It’s been 20 years since the first episode of South Park debuted on Comedy Central, its crudely-drawn animation, foul-mouthed creations and plot involving Cartman being anally probed by aliens immediately setting the subversive tone for what would become the most culture-penetrating cartoon since The Simpsons.
Hundreds of different characters have entered Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s brilliantly warped world in the subsequent two decades, with many of those only making a fleeting solitary appearance. Ignoring the celebrity cameos and skewerings (which sadly means there’s no place here for the Mecha-Streisand-battling Robert Smith, tone-deaf cult singer Wing or Jennifer Lopez’s hand) here’s a look at the show’s greatest one-episode wonders.
Stan’s murderous goldfish, Cartman’s permanently on-heat Mr. Kitty, the fourth-grade class’s rectum-tunnelling gerbil Lemmiwinks: South Park’s pet community has often been just as oddball as that of its human. Where else would you find a deformed turkey tasked with performing a death-defying circus trick in an elementary school musical about Helen Keller? Saved from the slaughterhouse by Kyle and Timmy, Gobbles may have cut a sorry sight with his constantly drooping neck and permanently bemused expression. But he also saves the day, albeit with the most underwhelming ring of fire stunt you’re ever likely to see, and forges such a heart-warming bond with Timmy that the loveable little mite even takes a bullet for him.
A year after introducing the term in their flop sports comedy BASEketball, Stone and Parker took ‘derp’ to a whole new level in Season 3’s The Succubus. Named after the made-up word for a painfully unfunny obvious joke, Mr. Derp temporarily replaces Chef in the school cafeteria, where he’s more concerned with serving up lame slapstick than cream chip beef on toast. Despite claims that ‘if you liked Chef, you’re going to love Mr. Derp,’ Cartman and co. are left entirely unamused by his nutty antics, which come accompanied by a tinny synth sound reminiscent of the old Windows ’95 shutdown jingle. Mr. Derp’s screen time barely lasts 45 seconds, but his hammer to the head humor made such an impression that the ‘derp’ term has since become part of the English lexicon.
Not to be confused with her crazed bus driver namesake, Veronica appears in the same episode as both Mr. Derp and another great one-off character, the Cartman-teasing optician, Dr. Lout. She initially appears as Chef’s relatively inoffensive, if slightly annoying, folk-singing new girlfriend. But following an enlightened chat with Mr. Garrison, the boys realize that she’s actually a Satanic monster in disguise intending to suck the life out of South Park’s most beloved school cafeteria worker. Undone by her own song being played backwards, the moment when Veronica’s true self— all vampire fangs, blood red eyes and demonic voice—is revealed is genuinely frightening. But her subsequent descent into the pits of hell ultimately saves Chef, while inevitably taking out Kenny at the same time.
Tad Mikowski’s ridiculous sense of bravado will instantly be familiar to anyone who grew up on the lame skiing comedies of the ‘80s (see Ski Patrol, Hot Dog, Ski School etc.) Showing up in the Aspen vacation episode, the archetypal rich brat consistently berates Stan’s prowess on the slopes (with “Stan Darsh” his number one insult of choice) much to his target’s nonplusment. In the end, Stan agrees to a downhill challenge just to shut him up and simultaneously save the resort’s youth center. Cue self-aware musical montage. Of course, Mikowski’s needless foul play (obstructing his opponent with chopped down trees and mountains of sand) all proves to be for nothing when he’s distracted by a pair of mutant breasts, allowing Stan to crawl to victory. Mikowski may be one of South Park’s more ineffectual villains, but he’s also one of the most pathetically amusing.
Butters once hoodwinked Maury Povich by attaching a fake set of testicles to his chin, but he needn’t have resorted to such extreme methods. In fact, his turbulent family life could provide enough material for several seasons of TV’s most exploitative talk show. His briefly insane mother once tried to kill him on learning of her husband’s infidelities; his father once sent him to pray the gay away despite being a gay bathhouse regular himself; and both parents fed him human corpses while locking him in the basement after believing he’d been turned into a demon. Even his Grandma Stotch, who appeared to be a sweet little old lady on the surface, proved to be a sadist, regularly stealing his lunch money, giving him a black eye and most disturbing of all, putting one of his body parts in her toothless mouth.
