After 20 years on television, South Park shows no signs of mellowing any time soon
Writing an obituary for South Park would be easy – one could simply quote the prestigious Peabody Award committee, which praised the animated sitcom as a “notoriously rude, undeniably fearless lampoon of all that is self-important and hypocritical in American life, regardless of race, creed, colour or celebrity status”.
But hold on – don’t go writing the eulogies just yet. As the producers prepare to kick off the show’s 20th year, a landmark few TV shows come close to reaching, South Park is still kicking and screaming – in rude health, in more ways than one – as it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable through the bizarre misadventures of Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny, four trash-talking schoolkids in the titular Colorado Rockies town.
While some might argue that its closest contemporary, The Simpsons – which will begin its 28th season this month – has already had its golden years, the ruthlessly funny, irreverent wit of South Park co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker remains as sharp as ever, as the Emmy-winning series debuts its 20th season this Friday on Comedy Central HD.
The new season
With the United States deep into the silly season of a presidential election, barbs flying daily between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, it is only natural that South Park will put its manic spin on the battle for the White House.
However, don’t expect to see Trump on the show – South Park will instead use their own candidate, Mr Garrison, the ageing elementary-school teacher, to satirise extreme political viewpoints.
“[We] didn’t really want to service Trump as a character,” says Parker.
“We were like, [forget] him, we don’t want to give him the satisfaction,” says Stone.
Fans have also been speculating whether Stone and Parker will have a field day with the Pokémon Go hysteria that has swept the globe in the past few months. As for other subjects, it is a safe bet more than a few will be ripped from the headlines.
Known for their swift and merciless on-screen response to current events, Stone, 45, and Parker, 46, pride themselves on bringing topical storylines and pop-culture icons to South Park for the purposes of satire – or good old-fashioned ridicule.
It is a formula that has proven to be highly rewarding – they have amassed personal fortunes estimated at about US$400 million (Dh1.4 billion) apiece.
“We did the show on computers from very early on, which meant we could change things at the last second,” says Stone. “We’re also, like, super-terrible procrastinators and wait till the last second on everything ... so really that’s how it started. Then everyone started giving us credit for being so timely.”
This seat-of-their-pants work ethic also allows them to do the kind of show they want to do – largely uncensored – in an industry primarily run by lawyers and marketing teams.
“We created this thing where we think of a show on Thursday,” says Stone, “and it goes on the air on Wednesday. Not only did we realise that the energy of that [tight turnaround] is really important, but it also is great because when the network calls on Monday and says: ‘Hey, we just saw the scene, and you can’t do it’ ... it’s like: ‘Well, dude, the show goes on the air in two days … what are you going to do?’”
Origin and controversy
What began in a University of Colorado film class in 1992 as stop-motion, paper cut-outs animated by Stone and Parker for classmates was adapted as a video Christmas card for a Fox studio executive in 1995. The video, one of the internet’s first viral sensations, led to the first South Park episode, which was broadcast on August 13, 1997.
Since then, the show has managed to remain relevant after 267 episodes of skilfully blending jokes about bodily functions with stinging social satire. Of course being so edgy and irreverent means that South Park has been no stranger to controversy, thanks to its fondness for taboo subjects, profanity and toilet humour – but especially for its frequent lampooning of religious beliefs.
Many were also outraged in 2006 when the show depicted the recently deceased, much-loved Australian “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin in a bloodstained shirt and with a stingray still attached to his chest, in an episode that also featured serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
The list of controversies is long and brutal, and South Park has become fodder for college courses about its effect on social norms, popular culture and its reckless disregard for political correctness.
If nothing else, South Park’s legacy, which has yet to be assessed, will surely show that it emboldened storytellers to never shy away from tough subjects.
• Season 20 of South Park begins at 11.20pm on Friday, September 16, on Comedy Central HD