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Humour and Intertextuality: the Use of Inter-

Referentiality in The Simpsons, South Park and

Family Guy
Anca Anton*
University of Bucharest/Universitatea din București

Abstract: The paper analyses how three iconic American TV shows have used humour to
individualize their respective identities and intertextuality to differentiate from each other. The
Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy occupy special places in American popular culture and
they are chosen in this paper not only for their unique identities, but also because of the rivalry
that exists between them in the media, in their content and between their fans. This rivalry puts a
particular spin on the way the shows approach intertextuality in that inter-referentiality took on
a prominent role in defining their identity and in conveying not only the messages and meanings
behind various episodes, but also the philosophy behind each show.
Keywords: popular culture; media studies; intertextuality; humour; The Simpsons; South
Park; Family Guy.
Cuvinte-cheie: popular culture; studii media; intertextualitate; umor; Familia Simpson; South
Park; Family Guy; Familia mea dementă.

Introduction specifically, inter-referentiality: how each

animated series is present and referenced in
the other two, thus creating niches within the
This paper analyses three animated already niched genre.
shows holding a special place in American
popular culture; their appearance marked
key moments in the development of their The humour of not being
genre and had a strong influence on the an-
imated series that followed them. We are
talking about The Simpsons, South Park and
Family Guy. Each show has its own very The Simpsons, South Park and Family
distinct identity and a series of characteris- Guy are, broadly speaking, cartoons. This
tics that differentiates it from the other two, television genre has been traditionally re-
marking a turning point in the history of served for children, but it progressively at-
American animated sitcoms at the time of tracted teens and adults. Therefore, the most
their appearance. creative TV shows for children are appealing
The paper explores two dimensions: The to the parents as well, each age bracket pro-
first is related to the dominant characteristic jecting a different interpretation and set of
of the humour in each show, and how it is meanings on the shows. Television channels
used to set the series apart. The second di- identified this niche and explored it, rapid-
mension addresses intertextuality and, more ly reaching a level where parents don’t trust
* Universitatea din București, Facultatea de Jurnalism și Științele Comunicării, București. E-mail:
30    Anca Anton, Humour and Intertextuality: the Use of Inter-Referentiality in The Simpsons…

shows for children if they cannot decipher in my shorts!’). Most of the main characters
them a second level of interpretation, often and some of the secondary ones use one or
represented by satire or parody, in addition more of these catchphrases. Homer’s famous
to the level intended for the kids. The type D’oh is already a reference point in popular
of humour is thus viral, even subversive, but culture, so much so that the Simpsons and
in order to pass undetected by the cultural Philosophy book is subtitled The D’oh of
immune system – society and, particularly, Homer (Irwin et al., 2001), but the use of
parents – it has to wear the mask of kids’ en- catchphrases has become less frequent in
tertainment: cartoons (Rushkoff, 1994, 100- later seasons, episodes like Bart gets famous
101, 106). making fun of their excessive use. Bart be-
Mikhail Bakhtin identified three distinct comes famous in the Krusty the Clown show
manifestations of the culture of folk humour by saying: ‘I didn’t do it!’.
(Bakhtin, 1984 [1965], 5-18): The humour of the show is created also
by the use of cultural references that cover
1. Ritual spectacles: carnival pageants, com-
a wide social spectrum, so that many gen-
ic shows of the marketplace;
erations and social classes can enjoy watch-
2. Comic verbal compositions: parodies both ing the show. When possible, various visual
oral and written (the parody is at the core jokes are introduced in the background of
of many South Park Episodes); the episode through funny texts or in road
signs, newspapers, billboards etc. The same
3. Various genres of billingsgate: curses,
technique is also used by Family Guy (for
oaths, popular blazons (these are the result
example, in an episode, one morning, at
of shouting and proffering amusing pro-
breakfast, there is a cereal box on the table
fanities, which used to populate the pub-
and it is named Generic Cereals), but more
lic space and marketplaces where people
frequently, turning it into an essential part
made jokes and carried discussions using
in the process of building characters and ac-
colloquial language).
tion. Sometimes, because of the show’s fast
These three forms of popular culture are pace and non sequitur approach to humour,
present practically in every episode of The Family Guy jokes are visible at the second
Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy, but or third viewing or even only after pausing
updated according to contemporary sensitiv- the episode.
ities and representations in order to maintain Humour in The Simpsons is achieved
their relevance. ‘by using a rich inventory of cultural refer-
ences, intentionally dissociated descriptions
and a considerable level of self-reflexivity
in relation to television, its conventions and
The Simpsons
the status of the programme as a TV show.’
(King, 2002)
The show uses catchphrases, expres- Even though The Simpsons’ humour in-
sions that in time become core part of the itially attracted criticism even from former
characters that deliver them, even defining USA presidents (George Bush Sr.), now-
their identity; they can enter popular culture adays it is considered almost demure, and
particularly when they are adopted by fans family-friendly, particularly when compared
or used on merchandise. There is, however, to harsher shows, including South Park and
the case in which a character starts using Family Guy. This was acknowledged even
an expression after it became a catchphrase by the creator of the show, Matt Groening,
(Bart’s ‘Don’t have a cow, man!’ and ‘Eat in an interview: ‘When we started back in
Sociologie Românească, volumul XIV, Nr. 4, 2016, pp. 29-44    31

