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Archive for August, 2008

Aug
24

5 Things You Didn’t Know: South Park

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Back in the summer of 1997, you had to know that South Park was going to be an iconoclast when you learned the premiere episode was titled, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe.” If it didn’t occur to you then, it surely has by now.

South Park, created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker for Comedy Central, features crude animation, boorish characters and jaw-dropping story lines so vulgar and distasteful that to label them merely “offensive” is actually something of an offense to the show itself. South Park has prided itself on inciting rage worldwide for its seemingly blasphemous depiction of religion, heartless portrayal of persons with disabilities, shameless instances of toilet humor, racism, foul language, and their impressions of the Holocaust — and these are just the first few mentions in their catalog of offensives.

In short, there are no sacred cows in the town of South Park.

However, an equally egregious offense would be to assume the show’s intentions were just as crass. In fact, they are masters of the parody and lampoon, and often episodes will reveal multiple layers of clever and acute social commentary — ones that typically escape its many overzealous and red-faced critics.

With the recent launch of this landmark show’s twelfth season, it’s time we took a look at five things you didn’t know about South Park, one of the smartest shows out there.

1- South Park began as a video Christmas card

In 1995 FoxLab executive Brian Graden saw a demented, animated short entitled Jesus vs Frosty that Parker and Stone created while they were still students at the University of Colorado. Graden thought it was hilariously twisted, so he hired them to make a video Christmas card for his friends in the entertainment industry. The result was The Spirit of Christmas, a five-minute short that saw Santa Claus face off against Jesus in a martial arts fight to the death over who would control the Christmas holiday. The two holiday superpowers ultimately resolve the issue with a truce.

The video made the rounds and soon Parker and Stone found themselves in negotiations with both FOX and Comedy Central to produce a half-hour series based on the short.

2- Tom Cruise wanted to do a voice for South Park

Of course, that’s in the past tense: Cruise had, at one time, wanted to do a voice for the show. Presumably his interest has waned a bit since the Emmy-nominated episode No. 137, “Trapped in the Closet.” After joining Scientology in search of something to do that’s both fun and “free” (the church is notoriously expensive), the character Stan is believed by members to be the reincarnation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. A number of well-known Scientologists, including John Travolta and Tom Cruise, try to convince Stan to lead the church, but he refuses, later calling it a “global scam.” Cruise (the character) locks himself in Stan’s closet and “refuses to come out” after Stan tells him he’s not a very good actor, which Cruise takes as the great prophet’s opinion.

The show regularly refuses to allow celebrities to play themselves or even play what might be considered normal characters. At most they are offered ludicrous roles. For example, George Clooney played a gay dog and Jay Leno played a bird, while Jerry Seinfeld was offered the role of a sick cat, but his agent turned it down. Other stars believed to have sought voice roles but refused the odd-ball roles offered to them include Steven Spielberg, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeff Daniels.

Respect mah authoritah and check out a few more things you didn’t know about South Park

3- Cartman was influenced by Archie Bunker

In an interview conducted by the Vanderbilt University-affiliated First Amendment Center, Trey Parker said that he and Stone grew up watching sitcoms that were extraordinarily PC, such as Diff’rent Strokes and Facts of Life. Then they were blown away by syndicated episodes of All in the Family. Believing that a bigoted character like Archie Bunker could never make it on to television in the current climate, asked themselves, “How could you bring an Archie Bunker back? What if you made him a fat little 8-year-old kid?”

The result was Eric Cartman, the show’s leading foul-mouth, hatemonger, sadistic, and sociopathic elementary kid. Cartman also happens to be the show’s most hilarious character.

4- The main female voice-over actor committed suicide

Mary Kay Bergman, the longtime former voice of Mrs. Butterworth and an experienced voice-over actress, voiced all of the female voices for the first 31 episodes of South Park as well as the movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, including the mothers of all four principle boys, Wendy Testaburger, Mrs. Crabtree and Nurse Gollum, among others.

Bergman suffered from anxiety and depression. In 1999, at the age of 38, she committed suicide by shooting herself at home. Subsequently, those roles have been voiced by three other women, and two South Park episodes have been dedicated to her memory.

5- Episodes are changed at the “11th Hour”

Unlike other animated shows, producers on South Park can produce an episode in a matter of days in order to react to current events, something that has become one of the show’s hallmarks. Some notable examples are:

On April 22nd, on orders from Attorney General Janet Reno, agents from BORTAC, the tactical unit of the U.S. Border Control, seized Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives. On April 26th, episode No. 52 aired, “Quintuplets 2000” in which Janet Reno aides the Romanian government’s efforts to return five circus performing contortionists. In this episode, Stone and Parker rewrote the original plotline to mirror current events.

