'South Park' Member Berries: Trey Parker & Matt Stone Talk TV Debut and Befriending George Clooney

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.

Comedy Central

“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!”

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“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.

Comedy Central

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.

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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."