Hillary Atkin

The Success Story That Is Comedy Central’s “South Park” — How Trey Parker and Matt Stone Stayed 8 Years Old for 20 Years

Sep 14, 2016

It’s a staggering concept, but Eric Cartman, Kyle Marsh and Stan Broflovski should be 28 by now. Instead, the crudely animated characters that sprang from the imaginations of Trey Parker and Matt Stone are perennially 8 years old — but always up to new tricks — as the animated series that put Comedy Central on the map enters its 20th season on the cable network Sept. 14.

Here are some other astounding numbers for “South Park,” the half-hour comedy set in a fictional central Colorado town: There have been 1,713 characters, 200 fights, 18 Randy arrests, 74 times Stan has thrown up, 102 Kenny deaths, 67 groundings, 49 Cartman on the toilet scenes, 6 anal probes, 283 celebrities — and 267 episodes.

In addition to being a huge ratings success from the beginning — the show premiered Aug. 13, 1997 — “South Park” has scored five Primetime Emmys and a Peabody Award along with innumerable mentions from various publications as one of the best television shows ever. It is seen in 130 countries in 30 different languages. And of course, some of that language, often emanating from the foul mouth of Cartman, has to be bleeped.

To celebrate the 20th season, Viacom Music and Entertainment Group President Doug Herzog interviewed Stone and Parker, more fondly known as Matt and Trey, during a recent evening event at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

Herzog kicked things off by lavishing praise on the show that long ago became a cultural institution and likening its co-creators to a great rock band still at the top of their game. “Some of their best work came in the 19th season,” he said. “They are true creative geniuses and brilliant social satirists.”

In 1996, Herzog was among the multitudes of entertainment industry insiders riveted by Parker and Stone’s video short “The Spirit of Christmas,” a.k.a. “Jesus vs. Santa,” which went viral, mostly with people literally dubbing VHS tapes over and over again and passing them along, although it was digitized and put on the Internet. At the time, their names weren’t even on it.

Herzog traces his success as an executive to greenlighting a “South Park” series for the nascent network.

“The ratings kept going up,” Stone recalled about the early days. “It was amazing to not have to worry about being canceled.” For both him and Parker, who had met as students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the original end game was going back to Colorado.

Clearly, that didn’t happen, and the two honed their work ethic, which mainly — as they described it to the rapt audience — consists of waiting until the last possible minute to come up with story ideas, write the script and produce the next episode, which includes voicing many of the characters.

Animation techniques that used to take hours or even days now take a few minutes, enabling such last-minute production, which also serves to allow the show to comment on current topics in the news in a timely fashion.

Parker compared the energy and buildup to preps for “Saturday Night Live.” “And then we go to the office and order sandwiches,” he said. “The shows that are really painful end up being good.”

Stone described their methodology as being “dysfunctional.” Their track record shows otherwise, with successes on the big screen and on stage including “Team America: World Police,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and the Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon.”

Yet “South Park” remains the mothership, and Parker and Stone have never let go of the reins.

“It’s our baby. I’m proud that we haven’t handed it off,” Parker said. “It’s our vanity, trying to compare ourselves to a band. We’re getting in a studio and making an album. But we don’t know what’s going to happen. We both love music and we wish we were a band. That’s the kind of energy — it’s like a song. There’s no plan.”

“The show is the same as when we were 22 years old,” Stone said. “We still make the show for ourselves, but it got better — as you should after doing it for 20 years.”

Parker attributed the fact that many of the shows end on an upbeat note to the fact that both he and Stone are pretty positive people. “Some people see cynicism. We see comedy as a way to analyze and a healthy way to examine things. At first people thought we are on a soapbox, but now people draw their own conclusions.”

“We had the trope of ‘I learned something today,’ but now we don’t try to answer questions,” Stone said.

They just continue to entertain, and despite their modest protestations of essentially being slackers, recently finished working on a new role-playing videogame from South Park Digital Studios and Ubisoft, “South Park: The Fractured but Whole,” set for mid-December release.

Meanwhile, the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills is also hosting an interactive exhibit celebrating the 20th season of the hit Comedy Central series, free to the public and running through Sept. 25. Visitors can get up close and personal with 2-D and 3-D life-size replicas of “South Park” characters and scenes that were chosen by fans as their top favorite classic moments from the series.

Also part of the South Park 20 Experience, which premiered at San Diego Comic-Con this summer, are a number of framed original character cutouts done by Parker and Stone for the pilot in 1996 and 20 specially created “South Park”-inspired pieces of artwork curated by renowned pop culture artist Ron English.

So if you’ve always wanted a picture of you and the boys at the bus stop, not to mention Cartman’s infamous anal probe, the Paley is the place. (465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, Calif.)

(The 20th season of “South Park” premieres on Comedy Central Sept. 14 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)

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