On November 7, 2000, in the U.S. Presidential election, Bush and Al Gore waited on the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the outcome became the most controversial and divisive in history. On November 15th, episode No. 60 aired, “Trapper Keeper,” in which Mr. Garrison, the boys’ former teacher, is demoted to kindergarten and holds class elections between kids named Ike and Filmore, with an indecisive girl named Flora (Florida) holding the tie-breaking vote.

On December 13, 2003, U.S. Special Forces captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had been hiding in a hole inside a farmhouse. On December 17th, episode No. 111 aired, “It’s Christmas in Canada,” which featured the boys finding Saddam hiding in a hole and controlling the voice of the new Canadian Prime Minister.

Searched

Stone and Parker call themselves “equal opportunity offenders” and the show has managed to outrage every special interest group imaginable. However, Stone and Parker could probably credit those countless groups and organizations for a good percentage of those searches, because they are the ones who put the episodes into the wider media with their condemnations and calls for boycotts.

Consider the conservative group Parents’ Television Council; they have named the show among its Worst Cable Content of the Week on numerous occasions, and when they do they include a clip of the offensive content on their site so that their members can enjoy that content on the privacy of their home computer.

Interest

Now in its 12th season, South Park shows little signs of slowing down but few shows can sustain such a high level of interest for very long, even when that show seems intent on insulting or affronting every man, woman and child on the face of the earth — and doing it so brilliantly.

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The Pitch

South Park meets Hollywood epic in this three-part arc that combines the plotting and narrative propulsion of a summer blockbuster with the frequently on point messages and endless supply of crude humor that South Park has to offer.

The Humans

Cartman, Kyle, Stan, Kenny, Butters and a limitless cast of thousands of the characters that composed a great deal of the CHUD audiences’ adolescence.

The Nutshell

After insisting he spotted a Leprechaun just outside of town in the woods, Cartman gets Kyle to agree that if somehow these characters of folklore actually do exist, he’ll suck Cartman’s balls. To everyone’s shock, they do catch a Leprechaun and then are later ensconced to Imaginationland where all of the fictional characters, good and bad exist, with only a wall separating them from all-out chaos. While all of the boys are inside this place, terrorists attack with a vengeance and take the ‘good’ characters hostage, taking hold of our imagination.  Butters is captured in the ensuing violence and is stuck right in the middle of the terrorist plot to break down the wall that separates good and bad and destroy our imagination once and for all. It’s up to Stan and Kyle to somehow get Butters home and evade having to suck Cartman’s balls while Butters tries desperately to help the denizens of Imaginationland save our imagination from terrorism.

The Lowdown

The comedy of South Park has always been there, even in its earliest episodes there’s still material solid enough to make you chuckle even a decade after the fact. What’s been exhilarating about the most recent seasons of the series is that they’ve finally mastered the craft of animation and allowed it to supplement the humor. The character design is still rudimentary and raw, but they’ve given into their biggest Hollywood filmmaking impulses and have started to embrace and play with genre convention both structurally and visually. This reaches its apex with the three-part Imaginationland, which manages to embrace all of the elements that make South Park the most consistently brilliant animated show on television, perhaps ever. The crass collides with the socially and politically astute, the violent collides with the innocent and the simple and complex intermingle freely. The effect is dizzying, rewards multiple viewings, and showcases exactly what makes South Park the endless parade of comedy that it’s been for so long.

One of the most appreciated aspects of this three-parter is that it manages to play in the sandbox Family Guy (whose method of joke-telling was obliterated by South Park in a two parter a season or two ago) created, which is free-floating nostalgia with references to fringe-level pop culture characters without indulging in the obligatory sense of joke-telling the aforementioned Family Guy often resorts to. Instead, here, we see these characters appearing in an extremely plausible way, allowing one to enjoy the use of obscure nuggets from our past in the service of a bigger story that serves to argue for the necessity of these ridiculous characters from our past. It’s a high-wire act, indulging in something that could so easily go off the rails in any number of ways, but through an assured narrative that never lacks for jokes, it manages to giddily tiptoe past the finish line without having collapsed
upon itself at any point.

It speaks well of this three-parter that they somehow manage to fit in one of their greatest triumphs (The Woodland Christmas Critters) alongside one of their weakest (Manbearpig) all in one fell swoop without missing a beat or losing any focus on its premise. That they do this while at the same time highlighting the real terror being aimed for by terrorists, the American government’s use of force whenever possible instead of when necessary, and making an impassioned plea for the necessity of pop culture artifacts as being something sacred in the twentieth century. That they do this while telling the story of one boy’s determined attempt at having his balls sucked speaks volumes about how this show manages to balance thoughtful (if sometimes incomplete) commentary alongside extremely hilarious broad humor. For some South Park fans this might be a little too heavy on the side of drama instead of comedy, as they play by the rules of the genre picture and serial television to maximum effect meaning dramatic beats, cliffhangers and overarcing plotlines. However, the majority of the pleasure one can glean from this is by allowing the old standards of the genre to have their way with you and let the action beats carry you away into the drama of the narrative, with the still-sharp comedy as a bonus to the epic storytelling. And anyone who is a Butters fan (personally, my favorite South Park character) will be ecstatic over his moment in the sun during this series. It’s funny, exciting and smart and yet another high-water mark for a show that only seems to become surer of itself over time.  Recommended with a caveat as detailed below.

