Photography: Comedy bites in South Park

South Park, the US cult cartoon, is ready to rattle Britain. Meg Carter reports on the string of subversive animation shows to hit American screens

Brace yourselves. South Park, the sickest, weirdest - maybe the funniest - cartoon series ever made in America, hits British TV next weekend. Forget the sophisticated knowingness of The Simpsons, or the deadpan social satire of King of the Hill, this is back-to-basics animation.

The stars of the show are eight-year-old children at South Park Elementary. There's the fat one, Cartman - the spoilt, boorish son of a single mum. There's the Jewish one, Kyle - the A-grade student and butt of numerous anti-Semitic jokes. There's Kenny, the poor one, who mumbles from inside the hood of his anorak and is gruesomely killed in a freak accident each week. And there's Stan, who has a gay dog called Sparkie.

This unlikely foursome and a cast of oddballs - including a sex-obsessed black chef and a homicidal schoolteacher whose alter ego is a hand puppet - live in South Park, a small town in the Colorado Rockies. Badly drawn (the characters only move sideways) and foul-mouthed, the series's appeal lies in subversive storylines which provide a barbed look at dysfunctional America.

These kids are the ultimate victims of American culture - obsessed with UFOs, exploited by advertising and steeped in traditional American values.

Plots include the abduction of Cartman by cow-mutilating aliens who subject him to an anal probe; a hunting trip with a couple of Vietnam vets; and the "outing" of Sparkie. Sparkie, by the way, is played by George Clooney, in, the producers insist, perhaps his finest acting role.

"If South Park was live action it would have been banned in a week," admits James Baker, head of programming at Sky 1, which is to show the series. "It's very funny, gross TV, but with an extra dimension. It's also very, very clever - social satire with a very English sense of humour you don't see often outside the UK. Yes, it has elements which are deeply offensive. But at its most shocking it also offers its cleverest social comment."

The show, described by one reviewer as "Peanuts on acid", is already a cult in the US where it has aired on Comedy Central for the past six months. South Park is big. So far it has generated a staggering $26m in merchandising sales.

More staggering, however, is that when Seinfeld ends this spring, South Park is tipped to become one of the top three humorous shows in the US, after The Simpsons and King of the Hill. Adult animation is big and getting bigger and, for many in US TV, it's the place to find the hottest young writing talent.

Take King of the Hill, the story of a red-neck Texan family headed by Hank, a propane salesman. This show, originally commissioned by Fox to accompany smash hit The Simpsons in a super double bill, recently overtook The Simpsons in the US TV ratings. Its unique combination of fantasy and hard-edged reality is created by teams of 16 writers on each half-hour show.

This isn't just a cartoon, it's social sitcom. Only the "com" goes far further than anyone would dare in live action. The producers have created their own world, so they can bend the rules much further. Brutal satire and savage pathos are all the sharper for not having either a starry cast or canned audience laughter.

Animation is increasingly being used in primetime to explore previously taboo subjects like race, religion and poverty. "Animation gives you the freedom to do the kind of show you really want to do," says Carl Gorham, a British comedy writer whose adult animation tale Stressed Eric, about a single father with two kids and a crippling mortgage, launches this spring. "[This freedom] has a significant impact on your writing; you can push things much, much further."

It is easier to control the voice of an animation as it is less likely to be ruled by committee, he explains. Which is what has attracted some of the hottest young writers to create some of American TV's most innovative series.

Take Duckman, the story of an accident-prone, sexually frustrated widower who combines a day job as the world's worst private detective with a chaotic family life. This show boasts some of the wordiest scripts on TV and most of the comedy is verbal. Then there's Dr Katz Professional Therapist, about a mumbling psychiatrist with a tortuous family life whose celebrity patients have included Garry Shandling and Winona Ryder.

Robin, meanwhile, is set in the warped imagination of a twentysomething unemployed hip-hop fan who lives in a one-room apartment in a big city. Up-and-coming shows include Celebrity Death Match (episodes include Charlie Manson vs Marilyn Monroe); Downtown, an animation verite that features the voices of real-life East Village citizens, and Invasion America, an animated sci-fi drama from DreamWorks.

British broadcasters are enthusiastic about the genre, although remain unconvinced of the potential for these shows to be as big in the UK. Or, for that matter, for British adult animation - which already boasts grown- up series like Pond Life, Crapstone Villas and Aardman Animation's upcoming Rex the Runt - to ever be as subversive a force in the UK.

Colin Rose, who heads the BBC's animation unit in Bristol, said: "The British have different expectations of animation. We tend to concentrate on the quality of the visuals. The Americans go more for minimalist animation but very, very strong writing."

So, even before its UK launch with ripples already reaching the blue rinse brigade, cult success seems guaranteed for the denizens of South Park.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
peopleBroadcaster has a new role bringing 'the big stories that matter' to US
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Life and Style
Moves to regulate e-cigarettes and similar products as medicines come amid increasing evidence of their effectiveness
healthHuge anti-smoking campaign kicks off on Wednesday
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently
filmsAn 'eccentric' choice, certainly
Life and Style
An Internet security expert has warned that voice recognition technology needs to be more secure
techExperts warn hackers could control our homes or spend our money simply by speaking
peopleBenjamin Netanyahu trolled by group promoting two-state solution
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

    £90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

    1st Line Service Desk Analyst

    £27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Computer Futures

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

    Day In a Page

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style