the very end of 1989 as a series, there was is to determine people to think by pushing
nothing else like the show on TV at the time. politically correct boundaries and it does so
Since then, there’s been an explosion of sa- by using one of the oldest techniques: satire.
tirical, wild animation, which has left us in a There is a distinct relationship between
situation of being not the wildest show out carnivalesque, scatological, South Park and
there. I mean, South Park outdoes us every televisual performance: “The carnival itself
step of the way. Family Guy obviously has is a performance; it is a theatre at which
gone completely wild with outrageous hu- people perform subversive acts. As wildly
mour. Then, on the other side, there’s King and sincerely as they are performed, the act-
Of The Hill, which has a muted tone and is ing stops when the carnival is over and the
very emotionally resonant. So how we fit world return to normal. So it is with South
into the changing pop culture and the stuff Park. The show’s exuberance and scatology
around us is increasingly difficult.’ (Ryan, referencing recreate the carnivalesque for
2009) contemporary audiences” (Johnson-Woods,
2007, xv).
South Park usually deals with very seri-
ous topics, some of the greatest controver-
South Park
sies of the modern world: euthanasia, ho-
mosexuality, political correctness, cloning,
South Park takes on topics long consid- addictions etc. The issues discussed in some
ered taboo in television. The humour it uses episodes are so problematic, that the humor-
is satirical or toilet humour, depending on istic approach feels like a teaspoon of honey
the perspective and position the audience in a large, bitter drink. Of course, not every-
occupies. Toilet humour defines a type of hu- one is laughing and, despite the increasingly
mour that ‘does not contribute to the devel- better reception of the show, it is still consid-
opment of the mind’ (Mr. Garrison, a South ered by some to be racist, sexist, infantile,
Park character), because it is focused on the offensive and/or vulgar.
inferior functions of the human body. Using Thanks to its multiple layers, the South
scatological humour in order to attract atten- Park humour can be enjoyed at various lev-
tion on the problems of society is not a re- els of cultural decoding. In addition, genres
cent invention. In the 16th century, François guide readers and help them ‘understand the
Rabelais wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel situation in a certain one rather than another’
using scatological humour, gratuitous vi- (Fiske, 1987, 108); therefore, a scene can be
olence and insults that lacked any subtlety considered comedy in South Park, but lose
in order to bring a powerful critique to his all comedic effect if integrated in a different
own society. Two centuries later, Jonathan show.
Swift brought his own brand of satire in The scatology humour is almost perma-
“Gulliver’s Travels”, underlining behav- nently present in South Park. Except one
iours and attitudes, which he considered of the four boys, Cartman, the most scato-
negative, or worthy of ridicule by mixing logical character is Mr. Hankey, a piece of
fantasy and humorous critique of European human bodily waste; this scatology trait
societies, particularly the British with ref- is countered and somewhat neutralized
erences to bodily functions (censored in the by the fact that he represents the Spirit of
first edition and only reinserted in the text a Christmas. However, the most infantile and
decade after the initial publication). History consistent toilet humour comes from the al-
repeats itself in the 21st century adaptation of ter-egos of the creators of the show, Terrance
this approach: the aim of the cultural product and Phillip. They are the answer Parker and
32    Anca Anton, Humour and Intertextuality: the Use of Inter-Referentiality in The Simpsons…

Stone gave to the critics that said that South us towards discovering what is wrong with
Park is just scatology. The Terrance and the world in order to find a way to fix it.
Phillip Show is no more and no less than an Therefore, the popularity of the show is
animated device to show that scatological also due to the ruthless pleasure it takes in
humour cannot generate comedy on its own. destroying cultural conventions and image-
The US demographic explosion after the ry. The humour is vulgar, scatological and
Second World War led to the baby boomers offensive, but it is intelligently built and the
generation, one that would greatly influence meanings it conveys surpass the first level of
not only American society, but also its popu- empiric experience. South Park humour asks
lar culture. As for the humour of this genera- for thought, analysis and action.
tion, it was marked by cynicism, intertextual
play, parody and satire. The standards for
comedy were also elevated: comedy was no
Family Guy
longer supposed just to amuse, it also had to
incorporate the pieces of a cultural puzzle:
‘In the post-Simpsons epoch, viewers expect Humour in Family Guy often relies on
more than clever one-liners or slapstick prat- a literary and conversational device called
falls’. (Johnson-Woods, 2007, 96) non sequitur, combined with or presented
Humour awaits and demands from its as flashbacks. Non sequiturs (Latin for ‘it
consumers a certain degree of cognitive does not follow’) appear as random com-
involvement, essential for the success of mentaries, disconnected from the narrative,
parody and satire, the central elements of or as accidental or inappropriate changes of
South Park humour. Parody creates a repli- subject, this type of frequent use making the
ca of a certain element or product of pop- show’s humour sound absurd. The absurdity
ular culture (music, painting, television, comes, of course, from the disconnection,
shows, movies), but changes certain aspects the lack of reference to the other commen-
in order to attract attention on a particular taries, thus creating confusing and often
topic or point of view. It is among the best comical effects.
methods to achieve intertextuality. In 1997, Although Family Guy keeps a somewhat
Gerard Genette suggested the term ‘hyper- coherent continuity of episodes, it often
textuality’ (Genette, 1997, 18) to indicate ‘a leaves aside complicated plotlines in order
text or genre that stay at the base of the pro- to focus on absurd humour. This approach
cess, but can also be transformed, modified, is usually used for the characters, but the
simplified (including the parody, the farce, show is known for its use of scenes where
the sequel and the translation’. An important the storyline is interrupted by a non-relat-
aspect to mention is that a parody works best ed sketch of a variable length (for example,
when the viewer is familiar with the original, Peter’s fight with a giant chicken interrupts
a reason why watching animated shows like an unrelated conversation). In order to keep
The Simpsons, South Park or Family Guy is the comical tone of the show, most episodes
difficult without a solid inventory of popular contain parodies of popular TV shows, mov-
culture knowledge. ies and slogans. In the first half of the first
While parody avoids exaggeration, sat- season, the script writers tried to introduce
ire embraces it as a central development the words murder or death in the title of
element. The distinction between parody every episode in order to make them sound
and satire is that satire can also be tragical. like old mystery radio shows (Death Has a
It analyses critically conventions, customs, Shadow, I Never Met the Dead Man, Chitty
political, social and moral practice, guiding Chitty Death Bang, Mind over Murder).
Sociologie Românească, volumul XIV, Nr. 4, 2016, pp. 29-44    33

