South Park and Family Guy are two shows that are constantly getting compared to one another. Sure, there are some similarities between the two programs. They're both crass. They're both animated. They're both hilarious. Yet despite these few elements, Parker and Stone's show is vastly different from Macfarlane's. One show is a satirical masterpiece while the other is pure entertainment. One offers food for thought while the other offers chicken fights. Both shows have been proven capable of offering intelligent humor, yet one is able to do so much more frequently and accurately than the other.
So let's take a look at some of the things South Park is able to do better than Family Guy.
Family Guy has faced a lot of criticism over the years for being a ripoff of The Simpsons. Peter even mentions in a season 14 episode how their show has stolen a lot from Matt Groening's masterpiece. There is also debate swimming around over Stewie Griffin being an unoriginal character, his identity derived from a 90s comic strip character named Jimmy Corrigan.
South Park, on the other hand, is its own entity. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have based Stan and Kyle off of themselves, while Cartman represents the darkest side of them. The originality in South Park makes it far more memorable and unique than Family Guy.
While South Park is satirical and derives its humor at the expense of small-minded bigots, Family Guy often unwittily creates jokes that are at the expense of minorities and the oppressed. For example, in South Park, the series makes fun of Cartman's antisemitism by highlighting his ignorance when it comes to the Jewish faith. He comments to Stan and Kenny how they can't all go to heaven because Kyle is a "J-o-o" (Cartman's failed attempt at spelling out the word 'Jew'), proving how unenlightened he is.
Yet when it comes to Family Guy, the show will often make racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic jokes that are purely created off of overdrawn stereotypes. We are supposed to laugh at Quagmire's sexist antics at the expense of the women he mistreats, whereas with Cartman, we are meant to laugh at his utter ignorance when it comes to the girls in his class. South Park points an accusing finger at the ignorant, while Family Guy is just ignorant.
South Park created an entire two-parter episode called "Cartoon Wars" where Cartman tries to get Family Guy pulled off the air. He can't stand Family Guy because it has no plot and is simply a mashup of cutaway after cutaway. Later, he discovers the truth about Family Guy - That it is written by manatees. These manatees derive their ideas for Family Guy from "Idea Balls" which are shuffled up randomly until a joke for an episode can come out of it. When Cartman points out how Family Guy is just one completely random joke after another, he feels superior in the fact that South Park sticks to a plot. Having a plotline for each episode leaves much more room for character development as Cartman points out in potentially the most meta moment in the series.
Kyle: Cartman! Let me out of this stupid net!
Cartman: Good Kyle! That's good anger you're showing there, you see that? That's emotional character development based on what's happening in the storyline...not at all like Family Guy.
As previously stated, having a plot in each episode makes it much easier to see these characters as fully fleshed beings rather than characters that exist solely for the set up of a joke. For example, Meg's whole character on Family Guy is designed around her being the family punching bag. Although Family Guy has been on for decades, we still know absolutely nothing about her character other than the fact that she is constantly abused. On South Park, Butters is often used as the punching bag, yet we know so much about his character. He is three-dimensional and so are the majority of the characters on South Park, yet on Family Guy, it often feels as though Stewie and Brian are the only somewhat fleshed out contributors to the series.
Often on Family Guy, the characters will do something completely out of character in order to get a joke out of it, whereas South Park stays consistent with every member of its small-town ensemble.
Cartman and Stewie admittedly have a ton of similarities. Both crave world domination, both are sexually confused, both have stuffed animals they are obsessed with, both consider themselves to be evil masterminds. They are also both hilarious. Again though, Stewie's character alters a lot of the time based on what would be considered "funny" while Cartman will always be Cartman.
He plays a specific role in the town of South Park as the sadistic little fat kid who everyone hates, while Stewie can only be understood by Brian. Stewie plays little to no role in the outside world because everyone just sees him as a baby, so it's nearly impossible for him to develop a meaningful (or at least complex) relationship with anyone other than his pet dog.
South Park is filled with brilliant wisdom in nearly every episode and has a strong moral compass throughout. Family Guy will come up with a moral to an episode every now and then, but it mostly seems to be derived from an afterthought.
While South Park is hilarious, it also manages to insert a philosophical stance that is able to provide viewers with food for thought. Family Guy at best is hilarious-(ish) entertainment with no weight to it.
We're not talking about 90s South Park with the crappy cut-out animation. We're talking about the South Park that has been on for over a decade with the gorgeous visuals. Once upon a time, SP seemed like the last show to have "gorgeous visuals", but things have changed for the better. The glittery snow and rich colors paint a romantic picture of the little mountain town and the animators deserve all the respect they can get.
The characters on South Park are also a lot more visually appealing than the characters on Family Guy. The animation in South Park makes the kids look adorable while the Family Guy characters have less warmth to their look. It is also important to note how much more expressive the South Park characters appear in comparison to those on Macfarlane's show. It's supposed to be exaggerated, and South Park seems to take advantage of this notion, creating much more interesting and approachable visuals.
South Park was the crass adult cartoon that surprisingly got emotional before it was considered cool *cough cough Rick and Morty/Bojack Horseman cough cough*. The show isn't afraid to present characters who genuinely care about each other and are willing to risk their lives pretty often for one another.
In "Kenny Dies", the entire episode is built as a drama rather than a comedy. In it, Kenny gets diagnosed with a terminal illness and the boys suffer greatly while trying to grasp onto the fact that their best friend is dying. In the episode "You're Getting Old", Stan realizes he is utterly depressed and feels numb to the world around him. Kyle and Cartman even grow to become best friends in this episode, marking a rather intense shift in character development. In "The Hobbit", Wendy's values are stomped on and compromised with a pretty devastating outcome as a result. South Park isn't afraid to place emotion over comedy from time to time, while Family Guy tends to stick to its endless gags and cutaways.
In an interview for Larry King Live, Penn Teller and Seth Macfarlane debate over whether or not an episode of South Park went too far. They specifically discuss a joke that ended up putting Stone and Parker's lives at risk. Macfarlane claims he doesn't think a life-threatening joke is worth telling and that he'd ask himself "Is this joke funny enough to put my life at risk?" while Teller chimes back on how it isn't about whether or not a joke is funny enough or not, it's about having a moral compass and standing up for what you believe in.
In "Cartoon Wars Part 2", Cartman and Kyle have this exact discussion with the Family Guy television executive.
Kyle: Just think about what you're doing to free speech! You can't do what he wants (referring to Cartman) just because he's the one who's threatening you with violence.
South Park has done an excellent job creating a distinct town with eccentric characters who all have a specific relationship with one another. This is a small podunk town where everyone knows pretty much everything about everyone.
The characters on South Park feel like a true ensemble whereas on Family Guy the town of Quahog seems to have nothing of the sort. We can relate to South Park, we can see ourselves and our loved ones as less exaggerated versions of these characters. On Family Guy, it's a bit difficult to relate to an evil baby and a talking dog.