When I was a kid, my mom and dad did a decent job of limiting TV time. I considered myself fortunate if I caught one of the many reruns of The Simpsons that aired on Fox each weekday. I was lucky, too, that they thought the show was clever and funny — in the 1990s, a good number of parents whipped themselves up into a moral panic about the cartoon and banned their children from watching it. Little could any of us have suspected that in 1997, another “adult” animated series would offer comedy 10 times as crude, rude and grotesque: South Park.
I actually retain the memory of hearing about South Park for the first time; that’s how important it seemed to my seventh grade classmates, who whispered about it and recounted the funniest lines in homeroom, the cafeteria and while waiting for assemblies to start. And it was the ninth episode of the series — the first Christmas special — that seemed to really bring everyone aboard. Without even seeing it for myself, I learned the plot and most of the gags from peers who giddily acted it out at school. Often, they recited lines in a high, squeaky, Mickey Mouse voice that evidently belonged to the episode’s guest star: Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo.
It’s hard to overstate the enthusiasm my generation had for an animated shit in a Santa hat who left feces smeared over everything as he sang and danced about the meaning of Christmas. If you timed it well, you could make a group of friends erupt in laughter with Mr. Hankey’s catchphrase greeting: “Howdy-ho!” His popularity made for, um, solid proof that South Park was a hit (even though few could have anticipated another 20-plus seasons), and toys of the character have proliferated ever since — eBay now offers auctions for rare and collectible versions.
And while Mr. Hankey may not have read as political to the 12-year-olds delighted by the blend of holiday cheer and excretory mess, he was a spokesman, in both voice and form, against “political correctness.” After the townsfolk of South Park strip everything denominational from their Christmas celebrations in order not to offend anyone, only to be displeased with the secular result, Mr. Hankey shows up to tell them their efforts were misguided, and they should simply enjoy the festivities for what they are. In South Park’s typically meta style, having a piece of anthropomorphized feces deliver this take was a declaration of commitment to shock value.
There’s an argument to be had about South Park’s cheap libertarianism (conservatives are evil, but liberals are too sensitive) and the lasting effect of this ideology on the people who grew up with it. Nonetheless, in Mr. Hankey, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone found a lowbrow principle they were willing to fight for on the highest artistic basis: their insistence that the singing poop be a part of the South Park universe killed any chance to sell the show to Fox and led them to Comedy Central. The concept was inspired by Parker’s toilet training in childhood, when his dad allegedly told him that if he didn’t flush a turd, it would come to life as “Mr. Hankey” and eat him, yet this bizarre individual experience resulted in an overnight icon recognized and beloved across demographics. It was as if we’d all been waiting for his likeness.
It’s strange, then, that we almost didn’t get the smiling poo emoji, which is similarly renowned and texted the world over, regardless of language or culture. Japanese telecoms included a poo symbol when they first developed emoji (the word translates as “image” plus “character”) at the end of the 1990s, right around when Mr. Hankey made his debut. But the early graphics could only be sent on specific platforms, and they didn’t work especially well thanks to a lack of coordination between the companies that offered them.
It wasn’t until 2007, when Google decided to make emoji available on Gmail in order to gain market share in Japan and Asia, that the Western world gained access to a poo pictograph. While some at the tech giant balked at the idea, afraid of sullying their product or disgusting its users, the software engineers in both the U.S. and Asia understood its place of prominence and versatility in Japanese digital vernacular, and they fought hard for its inclusion. The result was a conical poop pile with buzzing flies:.
More familiar these days is the smiling poop face available on every emoji keyboard: ?. This updated design clearly owes a debt to Japan’s own long history of toilet humor, including a 1980s manga and anime series called Dr. Slump, which featured several poop-based characters depicted in the soft-serve ice cream shape. But just as this franchise borrowed and parodied American tropes and scenes, Mr. Hankey’s influence has been retroactively applied to the Japan-produced poop emoji. Many Americans associate his happy, carefree expression with that of the South Park standby, and if you’re communicating on Slack, for example, “hankey” is the text shortcut for the graphic. It’s easy to find poo emoji products with the Santa hat, too.
Google needn’t have feared that the poo emoji would be lost in translation; it requires none. Everybody poops, after all, and few can resist the juvenile pleasure of granting shit a persona. Long after South Park has ended and we’ve stopped using our thumbs to tap out messages, we’ll be psychically sending each other scatalogical art in the cloud. That’s a comfort, as is the sheer utility of human stool as a metaphor. In aggregate it is, like the waste that Trey Parker refused to flush as a kid, an irrepressible substance of life. The idea that you could ever hope to censor a basic biological function — that has been the enduring joke, before, during and after the heyday of Mr. Hankey. It’s a valuable lesson: You don’t always have to apologize.
Also, if you try to fight crap, it ends up getting everywhere.