Seth MacFarlane says they stopped doing most an institution, there are voices saying
this when they realized that they started to that a passing-of-the-torch took place be-
mix them and could not remember which ti- tween the two shows: ‘Family Guy has been
tle went with each episode; from the A Hero ahead of The Simpsons in quality for a while
Sits next Door episode the titles reflected the now and there’s no hope for reversing that
intrigue of that particular episode. trend, no matter how much purists would
Family Guy is very self-aware of the like to see it happen.’ (Dahl, 2006)
type of humour it produces and sometimes Family Guy is an excellent example of
is self-reflexive about it. In the Fast Times American popular culture product in that it
at Buddy Cianci Jr. High episode, the nar- represents a show that stockpiles, registers
rator’s voice can be heard saying “In the and reinterprets an astounding quantity of
television comedy world, the people are en- other cultural products and elements. It ex-
tertained by two separate yet equally impor- ploits at its fullest the registry of products
tant types of shows: traditional sitcoms that that circulate the media channels of an in-
get laughs out of everyday situations, like dustrialized society, as part of mass culture
trying to fix your own plumbing or inviting (Fiske, 1989b). The show is also a mirror
two dates to the same dance and animated for popular culture, but its reflexion should
shows that make jokes about farting. This be observed in a Barthian key as it unveils
is the latter”. Family Guy has a particular myths. Family Guy made out of pop culture
view on comedy, and what is funny but ‘its references a distinct trait and, by using and
humour is not only in the way it makes fun reinterpreting them, it took them off their
of flatulence, but also in its references to the pedestal. The show does to the American
everyday. And for the very same reason, it is cultural myths what Barthes did in his
instructive.’ (Wisnewski, 2007, 59) Mythologies (Barthes, 1997): it deconstructs
and dissects them in order to see how they
were created. Unlike Barthes, Family Guy
Family Guy in the popular does not offer the viewers a way to protect
themselves against the seductive nature of
culture mirror
the myth, but rather bears the naked (and,
sometimes, discourteous) truth and lets the
Family Guy is an animated series built audience choose its own meanings. The
using the sitcom formula and intended for show employs popular products using an
adults. Maybe its most difficult task was equation specific to media culture, namely
to define and establish its identity because, the binomial of predictable - unpredictable.
since its inception, the show was considered The initial feeling is that the way the image
a distasteful replica of The Simpsons, cele- is reflected is correct but then, suddenly, the
brated as one of the top three shows of the image is distorted and the looking glass ap-
20th century. The fact that FOX, as the net- pears to be under great pressure and heat that
work that promoted the show, kept chang- can either deform or break it.
ing the airing day and hour slowed down One of the main characteristics of Family
the process of finding not only its identity, Guy is given by its propensity for over-sig-
but also its audience. In spite of being can- nifying, as it often goes from simple exag-
celled, and then revived, Family Guy man- geration to full-blown fabulation in order to
aged, nevertheless, to create its own style, attract attention and to shock. The scenes are
an accomplishment acknowledged even by more often than not a perfect illustration of
the creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening. what Fiske called a semiotic supermarket
Furthermore, although The Simpsons is al- (Fiske, 1989a); even though modern audi-
34    Anca Anton, Humour and Intertextuality: the Use of Inter-Referentiality in The Simpsons…

ences are atomized, Family Guy offers such all the characteristics at first glance but, by
a quantity and variety of popular culture constantly bringing in references to other
references that it can satisfy even the most popular culture products, the show reveals
picky consumer. a Lois that is a nymphomaniac, former les-
Family Guy uses a series of central bian, S&M enthusiast, kleptomaniac, drug
myths, to which new references are constant- consumer and, sometimes, a mother with
ly added in such a rhythm that this narrative no maternal instincts. Nevertheless, she is
pattern is called blink and you’ll miss it. The in many cases the voice of reason for Peter
central myth is that of the father, head of his and the balancing, responsible force in the
family and household, the patriarch, which Griffin family.
will be recycled, with a political twist, in Another example of American myth re-
American Dad (an animated show produced fers to the fact that it is moral to seek one’s
by the same Seth MacFarlane). However, in own justice, outside the law, as long as the
Family Guy, the myth is turned on its head, objective is noble. Moreover, the show uses
as Peter is far from being a model father or multiple stereotypical images related to the
having a picture perfect family. Although the American society in general, and to fami-
Griffins live in the suburbs and are, at first ly in particular. This is revealed especially
glance, the embodiment of the American by the construction of the characters: the
dream family – father, mother, 2.5 kids (two paralyzed hero cop that courageously, albe-
teenagers and an infant), and a dog – each it sometimes aggressively, carries on with
episode brings forward elements that contra- his life, the unmotivated brutal treatment of
dict the myth and outs it as false. Therefore, African-Americans and their relationship to
Peter is actually a very lazy social and finan- the police, the sexual predator, the desperate
cial failure working on the assembly line at search for popularity by the unpopular teen-
a toy factory. Sometimes, he appears to not ager etc. All these myths and stereotypical
recognize or understand his children, or even images represent the background against
to hate them (he forces Chris to continue his which all cultural references are made.
activity as a scout, he does not remember Another popular culture characteristic
Stewie’s name and even sprinkles paprika that can be identified in Family Guy is the
instead of baby powder when he changes his repetitive nature, based on recycling vari-
diaper, he constantly mocks and humiliates ous images and products. It starts with the
Meg). He can spend months unemployed, family structure, identical to the one in The
not caring about the welfare of his family. Simpsons and re-used in American Dad.
From time to time, he seems preoccupied Because of the similarities and the plagia-
with the feelings of his family, particularly rism accusations, media and fandom both put
those of his wife, and tries to correct things, forward images of Family Guy in which they
but his stupidity, arrogance and lack of com- visually showcase visually how one show re-
mon sense make him fail most of the times. cycled some elements of the other popular
Therefore, the myth of the father who pro- culture product, namely The Simpsons.
tects his family, and is hard working, smart Family Guy often addresses self-referen-
and successful is reflected in the image of tial television, one whose object of interest is
Peter Griffin by the deformed cultural mirror itself, a television about TV, its programmes,
that is Family Guy. its conventions, revealing a deeply nar-
Another myth is that of the American cissistic nature. In one episode, the family
mother. She is, according to the myth, a talks about the fact that the show might be
very good housekeeper, God fearing, devot- cancelled; yet, in another, it is invited to a
ed to her house and family. Lois embodies guest show about dysfunctional families and
Sociologie Românească, volumul XIV, Nr. 4, 2016, pp. 29-44    35