The Package

The cover art is fine as it showcases numerous parts of what makes this miniseries so fun and it has different art on its outer box than on the inside, which always is nice (never really understood the exact replicant box art covering the DVD case, do people paint houses or make pizza next to their DVD’s?). There isn’t much here that makes it a director’s cut that I could notice beyond each episode transition more loosely into one another and all of the expletives being uncensored. So there isn’t much use for this disc if you buy South Park in full season form unless you’re a completist. It looks and sounds as good as the show has on DVD (and it actually makes use of its audio/visual audacity much more so than usual during this three-parter).

In terms of extras we get the rarest of treats, an attempted full-length commentary by Stone and Parker, something the guys haven’t even tried to achieve in years (despite the beauty of their drunken ribaldry on the Troma Cannibal: The Musical disc) and even though they only make it to the first act of the third episode, it’s much more than the mini-commentaries provided on all of the DVD box sets. Also included are a couple of storyboard comparisons for the diehards and a couple of bonus episodes, the aforementioned rare miss that is Manbearpig and the all-timer that is Woodland Critter Christmas. It’s a nice package for one of the benchmarks of this show’s decade long run, and I’d recommend picking it up unless you’re planning on picking up the just released Season 11 which contains these episodes within it.


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Aug
24

‘Hamlet 2’: Shakespeare Meets ‘South Park’

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The conscientious comedian Steve Coogan has gained what little attention he’s found in this country thanks to his reflexive, chatty roles in Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” and “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” and maybe, to stateside fans of British television, for his full-bodied portrayal of the deliciously repulsive Alan Partridge. But even fans may not fully recognize him in his new role. “Hamlet 2,” which opens nationally on Friday, finds the actor shorn of his accent and knee-deep in our current brand of homegrown comic manure — namely weak, semi-ironic parody, packed with “South Park“-style explosions of vulgarity, abuse, and self-consciously awful musical numbers.

Dressed in schlub drag, Mr. Coogan plays high school drama teacher Dana Marschz, a talentless lover of capital-A acting and a self-appointed savior of drama. Dana passionately directs stage adaptations of Hollywood movies such as “Erin Brockovich,” but he’s razzed by the school’s pubescent drama critic and threatened with cutbacks. The only possible solution is to mount his opus, “Hamlet 2.” Of course, the only people who can help are his students — contemptuous teens who, being Hispanic, remind him of “Dangerous Minds.” Two devoted theater types also hope to help.

When Dana isn’t inspiring minds, he’s busy losing ground and face with his shrewish wife Brie (Catherine Keener, actually not at her cruelest). But mostly, we see him being obliviously uncool in front of his students and explaining either the finer points of bad drama or the specifics of his “Hamlet 2” abomination. There’s also a dead-on-arrival joke in which Elisabeth Shue plays “herself” as a nurse who has retired from acting and is deeply admired by Dana.

“Hamlet 2” is really one long, rambling run-up to the musical that is prominently featured in the movie’s advertisements, which play up the number “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” as if to whet curiosity for wacky laughs. In fact, the movie feels curiously airless, even off-puttingly flat. Director Andrew Fleming appears at times to think of himself as being above setting up his jokes or shaping the scenes he wrote with “South Park” veteran Pam Brady.

Mr. Coogan doesn’t embarrass himself — “Hamlet 2” is not some waddling turkey that will send him hightailing back to England. But, perhaps because he’s working with someone else’s subpar material, the type of obsessively conceived, character-based comedy with which he has made his reputation isn’t able to bloom. Dana showing up in a caftan to keep his sperm count high feels interchangeable with any number of gags. There’s nothing so dead-on as, say, Alan Partridge’s habit of smuggling an extra-large plate to the buffet at his extended-stay hotel.

Dana is pathetic and overeager, but Mr. Coogan, as if overcompensating to play his American character, retreats from playing at his more British specialty of foot-in-mouth self-consciousness. Sadly, no such riveting dynamic shows up in its stead; the actor seems to impose an aw-shucks limit on truly developing Dana’s foibles and missteps. (There’s also something disorienting about the reconstituted American accent replacing Mr. Coogan’s precise English drawls and twangs.)

