Gross And Grosser

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To understand South Park, it is necessary to understand Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo; and to understand Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, it is necessary to understand his origins as recently described by Trey Parker, one of the show's creators. Now, it may not be immediately obvious why anyone would want to understand a series that features a stool specimen wearing a sailor hat and speaking with the voice of a castrato ventriloquist. But South Park, a cartoon about four profane third-graders, is the latest giant asteroid to slam into American pop culture, and so it requires our attention. Fortunately, it is also very funny, and Parker, 28, and his partner Matt Stone, 26, are the most genial purveyors of poo imaginable.

"One day, I think I was three or four," Parker recalled, speaking at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., two weeks ago, "I guess I had a problem with flushing the toilet. Like I would go poo and then wouldn't flush it. And my mother would yell at me and yell at me. And so my dad--the geologist on South Park is my dad--my dad said, 'Well, Trey, you need to flush the toilet because if you don't, Mr. Hankey is going to come out and kill you.' And I'm like, 'What do you mean?' And he goes, 'Well, it just sits there, and you flush it. But if you don't, he'll come to life, and he sings a little song, and he kills you.'"

So Parker and Stone's most shocking invention is actually autobiographical. That is very revealing and confirms what one suspects while watching the show: that its creators are not simply out to offend people but are exploring the surreal terrors of childhood. The show would not be so funny, and its outrageous humor would not be shaded by such fear and poignancy, if it weren't an imaginative re-creation of authentic experience. Speaking to the Aspen audience, Stone said, "Face it, fart jokes are funny." This is profoundly true, and no one would want to take these jokes away from South Park. But, yes, it offers still more.

The show concerns four friends--Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny--who live in the small town of South Park, Colo. Obsessed by bodily functions, sometimes cruel but with a core of innocence, Kyle and Stan are modeled on Parker and Stone, while Cartman, the greedy fat kid, is a deranged fantasy figure and Kenny, who talks in meaningless muffled squeaks, dies violently in each episode (except the Christmas one). Kyle's exclamation, "Oh, my God, they've killed Kenny!," has become a catchphrase. The only sympathetic adult is Chef, the cook at the school, who drifts into a racy R.-and-B. number whenever he tries to give the boys a wholesome lesson in song (Isaac Hayes does the voice). As for the plots, in one episode aliens send a huge anal probe into Cartman; in another, "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride," Stan follows his dog to a sort of amusement park for homosexual pets. "Stan's dog's a homo!" is a typical line from that show. While the series is now created on a computer, Parker and Stone first used construction paper in their animation, which retains a flat, crude look with leaps into the fantastic. Altogether, the effect is Peanuts by way of Tim Burton.

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