From <i>South Park</i> to <i>The Book of Mormon</i> via pissing everyone off in between.
This is the first in a new VICE series called A Moron's Guide to... that will celebrate and denigrate the lives of people who have helped define everything you care about in the world.
When you saw four animated felt blobs interviewing a Christmas Poo some 15 years ago, not many would've imagined that one day the man behind this strange scene would come to loom so large over post-millennial pop culture. The man who invented the world's most culturally relevant turd has since evolved into a monolith of comedy who owns his own studio and is currently reaching into London's West End and ripping its steamy guts out.
As The Book Of Mormon goes from blockbuster to blockbuster – now reputedly turning over $19 million a month via its four franchises – it seems like a good time to turn the spotlight back on Trey Parker. He has been standing on the side-lines of the cultural conversation throwing rocks at it for a long time and this is what you need to know about him.
Name: Trey Parker
Born: October 19, 1969; Denver, Colorado
Roles: Comedic actor, establishment-baiting director, blockbuster producer, niche musician
Most notable achievements: Cannibal! The Musical (musical film, 1993), South Park (TV series, 1997-present), Team America: World Police (film, 2004), The Book of Mormon (stage musical, 2011-present)
IT WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN HARD TO SEE THE MAN INSIDE THE BOY
Aged 11, Parker put on a sketch at his school's talent show. It was called "The Dentist": “I played the dentist, and I had my friend play a patient,” he told Letterman, years later. “It was sort of: 'What can go wrong at the dentist?' I just remember I had lots of fake blood and everything. Finally, his head explodes. My parents got a call from the school; they were really upset. The kindergartners were all crying and freaking out.”
IF YOU WERE CALLED RANDOLPH SEVERN PARKER III, YOU'D BE PRETTY NIHILISTIC TOO.
Even if you made people call you Trey. It's a nickname for "three" or "the third", apparently.
HE ISN'T SHY TO SPOON ON THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Randy, Sharon, Shelley: the names of South Park kid Stan Marsh's functionally dysfunctional family. And also: the names of Trey Parker's real family. His real older sister, Shelly, really did beat him up. (“And now it's payback time.”) His real dad is a real geologist. His real mum was actually "more like Cartman's mom, but without the prostitution".
In fact, he named Cartman's mother "Liane" after his former fiancée, whom he broke up with aged 21 after she had an affair with a chorister. (She also kindly donated her name to the horse in Cannibal! The Musical.) Eric Cartman, however, is more allegory than biography. He is, Parker says, “kind of like the garbage in everyone's soul”.
HE IS ESSENTIALLY A DE-SUCKING MACHINE
One of the most amusing aspects of South Park behind-the-scenes doc 6 Days To Air is Trey's constant Jeremiah act. He is the Kurt Cobain of comedy, always pouring fresh misery on his woes. “This is the worst episode we've ever done,” he concludes as they push through Season 15's actually-pretty-decent "Human CentiPad".
“Honestly? He says that every week,” points out series executive producer Anne Garefino. But this tells us something: that in Parker's world, art isn't so much the creation of genius as the ruthless elimination of everything that sucks. Consequently, great lashings of self-doubt go into ridding his stuff of its bad bits. Parker and Stone will happily tear up an episode three days before it's due to air and write something else in the small hours of the morning if they feel it's not working.
HE IS AN INCREDIBLY SUCCESSFUL FAILED MUSICIAN
At his 2006 wedding, Parker "serenaded his guests" with a set of Neil Diamond songs. And he genuinely serenaded them: this wasn't some Russian oligarch flying The Rolling Stones into Mustique so he could karaoke over the top. He has a lovely pair of pipes, real musical skill and an unslakable thirst for soft rock. This is, after all, a guy who was starring as Danny in his high school production of Grease by 14, later went on to major in music at the University of Colorado and who still maintains a band with Matt Stone and two others, called DVDA ("Double Vaginal Double Anal", as you'd imagine). Under Parker's direction, they've made most of the music for the films and the series: everything from "Uncle Fucker" to "Gay Fish".
Yet deep down, Parker still seems to be misty for the band life he never had. Like a true frustrated rock 'n' roller, whenever it comes to talking about his creative partnership, the first metaphor that springs to his mind is inevitably that of "the band": “We're like Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth,” he told 6 Days To Air's documentary-makers. “You may be like, 'It's all about Eddie'... but if Lee Roth leaves, you're like: 'Well, fuck that band.'”
HE'S NOT ACTUALLY JOKING ABOUT MUSICALS
Hang on. He's not a terrifying nihilist. He's a big fruit. The Book Of Mormon isn't the tale of two fearless renegade outsiders coming in and smashing up a staid industry. It's the tale of one man's hopeless blubby devotion to the art of the musical that he's had to camouflage slightly by subverting its tropes. “My favourite musical? I don't have one. It changes all the time. I'm just a diehard; I'm totally old school. If they are re-doing Oklahoma in New York, I will be the first one there. You know what, I'm totally cheesy too, I love Les Miserables. There I said it, it's on tape.”
HE IS A CONTROL FREAK
Despite needlessly employing two staff writers to feed him bonbons in the conference room, Parker still scripts every episode of South Park himself. And, more than 200 episodes on, he still directs every frame. In part, Stone and Parker had their paranoid world view branded onto them by the early days, when they had to beat up Comedy Central to impose their vision: “Fight is all we've done since the first season, since doing the episode 'Stan Has a Gay Dog',“ Stone recollected in 2006. “It was a struggle to get them to understand the humour.” Conversely, the reason they've never quit South Park is precisely that they're now able to rule it like despots: “Why would you leave something where you can do whatever the hell you want?” as Parker often points out.