subsequently becomes the focus of a reality The show was not universally well re-
show; in another episode Peter becomes the ceived; it was critiqued for plagiarism and
anchor of his own show, sparking the jeal- lowbrow humour, as well as accused of pro-
ousy of another anchor, Tom Tucker, who moting negative role models for children and
tries to discredit him, all the while revealing young adults. Nevertheless, hedonism, a trait
the rivalries in the TV world. of popular culture that is sometimes ignored,
Television is one of the central myths could help explain why the type of humour
of the show, in a close relationship with used in the show was not understood or ap-
Peter, an avid consumer of popular culture. preciated in the beginning. Family Guy is
Therefore, when the antenna of the town is considered funny by its consumers because
broken, Peter appears incapable of dealing
it would do anything for a laugh and because
with the separation from TV programmes
it offers pure, immediate, unjustified pleas-
and puts a cardboard frame in front of his
ure, amusement and gratification; it does
face, looking at the reality of his family
through that made-up TV frame, narrating not ask from its audiences grand efforts to
what he sees and thus simulating the produc- understand it, but merely a good command
tion of his own show. of popular culture. Family Guy is funny, be-
In Family Guy, television has a ‘bardic cause it brings to the forefront of TV comedy
function’ (Fiske, 1987). On the one hand, it all those cultural products the American pub-
is a repository of popular culture, a keeper lic (and not only them) grew up with, which
of cultural memory, and on the other hand, are recognizable and familiar, giving a sen-
it is able to translate reality into something timent of peace, control and safety. Thus,
that the audience, the community can en- Family Guy offers to its public short-term
joy and/or understand, it brings experienc- gratification and the immediate pleasure of
es and characters closer to the individual, humour, something reflected in its adoption
making him feel connected, engaged. In an by a generation that learnt to seek exactly
episode TV news anchor Tom Tucker has a that: the Millennial.
relationship with Peter’s mother; Peter does In addition to over-signification, inter-
not agree, nor does he seem to understand, textuality is another main trait of the show.
and so Tom has to explain the situation to It is a secondary type of intertextuality, situ-
him just as he would present the news, a ated on Kristeva’s vertical axis, and created
narrative construct that is present throughout by the connection between cultural products
the show.
delivered through the same channel, televi-
The narrative is another popular culture
sion. Of course, the references are too many
trait used by Family Guy: in an episode,
to be named here, but they range from Bugs
Peter starts to narrate life while living it.
Bunny to Britney Spears to sitcoms and soap
By narrating not only his actions, but also
his thoughts, he attracts the fury of his wife operas.
when he criticizes the taste and plate setting Nevertheless, South Park is the one
of the food she cooked, ignoring the fact that that excels in using intertextuality, going
she was present while he did that. In addi- as far as presenting Eric Cartman and Bart
tion, by exploring the narrative possibility, it Simpson going to FOX in order to demand
allows us to manipulate information, as we that Family Guy be taken off the air. In con-
want: in an episode, the visit of Lois’s moth- clusion, Family Guy has as dominant trait
er is presented by announcing it and then, over-signification, South Park has intertex-
immediately, by the image of the family say- tuality, while The Simpsons tries to balance
ing goodbye to her a week later. the two and be the family friendly show.
36    Anca Anton, Humour and Intertextuality: the Use of Inter-Referentiality in The Simpsons…

Intertextuality in the South storyline of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas

Park mirror Carol (1843) with lines from Scooby-Doo
and Scarface (1983) while creating a parody
of a contemporary cultural product and a sat-
South Park having a stronger intertextu- ire of the moral panic that accompanies the
al character than Family Guy is, of course, idea of child abduction. South Park is so ref-
debatable. The sheer quantity of popular erential that it was accused of being a show
culture references used in the series created with no content outside those respective ref-
by Seth MacFarlane is an argument by itself, erences; this accusation was made before the
surpassing that used in Parker and Stone’s; appearance of Family Guy, a show that takes
nevertheless, intertextuality is more than referentiality to surreal levels.
short jokes and non-sequiturs mentioning ac- South Park creates a new type of TV
tors or movies. It represents the valid use and product by adopting and adapting elements
integration of concepts, ideas, techniques traditionally found in movies and TV. These
and various constructs in the final product, elements are used so often that viewers
and South Park is qualitatively superior. Its forget they are filming techniques: pre-re-
intertextuality is built, not patched, as it is corded laughter, the montage, use of music,
the way with Family Guy. etc.; their role is usually to create a parody
Julia Kristeva helped us understand in- of their actual use in other movies and TV
tertextuality (Kristeva, 1966): ‘no text stands shows. One of the aims is to simulate the
alone, no text is an island’. No matter its na- mechanism of manipulation, as South Park
ture (written, painted, sung, performed etc.), is in a relationship of complicity with its
the cultural product is influenced by what public, believing it capable of resisting the
happened before and around it, by its rela- spell of manipulation and making this belief
tionship with other cultural products, as well obvious to the members of the audience.
as by the relationship between creator and Over time South Park spoofed numerous
consumer. Therefore, reading, listening, see- talk shows (Freak Strike, A Million Little
ing a text (used here as a generic term) needs Fibers), detective/crime TV series (Lil’
to be accompanied by the knowledge of Crime Stoppers), animation styles (Korn’s
other texts we read, listened, viewed before Groovy Pirate Mystery, Simpsons Already
being able to frame it and, to some degree, Did It, Make Love Not Warcraft) or soap
understand it. It becomes obvious that “tel- operas (Cartman’s Mom Is a Dirty Slut,
evision is utterly intertextual, even if in the Cartman’s Mom Is Still a Dirty Slut). Even
popular culture understanding of intertex- the show itself is not safe. Thus, by using
tuality: obvious references and innuendos” self-references, it deconstructs the formula
(Johnson-Woods, 2007, 104). of South Park through its own characters:
South Park brings together texts from a “This is just startin’ to look like another
great variety of sources, but is known par- one of those times where it-it’s gonna end
ticularly for its references to the most intru- up with the whole town turning out, it’s a
sive medium of the 1990s – the movie. The big showdown happening, and us havin’ to
first nine seasons total 139 episodes, contain- talk about what we learned, and I say we just
ing visual and verbal references to almost stop right now, and go play cards or some-
100 TV programmes and over 160 movies. thing”. (Kyle, Butt Out episode)
Moreover, the episodes adopt and adapt mu- In South Park almost all episodes men-
sical styles, trivia and cartoons as products tion television, are about television or inte-
of popular culture. For example, the episode grate TV shows, but ‘it is a cannibalism the
Child Abduction Is Not Funny combines the public wants and demands’ (Rushkoff, 1996,
Sociologie Românească, volumul XIV, Nr. 4, 2016, pp. 29-44    37

114). In addition to television, many epi- to Family Guy, which they considered offen-
sodes approach topics concerning ethics, the sive; nevertheless, their approach in Cartoon
advertising industry and censorship. Wars was somewhat close to self-irony. The
South Park is different from other car- first episode has two storylines: one focuses
toons intended for adults in that its aim is on the reaction the town and the boys (the
not just humour, but satire, sometimes even main characters) have when the news reach-
almost indefensibly raw social satire. By es them that the next Family Guy episode
contrast, The Simpsons developed a different will feature an image of the Muslim prophet
kind of satire where humour and laughter are Mohammed (they make frequent references
just as important. All the while, it shows a to the Danish cartoons). The second narra-
higher sensibility to family and children, and tive is focused on the diversity of feelings
uses almost no foul language; The Simpsons towards Family Guy, particularly those
was, at its release, considered just as scan- of Cartman, exhibiting the creators’ nega-
dalous as South Park and Family Guy are to- tive point of view. Later on in the episode,
day, but now is viewed as moderate, even a Cartman justifies his point of view while si-
family friendly show. At the other end of the multaneously revealing Parker and Stone’s
spectrum is Family Guy, a show that seeks opinion about the South Park - Family Guy
the laughter of the audience at any cost; it comparisons: “Don’t you EVER, EVER,
contains social satire, but only as a general compare me to Family Guy! You hear me
guideline of the series, aiming to amuse first Kyle??!! Compare me to Family Guy again,
and then critique. and so help me I will kill you where you
stand! […] Do you have any idea what it’s
like?! Everywhere I go, «Hey Cartman, you
must like Family Guy, right?» «Hey, your
South Park and Family Guy sense of humour reminds me of Family Guy,
Cartman.» I am NOTHING like Family
The attitude of the creators of each series Guy! When I make jokes, they are inherent
towards the other shows is often hostile and to a story! Deep, situational and emotional
critical, as some episodes reflect. This criti- jokes based on what is relevant and has a
cal attitude leads to the creation of a special POINT! Not just one interchangeable joke
type of intertextuality, one that ranges from after another!!” (Cartman, Cartoon Wars I
simple visual and textual innuendos to spe- episode) These statements also show how
cial episodes. In Cartoon Wars I and Cartoon the Family Guy type of humour is perceived
Wars II one of the South Park characters, and the role that non-sequiturs have in its
Cartman, tries to get Family Guy of the air evaluation. This can be seen more clearly
and is helped by Bart Simpson, who also did earlier in the South Park episode, in a scene
not enjoy that particular type of humour. The where Peter Griffin discusses with the mem-
presence of Bart shows not only a respect- bers of his family, his jokes having no logic
ful camaraderie between South Park and The while making five popular culture references
Simpsons, but also their mutual condemna- in less than a minute. This insert underlines
tion of Family Guy. The irony comes at the the need to understand and redefine the re-
end of the two episodes, when Family Guy is lationship with those around us in a media
not censored and taken of the air, therefore, dominated world: ‘Until recently, man did
thanks to another South Park character, Kyle. not need to be aware of the structure of his
The two Cartoon Wars episodes are the own behavioural systems, because, staying
answer that Trey Parker and Matt Stone gave at home, the behaviour of most people was
to the frequent comparisons of South Park highly predictable. Today, however, man is
38    Anca Anton, Humour and Intertextuality: the Use of Inter-Referentiality in The Simpsons…

