The Fan" Season 5, Episode 1
It sounds crazy today to think that someone saying the word "shit" on primetime television was controversial – and on cable, no less – but 2001 was a different time. The entertainment world was, at the time, making a big deal over Mark Harmon's character saying the S-bomb on Chicago Hope, so South Park wanted to see what would happen if it delivered an episode where "shit" was said 162 times.
In all honesty, the backlash and controversy surrounding this episode was relatively light in terms of stereotypical South Park reactions, at least outside of TV censors. Though the fallout wasn't massive, it's fair to say South Park's episode played a role in normalizing "shit" being said on television, to the point that it's uttered with uncensored frequency on most cable networks, and even gets some broadcast usage. Most South Park fans would probably consider that a win.
"Proper Condom Use" Season 5, Episode 7
Sex Education can be an uncomfortable subject to teach children, and mere discussions of how to teach it in schools can even create controversy. So, when South Park decided it was going to air an episode on schools teaching sex education the incorrect way, advocacy groups were obviously going to have something to say about it.
"Proper Condom Use" was deemed too controversial to air in some countries. For example, Sky One in Britain refused to broadcast the episode to audiences. While Comedy Central was cool with it in America, the Parents Television Council cited the episode as an example of the show's explicit vulgarity, and part of the reason it labeled South Park episodes as being "dangerous to the democracy."
"Bloody Mary" Season 9, Episode 14
Some of the most controversial South Park episodes poke fun at a religion, and "Bloody Mary" is among the comedy's most controversial. The episode depicts a statue of the Virgin Mary that is believed to be miraculous because it was seemingly bleeding from its anus. Later in the episode, Pope Benedict XVI examined the statue and determined that, because the blood was actually coming out of the statue's vagina, there was no actual miracle performed.
The episode aired the evening before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of observation in the Catholic Church, and it received rampant criticism from advocacy groups representing the church. Catholic Viacom board member Joseph A. Califano Jr. later issued a statement condemning the episode and vowed to have it reviewed by Viacom's then-President Tom Freston. Other countries had similar controversies, but the episode ultimately prevailed and is available on streaming and DVD to this day.
"All About Mormons" Season 7, Episode 12
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are no strangers to Mormonism, as evidenced through their works outside of the show like Orgazmo and The Book of Mormon. Basically, an episode of Mormonism was inevitably going to happen at some point, and South Park went all out in riffing on some of the religion's popular beliefs.
While there were plenty of folks upset about the way Mormons were portrayed in "All About Mormons," the Church of Latter Day Saints had one of the mildest reactions that any religious organization could have after falling victim to South Park parody. The Church viewed the episode as a gross misrepresentation of Mormon culture, but something to be ultimately dismissed as a distraction that followers shouldn't acknowledge.
"201" Season 14, Episode 6
"201" wasn't the first time South Park angered the Muslim community, but it is without question one of the biggest controversies of the sort in the show's history. One of the episode's driving storylines was to bring the prophet Muhammad into public view, and the intention was for the South Park episode to air a depiction of the prophet uncensored, which is considered blasphemous.
Word of the episode reached the masses before its airing, and radical Muslim groups reacted with threats of violence and retribution against Trey Parker and Matt Stone. One organization, Revolution Muslim, even went so far as to post the addresses of Comedy Central's New York and Los Angeles offices, and said Parker and Stone would probably end up like murdered filimmaker Theo van Gogh for their decision. Comedy Central ended up censoring any references or depiction of Muhammad, but an unedited cut of the episode leaked online and was distributed.
"Hell On Earth 2006" Season 10, Episode 11
If one watches "Hell On Wheels 2006" now, they might wonder why it's considered one of the most controversial South Park episodes. Sure, the story revolves around Satan throwing an awesome Halloween party on Earth, and the Catholic church trying to sabotage it. But that's really par for the course in terms of outlandish story lines, so why would people have been so up in arms with this in 2006?
Well, many viewers (and otherwise) took issue with the fact that the late wildlife expert Steve Irwin was shown at the party with a stingray dangling from his chest. That episode aired less than two months after Irwin's death, so the timing, while intentional, was not taken kindly. A response was prompted from a family friend of the Irwin family that feared the mourning children Bindi and Bob would see the episode and break down. The friend added that Irwin had a great sense of humor, but a joke like this was just too soon after the TV personality's death.
"With Apologies To Jesse Jackson" Season 11, Episode 1
Trey Parker and Matt Stone had wanted to do a South Park episode for a while about the epitome of all racial epithets, but they'd struggled with how to frame the episode. The two found an angle in the aftermath of Michael Richards' infamous racial outburst during a stand-up set, and they proceeded to write a story in which Randy used the racial slur in a very public setting.
The episode, while steeped in controversy in some circles, was actually praised by the NAACP for its accurate depiction of how hate speech can affect an individual. Others, like the Parent Television Council, felt audience praise was hypocritical and wondered why South Park got a pass when media personalities who used the word, such as Don Imus, did not. Stone personally really enjoyed the episode, and said he fully believed that if there was a similar word that was as offensive to white people, it would be illegal.
"Band In China" Season 23 Episode 2
It may very well be premature to list "Band in China" as one of the most controversial South Park episodes, since it's still fresh on our minds. But since it kinda got the show booted from one of the biggest countries in the world, it definitely counts, and the episode's cultural impact is spreading. For those that missed the newer episode, much of it revolved around the fact that the American media is working to appease the Chinese government for financial gains.
Now, South Park wasn't the first entity to call attention to this kind of behavior, but the episode served as a massive signal boost that was only aided further when China straight-up permanently banned the series in the country after the ep aired. If there weren't a ton of people in America already aware that major corporations self-censor their brands to better serve Chinese audiences (and others), the South Park episodes definitely added to that population.
With more controversies no doubt on the way, South Park airs on Comedy Central Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. ET. Stick with CinemaBlend for more updates on the series, and for a look at all things happening in the world of television and movies.