HE'S ALSO A WORLD-CLASS ARSEHOLE WHEN IT COMES TO OWNING HIS WORK
Exactly how hell-bent on creative control is he? Thanks in part to the cash river gushing in from The Book Of Mormon; Parker and Stone have managed to stump up $300 million to create Important Studios, alongside a $60-million-dollar investment from private equity. That's unprecedented. Plenty of artists create their own production companies to have more say. But your own studio? That's off-the-map. To start with, its chief purpose will be to ensure that when it comes to turning The Book Of Mormon into a feature-length film, they don't have to worry about what Harvey Weinstein thinks of the bit with the rectal blockage caused by ingestion of religious texts.
QUICK: THINK OF SOMETHING VILE. SORRY, TREY PARKER JUST THOUGHT OF SOMETHING EVEN MORE VILE
The lazy journalist's favourite first South Park question is always: “So, is there any topic so taboo you wouldn't cover it?” To which, Parker's bored-to-tears answer is always: “Uh... Nawp.” It's true that Stone and Parker have certainly ventured further into the thickets of taboo than most now living, even if that's not been with South Park. No, Terry Schiavo, Jesus, Oprah's gun-toting vagina, conjoined foetuses: that's just stuff. They've been more daring on the Flash-animated show Princess, which you may not have caught, because that was actually the moment when Comedy Central finally put their foot down and said "enough" in a strident tone which made it seem like it really was enough. It was cancelled after two episodes, and featured death-by-ejaculation, swiftly followed by necrophilia with a boy's dead mother.
“Partly why we’re such control freaks is because, when you are going that far, if it’s also crappy and not well done, you look like a shithead,” Parker reasons. “Whether it’s [Book Of Mormon] or an episode of the show, we work really hard to make it structurally sound, have a point. We have to think of a reason why something that’s funny has to be in, so someone can’t say it was gratuitous.”
HE HAS A WEIRD THING ABOUT MORMONS
Back when he and Matt were still slumming around Hollywood, sleeping on couches, trying to get famous, their first big film project was Orgazmo – the tale of nice-as-pie Mormons who get caught up in the LA porn industry. Since then, he has rinsed a brilliant South Park episode out of the Church Of Jesus Christ Of The Latter Day Saints, and more recently spent four years working towards The Book Of Mormon. Of course, his Mormons seem like basically nice people: ciphers for the misguided-good in everyone, idiots abroad constantly trying to squish their high-minded ideals into a profane and indifferent world. “We grew up in Colorado, right next to Utah, and there were always stories of the Mormons passing through,” he recalls. “It was just a big part of folklore; they have this great American pioneer story.”
HIS POLITICS ARE LIBERAL-ANTILIBERAL
Americans are incapable of viewing politics outside of a crude blue-puppet, red-puppet binary, so they basically have no fucking clue where Trey and Matt sit, views-wise. For a show that has become feted as "satire", built as it is on its First Amendment right to get completely up in your grill, in terms of who it guns for, South Park doesn't sit so easily in the Democrat laager. Not in the way that, say, Jon Stewart does. In 2001, Andrew Sullivan coined the term "South Park Republicans" to describe the way the show's tendencies meshed with what he saw as a new wave of centre-right anti-everything young folks who hated creepy Bible-bashers but still wanted Big Government off their backs. Some other huckster even wrote a book: South Park Conservatives.
“We're the only show that rips on Rob Reiner and anti-smoking laws and hippies, so we get that label,” Parker says. He has previously been a card-carrying member of The US Libertarian Party. Stone has a snappier tagline for where they stand: “I hate conservatives. But I really fucking hate liberals”: “I guess we believe that people are born bad and society makes them good,” he reasons. “Which is a sort of a conservative way of looking at things.”
HE IS RICHER THAN GOD
Jay-Z? That pissywilly little tinker showering dimes over his naked bottom. He hasn't got real money. Not like how Parker and Stone have got money. By 2008, South Park was already pulling in $34 million a season in advertising. In 2004, syndication rights went for $100 million. Consider that the duo were smart enough to negotiate themselves 50 percent of everything digital when Comedy Central signed them up, and then multiply those pre-streaming era revenues by what they're now creaming off from their ongoing domination of iTunes, Netflix, etc. Add to that the fact that Book Of Mormon – which they own outright – is, via its four franchises, turning over $19 million a month according to Forbes Magazine. And merchandising? Brother, we haven't even started to talk about merchandising. Anyway, to summarise, here are some pictures of a holiday house Matt and Trey built for themselves.
MONEY HAS NOT BOUGHT HIM HAPPINESS, BUT STRIPPERS HAVE AT LEAST DONATED THEIR BODIES TO THE CAUSE
What does a man do with that sort of money? Well, getting divorced is obviously one way to clear out some of it, and Parker managed to do that in 2010, when his four-year marriage to "Japanese socialite" Emma Sugiyama broke down over the mid-life crisis he was having with "American stripper" Boogie Tillmon. In fact, one of the reasons he's only making flying visits to the set of Book Of Mormon London right now is that he is remaining in the States to focus on mid-wifing the baby he's planted in Boogie's womb. Trey has long prophesied that having a kid will be the moment at which he'll go soft and sell out, do a Cosby Show and forget how rotten and cynical ten-year-olds can be, but it doesn't look like really wants to do that. Perhaps he will eat his baby instead? Now that would be controversial.
TREY PARKER IS GENUINELY A HERO AND WE LOVE HIM
But you knew that already, right?
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
Illustrations by Marta Parszeniew: @MartaParszeniew
More recent stuff we think you'll like: