You did an episode about Paris Hilton, in which she opens up a retail store called Stupid Spoiled Whore. Why pick on Paris?
Trey Parker: Okay, for me, she’s a whore. Whatever. She’s a dumb, ugly whore. But then I walked into a Guess? store, and she was all over the place. I’m like, Wait a minute, they’re treating her like a glamorous model now? Does anyone notice how dangerous this could be to little girls?
On-screen she eventually competes with Mr. Slave in a “whore-off.” How do you come up with an idea like that?
TP: I think she came up with that idea, actually. We just made a cartoon out of it.
How does the show manage to be so topical? Do you really write and produce every episode in six days?
TP: Yes. The hours are absolutely brutal, and they have been for nine years now. We show up on Thursday morning at nine o’clock, and usually we don’t have even an idea for what the show is gonna be about. And we go into the writers room and we’re in there freaking out, and every week I’m like, Why do we do this? Why do we do this? There are a lot of ways we come at show ideas. But we’ll look at things happening in the news. Maybe we say, Let’s do a Paris Hilton episode. Let’s rip on her for being such a whore. And let’s rip on America for embracing her for being such a whore. Now we think, What could be one funny scene? An example is, We should have the Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset, and do a little commercial. Immediately, I have to go out of the room and go write just that scene because we’ve gotta get animators going on something. Then I’ll run back to the writers room and go, Okay, now what could come after that scene? Why does that scene exist? We really get to sculpt the show.
How did it feel to win an Emmy? Did that officially make you part of the establishment?
TP: I’d love to say I don’t give a fuck and I’m too punk to care, but it was a validation. We’re now two guys in our late thirties that have been in the business for ten years, so we’re part of the establishment no matter what. But I never feel like we’ve gotten soft. Team America was about as antiestablishment as you can get.
Having been at this ten years, can you understand why someone like Dave Chappelle would walk away?
TP: I can. The thing is, television is a super mindfucker. When you go into a season of television, that first week you’re sitting there going, Okay, I’ve gotta make eight episodes in two months and I have no ideas, and am I as funny as I used to be? It’s so scary. People need to talk me off the cliff every time and say, “You can do this.” What’s funny is, it’s work. You’ve gotta work your fucking ass off. People think we can just come here and get high and hang out and laugh, and then the show is on the air. It’s so far from the truth. This is like war. You’re in the trenches, and it’s a twenty-hour-a-day job, seven days a week. With Chappelle, it sounds like he had a lot of people around him telling him the wrong things. I think we could have actually helped him get through it.
Matt Stone: Doing Team America, I wanted to walk away all the time. I can understand how Chappelle probably thought he was becoming the minstrel he was making fun of. He’s so brilliant, but you know, he’s honestly kind of troubled. It’s like, Dude, everyone wants to fucking walk away. But you don’t, because that’s lame.
Have you been following the Saddam Hussein trial?
TP: I’ve been trying to watch it on Court TV, but it’s really not that exciting. But he’s being pretty funny. He’s acting a lot like he did in the South Park movie, really. He’s just fading away. No one’s scared of him anymore.
Who would you vote for in a governor’s race between Rob Reiner and Warren Beatty?
TP: Oh God. I really—wow. Oh, my God. That would just be the most brutal thing ever.
MS: I’d hope they’d get into a debate and they’d both explode. Rob Reiner seems like a fun-killer. He just likes to kill people’s fun. He supported a proposition in California that raised taxes on cigarettes. It’s like, Goddammit, quit killing everyone’s fun, Rob Reiner! There’s such a disconnect. It’s like, Dude, not everyone lives in fucking Malibu, and not everyone has a yacht. And some people like to have a fucking cigarette, dude. Leave them alone. I know you think you’re doing good, but relax.
Norman Lear is a South Park fan and worked on some episodes. What was that like?
MS: It’s the best. It’s like going to basketball camp with Michael Jordan. Norman is superliberal. Trey and I call him our goofy, wacky, liberal grandpa.
Do you feel pressure for South Park to be overtly political?
MS: We’re libertarian. Which is basically: Leave me alone—and I’m okay with drugs and gays. As soon as someone says, “Oh, you’re this way,” it probably influences us to go the other way. We’ve had L.A. people—Democrats—come up to us and say, “How are we gonna get Al Sharpton out of this Democratic primary?” We’re like, What the fuck are you talking about? I don’t care about that shit. If you have hard-core political leanings, you’re like, Let’s fucking influence some people. Not us. I think it would cheapen the show. I kind of think South Park is more important than Democrat or Republican.
How would you grade George W. Bush’s presidency?
