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Cult Heroes and Their Secrets

What makes a show or character a cult craze? Dominic Schreiber investigates the similarities, from South Park to SpeedRacer.

South Park. © Comedy Central

When it comes to cult status, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park is without doubt the undisputed champion `toon right now. Already the most successful original series ever on Comedy Central, the crudely drawn and even cruder exploits of Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny are soon to make their debut on TV in both the U.K. and France (Mon Dieu! Ils ont tué Kenny!) and a feature film version is also being discussed. Meanwhile, South Park T-shirts are selling like hot cakes, orange snorkel coats are making a big come back and every network exec and studio boss in the business wants their own series just like it.

But cult phenomena are by no means confined to the scatological humor and mindless violence of South Park's foul-mouthed infants or those other badly drawn delinquents, Beavis and Butt-Head. There are equally obsessive fans of Nick Park - just look at the whole cottage industry that Wallace and Gromit have spawned - and Canadian animator Richard Condie, neither of whom have ever relied on fart gags or decapitation scenes. In fact, it seems that almost anything - from the classic animation of such Warner Bros. artists as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, to TV series such as Rocky and Bullwinkle and Crusader Rabbit - is capable of inspiring the kind of devoted attachment which, according to Webster's New World College Dictionary at least, constitutes a cult.

The New Popularity Guage

One sure fire way to judge a show's cult status is by the amount of web activity it generates. "Perhaps the proof of the pudding, as they say, is if it's a cult, check out the number of web sites," says Albert Miller, who lectures in animation history at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. South Park alone now has hundreds of web sites devoted to it - from YouKilledKenny.com to Mr. Hat's Hell Hole. Even the most obscure animated series is sure to have some form of on-line following. "You just go through the web and it's like, `My god, people have created a fan club out of this?!'" adds Miller.

Take The Simpsons, for example. Richard Raynis, producer on the series, doesn't really class it as a cult show. "I really think of a cult phenomenon being limited to a small eccentric audience," he says. However, since he got hooked up to the Internet, he's discovered a whole new world of fanatical followers. "When we've wanted to go back and remember what happened in different episodes we've gotten information from the net," he recalls. "I think there was one episode when we wanted Homer to say, `D'oh!' 40 times and we wanted to pull [the footage] from old episodes, so we actually went to the `net and some fan had cataloged them all."

Enter the Merchandise

Another indication of the show's devoted following are the legions of fans willing to spend money on even the most bizarre memorabilia. "You go into Matt's office and he's got a whole collection of bootleg Simpsons merchandise, some of it's really funny, like some of these weird statues from Tijuana," says Raynis. "There was one that had Bart's body and Homer's head."

What is it about this series that makes people collect plastic models of the characters or spend all day discussing the most recent episode in an Internet chat room? "There's so much that goes into The Simpsons and King of the Hill, that if someone really wants to look closely and analyze them there's potential to do that," says Raynis. "The way they are produced is obsessive and there really are layers of things going on in these shows." He also believes that the distinct, creator-driven style of both shows plays a crucial role: "It's important that The Simpsons has Matt Groening and that King of the Hill has Mike Judge. The audience feels like they're connecting with a creator. So much other animation is so processed. I don't think either Matt or Mike considers himself a really accomplished artist, yet there's something about their point of view or their strange underground style that is appealing."

