For South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the proudest achievement they feel they've accomplished in the past two decades is never compromising their creative control. It’s been 19 years since the series first appeared on Comedy Central, and yet it is still as culturally significant, biting, and heartfelt as it was on the first day it aired. As Parker says, “We still do everything we did in season one.”
In celebration of South Park’s 20th season, The Paley Center in Beverly Hills hosts the South Park 20 Experience, a free, interactive exhibit, until Sunday, September 25th. The exhibit features 2D and 3D displays of some of the most iconic scenes and characters in the show’s history (such as Randy Marsh being arrested in his underwear and Saddam Hussein and Satan standing next to Satan’s throne in Hell.) The exhibit also features 20 specially created pieces of artwork curated by Pop artist Ron English.
To kick off its South Park exhibit, The Paley Center hosted a sit down discussion between Parker, Stone, and the man who gave them their home at Comedy Central, Doug Herzog, President of Viacom Music & Entertainment Group. The discussion delved deep into how the show has evolved in the past two decades and what it takes to maintain that level of creativity over such a long period of time. The secret? As it turns out, procrastinate as long as possible.
“We get really bored easily,” Stone says. “What happens is we write a good scene a month ahead of time and by the time we get to it we say, ‘this one’s not funny anymore.’ [...] It’s so hard to think something’s funny three years after you wrote it.”
Technology’s Role in Shaping South Park
South Park’s run on television also coincides with the evolution of media technology. The first episode was created over a three-month period. Parker and Stone cut each character and scene out of construction paper and shot the episode using stop-motion film techniques. Knowing that it would take them two years to create a complete season animating the show this way, they turned to computers for assistance.
“We started researching what computers could do and if it could still look like construction paper,” Stone says. “But what’s happened crazily over the years is we’ve watched how quick the rendering has become.”
When Parker and Stone first started the show, there could be no more than six people in a crowd shot because the geometry involved in rendering the scene could take upwards of a day and a half. With modern technology, however, scenes only take about ten minutes to render. Parker and Stone use these quicker speeds to create more cinematic scenes with highly detailed backgrounds, though they still take the same amount of time to finish an episode.
“We realized we don’t really have to do shit until Friday,” Parker says.
The Evolution of Storytelling on South Park
The rise of television streaming services has also altered the way stories are told on South Park. No longer do the creators feel beholden to sitcom tropes where the plot of each episode is resolved by the end and does not carry over to the next. Because television viewing habits have changed, Parker and Stone are more free to experiment with season-long story arcs, as they did throughout season 19.
“We had grown up with sitcom comedy,” says Parker. “Sitcom comedy had it so at the end of the show, everything’s got to go back to one so next week you can do whatever you want. And that was partly because you’d go into syndication and the shows would get all scrambled up and you didn’t want it to matter.”
“Doing that was like doing math every week,” says Stone. “It was like ‘Oh, we had so much fun with this show; now we have to get it back to normal to reset.’ That was always the least fun part.”
“The way people watch TV now is you can watch the next one. If they want to find it, they will.”
The Fractured But Whole
Beyond writing for television, Parker and Stone are heavily involved with the production of the South Park video games The Stick of Truth and the upcoming The Fractured But Whole. They write brand new, original plotlines for these video games. So how does writing for these different mediums compare?
“The nonlinear part [of video games] is totally different,” says Stone. “It’s ten hours, so it’s totally different in the way the plot unfolds. The good part is that there are interactive jokes that we can’t do on the show. The exciting part is watching different people run around South Park.”
“As a writer, the challenge is that every episode is from a character’s point of view,” says Parker. “This is Cartman’s point of view. This show is Randy’s point of view. And in the game it’s ‘this is your point of view.’ And so that’s what you’re always trying to anticipate—what a player’s going to think and what they’re going to do. Trying to write a story over someone else’s point of view is really interesting.”
But there would be no cinematic stylings, video games, or season-long story arcs without the drive of the creators to continue making episodes. And for Parker and Stone, the motivation is simple.
“I think it’s our vanity trying to compare ourselves to a band,” says Parker. “Every season to us is like we’re getting in the studio and we’re going to make an album. What is fun is that a couple of weeks before the run starts, we get into the studio and we have no idea what’s going to come out. And even episode to episode, we’ll start an episode on Thursday and watch it change and become something we didn’t even expect, like a song. It’s just that kind of energy of get in there and see what happens.”
The South Park 20 Experience runs at The Paley Center through September 25th.