By EDWARD WYATT, The New York Times
Matt Stone, left, and Trey Parker, creators of “South Park,” at a party in Los Angeles celebrating the 10th season of their irreverent comic series.
Published: September 28, 2006
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 27 — As social satire, “South Park” spares few targets. Recent episodes have parodied — or, perhaps more accurately, insulted —a broad array of targets, including the “Dog Whisperer,” James Frey, Al Gore, Prius owners, FEMA, Michael Jackson, Mel Gibson and, most famously, Tom Cruise.
None but the last, however, are on the new 10th-anniversary DVD collection being released on Tuesday and featuring the favorite episodes of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of “South Park.”
Most of these episodes are not political, but deal with, in the words of Mr. Parker, “just kids being kids.” And, while the DVD includes “The Spirit of Christmas,” the animated short film created as a video Christmas card for a television executive that started them on their path to fame, none of their Top 10 favorites come from the first four years that “South Park” was on television.
“We told them, ‘You realize, if you ask us to pick our favorites, they’re all going to be more recent ones,’ ” Mr. Parker, 36, said in an interview here last week. “It’s hard for us to look back, especially at the first and second season. We’re just, ‘We thought that was funny?’ Because we didn’t know how to write at all. We just knew how to be kind of irreverent and shocking.”
Something changed, however, in the show’s fifth season, in 2001, when Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone say they began to ignore much of the advice they had been given about how to structure the show and relied instead on what they had learned while working on the 1999 feature film, “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”
One result has been a television show that is more cinematic in scope and which has injected itself into the popular culture in a way that the show had not done before.
“From Season 7 on,” Mr. Stone said, “I think it’s just a better show.”
Their benefactors agree.
“They’ve really never been better,” Doug Herzog, the president of Comedy Central, said at a recent party celebrating the show’s 10th season. “South Park” has been Comedy Central’s top-rated show for several years, drawing close to 3.5 million viewers each Wednesday night that it features a new episode, and an average of 1.2 million viewers each weeknight, when it shows repeats.
“Comedy Central is the house that Trey and Matt built,” Mr. Herzog added. “Before Jon Stewart, before Dave Chappelle, there was ‘South Park.’ ”
Their stellar run almost came to an early end, however, when Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone considered bailing out of the show as early as the third season. The second season, their longest ever, with 18 episodes, was particularly tough, because they were working on the feature film at the same time. By the time it was ready to make it to theaters, the television show had lost viewers and a negative buzz had surrounded the forthcoming film.
“That was the last time that we got to work with low expectations,” Mr. Stone, 35, said. “We knew the movie was getting good, and we knew it was going to surprise people. And since then we’ve always been working with high expectations.”
Surprise it did, grossing $52 million in the United States, more than double its production costs. Now, the creators have a television contract through 2008, with each season consisting of 14 episodes, split into two 7-episode segments, shown in the spring and fall.
But the film experience also awakened the pair to a stark fact about their series.
“We also knew, we’ve got to take this to a whole other level,” Mr. Parker said. “We can’t just be doing Cheesy Poofs and Kenny dies and the black chef singing his soul songs. We can’t just be about jokes. And we learned, ‘Wow, look what happens when you take a real craft, a movie, and you apply that to these characters and you really give them the kind of character arcs that are so tried and true.’ ”
In the early years, Mr. Parker explained, network executives and others encouraged them to think of the show as a situation comedy. “They wanted the sitcom style, where you had an A story and B story that had nothing to do with each other,” he said. “Then you figure out a couple of places where the stories can cross or you shoehorn them into each other because you need more going on.”
As they were working on an episode for early in the fifth season, they starting having their usual trouble coming up with a B story. Then, they decided they did not want one.
“We had this very linear story about Cartman,” the fat kid on the show, Mr. Parker said. “Finally we were like: ‘You know what? Nothing else works. Let’s just do it this way and I guess it’ll be a bad show and we’ll move on.’ ”
Both men point to the episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die” as the turning point for the show. Presented on July 11, 2001, it featured an older boy who cons Eric Cartman into believing that a sign of maturity is when a boy buys his first pubic hair. Tenorman sells pubic hairs to Cartman, whose friends Stan, Kyle and Kenny rip him for being tricked. Cartman seeks revenge by chopping up Tenorman’s parents and feeding them to him in a bowl of chili.
By focusing on one story and shaping it into a three-act structure, they made a better show, they said. “We were able to bring these great nuances into Cartman that we never even had the time to do before,” Mr. Parker said. “From that show on, we either went with one story, or if it was two stories, they were strongly related to each other and they were going to cross over.”
It is not surprising then that “Scott Tenorman” is one of their Top 10 favorites.
The two of them still work like college students crashing a term paper — a style most favored by those who cannot seem to get anything done without a deadline. On the recent afternoon that they were visited by a reporter, two weeks before the Oct. 4 premiere of the newest episode, they had barely started working on it, an ambitious project that is based on the popular communal online video game World of Warcraft, which boasts seven million players worldwide.
Despite their portrayal as a two-man crew, they have plenty of help, most importantly from Anne Garefino, an executive producer who is responsible for getting the show transmitted on time by satellite to Comedy Central each week.
Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker said they were not sure when they would stop doing the show, though Mr. Parker, who was married in January, said he thought he would stop once he and his wife had children.
“Every year when we start the season we kind of think, ‘Uh-oh, we don’t have a lot of ideas,’ ” Mr. Parker said. “But then by the end of the season we think, ‘Well, there were some pretty funny shows in there.’ ”