After the break: If I'm not still laughing at this episode after 100 more viewings, I will be shocked.
South Park, "The Death of Eric Cartman"
First aired on Comedy Central Wednesday, April 13, 2005
"Don't be sad Butters. What awaits each person in heaven is eternal bliss, divine rest, and ten thousand dollars cash." - Eric Cartman
Wow. Just wow.
I’m four weeks into this "favourite episodes" project, and thus far, “The Death of Eric Cartman” marks the smallest amount of distance I’ve put between re-watching the episode in question and writing about it. I finished the episode maybe two minutes ago, and it impressed me so much more than I thought it would. I remembered this being a hysterically funny episode and that was the reason I chose it, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I expected to walk away from the episode laughing a lot (and I did – it holds up incredibly well after a number of viewings over the last eight years), but not to consider it as well crafted an episode a TV as I might have ever seen. And seriously, this is excellent.
So where the hell do I start?
Well I’m no @MattAlbie60, so I would never try to brand myself as much of a comedy historian. But damn if Eric Cartman and Leopold “Butters” Stotch are not one of the greatest comedy double acts of all time. Putting polar opposites together to create humour is one of the oldest tricks in the book, dating back to the days of Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello. It is remarkable, though, that Matt Stone and Trey Parker found this new insane comedy gear by placing a bigger moral wedge between the two sides of their act. It was revolutionary in the earlier 20th century to consider the comedic results of an interaction between two people with opposite appearances, personalities, or viewpoints, and it seems just as revolutionary in the early 21st century to think what might happen if the world’s nicest person and the spawn of Satan went on an adventure together. What usually happens is hilarity, with Cartman and Butters’ escapades often the center of “South Park’s” best episodes such as “AWESOM-O,” “Cartman Sucks,” “Super Fun Time,” and “Fishsticks”.
And considering the rapid-fire production schedule of the show (each episode is produced entirely in less than a week – for further reading, check out the great “South Park” documentary “Six Days to Air”), it boggles the mind to think how well plotted this episode is. Given the circumstances, I believe every step of the way that of course Cartman thinks he has died. The night before, he had eaten the skin off his friends’ KFC chicken that they had been waiting all day to eat, and the skin is the best part. Naturally, Stan, Kyle, and Kenny decide they’ve finally had it up to here with Cartman and choose to ignore him from now on, a pretty funny meta-commentary on how the boys have forgiven much, much, MUCH worse behaviour of Cartman in the past (some of which is referenced later in this episode when Butters tries to help Cartman atone for his sins, such as killing the parents of neighbourhood boy Scott Tenorman, grinding them up as ingredients for chili, and then feeding the chili to Scott). The next day, the boys get on the bus without so much as making eye contact with Cartman, who begins to suspect that he might be dead. He arrives home to find two workmen carrying a large wooden box out of his home.
“Did they say what happened?” asks the one man.
“They said there was so much chicken skin in the system the whole thing just ruptured,” says the other.
The box contains the Cartmans’ broken toilet – Cartman made good on his promise to the others that he was going to go home, sit on the toilet, and read comic books. But of course, Cartman thinks the box contains his body and he begins crying, now knowing for certain that he’s dead. He even hears his mother wailing through the open window upstairs, and concludes that she is crying over his passing. In actuality, Liane Cartman is having sex with one of the workmen as a tip. Nothing about it feels contrived, not even Mrs. Cartman’s “chance encounter” – after all, if we’re to believe the titles of previous episodes, Cartman’s mom is a dirty slut.
Believe it or not, this is actually where “The Death of Eric Cartman” gets weird. From now until the end credits start to roll, we’re treated to a variety of sequences that vary wildly in tone and in any other show would never work together. Cartman wanders around town continuing to cry over his untimely death, while simultaneously making “OOOOOOooooooOOOOOoooooo” sounds because that’s what ghosts do. He finally discovers that sweet, pure, innocent Butters is the only one not ignoring him and convinces Butters he can see the dead. The next scene shows Butters cowering in his bed at night, convincing himself that ghosts aren’t real, before the very next shot cuts to Cartman standing next to his bed and Butters screaming. It’s dark and legitimately disturbing, with some really great animation work using shadows and lighting.
Cartman has Butters go around to everyone in his life and apologize to them for the various ways Cartman had hurt them in his but nine years on Earth, so that he can finally “pass on” into the afterlife (which Cartman of course thinks is done but slowly backing up, waving his hands, and saying “Goodbyeeeeee...”). When this fails, Cartman decides he needs to do more than apologize – he must atone for his sins, which we see him do in an upbeat musical montage (seriously, there are like four complete tonal one-eightys in the span of about ten minutes) of him and Butters delivering fruit baskets to people as he sings a song called “Make it Right,” which I had completely forgotten about and was an awesomely hilarious surprise.