MS: Well, I’m not a big George Bush fan. But I’m not a doom-and-gloom person, either. Some people are like, “The country’s going to shit!” I’m like, “It’s not that fucking bad.” I try to keep perspective. I read a lot about World War II. Every time I read about World War II, it makes me feel like shit isn’t really that bad right now.
You won the Emmy for an episode lampooning the Terri Schiavo case.
MS: The Terri Schiavo case was one of those stories that are fascinating. People would say, It’s easy; it’s a no-brainer. And I’m like, It’s not a no-brainer. It was a fascinating case. We didn’t want the episode to be about Terri Schiavo. We wanted it to be about Kenny. So if you’ve never heard of Terri Schiavo, you’d still get the episode. But “persistent vegetative state” was the buzzword, so people knew what we were doing.
Get any letters about it?
MS: No, nothing. [Comedy Central says it did receive some letters, but most were positive.]
MS: I mean, that’s the big lie about South Park that we helped create, or at least never argued against. And I read it to this day. “Conservative watchdog groups are mad at…” Who are they? I’ve never heard of them. There is one guy who’s part of some parents’ television thing. But he does it about every fuckiug show. It’s been this boogeyman. There’s really never been any kind of well-orchestrated effort by anybody to go after South Park.
South Park doesn’t get enough credit for its tackling of race issues.
MS: It’s funny, I saw a review of Boondocks the other day, and it said something like, Boondocks touches the one thing that South Park is still afraid of: race. And I’m like, Really? I don’t think we’re obsessed with it. We have a different experience, growing up as two white guys in Colorado. But Chappelle’s Show is obsessed with race and is totally brilliant at it. But we do probably more stuff than your average show. We did “Here Comes the Neighborhood,” where all the rich black people move into town. Token, our only black kid in town, is rich.
Sean Penn was upset about his portrayal in Team America. Do you hear from celebrities you’ve mocked on South Park?
TP: We have this running joke: As soon as we put someone in, we know the next day we’ll hear from his publicist saying how great the show was. It didn’t happen with Tom Cruise, though, I’ll tell you that.
I thought the greatest thing about that episode was the subtitle you guys had, where you say, “This is what Scientologists actually believe.” Just completely straightforward: This is what they believe.
TP: It was just like, Here it is, animated. A lot of religious stories, if you animate what they say, look pretty ridiculous. You could animate the entire Book of Mormon and it would be hysterical.
What took you so long to take on Scientology? Was the network worried about it?
TP: To be honest, what kept us from doing it before was Isaac Hayes [who does the voice of Chef]. We knew he was a Scientologist. And he’s an awesome guy. We’re like, Let’s just avoid that for now. But we’re friends with Penn Jillette, and Showtime wouldn’t let him do an episode of Bullshit! on Scientology. We’re going, That’s fucked up. And hearing other people say, “You can’t do that,”—you can only say “You can’t do that” so many times to Matt and me before we’re gonna do it. Finally, we just had to tell Isaac, “Dude, we totally love working with you, and this is nothing personal, it’s just we’re South Park, and if we don’t do this, we’re belittling everything else we’ve ripped on.” So we realized we had to do it, and now that we’ve done it, now it’s like we’ve sort of opened the floodgates. People will be less scared.
Did the network have any notes on the episode?
TP: They didn’t want us to say “pyramid scheme.” A pyramid scheme is illegal, and if you’re saying that they’re breaking the law, you run into a whole different category of slander; it’s not really parody anymore. It’s always fascinating, what you can and can’t do. And it’s always so easy to get around. You can rip on anyone.
Sometimes the show is so perfectly offensive it seems like the people in charge of standards aren’t paying attention. Like, Oh, it’s just those crazy kids at South Park! Does the show get a pass?
MS: We got one note last week. This character says, “No more blowing guys on Colfax Avenue for a pint of vodka for this cowboy!” And they’re like, Can’t say “blowing.” But we begged and they said okay. Did you see the one where the Virgin Mary was bleeding out of her ass? A lot of times, when the whole show hinges on one thing, we’ll tell the network the idea first, to make sure they’re not gonna pull it on us. They had some comments on that one. They didn’t want it to look like a butt. And they didn’t want anybody putting their finger in the butt. We don’t set out to offend people. But sometimes, it’s like when you flip off the principal and he doesn’t care. You’re like, You’re supposed to care about that. We absolutely get a pass.