constantly interacting with strangers, be- and exaggerates information etc. A typi-
cause his extensions have both widened his cal South Park scenario starts in a familiar
range and caused his world to shrink. It is setting dominated by non-issues (a walk in
therefore necessary for man to transcend his the woods with friends, the arrival of a new
own culture, and this can be done only by colleague, downloading a new app, playing
making explicit the rules by which it oper- detective etc.). Thereafter it continues by
ates.’ (Hall, 1989 [1976], 54-55) keeping the storyline coherent, but twisting
In the end, Cartman finds out that the the plot, characters, and their motivation,
Family Guy scriptwriters are, in fact, ma- and objectives (forest animals are actually
rine mammals named manatees that take enablers of the birth of Satan’s son, interra-
idea balls from an aquarium and release cial/same race couples should or should not
them down a tube, thus creating the combi- be enabled/encouraged, mobile game obses-
nations that lead to the Family Guy jokes. sion and triviality, murder and pornography
Seth MacFarlane, the show’s creator, said etc.), in order to address and put into per-
in an interview that it would be hypocritical spective hot issues in a humorous, satirical,
of him to be upset because of the two South even dark way. While nothing is off-limits
Park episodes, stating that when he has to in terms of topics to make fun at, and co-
drop a joke from one of his own episodes, he herent, complex storytelling is used by Stone
calls it a manatee joke. and Parker to unveil their position at the end
In South Park’s evaluation of Family of the episode, but this position is often in
Guy’s particular brand of humour, we can the middle of the aisle, making fun of both
also see the distinction between generational sides; ‘South Park arguably resists all forms
understandings of humour: ‘ironic forms in of didacticism and dogmatism. If it does use
general represent one way for Generation X moralistic statements, it is to highlight the
to handle the postmodern condition of doubt inanity of the candy-coated endings of fam-
and uncertainty’ (Graban, 2008, 418). South ily-oriented sitcoms on American television’
Park is inherently a Gen X product on the (Halsall, 2008, 32), a page right out of the
one hand and a mirror of its values and ap- Gen X iconoclast manual that deconstructs
proach to social, political and cultural issues and reinterprets the Baby-boomer traditions,
on the other. It does not shy away from tra- values and imagery.
ditional attributes of storytelling (coherent, Family Guy caters more to the Millennial
logical, linear), when it mimics other prod- sense of humour. While it follows in the
ucts of popular culture originating in music, footsteps of The Ren and Stimpy Show
TV, film or other mediums. However, it uses which paved the way for a particular type
them as the stable, acceptable elements of a of animated shows directed at adults (Beavis
binome that also includes a harsh critique of and Butt-Head, for example), and is deeply
contemporary issues, many times presented rooted in the 70s and 80s popular culture,
in a brash, unapologetically crude manner, the show aims at parody rather than satire,
saying ‘what is not socially or morally ac- at surreal rather than logical humour, at a
ceptable to say. […] Through its vulgarity, Snapchat rather than at a blog user. Family
South Park verbalizes the drives and desires Guy jokes have to be funny in the moment,
that we often repress’ (Young, 2007, 13-14). not necessarily in relation to a certain scene
Therefore, a Doomsday scenario, familiar and, sometimes, generate laughter precisely
from various Hollywood movies, is used as because they are unexpected from a logi-
the backdrop for a critique on both climate cal perspective. Peter starts fighting a giant
change deniers and advocates; a natural dis- chicken in the middle of an unrelated scene
aster is used to criticise how media reports or comes out of the forest dressed as a clown
Sociologie Românească, volumul XIV, Nr. 4, 2016, pp. 29-44    39

while being part of a group of soldiers in a storyline of a different The Simpsons epi-
military mission. The non-sequiturs, such a sode. In the end, they reach the conclusion
central element of the show’s ethos, create that The Simpsons already did everything
an ambiguity that does not force meaning and there is no sense in worrying because
on the viewers, but rather lets them create they too probably took ideas from other TV
their own, in a rhythm that perfectly reflects shows or movies.
social-media era cultural consumption. Such This episode perfectly highlights how
a segmented storyline may not be pleasing South Park uses intertextuality by exploring
to GenX-ers, but is perfectly integrated in three referencing levels:
the Millennial’ understanding of the world;
1. Self-references: in the beginning of the
their multi-meaning, fast-paced, simultane-
episode one of the characters does not
ous existence of realities perspective is per-
want to put the carrot nose on the snow-
fectly reflected in newer shows, such as Rick
man for fear it will come to life and kill
and Morty, in which linear storytelling exists
them all; the answer Stan gives him refer-
only to be reframed and restructured.
ences the first South Park animation mov-
ie, The Spirit of Christmas: ‘C’mon, when
has that ever happened, except for that one
South Park and The Simpsons time?’;
2. References to random popular culture
The type of intertextuality shown in products and topics that entered the pro-
Cartoon Wars I and II (season 10) is hinted duction process: MC Hammer and the U
at in season six by the The Simpsons Already Can’t Touch This song, a foetus in a for-
Did It episode. Additionally to the storyline maldehyde jar labelled ‘Hitler’, the de-
showing the four main characters trying to struction of the Hindenburg, unsafe sex
build a civilisation of merpeople as they saw etc.;
in a TV ad, there is a secondary storyline,
3. The Simpsons references (focused on the
in which Professor Chaos tries to bring de-
plans Butters makes, hinting at various ep-
struction to the city (Butters, another char-
isodes from the TV show):
acter, in disguise exploring his alternate evil
identity). • Blocking the sun – the Who Shot Mr.
All the plans that Butters comes up Burns? episode;
with, as shown by his side-kick, General
• Cutting off the head of the town statue –
Disarray, are actions already carried out in
the Tell-tale Head episode;
The Simpsons. When Butters plans to block
the sunlight so that it does not reach the town • Showing the availability to build for the
of South Park anymore, General Disarray town a dangerous railway in order to run
points out that is a parallel to a plan of Mr. away later on with stolen money – the
Burns, a character from The Simpsons. Not Marge vs. the Monorail episode;
wanting to copy something they did, Butters
• Starting a website that would spread
invents new plans for destruction over and
rumours about the citizens of the town
over again, only to find out that they had
- the Computer Wore Menace Shoes
already been done in The Simpsons. While
scheming to destroy South Park, Butters
notices that the actions of the four other • Placing a fake angel skeleton as an arte-
boys (the main characters of the show: Stan, fact – the Lisa the Sceptic episode;
Kyle, Cartman and Kenny) are a copy of the
40    Anca Anton, Humour and Intertextuality: the Use of Inter-Referentiality in The Simpsons…

