How Playing with Construction Paper Resulted in Over a Billion Dollars for Two Dudes
Debuting in 1997, South Park has gone from being regarded as a crudely animated show filled with fart jokes to an Emmy award winning, cultural touchstone that has been lauded by critics for its apparent fearlessness in tackling or addressing even the most taboo subjects with unrivaled intelligent satire… and fart jokes and crude animations. The result has been Trey Parker and Matt Stone going from being two typically broke college students to today having a combined reported net-worth of about $1.3 billion and still rising.
South Park’s genesis can be traced back to 1988- specifically the first time Stone and Parker met while attending a film class at the University of Colorado. According to the pair, they became fast friends due to a shared love of subversive humor and one of the most revolutionary shows of all time- Monty Python.
The first example of what would be recognized as precursor to South Park came about in 1992 when Parker created a short film entitled American History for a college animation class using construction paper cut-out animation. Despite the crudely animated nature of the short, Parker would later gleefully recall that it won him a Student Academy Award.
The duo would later use the same animation technique while collaborating on another short officially dubbed Spirit of Christmas in 1992. The 3 minute 52 second video is basically a parody of Frosty the Snowman, only in this version, Frosty goes on an evil, murderous rampage, prompting the main characters to seek help from Santa and, later, Jesus.
Painstakingly created using construction paper, glue and, according to the pair, a “very old” camera, the short features numerous recognisable elements of the South Park franchise- the most obvious being that the main characters are four young boys, 3 of which bear some resemblance to the cast of the show as you’d recognise them today. A notable difference is that in this early short, the only named character is the one resembling Cartman, who is named Kenny. Other recognisable aspects include the crude humor, the gag involving the character of Kenny being killed, and a closing monologue beginning with the words “You know, I learned something today”.
The short was well received by Stone and Parker’s friends and classmates and was sufficiently popular to draw the attention of a then Fox executive called Brian Graden, who at the time was in charge of securing alternate programming for the network.
Impressed by the duo’s work ethic and humor, Graden contracted them to produce a Christmas themed animated video card in the style of Spirit of Christmas to send to his friends. For this, Graden paid the pair $1000 (about $1900 today).
This second short, also called Spirit of Christmas, was again created using the laborious construction paper cut-out method utilised for the previous short. However, being a paid gig and with a little more experience, it is notable for its markedly improved quality over the original. This time the short centres around a fight between Jesus and Santa. It also features all 4 main characters from the later show- all of whom are named and have basically the same personalities and voices from the first few seasons.
Once completed, Graden paid the pair their money and emailed the short to 8 friends. In a modern day version of the genesis of the Christmas card short story that became the film It’s a Wonderful Life, from here, those friends then sent the Spirit of Christmas to some of their friends who in turn sent it to their friends and so on and so on until the short became a viral video hit, famously one of the first in internet history.
Incidentally, one of the more notable people to receive a copy of the short in their email inbox was actor George Clooney, who was an instant fan and is largely credited with helping the short go viral. It’s also worth noting that when South Park first began to become popular, Stone and Parker deliberately offered celebrities who inquired about guest roles on the show small, insignificant parts just to see how they’d react. George Clooney, for example, happily provided barks for Stan’s dog, while Henry Winkler had no problem with “voicing” a child-eating monster by providing a number of growling noises. Jerry Seinfeld, on the other hand, is said to have refused to appear in an episode after the pair offered him the role of “Turkey number 3” in a Thanksgiving episode.
In any event, noticing how popular the Christmas short had become, Graden lobbied Fox to hire Stone and Parker to produce a series based around it in 1996. The duo, in an early example of their tendency to push the envelope, basically torpedoed their chance at getting the show greenlit by absolutely insisting that the show needed to contain a talking piece of poo called Mr Hankey. Despite being, you know, Fox, even then a network known for churning out a remarkable amount of figurative crap, the network poo pooed the idea of showing literal crap and refused to pick up the show. However, the buzz allowed the duo to court both MTV and Comedy Central, with the pair deciding to work for the latter out of fear MTV would censor or otherwise neuter their personal brand of comedy.