Toothpaste commercial-starring, immaculately-dressed, straight-A student Gary Harrison initially appears to be one of South Park’s more vanilla characters. He’s so ridiculously polite that he laughs when Cartman taunts him with a homophobic slur and responds to Stan’s threat of an ass-kicking with an optimistic offer of future friendship, something later surprisingly accepted. But there are limits to his niceness and when Stan ditches him on learning about the origins of the Mormon religion, proud believer Gary responds in a manner more befitting of Cartman. “All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan. But you were so high and mighty that you couldn’t just look past my religion and be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.” Stone and Parker would later explore Mormonism much further in their Tony-winning musical, but this seventh season episode is just as razor-sharp.
Trent Boyett was so unhinged he almost made Cartman appear like a well-adjusted, upstanding member of society. You perhaps can’t blame him for subjecting the gang—well, mostly Butters—to a reign of terror during season eight’s homage to Cape Fear. Boyett had spent the last five years in Juvenile Hall after being framed by the boys for an arson incident which confined poor pre-school teacher Ms. Claridge to a wheelchair. A Polish bike ride, two Indian sunburns and a Texas chili bowl (essentially sticking a Tabasco sauce-covered telephone where the sun doesn’t shine) were just some of the inventively-named methods he used to enact his revenge following his release. But sadly we were deprived of further such badassery when he once again caught the rap for seriously burning the long-suffering Ms. Claridge and was given another five-year stretch.
South Park has occasionally blurred the boundaries between its animated world and real life, most notably in the “I Should Never Have Gone Ziplining” episode where the main gang suddenly take on human form in a reality show re-enactment. But it first made the slightly surreal leap back in season three when wood shop teacher Mr. Adler begins reminiscing about his late wife. Initially the live-action first-person flashbacks relate to happier times, as the object of his affections (played by long-running South Park writer Pam Brady) cavorts in a field, bakes cookies and generally behaves like a lead in a saccharine Hallmark movie. But things get increasingly darker, and we last see her plummeting to her death while attempting to skywrite “I Love U Richard.” It’s a hilariously twisted send-off made all the more memorable for the fact she somehow begins spurting copious amounts of blood long before impact.
It’s a relief friendless Facebook user Kip Drordy only shows up once as we’re not sure we could take watching him suffer any more social media-inflicted torment. The prematurely-receding outcast spends six months staring at his completely blank friend list before Kyle takes pity on him and sends him an add request. Drordy’s joyous reaction is genuinely heart-warming, if desperately sad—he takes his computer (with a tab of Kyle’s profile permanently open) to the movies and excitedly recalls every mundane detail of their online interactions to his parents. However, his new-found happiness is short-lived after Kyle—whose association with Drordy has heavily impacted his own social media standing—cruelly deletes him, sending Drordy spiralling back into a pit of despair. But after defeating a monstrous version of his online profile, Stan sends his 845,423 friends Kip’s way, concluding one of South Park’s most relatable satires in unusually uplifting style.
A parody of both the US Coast Guard’s panda mascot Ike and the late 1990s boom of lawsuits against schools, Petey is invited to educate Mr. Garrison’s class about sexual harassment, only to spark a lawsuit frenzy largely instigated by Kyle’s opportunistic father Gerald. The overwhelmingly sincere Petey is then shipped off to the Island of Misfit Mascots, which includes such nonsensical characters as Willy the “Don’t Stare Directly at the Sun” Worm and Hoppy the “Don’t Do Stuff that Might Irritate Your Inner Ear” badger. Thankfully he gets a happy ending when he reinvents himself as the more useful Petey the “Don’t Sue People” Panda and briefly restores some sense of order to South Park’s lawsuit-happy community. But it’s the muffled, slightly deranged music hall tune that plays every time his previous incarnation shuffles into the room that makes Petey such a memorable creation.