20 Seasons of South Park
Twenty years in, the iconic animated series is as sharp as ever, with stellar ratings and a bold new storytelling strategy. Here, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone single out episodes, characters, and moments that deserve the credit (or the blame.)
South Park was a cultural phenomenon in its 1997 debut season, but it soon evolved into a lacerating political satire. Parker and Stone first realized the benefits of topicality in April 2000 while working on an episode about quintuplets in a circus. “We couldn’t think of an Act 3,” explains Parker. Then heavily armed federal Border Patrol agents were filmed storming a Miami house to retrieve Elian Gonzalez from his relatives, and Stone and Parker pounced. “We put it in the show,” says Parker. “That happened on a Saturday; we aired it on Wednesday. People went crazy, like, ‘How did you do that?'”
“You’re Getting Old”
Parker and Stone are contracted with Comedy Central through 2019, but back in June 2011, they put out this downbeat episode, featuring a Fleetwood Mac soundtrack, that some thought was a surprise series finale. “That was the year Book of Mormon [premiered on Broadway],” Parker explains. “We’d done this other big thing, and we were exhausted.” In fairness, the producers expected that South Park would end a long time before that. Says Parker: “We thought the movie was going to be our swan song. Leave it all on the table.” But 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a critical and commercial success, and its censorship theme still resonates today.
Is South Park Growing Up?
“You’re Getting Old” captured a key idea underpinning the show’s recent seasons: that the characters (and the creators themselves) are aging, getting more cynical and maybe less wise. The perspective has frequently shifted from the child characters to denizens like Stan’s irate dad, Randy. “When we started the show, I would do Randy as an impersonation of my father,” says Parker. “Now it’s just my voice. I’ve become my father.” Adds Stone: “The show’s more mature, in a way. It deals with the anxieties that are a mature person’s anxieties.”
Appropriate for a milestone 20th season, the latest run of episodes kicked off with one that looked back fondly. In the premiere, the adults of South Park become obsessed with Member Berries, adorable little talking fruits that say things like “Member Chewbacca?!” and “Member the ’80s?!” — but also occasionally mutter, “Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans?” “Last year was about us getting old, [thinking] ‘Are we out of touch?’ ” says Stone. “This season, we’re finding this new theme: the good parts and bad parts of nostalgia.”
From Throwaway Jokes to Icons
Wheelchair-bound Timmy was created for a minor bit, but Parker and Stone fell in love with him. Timmy’s rival Jimmy was supposed to die in his first appearance. PC Principal, introduced in season 19, was imagined as a one-off gag character; he wound up with a starring role throughout season 19. Meanwhile, in the spirit of playful competitiveness, the creators have considered a main character fatality. “There was that moment, a couple years ago, when The Simpsons were going to kill off a major character,” says Stone. “We were like, ‘Let’s be super hardcore. Let’s just f—ing kill Kyle.’ ” The long-suffering Jewish voice of reason survives… for now.
“The Simpsons Already Did It”
Back in 2002, the show aired this classic episode, a very meta lament about the inability to tell an original animated story in the shadow of The Simpsons. Now the creators have another legacy to deal with: their own. “We’ll sit here for two hours talking about an idea,” says Parker. “I’ll be like, ‘This really sounds familiar.’ And you find out we did that 8 or 13 years ago.” But here’s one thing The Simpsons never did: The last two seasons of South Park have steadily become more serialized, following story threads across multiple episodes. “It was a cool thing to experiment with,” says Stone, “and it fit with the theme of the town starting to modernize.”
Beware Eric Cartman
South Park still maintains its famously breakneck start-six-days-to-air production schedule. So far, season 20 has featured subplots about internet trolling, a schoolyard feminist uprising, and the presidential election. And even though they’ve made loose plans with the new long-form strategy, they want to keep surprising themselves. “We’re trying to f–with expectations of being serialized,” says Stone. “As of right now, Cartman really hasn’t done anything wrong. [But] his sinister plans are always a well for us to go to.”
South Park Redux
Reboot auteur J.J. Abrams appeared in animated form in the season 20 premiere, called upon by a country in crisis to reboot “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Remarkably, that episode saw South Park earn its highest ratings in 10 years. “We have no idea why!” says Stone. “What we should have done is quit the show after season 5. Then we could have done a reboot. That’s what everyone else is doing. We can’t even reboot ourselves, because we never went away.”