On last week’s episode of “South Park,” residents of our favorite made-up mountain hamlet woke up to a new kind of horror: a townwide Internet outage. No e-mail, no WebMD.com to check rogue symptoms and, most harrowing of all, no Internet porn. Panic-stricken and Net-starved, Stan Marsh and his family lash their belongings to the roof of their SUV and head west -- “out Californee way” -- in hopes of finding enough bandwidth to survive.
As the best episodes of “South Park” do, “Over Logging” manages to be equal parts insightful, hysterical and disturbing. If the Internet did go down, it actually would be a federal disaster -- probably causing not only a depression and security crisis but also serious disruption to the psyche of a nation that can barely imagine unwired life -- even though we can remember it. Which leads to the other side of the scenario: How absurd it is that the way we live has been fundamentally altered in, like, the life span of “South Park.”
When I asked co-creator Matt Stone about having a show that bridged the gap from the pre-Internet era to now, he knew what to say.
“We kind of did that on purpose.”
Which is a good joke, but the thing is, there’s some truth to it. From the beginning, Stone and co-creator Trey Parker have been medium-agnostic -- always saying they didn’t give a fuss if the show played on a TV, a computer or a plastic Happy Meal wristwatch as long as fans were watching it. Back in 1997, that may have sounded anathema to Comedy Central and parent Viacom Inc., but now it looks like master augury, as the line between TV and the Internet becomes ever less distinct.
“South Park” has the Internet in its very DNA. Grainy videotapes of the show’s 1995 prototype, “The Spirit of Christmas,” which featured a vicious (and, back then, blasphemous) duel between Santa and Jesus, circulated with legendary speed around Hollywood, eventually winning Stone and Parker a deal with Comedy Central in 1997. “The Spirit” even made its way online -- though no journalists at the time even mentioned it. This was back when downloading a five-minute movie clip could take hours, even with a good connection. “I don’t know if it was the first, but it was one of the first viral videos for sure,” Stone said. “Yeah, the Internet’s been really good to us.”
And they’ve been good right back. First it was offering their de facto blessing to unlicensed “South Park” sites that offered viewers instant access to the shows. And now, after Comedy Central has finally emerged from the Internet Dark Ages, they’re offering free, high-quality copies of the show’s entire library at southparkstudios.com -- an online TV oeuvre rivaled in scope only by “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” (One demerit, though: The newest episodes are not posted for a few weeks after they air, because of, the site says, “contractual obligations.”)
Among “South Park’s” oft-cited strengths -- and no doubt a reason for its popularity online -- is the show’s perpetual relevance. “The Internet and YouTube change the way you think about your characters interacting with the world,” Stone explained. “If our characters don’t live in that world, all of a sudden it’s like, ‘What are they, in the 90s? What is this show? Is this “Happy Days”?’ ”
Earlier this season, Stone and Parker took on another headlining topic with their episode about the writers strike, in which a misguided Canada fights an ultimately losing battle against the rest of the world, its main demand being “more money.” The Internet made another cameo here, as the most ridiculous YouTube stars (Star Wars Kid, the Chocolate Rain Guy, the Sneezing Panda, etc.) were waiting in line at the Colorado Department of Internet Money, which pays in large denominations of “theoretical dollars.”
But at least a few parties believe online dollars are worth something. Viacom, the plaintiff in a $1-billion copyright lawsuit against Google’s YouTube, routinely issues takedown requests whenever “South Park” (or any of its other shows) appears on the site. A Viacom representative said the company could not comment, given the legal dispute, which means the irony was lost on this multinational media conglomerate.
In the above-mentioned strike episode, the boys make an outlandishly obscene “YouToob” video, hoping to cash in on some of those Internet ducats. Their video is a hit on “YouToob” -- and it got posted all over the real YouTube too. With so many would-be auteurs constantly battling just to get their work noticed online, there was something surreal and incongruous about watching Viacom methodically remove dozens of copies of a hit viral video its own show had generated as a joke.
When I asked about those takedowns, Stone admitted to being “a little schizophrenic” about it. “Trey and I have never had a problem. It’s never hurt us,” he said, but he added that “from Comedy Central and Viacom’s point of view, I understand how they want to try to make some money.”
Well, is there online money or isn’t there? I asked the guy who runs AllSP.com, a Malaysia-based “South Park” fan site on which copyright-indifferent viewers can watch any episode they want. The site’s owner, a 25-year-old Web developer who would only offer his first name, Max, said over instant message that his site did get “a lot of traffic and there is a lot of potential for advertising revenue.” And did he make a living off that revenue? “It’s enough to get by,” he said.