Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: “South Park” wasn’t allowed to kill off Sally Struthers in an early episode of the series.
While there are certainly a lot of other differences between “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” a notable one is how each show treats celebrities. “The Simpsons” specifically courts celebrities to do cameos on the show, to the point where they build entire episodes around said guest stars. In fact, as I wrote in an old TV Legends Revealed, when one comedy icon wouldn’t appear on the show if they poked fun at him at all, “The Simpsons” staff just re-wrote his scenes to the point where he would agree to appear.
“South Park,” on the other hand, routinely turns down celebrities when they offer to do voices (or have them do silly voices, like having George Clooney play Stan’s gay dog, with all of his lines simply being “woof” or “bark”). Trey Parker and Matt Stone will often be a lot more vicious towards celebrities than “The Simpsons” writers would ever dare. They have even killed their share of celebrities on their show, with the most famous perhaps being Barbara Streisand, who had transformed herself into an evil giant mechanical dinosaur (luckily, Robert Smith from The Cure showed up to save the day and help kill Streisand after Leonard Maltin and Sidney Poitier were unable to stop her…yes, “South Park” can be really weird at times). However, while the Mecha-Streisand episode appeared in Season 1, it was after the show had already become a bit of a cultural phenomenon and Parker and Stone had gained a bit more leeway from Comedy Central (which airs the show). Early on, they had less freedom, which led to them not being able to kill a celebrity in an early episode. Read on to see how it all went down!
As I wrote in a TV Legend a couple of months ago, in the early days of “South Park,” Parker and Stone were still finding their way through the format of what they wanted the show to be. At the same time, Comedy Central executives were similarly unsure about what the show would become. This came to a head in the eighth episode of the first season, when the show wouldn’t let Parker and Stone end the episode the way that they originally intended.
“Starvin’ Marvin” was the show’s first Thanksgiving episode, where the boys try to donate to the African charity organization, the Christian Children’s Fund (the one with the famous commercials starring former “All in the Family” star Sally Struthers), in an attempt to get the free sports watch you receive for signing up, but instead discover that an Ethiopian child has been sent to South Park. They dub him Marvin. The boys befriend him but when the FBI show up to bring Marvin back to Africa, he tricks them into taking Eric Cartman instead. Once in Africa, Cartman discovers that Sally Struthers, who is on location filming commercials for the fund, has been hoarding food. He reveals her food supply and the local villagers take control.
The inspiration for the show was Parker and Stone watching one of Struthers’ commercials and noting the humor (to them, at least) of an overweight woman doing commercials for starving children in Africa. The show mocks her weight. Parker and Stone claim that they were told that Struthers had originally been a fan of the show until they made fun of her and that she took the mockery quite hard. I don’t know if that’s true or not, just noting that that was the impression that Parker and Stone had in 2003 at the time that they recorded their audio commentary for the episode.
When asked about her in an interview in 1998, Parker replied:
Oh, she’s alright. Sally Struthers isn’t really a bad person, she’s just a ripe person for jokes. Dude, she sets herself up for it. It’s like, ‘Just do voiceovers’, you know? Because she’s fat. Because she’s enormously fat and she’s standing in front of a bunch of really skinny, starving people going, ‘Look at these poor kids’. You’re going, Dude, ‘Give them some of your pie.’
In the end, Marvin is returned to Africa and Cartman is returned home. On his way to the plane taking him home, though, he walks past Sally Struthers, who is tied up.
Originally, Parker and Stone wanted to have her be dead, with the African village living off of her body. Comedy Central would not allow it.
As noted, though, by the time that this episode came out in November 1997, the show had become a sensation (Christmas 1997 saw tons of South Park merchandise) so Comedy Central likely was feeling a bit more generous four episodes later, as they allowed Parker and Stone to kill Streisand, and a number of celebrities have been killed since. Struthers, by the way, has returned a few times since, including at one point getting so fat that she has basically become Jabba the Hut.
The legend is…
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