TP: We’re almost disappointed when we don’t hear from anyone. The notes are really inconsistent. In the first year, they’re like, “You can’t say ‘fag.’ There’s no way. And you can’t say, ‘That’s gay,’ because it’s offensive to homosexuals.” It’s like, Yeah, but that’s how kids talk. Finally, Mr. Garrison could say ‘fag’ because he said, “I’m gay. That means that now I can say the word fag. ” Now, nine years later, Garrison can scream, “We’ll see about this, you fudge-packing fags!” to two gay people who want to get married. It’s funny to watch the evolution. I don’t know if evolution is the right word, but it’s funny.
When the show went into syndication, did you have to cut much?
TP: First we said, “No, you can’t put this on network television because you’re going to cut the hell out of it.” But they brought us the first season, and we were watching it, and we couldn’t figure out what they’d cut. Except they’d cut “God” out of “Goddamn,” which didn’t change the show, really. They were telling us, “Guys, it’s been ten years. Things are different now.”
Do you have any regrets? Maybe dressing like J.Lo and Gwyneth for the Oscars?
TP: That actually remains the proudest moment of my life. That was a quandary. Everything we hate about Hollywood is embodied in the Oscars. So we can’t show up to the Oscars in tuxedos, because then we’d have become everything we hate. On the other hand, how do you not go to the Oscars when you’re nominated? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing—especially for us, since we’ll never be invited back! The first idea was to show up in chicken suits. We figured, They’ll kick us out, but at least we’ll have gone. Then Jennifer Lopez wore that dress and I’m like, I wanna wear that!
You had a great first season of South Park, then things went south in the second season. What happened?
TP: We had such a clichéd sophomore slump. Luckily, we were not superyoung, so we didn’t get too crazy. But it was clichéd. We went to Vegas to party. We’re like, We can do anything on the show and it will be gold, and we’ll just give them the same stuff over and over again. Cartman’ll be fat, and Kenny will die. And after a year of that, it was like, Wow, those are some really bad episodes. We could see suddenly, Oh, this is all about to go away. So we put everything we had into the South Park movie. And we couldn’t go back after that. It was like, Oh, this is what South Park is. It’s that good.
Do you ever worry about going too far? I thought the Rent parody in Team America, with the song lyric Everyone has AIDS! / AIDS, AIDS, AIDS, AIDS! walked right up to that line.
MS: Did you see the new “We All Have AIDS” campaign? I was actually at Barney’s—which I’m kind of embarrassed to say—and they were selling these T-shirts. It’s like, Will Smith and Archbishop Tutu and Tom Hanks and all these fucking people. And there are these T-shirts that say WE ALL HAVE AIDS. Meaning we as a planet. And I’m sitting there going, “I don’t fucking have AIDS.” You know what I mean? I know a guy who is HIV-positive, and he’s like, “Dude, I don’t have AIDS, and I’m fucking glad.” As ridiculous as you try to make it, a year later everyone is saying, “We all have AIDS.”
Do you worry about crossing a line?
MS: We’ve got a really good idea for an episode where someone says to Cartman, “You’ve crossed the line.” And he goes and literally looks for the line. It’s just the way we talk about things. Obviously, there’s a way you can do “Everyone Has AIDS” and make it offensive—like naming a charity after it. But Trey is so brilliant at writing songs that shoot down the middle. “America, Fuck Yeah!” is both totally patriotic and totally ripping on patriotism at the same time. But it’s beyond indictment, because it’s so good.
You’re signed on to South Park through 2008. Do you worry about running out of ideas?
MS: When we have one of those hard weeks, I’m like, Oh, my God, we have forty-two more of these things to do, and we can’t think of one goddamn idea for this scene right here. But I don’t worry about it too much.
The two of you still write, direct, and voice every episode of South Park. Did you ever think of handing it over to other writers and just collecting a paycheck—like the creators of The Simpsons do?
TP: In this town, you get your successful show and then you’re supposed to move on. And there were a couple of years where we almost did move on to bigger things. But I think the reason it’s still around is that we deeply care about it and don’t let anyone mess it up. When we started the show, we knew how to do crazy funny stuff, but we didn’t know how to write. And to watch how we’ve sort of grown up as writers, that’s the fun part.
MS: After South Park had run for three or four years, everyone told us, “You cut your teeth here, now go to network and make some fucking money. Go do your King Of The Hill.” So we met with all the networks. And the meetings were pretty funny. Every place we go, they’re like, You guys are great; you can do whatever you want here. And we’re like, Not really, right? And they’re like, Well, no, not really, but… So we said, “Let’s stick with South Park. It’s our baby, it’s what got us here, we make pretty sweet money, and we can do whatever we want.” We were the tortoise in that race. Now we get to make sellout money and we don’t feel like we’ve totally sold out.