South Park At 20: They’ve Been There and Won’t Go Back

They've been pretty much everywhere. Now where does South Park go from here?

Whether it was for the safety of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (seriously, they’ve pissed off a lot of people), a convention surprise, or just assumed participation, Comedy Central was mum on who exactly was showing up for the South Park 20th anniversary panel at San Diego Comic-Con back in July. Either way, the logic was understandable (really, how could they do a South Park panel without Matt and Trey?), but having their names left off any official Comic-Con document was enough to give momentary pause. After all, these are wanted men, the result of 20 years of being equal opportunity offenders in the animated television world.

Stone and Parker did make it to the convention center’s cavernous Hall H, and seemed pretty relaxed for guys who rarely make public appearances. Even more surprising: Parker said he walked around the convention floor alone, almost completely unnoticed before the panel. Granted, the bad boys of animated comedy are pretty far removed from the days when schools were banning South Park shirts, episodes were pulled out of fear of retaliation from religious radicals, and most famously when the duo dropped acid and wore dresses to the Oscars. 

“We’ve been around for so long that it’s just not news if it’s like, ‘South Park pissed these people off,’” Parker told the Comic-Con crowd. “It’s not like people are going, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’ Sometimes it even amazes us. We do a thing on the show, and we’re like, ‘Now we’re going to get some flack for that.’ And it just goes by.”

How the social climate has changed, and how far television as a medium has evolved, was a major discussion point during the hour-long panel hosted by Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick. During South Park’s first season in 1997, doing an episode where one of the boys has a gay dog felt groundbreaking, leading them to question whether or not they could even air it. Of course they did. They always do. Today, the episode wouldn’t phase a kindergartener, and Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Animal Sanctuary could be a highly successful chain for all I know.

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Topicality has kept South Park on the air for two decades, helping retain scores of viewers, hook in new ones, and at times drive other fans away. There’s a valid worry that what’s fresh and in the public eye now won’t play well years later – and that may be true in many instances. Yet the unforeseen consequence of topicality, and Stone and Parker’s commitment to their six-days-to-air production schedule, is that even in an increasingly PC culture, after the initial buzz or outrage (or threat of a lawsuit) fades, South Park episodes become time capsules to how we think about and understand major cultural touchstones. 

Parker and Stone have said as much. In past interviews, they’ve talked about using old episodes to measure how they’ve changed or not changed their opinions over the years. In a sense, this is what transcends the show’s reruns from solely eliciting fond memories of crude fart jokes. The duo may have traded their Oscar dresses for t-shirts a long time ago, but as South Park hits 20, Stone and Parker continue to be trendsetters for the modern fabric of scripted comedy.    

“We try to come in every season with a new attitude, like this is what makes this season different than last season,” Parker told THR in an oral history published ahead of season 20. “But at the end of the day, our favorite shows are when Cartman is f—ing around with Butters.”

In season 19, the show experimented with a continuous storyline and found a way to embrace its long history without retreading previous plots. It became one of its most critically beloved seasons.

“A big reason why last season worked for us was that we were just dealing with our emotions,” Parker said at Comic-Con. “This thing of ‘wow things are getting PC again… are we fucked?’ We’ve been around for a long time, and we’re kind of the old guys now and are we going to last?”  

For the guys who have pushed just about every button, they finally decided to turn it back on themselves. 

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“That feeling that became the town saying are we outdated, are we going to survive this, and are people going to look at us like are we the bad guys, is the energy and emotion that drove the whole season,” Parker added.

Parker and Stone are no doubt worried about becoming the old guys in the room, but even a quick survey around their contemporaries confirms the lasting impact that their fearless brand of humor had on the industry. Among its animated peers, writers for Fox’s new series Son of Zorn borrow lessons from South Park

“In the writers’ room, South Park comes up a lot,” showrunner Sally Bradford told Den of Geek. “Especially in terms of these metaphor episodes we do. South Park does straight metaphor episodes, and I think we talk about that tone a lot, and the subversive tone as well.” 

Comedian Scott Aukerman spoke with us on the legacy of the show in the comedy community.

“It definitely pushed the boundaries of what you can do on TV,” Aukerman told Den of Geek. “People were so scared of it and clutching their pearls, and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, can this even be on TV?’ I remember all the think pieces about the show being too dangerous.” 

Added Aukerman: “It had a really good way of being responsible about pushing the boundaries and having a message. It’s something that Bob [Odenkirk] was always talking about for Mr. Show. You can’t just be doing something offensive, you have to have something to say. The television audience has grown along with [Stone and Parker], expecting that offensive comedy can be used to get out social points.”

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That South Park uses its social responsibility a bit more seriously in its old age doesn’t mean they still can’t troll. Recently, Comedy Central put huge moving billboards in front of some of the more famous institutions they’ve skewered—the Church of Scientology in LA; the Mormon Church headquarters; Trump Tower; the White House—as an ode to the days when a 22-minute episode could cause a week’s worth of outrage from a touchy subject. The response to the billboards was basically: “South Park, you’ve done it already.”

“In some cases, the locals were not pleased to have us outside their locations and asked us to leave, but that was all expected, and we completely understand why,” Comedy Central’s marketing chief Walter Levitt told THR.

Even the marketing slogan for season 20 perfectly encapsulates why we’re celebrating the landmark series. “South Park: We’ve Been There,” a season 20 promo spot, captures a father and his daughter sharing life’s big milestones, all while watching Cartman crap out of his mouth and going into the closet with Tom Cruise and not even getting sued.

Suffice to say that comedy has changed in many ways in the last two decades. What South Park is doing in the early episodes of season 20 is a good indicator that the show can mine its history—whether you pick a Douche or Turd Sandwich—and still be forward-thinking and reactive on a weekly basis. South Park may no longer get a rise out of people like it once did, but its creators have no intention on going back.

“We’re old now,” Stone said during the panel. “That’s why there are a lot of Randy stories.” Parker chimed in: “In five to 10 years, it will be Grandpa Marsh and all of his stories.”