There's something strange about the idea of a television character watching television, a bit like the idea of a time traveler returning to the past and running into him or herself. Do TV characters get the same channels that we do? Considering that much sitcom humor is based on laughing at characters for the stupid things they say and do, would the television they watch be even more dumbed-down? If the screen were reversed, would they laugh at us?
The intro to The Simpsons is even more paradoxical. We've been watching it for nearly twenty years, so it's been a while since we could look at it with fresh eyes. Allow me to recapitulate. All the members of the Simpsons are rushing home -- Bart and Lisa from school, Marge and Maggie from the grocery store, Homer from the nuclear power plant -- and all collide comically on the sofa so that they can watch television, a gag that changes with every new episode. And what show are they watching? The Simpsons. The metaphysical acrobatics are never explained, but it makes it a lot easier to accept that cartoon characters like Bart and Lisa could have their own favorite cartoon show.
When sitcoms feature shows-within-a-show, they usually are satires on the parent, and this is even more the case on an animated show, where the style of animation itself can be altered. Bart and Lisa Simpson's favorite cartoon, Itchy and Scratchy, is the most famous example. A good counterpart is the favorite show of the boys on South Park, Terrance and Phillip. (In the South Park universe, Terrance and Phillip is a live-action show that looks like a cartoon because Canadians in the show are much more poorly animated.)
Both Itchy and Scratchy and Terrance and Phillip take cartoons to their logical extreme. Itchy and Scratchy is a hyperviolent take on traditional cartoon violence, the coyote and roadrunner as directed by Korean cinematic revenge maestro Park Chan-wook. Terrance and Phillip is far more self-referential, South Park's crude animation and crude humor as directed by a 13-year old Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But while each of the toons-within-toons is extreme in its way, the reactions to them within their respective shows are quite different. Itchy and Scratchy are very popular, stars of their own theme park and celebrity-cameo laden movie, and their success serves as a satire on cartoons and on America's love of televised violence. In contrast, Terrance and Phillip are loved by children but reviled by adults, and when they release a full-length movie they are sentenced to death by electrocution because of their filthy language. Terrance and Phillip's reception satirizes Americans' delicate sensibilities when it comes to scatology and profanity, despite their expansive tastes for violence.
Both serve their parent shows quite well. And both are very funny, both as satires and as comedy, provided you are amused by violence and scatology. In that sense, they resemble the disgusting, bizarre, anatomically unflinching, frequently hilarious and frequently censored work of Jon Kricfalusi, creator of Ren and Stimpy. Kricfalusi, a serious student of animation, argues that smooth animation -- the difference between the Simpsons' fluid movements and the blocky cardboard cutout movements of South Park's early seasons -- isn't nearly as important as "key poses," "the drawings that the eye sees and responds to." Itchy and Scratchy's anarchic vaudevillian violence produces opportunities for eye-popping key poses; Terrance and Phillip's fart humor and blocky cardboard cutouts intentionally allow for very little visual variety, even as the characters themselves liberate Canada from Saddam Hussein's rule, rap a platinum-selling single, or perform an inspired take on Shakespeare's "Hamlet." ("Good night, sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, buddy.") The disconnect between the surreal though fart-centric material and the crude animation is itself funny, a device Parker and Stone again used to brilliant effect when imagining a cartoon by Ayman al-Zawahiri at the end of the two-part episode "Cartoon Wars." By the time a Terrance and Phillip short is over, South Park's crude animation looks comparatively Disneyesque.
As I've said before, because of its long association with Disney, the medium of animation has often been mistaken for nothing more than a vehicle for delivery of bright-colored shows for children (and stoners), full of colorful backgrounds, lazy gags, and uninteresting storylines: Ren and Stimpy, ostensibly a children's show, was canceled by Nickelodeon because of its inability to fit into the stereotypes. The Simpsons and South Park are two of the best animated shows in history. They have both helped recapture the medium for all audiences and transcended it altogether, pushing the envelope and literally changing the television landscape around them. Itchy and Scratchy and Terrance and Phillip linger on the fringe of their parent shows as a reminder of what animated shows are capable of and of what animated shows still can't do, a reminder of both the shows' past and their hopeful future, continuing to bank laughs on ancient gags and tropes, slapstick and scatalogical, recycled in new ways. Both South Park and the Simpsons are in their second decade, a bit longer in the tooth but still going strong. And just in case any of their audiences start getting too serious in their easy chairs, or go too long with a straight face, they're just an explosion or a fart away from a laugh.