It’s been 20 years since TV was changed forever by four boys and their MA-TV language in a quiiiiiet mounnnntain townnnn. While indulging in a few member berries, ET is looking back at South Park and the day creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone started satirizing everything we hold dear on August 13, 1997.
Immediately following the animated series’ Comedy Central debut, ET sat down with Parker and Stone to discuss the real South Park, the Colorado town in which the show takes place, what made their TV debut nerve-wracking and how they ended up at the premiere of Batman & Robin.
“[South Park] is actually an area right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains and it's strange, because it's almost a perfectly circular valley,” Parker said, with Stone adding: “South Park is like if you were flying a UFO over Colorado, you would want to land in South Park. It looks like a nice place to land.”
Growing up in a city 20 miles away, Parker’s adolescence was filled with weird stories from this mysterious land they appropriated for their Peabody-winning TV series. Years later, Comedy Central aired the South Park pilot, entitled “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe.” In a decade already obsessed with aliens and UFOs, the episode was a perfect example of how the show would examine our national discussions, while also giving a nod to the town that inspired it all.
“Because I was close to it, it would be like, ‘Did you hear what happened in South Park this week?” Parker said. “And even on the news it would be, ‘More cow mutilations in South Park.’”
Their 13-episode first season demonstrated the series’ mixture of shock value and subtle sophistication, which it has maintained all the way to its 21st season premiere next month. South Park has encouraged its audience to think critically about everything from political beliefs to pop culture opinions. The main characters were also written to challenge our memories of childhood and force us to consider if their portrayal is more accurate than we were initially ready to admit.
“Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, the beauty and naivety of children,’ but if you think back to what you were in third grade, you would have -- everyone was kind of a rotten jerk, you know?” Parker said.
“We wanted to do a show that wasn't adults projecting what they thought kids should be. This is what kids are,” Stone said. The boys emulate Parker and Stone’s childhoods even further by directly reflecting each of the co-creators, respectively. Parker is Stan. Stone is Kyle. “And we’re both kind of Cartman,” Parker said.
Leading up to the premiere, they were surprised by the number of reviews the show received and the intensity with which people were judging it. This new series from Comedy Central, made almost entirely from construction paper,had already found itself being compared to The Simpsons. As that show was about to start its ninth season, Parker and Stone felt it was unfair to judge South Park up against the long-running, critically acclaimed series. Foreshadowing a future episode, many TV critics were looking at South Park simply as another attempt at an animation comedy geared toward adults and dismissing it with: “SIMPSONS DID IT!”
“One of the reviewers said, ‘Well, this is interesting, but it's not as good as The Simpsons,’” Stone said. “And it's like, how many shows on TV are as good as The Simpsons? It's, like, one of the best shows of all time.”
“We were actually really worried about the press, because so many other shows are able to kind of come in under radar,” Parker said. The success of Beavis and Butthead had been built in such a process, with most of its fans discovering the MTV series on their own at different intervals. He pointed out how Mike Judge’s debut series, as well as The Simpsons itself, had enjoyed the benefit of having time to grow. “They're expecting us to be that good right now. And the first episodes of those shows weren't as good as it got. That's part of what's scary about it.”
Acquiring success after a momentous build was something Parker and Stone could have faith in, because that’s exactly how their big break came about. After moving to Los Angeles, they worked on various projects for a couple of years while sleeping on friends’ floors. During that time, Parker and Stone worked briefly with Brian Graden, an executive at Fox, who had seen an animated short they made in college called Jesus vs. Frosty. Graden commissioned them to make a version of the movie for him to send out as a Christmas card, which began a now-legendary Hollywood origin story.
The short film’s characters and humor would become the creative foundation for South Park. Entitled The Spirit of Christmas, it became an analog viral video before the term “viral video” had been invented. After Garden sent out 50 VHS copies, the movie started making the rounds in L.A. and took on a life of its own.
“And then it just exploded and we were just amazed,” Parker said, with Stone adding: “George Clooney made, like, 500 copies and sent them out.”
“He actually invited us to the Batman [& Robin] premiere party,” Parker revealed. “And of course, tons of people are just swarming toward him. And George is like, ‘Hey, I want you to meet these guys.’” Clooney’s admiration for Parker and Stone also extended to him lending his voice for an episode in South Park’s first season and then again for the feature film South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut.
In the 20 seasons since its premiere, Comedy Central has stuck with South Park through a parade of controversies, including its take on Scientology and other religions as well as the departure of Isaac Hayes, who voiced the character Chef. In October, the long-awaited video game South Park: The Fractured but Whole will be released, and new seasons of South Park are slated all the way through 2019. Despite a few creative and business differences along the way, the partnership and understanding they solidified from the beginning has held up.
“We told Comedy Central early on: We're gonna push the limits, and you have to rope us in,” Stone said. And their unflinching approach has served South Park well; they’ve been more surprised than anyone by what the series gets away with.
During a recent appearance on the Nerdist podcast, Parker revealed that the prospect of being run out of town for taking their comedy too far still feels very real. “What people don't realize is we've been waiting for that moment for 20 years,” Parker told Nerdist host Chris Hardwick, noting that moving back to Colorado has always remained their backup plan. "We're still waiting for it. The fishing poles are in the car."