• Bringing the World Cup in South Park The Simpsons and Family Guy
so that the fans would get mad – the The
Cartridge Family episode;
Family Guy was frequently criticized by
• Shaking all the beer cans so that they Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons,
produce a massive explosion – the So and he included this critique of the show and
It’s Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show what he considers plagiarism in some of his
episode; episodes.
• Giving up world domination in or- A strange intertextuality is this created
der to run and join the circus – the between the two animated series, as Family
Homerpalooza and Bart Carny episodes; Guy also contains critical references about
The Simpsons, further feeding the media ru-
• Replacing cherries in the chocolate cov- mours about their rivalry.
ered cherries with two-month old may- The Simpsons uses intertextuality only
onnaise – a fictional The Simpsons epi- at a negative, critical level when it comes
sode advertised during this South Park to Family Guy, while being rather bal-
episode. anced when dealing with South Park (after
The episode showcases another crucial the Cartoon Wars episodes that referenced
element of humour in general and of satire Mohammed, The Simpsons had Bart write
in particular: success (situated at the con- on the blackboard ‘South Park, we’d stand
junction of understanding and acquisition) by you if we weren’t so scared.’ as a subtle
is determined by whether the public already sign of solidarity):
knows the cultural reference and agrees with • In the Missionary: Impossible episode,
its point of view: ‘satire persuades only the FOX organizes a pledge drive in order to
previously persuaded because in order to un- raise money for the network. When stand-
derstand a satire as a satire, a person needs ing in front of a television set showing the
to see that the moral violations which are Family Guy logo, the reporter says: ‘So
presented in a deadpan way in the satire do if you don’t want to see crude, lowbrow
indeed constitute moral violations’. (Veatch, programming disappear from the airwaves
1998, 203) Veatch’s Theory of Humor please, call now.’
also provides an interesting explanation of • In the Tree House of Horror XIII episode,
why some South Park fans consider The Homer creates an army of clones, each
Simpsons passé, while some The Simpsons being progressively dumber than the real
fans consider South Park’s satire humour- Homer; one of the clones is Peter Griffin.
less: as new generations of cultural consum- This is one of the most obvious references
ers arise, so do new ways of understanding The Simpsons makes about Family Guy,
and acquiring meaning, not all available to conveying both a plagiarism accusation
the previous generations; while Cartman is and an evaluation of the quality of the
both funny and frightening to some, he is show.
simply a humourless exaggeration to others,
in no way comparable to the prankster that is • In The Italian Bob episode, one of
Bart Simpson. On the other hand, Cartman Peter Griffin’s photos is shown in an al-
is seen as the embodiment of the satiric ap- bum containing criminals and labelled
proach to the duality of modern day sensibil- Plagiarismo, while the photo of Stan
ities and morals. Smith, from American Dad, another Seth
MacFarlane creation (considered by some
critics a copy of Family Guy), is under
Sociologie Românească, volumul XIV, Nr. 4, 2016, pp. 29-44    41

the label Plagiarismo di Plagiarismo. bers of the voice casts working together
Groening uses intertextuality to criticize for the episode.
not just the two shows, but also the type of
Both Family Guy and The Simpsons have
humour they use.
passionate fans and critics. They have both
Of course, Family Guy does not shy won important awards and are a commercial
away from intertextuality when referring to success in addition to becoming reference
The Simpsons, acting almost as a repository TV shows. Nevertheless, more frequently
of popular culture references; their use falls than The Simpsons, Family Guy is consid-
into the following categories: ered superficial, with an almost idiotic ap-
• Parodies of sequences made famous by proach to humour, favouring non-sequiturs
The Simpsons or characters like Homer instead of coherent storylines. Those that
and Marge showing up in Family Guy. see Family Guy as an envelope pushing
For example, in the PTV episode, Stewie animated series tend to consider that The
rides his bike home, just like Marge drives Simpsons is sometimes boring, creatively
her car home in the opening sequence; worn-out and passé. This is often referred to
but when he arrives in the drive way and as jump the shark, a throwback to the icon-
Homer appears, the latter doesn’t just get ic American sitcom Happy Days that after
in the house, like in the original sequence, gradually losing relevance aired an episode
instead slams into the door and falls. Peter (Fox, 2010) that featured one of the main
opens the door and says: ‘Hey, Stewie! characters, Arthur The Fonz Fonzarelli,
Who the hell is that?’ jumping a shark. That scene entered popu-
• References to the role The Simpsons lar culture and the expression jump the shark
played in American popular culture and is used any time a show starts engaging in
critiques of that role. In the Mother Tucker implausible or nonspecific scenarios in order
episode there is a line Brian delivers, tell- to advance the narrative, marking the begin-
ing Stewie ‘I’m more of a sell-out than ning of the end.
you were when you did those Butterfinger One of the main reasons Family Guy is
commercials.’ He is, of course, referenc- considered relevant is that it does not try to
ing the 1990s series of ads The Simpsons create popular culture, but instead uses what
did for Butterfinger (‘Nobody better lay a is already formed, tested and made current
finger on my Butterfinger.’) by other cultural producers targeting the
same 15 to 30 years old audience. It picks
• References to characters or actions from and chooses what the target finds funny,
The Simpsons without them appearing in while always trying to keep the shock val-
the scenes. In the online game Stewie has ue of it humour higher than other TV shows.
a scatological reaction when he receives No one denies the fact that Family Guy is
orders related to The Simpsons. an unapologetic, lowbrow jokes show that
• Crossover: in 2014 Family Guy started its makes fun of anything and anyone, uses all
13th season by doing a crossover episode the cultural references a dynamic popular
with The Simpsons, an endeavour facilitat- culture consumer can think of, all the while
ed by the fact that both shows were airing making a title of glory out of it. The show
on the FOX network. While it received does not try to hide its lack of a coherent
mixed reviews, The Simpsons Guy brought style, its attraction and originality being the
forward a different type of intertextuality fact that it tries to incorporate and engulf as
than we have seen before with these three many elements as possible from other pop-
series, a collaborative one, with the mem- ular culture products. Moreover, its humour
42    Anca Anton, Humour and Intertextuality: the Use of Inter-Referentiality in The Simpsons…

