I'm goin' down to South Park, gonna have myself a time...
It may have had humble beginnings with side-stepping layers of coloured card, but South Park has developed into one of the most on-point, satirical comedies on TV. With season 20 premiering tonight, the show has achieved cult status, with visits to Cartman, Kenny, Stan, and Kyle one of our regular weekly indulgences. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone think up each show about a week before they are due to air, meaning they can attack topical subjects, like presidential elections, Black Friday, Caitlyn Jenner, and Game of Thrones.
If you're new to South Park or already an ardent fan, here's our rundown of the top 20 episodes so far. There are so many brilliant moments to choose from, so we judged episodes by their laugh-out-loud humour credentials and their satirical statuses. There's tons of spoilers here, so if you want these episodes to be a surprise, jot down the name and season but close your eyes for the rest.
20. Casa Bonita
Kyle invites Stan, Kenny and Butters to Casa Bonita, a Mexican-themed restaurant in South Park. Cartman is livid for being left out and turns on the charm, which leads to Kyle suggesting that if Butters can't go for any reason, Cartman can take his place. Cue dastardly plan to take down Butters.
What makes this episode so funny is the lengths that Cartman is willing to go to get what he wants. He tells Butters that a meteor the size of Wyoming is about to hit Earth, and hides Butters in a bomb shelter. Of course, Butters parents get worried, so Cartman delves deeper, telling Butters the meteor has hit, civilisation has ended and toxic radiation has turned what's left of the human race into rabid zombies. If Trey Parker calls this one of his favourite episodes, it is definitely good enough for us.
19. Christian Rock Hard
There is so much satire and parody in this episode it's hard to keep track, but there's something unmissable about seeing Cartman fronting a Christian rock band. The plot is nothing short of brilliant; Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman form a band called Moop but they disagree on direction, forcing Cartman to storm out and start his own Christian band. The boys then illegally download songs for inspiration, get busted by the FBI, and team up with Britney Spears, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Alanis Morissette, and others to take down piracy. So far, so brilliant.
Of course, in true South Park style there's an equally funny sub-plot, where Cartman enlists Token and Butters to form Faith + 1. His secret for success is simply swapping the words baby and love in popular romantic songs for the word Jesus. After selling a million albums, Cartman loses the plot and ends up beaten on the floor with Butters farting in his face. Don't believe us? Watch it and find out.
18. Douche and Turd
Can the pressures of voting in a presidential election be captured by a hotly contested school mascot race between a giant douche and a turd sandwich? In the world of South Park it can! The episode kicks off with the school mascot being targeted by PETA activists for the 47th time, resulting in a rally to choose a new mascot. The two joke candidates spearheaded by Kyle and Cartman end up head-to-head in the race for votes, but Stan can't see the point of voting for a giant douche or a turd sandwich as they are both equally crap.
The result is a thinly veiled satire of the American voting system, with Puff Daddy also getting a starring role with his 'Vote or Die' campaign of intimidation. The whole thing is laugh-out-loud funny, with Stan eventually being banished from South Park on a donkey. Oh, and don't forget the weird scene with PETA activists interbred with animals. It's all a bit disturbing.
South Park is incredible at attacking celebrities high up on the douche-bag scale and no one possesses more douche-baggery than Kanye West.
In Fishsticks, Jimmy comes up with this-joke.
Of course, everyone in South Park finds this hilarious and Cartman tries to steal credit for the whole thing. As the joke becomes a worldwide phenomenon, the only person who doesn't understand the punchline is Kanye West, who becomes increasingly desperate to know why everyone is laughing at him. After he crashed Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Awards, Comedy Central played the episode four times back to back. Take that, douche.
16. Go God Go
Okay, so technically this is a two-parter, but Go God Go and Go God Go XII are genius for anyone who's ever put a big old question mark in the religion column. Cartman attempts to freeze himself to make the three week wait for the Nintendo Wii tolerable, but he ends up emerging in the year 2546. There's also an incredible sub-plot of Richard Dawkins helping Mrs. Garrison teach evolutionary biology (resulting in a passionate affair), but we'll let you explore that joy all on your own.
If you've ever wondered what a world controlled by highly evolved sea otters looks like, then this is the episode for you. The same goes for anyone who's ever imagined riding an ostrich like a horse. By the end of Go God Go XII you're left wondering whether Cartman is stuck in a time loop doomed to repeat his mistakes for all eternity. Probably not.
15. Guitar Queer-O
Parker and Stone just couldn't resist making a pop at Guitar Hero just a few weeks after the release of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock in the United States. The episode sees the whole gang, including Clyde, Token, Jimmy, and Butters playing the game, with Stan and Kyle smashing the 100,000 points record. The two are contacted by a talent agent and they become rock star celebrities in the space of 24 hours.
The fun really starts when Stan is encouraged by his manager to drop Kyle and partner with a kid, Thad, who has memorised all the buttons for all the songs. Stan then gets hooked on the game Heroin Hero. Yep, you can guess where this is going. The whole thing is a piss-take of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, but it's also just as interested in taking down obsessive point-chasing gamers. Stick around to see Guitar Hero's reaction to Stan and Kyle smashing one million points.
Probably the best three-parter in South Park history, Imaginationland is so rich in characters, sub-plots and general laugh-out-loud humour that it's worth watching a few times over. The opening episode sees Cartman searching for a leprechaun with Kyle, who says he will suck Cartman's balls if he finds one (hence the episodes alternative title, Kyle Sucks Cartman's Balls).
What follows is a crazy, psychedelic journey into the world of cartoons and a warped Disney-style world, with the annoying catchy Imagination song. There's also a parody of Saving Private Ryan, a great scene with Michael Bay, M. Night Shyamalan, and Mel Gibson, plus a whole terrorist sub-plot that is so farcical it almost (but not quite) makes sense. Watch it immediately.
Poor Butters. That kid just can't catch any kind of break! In Marjorine Cartman is convinced that the girls have a device which can predict the future, so he convinces Butters to fake his own death and return to school as a girl to infiltrate the girls secret club. In the meantime, Butters parents believe he will soon rise from the dead as a spawn of Satan, and they're both terrified.
By the end of the episode, the long-suffering Butters is chained in the basement of his own house while his dad kills a saleswoman for him to feed on. Of course, Butters is once again scarred for life. Interestingly Parker and Stone aren't great fans of this episode, but we'll be damned it if doesn't make us laugh every single time.
12. Super Fun Time
South Park takes on Die Hard in this episode, which once again pairs the hapless Butters with evil Cartman. Mr Garrison takes his class on a trip to Pioneer Village - a kind of living history experience - but they are soon involved in a weird Burger King robbery and hostage situation. Hilariously, none of the townspeople will break character, which makes them easy fodder for the baddie Franz.
While all this is going on, Cartman has dragged Butters to an amusement arcade next door called Super Phun Thyme. When they return to Pioneer Village and see the police cars, they believe it is all for them and decide to sneak in. There's so much to love about this episode (including another dodgy death for Kenny), but it is the Pioneer Village staff that bring the laughs. Watching Butters dragging Cartman's unconscious weight back to the school bus is also high on our must-see list.