The gala presentation of “Hamlet 2” — mounted under the bright lights and fierce words of the press, a baiting ACLU lawyer (Amy Poehler), and school authorities — might hold your attention. That is, unless you’ve seen more than a couple of episodes of “South Park.” If the giddy mood hasn’t gripped you by the time of Jesus’s big 1950s-style teenybopper number, working up the energy to drop your jaw might just be too much.

Throughout “Hamlet 2,” there’s a sense that Mr. Fleming and Ms. Brady hit upon their howler title and then counted on riffing and chortling their way to a strong finish. Certainly, the exhaustively reported fact that Focus Features picked up the movie after its Sundance premiere for $10 million will do little to discourage such screenwriterly salesmanship. “Hamlet 2” is a movie that bets on built-in enthusiasm. Stuffed as it is with drama-class jokes (think “Waiting for Guffman”), that’s not implausible. But Mr. Coogan is better when he can work harder than this.

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Aug
17

Sheriff’s department: Hayes likely died of stroke

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Isaac Hayes apparently died of a stroke, officials with the sheriff’s department said Tuesday.

The deep-voiced soul singer died Sunday after he was found unconscious at his Memphis residence. No autopsy was performed, but paperwork filed by Hayes’ family physician, Dr. David Kraus, lists the cause of death as a stroke, sheriff’s spokesman Steve Shular said Tuesday.

Deputies were among the emergency crews that responded after a 911 call, and sheriff’s department detectives were looking into the death. Kraus told investigators that he had been treating Hayes, 65, for high blood pressure, Shular said.

Family members found Hayes lying on the floor of his home beside a treadmill that was still switched on.

The baldheaded crooner, who laid the groundwork for disco and whose “Theme From Shaft” won both Academy and Grammy awards, was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. He also acted in movies and provided the voice of Chef, the school cook, on the animated TV show “South Park.”

He had recently finished work on the upcoming movie “Soul Men,” in which he played himself. The movie stars Samuel Jackson and Bernie Mac, who died on Saturday.

Hayes was hospitalized in 2006 for treatment of exhaustion, family friends said at the time.

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Aug. 11 (Bloomberg) — Soul legend Isaac Hayes, who won Grammy and Academy awards for the theme to the 1971 film “Shaft” and voiced the character “Chef” in the hit comedy series “South Park,” died yesterday in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 65.

Family members found Hayes lying unconscious next to a running treadmill in his basement around 1 p.m. local time, said Steve Shular, a spokesman for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office in a telephone interview. Hayes was pronounced dead at Baptist East Hospital. No autopsy is planned, Shular said.

Hayes, who co-wrote “Soul Man” and “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” won an Oscar for best musical score for “Shaft,” according to his Web site. The song and the movie score also won Grammy awards for best original score and movie theme. Hayes, whose work influenced disco, urban-contemporary music and rap, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

“He has been hugely influential on the rap movement as both a spoken-word pioneer and larger-than-life persona who’s influenced everyone from Barry White to Puff Daddy,” a statement from the Hall of Fame’s Web site said.

In the 1990s, Hayes found a second career as the voice of Chef, the cafeteria cook and self-professed ladies man who became a mentor to the students of the “South Park” animated series on Viacom Inc.’s Comedy Central.

`Perfect Alter Ego’

The character was “the perfect alter ego for Hayes,” said his Web site.

He left the series in 2006 after the show lampooned his religion, the Church of Scientology, CNN said.

Hayes, who became known for his shaved head, dark glasses and fur coats, was born to a sharecropper’s family in Covington, Tennessee, on Aug. 20, 1942, according to his Web site. He was orphaned in infancy and was raised by his maternal grandparents.

He played saxophone and piano in high school and performed in “doo-wop” and jazz bands. Hayes turned down seven college scholarships for music, and instead landed a job playing piano with saxophonist Floyd Newman’s band in West Arkansas.

Newman was a staff musician at Memphis’s Stax Records recording studio and Hayes eventually found work there playing keyboards. His first paid sessions were with Otis Redding in early 1964. Hayes wrote some 200 songs at Stax with David Porter, including “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “You Don’t Know Like I Know,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” and the R&B Grammy award-winning “Soul Man” for Sam & Dave.

His 1969 solo album, “Hot Buttered Soul,” was No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart for 10 weeks and stayed on the pop chart for 81 weeks, according to his Web site.

The album established Hayes’s stardom and set out his trademark style of taking pop songs and stretching them out. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was originally a hit single written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell in 1967. Hayes’s version ran to almost 19 minutes, with an eight-minute spoken introduction.

Hayes also performed in more than three dozen films, including “I’m Gonna ‘Git You, Sucka” (1988) and “Guilty as Charged” (1991), as well as TV series such as “Miami Vice,” “The A-Team” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

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