is cruel, absurd, does not claim to give any done by the creator and more on the decod-
morality lessons and lets the audience make ing done by the reader/consumer. The show
its own selection of signification and build could not be read in the Arab world because
its own meaning. As a product of popular the reader did not possess the necessary cul-
culture, the show offers a series of possibil- tural knowledge. ‘The force of his own cul-
ities to control and direct the audience, al- tural stereotypes will be so strong that it will
though it does not force it to co-participate distort what he sees.’ (Hall, 1989 (1976), 53)
(Fiske, 1989a) and this freedom may very But if they are so different, what con-
well be one of the attractions of the show. nects these shows and what helps them be-
Family Guy can be viewed as a (successful) come better integrated in the heterogeneous
attempt to shatter the myths of the American
world of popular culture? Their success is
culture through their repeated exposure to a
not due only to the meanings and unexpect-
new perspective, indexing the products of
ed combinations generated by their creators,
popular culture each episode. In doing so, it
but also to the recognizable traits of the ele-
has inadvertently developed an authentic and
original characteristic: it can be considered a ments they use and to the fact that the public
product of products. has the necessary knowledge to decode the
messages, sometimes adding their own level
of interpretation. These aspects are directly
related to one of the main characteristics of
Conclusions the three shows, intertextuality; it is used not
only to create meaning, but also to underline
Each of the three animated series creates and showcase the central ideas behind the
an unusual universe, individualized through episodes and the series.
a particular trait: The Simpsons is the first to Of course, the issues these shows address
coherently tackle the issue of the dysfunc- are many and catch most of the realities of
tional middle class American family, South the American society, but each show has its
Park initiates a strong satire of the political- own way of using intertextuality and hu-
ly correct American society, and Family Guy mour. However, the types of intertextuality
makes fun of anything and everything in a and the techniques they use are similar, so
non-sequitur, schizoid collection of popu- we can safely conclude that the three animat-
lar culture references. Each show creates its ed series are similar in technique (allusions,
own style and, thus, its own genre, but the parody, plagiarism, crossover) and typol-
signifiers they use create meaning only in ogy (intertextuality is often deliberate and
the society that generated them or in socie- obligatory, particularly when dealing with
ties familiarized with that particular cultural inter-referentiality between the shows), but
production. The moment we take the shows different in their narrative strategy and de-
out of their popular culture environment, sired comedic outcome.
meaning is lost. This is best shown by the Intertextuality is often used in character
failed attempt to adapt and air The Simpsons development, but also in the advancement
in the Arab world. The reason? They ignored of the storyline. It plays an important role
the encoding/decoding model. The encoding in underlining character traits or in defining
done by the creator and script writers of The a situation not by genus proximum, but by
Simpsons is considered one of the best done placing it in a certain cultural area. Similarly,
in Western popular culture; nevertheless, intertextuality can be used to define identity
popular culture relies less on the encoding and to bring it to the forefront of the story (at
Sociologie Românească, volumul XIV, Nr. 4, 2016, pp. 29-44    43

the end of the Da Boom episode in Family ment of its storyline and situational humour,
Guy it is revealed that the whole episode was even though it does not shy away from allu-
a dream of Pamela Ewing from Dallas who, sions and direct references to its competitors.
upon waking up, runs to Bobby Ewing and Over the years the three animated shows
recounts the dream; his incredulous answer developed almost a love-hate relationship
is ‘What is Family Guy?’). It is not uncom- that is reflected in how they deal with each
mon to find self-referentiality in Family Guy, other’s presence in the same media universe;
as it is the show that uses it with the highest inter-referentiality is at the core of how
frequency by comparison to the other two. the shows approach intertextuality when it
In addition, intertextuality can be used comes to competition and, in some cases,
at various degrees of complexity; it can go they go as far as explicitly integrating char-
from simple allusions to the construction of acters and plot lines into their own produc-
whole episodes. Family Guy is a great exam- tion process. Therefore, Peter Griffin ap-
ple of the first level of complexity, where the pears in The Simpsons, Homer Simpson can
reader is not required to invest anything else be seen in Family Guy, while Bart Simpson
but (a rather quantitative) knowledge about and Family Guy appear in South Park in two
the American popular culture; the decoding episodes, Cartoon Wars I and II, where in-
process is thus fairly simple, also enabled tertextuality reaches multiple levels: action,
by the fact that storylines are secondary to lines, characters and even the drawing style.
the punch lines and jokes can often be en- The accelerated development of the
joyed even if taken outside the narrative. On American society led to the consolidation
the other hand, even though Family Guy is of such a strong and dynamic popular cul-
the one to have developed a crossover epi- ture that it has reached a point where it tries
sode (The Simpsons Guy), it is South Park to disavow and even destroy its products
that raised the intertextuality bar through almost as soon as it has created them. The
episodes such as Cartoon Wars I and II (in- three animated shows have become an in-
ter-referential), Make Love, Not Warcraft tegral part of a cultural mechanism that not
or Good Times with Weapons. Finally, The only deconstructs its products, but is also
Simpsons uses intertextuality mainly for its cannibalising them by continuously pushing
parody value, investing more in the develop- the limits of intertextuality.


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