After a failed attempt to seek the counsel of a local psychic, Cartman and Butters see on her television that a group of criminals are holding people hostage at the Red Cross, demanding a ransom of $200,000. We now transition into the climactic caper portion of the episode, with Cartman finally believing he has found the action he needs to take – saving the people being held at the Red Cross – that will put his spirit to rest. He bursts through the door and begins shuffling papers, throwing around chairs, and ringing bells, believing his ghostly actions will scare the criminals away. In true “South Park” fashion, we get to watch a scene knowing what is actually happening as well as what a character mistakenly thinks is happening: the three hostage takers watch in utter confusion as a small boy bursts in on them and begins acting like a ghost and putting the room in a state of disarray, none of them sure what to make of their surroundings. Meanwhile, Butters is able to sneak in behind everyone and free the hostages. Cartman thinks he’s finally done the good deed that will get him into heaven, and as he prepares to take one last slow backward walk into the afterlife, his classmates return to tell him his brave actions have given them a change of heart and they will stop ignoring him. Typical of Cartman, he defers his stupidity onto Butters and blames him for not being smart enough to realize he wasn’t dead.
I mean, what the hell? From the vantage point of an unfamiliar viewer, that description of the episode seems like such a complete clusterfuck that might repel them from the show. But there’s a running idea in that description – Cartman thinking he knows how to really, truly “die”. None of those individual, very elaborate set pieces have any business co-existing, but they work together like a well-oiled machine because they play on the episode’s central question: “What has popular culture taught Eric Cartman about his mortality?”
It’s the kind of episode that couldn’t have been done in the show’s early seasons that weren’t powered by any sort of ideology beyond satirizing the creators’ childhoods in rural Colorado while throwing in any weird idea they had about aliens or robots. Its transition into a fixture of broader societal commentary gives them access to take a very simple idea – how impressionable children can be – and expand it into a multi-layered story about what the tropes of modern horror (“The Sixth Sense” is appropriately referenced in the episode) are already teaching people in the beginning of their lives about how it will end. But rightly so, Kyle doesn’t wrap up the episode saying, “You know, I learned something today – kids today are exposed to far too much death and violence in the media that it’s no wonder we’ve come to accept certain inaccuracies about human expiration,” in the way that “South Park” will usually pin down its weekly theme/lecture in Jerry Springer “final thought” form. This is the show’s odd episode that never needs to broadly address or even hint at what it’s about because the simple story is doing just fine having outrageous, laugh-out-loud fun on its own.
In the episode’s mini-commentary on the season 9 DVD, Parker recalls this being the only time he conceived the idea for an episode, near fully formed, while on vacation. Not even at a scheduled writers’ retreat had he come up with a better idea previously. If you still have any reservations about “South Park” years after the public at large stopped being offended by or even paying attention to it, know that this hallmark episode is the kind of story the show is capable of generating when they’re not even trying.
Random funny things I had forgotten:
- More from the episode’s commentary: Parker and Stone recall that much of the episode was fully voiced and animated before they had decided what would be so horrible of Cartman to do for his friends to finally have had enough of him, believing there was no way to top the past exploits that Stan, Kyle, and Kenny had overlooked. It wasn’t until they were eating KFC late in production and talking about how “it’s all about the skin” that a writer said, “What if someone just came in right now and ate the skin off your chicken?” It makes my aforementioned claim of meta-commentary on the boys’ ability to shrug off Cartman’s horribleness seemingly accidental, but no less funny
- When Cartman eats all the skin and promptly bails, his three friends sit silently at the table for a few seconds before Kenny starts wailing very softly
- Stan, Kyle, and Kenny tell all the other kids at school to ignore Cartman along with them, prompting Clyde to say, “I never realized ignoring him was an option,” a line that is funny half based on writing merit and half based on Clyde’s low-key, semi-nasally voice
- This week in “Poor Butters can never catch a break”: even as his parents try to calm his worries about seeing ghosts, his dad can’t help but instill in him the fear of something called “Super AIDS” – “one dose of Super AIDS in your butt, and you’re dead in three years,” Stephen tells Butters. “Ghosts aren’t real, and there’s nothing for you to fear. Except for Super AIDS.”
- Cartman has amusing ideas about heaven, chiefly among them A) he’s going there, and B) everyone in heaven is treated to $10,000 cash (among other less important things like eternal salvation)
- Good visual joke that I had never noticed before: the motto written on South Park’s police cruisers is “To Patronize and Annoy”
- One of the best things “South Park” does is let moments breathe, and even in an episode so jam packed with story, this episode has some fantastic, silent, horrified reaction shots at the very end when Cartman and Butters realize he wasn’t actually dead. All in all, just an extraordinary episode of television, given to us by that crude cartoon made with paper cutouts
Next week: Go to hell, Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.