Thomas: From Mayberry to South Park | VailDaily.com

Thomas: From Mayberry to South Park

Give a cardboard cutout a brain, and he’ll think Colorado is the center of the universe.

Most of what inspired me to try writing semiprofessionally again was moving back to this valley, where my second job out of school was writing for the Vail Trail, and what I experienced as a young adult here from 1997 to 1999. Of course, I watched a lot of “South Park.” I was a beer-drinking, pot-smoking politically moderate 20-something in western Colorado. I vividly remember one young mom’s horror watching me pour a bottle of 151 rum into my Dr. Pepper during the premiere of “Bigger, Longer and Uncut”; I was a little embarrassed until my buddy James wondered aloud just what kind of parent would take her kid to the “South Park” movie.

So it’s no surprise that I was into “South Park” or, I guess, it got into me. One girl I met snowboarding in Aspen, who works in television in Los Angeles, had no inkling that the show is a Colorado thing when she told me I reminded her of a living, breathing “South Park” character — pontificating on my moral quandaries with liberal utterances of cheerful profanity and the word “dude.” (As part of my research for this column — which also included watching a lot of “South Park” marathons with the cat, who looks more than a little like Eric Cartman’s Mr. Kitty — I took the “SP and Me” quiz online, but I don’t think I can print the names of the characters with whom I share the most traits. I’ve also been turned into a “South Park” character graphically at least twice.)

Even though I’m no native, I might be able to claim that I’m as much of a Colorado thing as “South Park.” The show premiered Aug. 13, 1997, about three weeks after my 23rd birthday, and five months after I moved to Vail. That’s 22 seasons: a whole lot of mileage on cardboard, even the digital kind.

After the past four seasons — two weird, slow-developing longform story arcs, which I really enjoyed, and then two returns or regressions into full-dress episodic madness — it’s impossible to know what to expect from “South Park,” except a gleefully transgressive search for values, meaning and sacred cows to mutilate. 

And the show always has positioned rural western Colorado as the epicenter of that strenuous — ultimately futile — search. It’s certainly possible to argue that “South Park” has remained truer to its point of origin than anywhere north of Mayberry.

That point is, more or less, rural Park County, previously famous for nothing except speed traps, meth labs and the occasional cattle mutilation, where Trey Parker and Matt Stone set their crude new series. The titular town is largely based on Fairplay, where I think one of the two worked after they met at the University of Colorado.

So while there seems to be more than a little Boulder to South Park, the titular mountain town seems much more Western Slope than Front Range — if not “Asspen” or Vail then maybe just over Hoosier Pass from Breckenridge. Another thing I think I remember is that the inherent strangeness of the real South Park — reports of alien abductions, chupacabras — inspired the setting and set the stage for 22 funny, increasingly bizarre seasons.

Maybe there’s not much to those cultural-geographic markers: The Denver Broncos, it turns out, weren’t Cartman’s dad, and the appearance of Jay Cutler, Jake Jabs, Tom Shane and Ron Zappolo on the “Guitar Hero” episode amounts to little more than cameos. (However, I think I have noticed all the newscasters on “South Park” slowly transform into Denver TV lookalikes, especially during the “Coon and Friends” comic-book arc.)

On the other hand, an imaginary world that evolved — alongside the internet, mind you — from the minds of two self-described equal-opportunity offenders in a deep-purple state, often finds itself on a collision course with the real thing à la “Melancholia”: The best illustration I can think of is “Medicinal Fried Chicken.” 

Of course, that episode wasn’t what pushed “South Park,” with its famous (or infamous) week-long lead time, into the forefront of the cultural consciousness — it had occupied that spot almost since its insheeption. If “The Simpsons,” with its subversive countercultural wit, started moving the goalposts over the previous decade, the anarchic “South Park” stormed the field and tore them down. If the former tested the outer limits of network television, the latter pushed the boundaries of the medium itself, earning the first TV-MA rating and redefining language barriers with episodes such as “It Hits the Fan.” Jebediah Springfield and “The Simpsons” might have been the pioneers, but without “South Park” as a through-line, it’s hard to imagine the rest of Fox’s Sunday-night lineup or most anything on Comedy Central. 

So maybe it’s not weird to think about western Colorado as a cultural epicenter as it is to realize that’s been the case for 23 years. It’s not like New York ever really left that spotlight, or Boston (“Cheers”), but we’re talking about a cartoon version of a tiny town in sparsely populated Park County. The closest thing I can think of might be Mayberry, but I’m too young to know whether “The Andy Griffith Show” or its spinoffs ever achieved that kind of moment in the zeitgeist. (However, watching the actor in “A Face in the Crowd” for my “Page to Screen” class in November 2016 sure was trippy: I had to ask my professor if he was clairvoyant.)

“The Simpsons” seems to be in a long decline — if not staid, then getting a little forced — but I’m still not sure what to expect from “South Park,” and that’s one of the reasons I still enjoy it. The unpredictable, utterly amoral, nihilistic “Family Guy” makes me guffaw sometimes, and while I’m politically closer to Seth MacFarlane than Parker and Stone these days, I’m not too far off them philosophically, and they make me laugh consistently.  

And you know what? I learned something today. I thought I got started on “South Park” back in North Carolina — where I adored “The Simpsons” but stopped watching because I worked Sunday nights — but that premiere date would make that impossible. Watching the original profane, probably blasphemous animated holiday short in a college bar evidently made more of an impression than I thought. Speaking of premiere dates, the new season, No. 23, starts Wednesday. 

Dan Thomas is the copy desk chief at the Vail Daily, a former sportswriter for the Vail Trail and a master’s degree candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Denver. His email address is dthomas@vaildaily.com.