Let's Get Subversive

Besides offering a unique visual style or point of view, another key theme running through many cult favorites - from Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat to South Park's little terrors - is a strong subversive element or shock value. "One of the main attributes of a film that would become a cult is it's ability to transcend normal order," says John Dilworth, whose Dirdy Birdy has been a festival favorite for years. "That reactive quality that people have in them to rebel." Dilworth is reluctant to theorize about why audiences still get such a kick out of the sight of a physically challenged bird mooning a blue cat. "There is something about this pathetic looking bird that is sympathetic to the audience. But then once he exposes his deadly weapon, I don't know why, that makes people laugh. When I wrote it, it was really a response to the time. All I wanted to do was to make a point about where you can take toilet humor and put it in some meaningful context, like an obsessive compulsive relationship, and what do you have? You have a hybrid form of filmmaking." Danny Antonucci of AKA Cartoons is also at a loss to come up with an explanation for the appeal of his creation Lupo The Butcher. "Is there a formula? I have no idea. Lupo was this thing of trying to relieve my frustrations. For me it was doing something that didn't exist. It was something that I needed to do because I was just so goddamn frustrated at working on trash for so long." As for the shock value of Lupo, Antonucci points out that it pales in comparison to what is being broadcast on television these days. Gratuitous violence and swearing alone doesn't automatically create a cult favorite. "Even with the Sick and Twisted shows and the Outrageous shows there's so many people doing all these films that it just becomes bland," he observes.

Speed Racer

The Cult Veterans

Other series develop cult followings just on the strength of the fact that they've been around so long. Speed Racer, a 30-year old Japanese cartoon that originally aired in the U.S. in syndication, is an example. Today the series is still going strong on the Cartoon Network, has been used in commercials for Volkswagen, and has spawned a line of merchandise ranging from die-cast cars to salt and pepper shakers.

Jim Rocknowski of Speed Racer Enterprises, has a few theories about why the series is still so fondly remembered: "Number one, it was a show that was on every day, kind of one of the first strips. Number two, there were a lot of cliff hanging episodes which really hooked kids into the series. Number three, the series was about a real family with real problems. It wasn't an animal or a robot." The Outlets Of course none of these films would ever have become cult hits if they hadn't found some sort of outlet - which is sometimes easier said than done. "I originally shopped Lupo in Canada for the first year and everybody just slammed the door in my face, and basically told me I was an idiot," recalls Antonucci. "Then I entered it in the Berlin film festival and boom, from there it went throughout Europe and into the States." Fortunately events such as The Tournee of Animation and Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival have done a lot to uncover more alternative animation. "Back in the late Sixties, outside of television animation, the only exposure to animation would be the movie theater or the film society," recalls Miller. "Where I was in Colorado, there was a thing that sprung up called midnight movies that developed a cult following for things like Bambi Meets Godzilla and that outrageous hard core piece called Buried Treasure." Today, the movie theater has been replaced by television and the Internet. When The Spirit of Christmas began making the rounds it was via the web that many people first got to see what was to become the series, South Park. As animation has expanded beyond the Saturday morning children's blocks, the potential for creating a cultish fan following should, theoretically, be far greater.

However, there is also an inverse law that states the wider the audience a show reaches the less cult-like it becomes. "The less it's made available the more desirable it is," observes Miller. "It just seems to fuel that feeding frenzy." Can a cult series really survive in a mainstream network television environment? Certainly The Simpsons has so far succeeded in attracting a broad audience without losing it's edge. "Fox has given the show a lot of latitude but there's often conflict," says Raynis. "I don't think the broadcast standards and practices at the network are happy with how far these shows are pushed. But nobody wants to mess with these shows so they get away with a lot more." Meanwhile, both John Dilworth and Danny Antonucci have succeeded in finding a place within the mainstream. Antonucci is now working on the slapstick storyboard driven Ed, Edd and Eddie for Cartoon Network, while Dilworth spent last year working on Noodles and Ned for Sesame Street and Ace `n Avery for Cartoon Network's Big Bag. However, both agree that when the networks try to manufacture series with an alternative or cult feel they fail miserably. "I don't think you can actually have a big, huge massive company make a cult film because it tries too hard to be what it is," believes Antonucci. "Then there's all those wonderful war propaganda films that Disney did that are considered cult. But they did it as an honest thing. I don't think you can go out and say, `I'm going to make a cult movie.'" To purchase South Park videos, visit the AWN Store. Dominic Schreiber is a senior publicist for K Media Relations and a contributor to Television Business International and Animation Magazine. He is currently completing an extensive report on the international television animation industry for the publishers of the UK's Financial Times newspaper.

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