Why 'South Park' Has Surpassed 'The Simpsons'

Comedy Central
Comedy Central

We need to have a serious talk about cartoons.

It is long established by consensus that The Simpsons is the greatest animated TV comedy of all time -- and from roughly 1990 to 1997, this is inarguable. But in the subsequent 20 years, the groundbreaking genre of the animated sitcom has experimented and evolved, and is now something entirely different, for better or worse.

For me, it's the latter: animated sitcoms are much better now than they were two decades ago. But this could be said of many genres. What is also true is that The Simpsons only gets interesting these days when it taps the mojo of outsiders.

This brings us to South Park, which just entered its 20th season. Quickly after premiering on Comedy Central in 1997 -- coincidently, around the same time The Simpsons began to drift away from its sitcom-with-a-twist roots -- South Park gave a generation with an insatiable hunger for fresh catchphrases such zingers as "Respect mah authoritah" and "Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You bastards!" while simultaneously prompting panic among the culturally prudish, just as Bart Simpson and crew had previously done with T-shirt-ready adages like "Eat my shorts!" and "Don't have a cow, man!" Like The Simpsons, which enters its 28th season on September 25th, South Park outlasted the hoopla that surrounded its rise to prominence. Unlike The Simpsons, however, South Park remains brilliant.

The 20th anniversary of Matt Stone and Trey Parker's satirical cartoon show presents me with an opportunity to present this argument: if South Park has been at least pretty good for twice as long as The Simpsons was great, doesn't that make South Park an overall superior program? And if South Park is better than The Simpsons, doesn't it logically follow that South Park is now the greatest animated comedy of all time?

The South Park-Simpsons rivalry is alive and aggro on the internet. Stone and Parker even confronted the issue in the notorious Season 10 two-parter "Cartoon Wars." But I'm ready to deliver my punch. And I'm not just a contrarian South Park devotee; I have actual, honest-to-gosh math to support my theory. Here's why South Park stands above the presumed champion.

Comedy Central
Comedy Central

South Park vs. Springfield, by the numbers

Tally up the Metacritic user scores for each of South Park's existing 19 seasons, then do the same for all 27 already-aired batches of The Simpsons. The resulting averages bode poorly for Matt Groening's nuclear family. South Park scores a solid 8.68 season average, humiliating The Simpsons, which barely musters a C+ at 7.84. The gap grows even wider when we yoink data from Rotten Tomatoes: South Park collectively scores a 90% fresh, next to The Simpsons' 75%.

The metrics aren't perfect. At least 20 new Simpsons episodes have aired every year since 1990. Meanwhile, no South Park season has ever surpassed 17 eps, and the creators have kept themselves to a tight 10 per year since 2013. Thus, Simpsons is about to crack 600 episodes, while Cartman and the gang won't quite breach 300 for a few more years.

Per-episode averages wouldn't be significantly different from the aforementioned per-season averages, but arguably, The Simpsons' network-mandated need to spread good ideas out twice as thin gives South Park an unfair advantage.

What about the other cartoon staples?

If we judge solely by numbers on review aggregator sites, we could hypothetically make the same case for any cartoon show that never shifted gears like The Simpsons. But those other programs lack either a sufficient sample size (Rick and Morty, Bob's Burgers) or comparable cultural impact (King of the Hill, Futurama, pretty much everything on Adult Swim), or the show is Family Guy. And if you think Family Guy belongs in the same stratum as Simpsons or South Park, please watch the second half of "Cartoon Wars."

The Simpsons will always be the Mr. Burns of animation

The Simpsons squashes South Park in what may be both the most and least important metric: cold hard cash. According to the latest estimates from Statistic Brain, South Park in syndication yanks down $25 million in annual advertising revenue, compared to the more than $5 billion The Simpsons pulls on primetime broadcasts alone. The Simpsons Movie did almost $530 million at the box office; the gleefully R-rated South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut racked up $83 million in ticket stubs.

By the same criteria, the notable success of Two and a Half Men bests the shameful failure of Arrested Development. Money isn't everything. But the fact that Bart Simpson's loose change could pay to have South Park canceled can't be overlooked.

Scott Tenorman vs. the Monorail

Though referential and easy to swallow in its current iteration, The Simpsons' high points are a notch or two above South Park's zenith -- or so the internet insists.

Time and Rolling Stone both declare "Marge vs. the Monorail" the best episode of The Simpsons, and for the sake of sparing ourselves an argument that could drag on for months, let's pretend to agree with them. The Season 4 tentpole offers 23 minutes of back-to-back-to-back gags written by bona fide comedy master Conan O'Brien. That's about all it offers.

The single greatest South Park episode -- according to my own instinct, and vindicated by a handful of "best of" lists -- is the fifth season's "Scott Tenorman Must Die." Penned by Parker and directed by longtime collaborator Eric Stough, "Tenorman" stays light and silly until a whiplash-inducing tonal shift in the final minutes. The big reveal masterfully blends hilarity with existential dread, all while providing Radiohead a legitimate reason to be on the show. It's magical. And while "Monorail" trounces "Tenorman" in terms of chuckles per second, The Simpsons hasn't mustered anything as clever as the Shakespearean twist of Cartman's ghastly victory.

Rose-colored nostalgia glasses be damned. "Scott Tenorman Must Die" provides a better-rounded, more satisfying viewing experience than "Marge vs. the Monorail," and enhances the case to declare South Park the greatest adult-aimed cartoon of all time.

Maybe that sounds borderline blasphemous. But just wait. I betcha in 10 or 20 years, television historians will talk about the unquestioned sovereignty of The Simpsons the same way we talk about people who believed the sun revolved around the Earth.

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Barry Thompson's work has also appeared in Paste, Esquire.com, the Boston Phoenix, and several other publications of varying degrees of repute. He tweets @barelytomson.