With a budget in hand, Stone and Parker decided to really see how much they could get away with and penned the pilot episode- Cartman Gets an Anal Probe. A deliberate attempt to skewer political correctness and mock the champions of family values trying to censor shows like The Simpsons, Cartman Gets an Anal Probe was crammed with as much profanity as the pair felt they could get away with, which they knew would be doubly shocking seeing as the show’s main characters are all 8 year old children.
Speaking of which, according to the duo, Stan and Kyle are loosely based on themselves, with Stan representing Parker and Kyle representing Stone. On this note, Trey Parker’s dad’s name is Randy Parker and, like Randy Marsh, he’s a geologist. Sharon Parker is an insurance broker, unlike Sharon Marsh, who is a receptionist at Tom’s Rhinoplasty. In addition to that, Shelley Marsh on South Park is also named after Trey Parker’s older sister Shelley.
Matt Stone’s mother, Sheila Stone, is also Jewish, much like Sheila Broflovski. The last name Broflovoski is derived from Sheila Stone’s maiden name, Broslovski, which was later changed to Belasco when her family immigrated to the United States. Stone’s father, Gerald Whitney Stone, is an economics professor, unlike Gerald Broflovski, who is a lawyer.
Stone also has a sister named Rachel, but creating a character for her in the Broflovski South Park family was ruled out because they felt Stan and Kyle were already too much alike. Instead, they gave Kyle an adopted younger brother, Ike.
Moving on to other characters, the character of Kenny is based on “that one poor kid” who was always apparently part of every friend group. Kenny’s trademark parka and habit of dying every episode is said to be inspired by an old classmate of Parker’s who similarly wore a parka all the time, muffling his voice much like the character of Kenny. Further, Kenny apparently skipped class frequently, leading to a running joke amongst Parker and his friends that he’d died.
Lastly, the character of Cartman is a pastiche of, to quote them, “the annoying fat kid” from everyone’s past as well as being a loose parody of Archie Bunker from All in the Family.
In specific regards to the way all 4 characters speak, Stone and Paker wanted their language to be reflective of how kids really talk when they’re alone, which is why all four boys openly use profanities as well as occasional homophobic, sexual and racial slurs. To quote Stone: “Kids are all little bastards: they don’t have any kind of social tact or etiquette, they’re just complete little raging bastards.”
Back to the show’s pilot episode, it reportedly took well over 3 months to produce and is noteworthy for being the only episode in the entire franchise to be produced using actual construction paper and stop-motion. Every episode thereafter has been produced using high-end computer-animation software- to quote an incredulous Stone from a 1997 interview about the software they used back then: “[It] is used for Jurassic Park and shit.”
The 1990s everyone.
Despite having access to such incredibly sophisticated computer software, the show is intentionally made to look cheap by having characters moved around on screen as if by hand “so it gets that organic jumpy look”. The pair also scanned in hundreds of pieces of actual construction paper so that everything still looked handmade. The process is now so streamlined that Stone, Parker, and team can complete an episode in a single week, in contrast to The Simpsons which often reportedly takes individual teams as much as a year to produce each episode. The speed at which South Park is able to be churned out is one of the reasons the show is able to react to current events so quickly. A famous example is the 2008 episode About Last Night…, which centres around Barack Obama becoming president and was aired just 20 hours after he was declared president, including references to things that had happened on election night.
Beyond the simple, readily re-usable animation style, this unprecedented turnaround time per episode is largely because most everything related to the show is accomplished in house in a single set of offices with episodes literally not being written until a week before they’re due to air. The duo credit having so little time to come up with ideas as the reason the show has remained so fresh, as it encourages both relevance to current topics still in people’s minds, as well as spontaneity and not overthinking anything- yes, Stone and Parker write a hit, Emmy award winning show that has made them and Comedy Central Scrooge McDuck money the way most of us wrote college essays- at the last minute finishing usually just a few hours before the deadline.
Going back to Cartman Gets an Anal Probe, the show was almost killed in the crib when Comedy Central previewed the episode for test audiences and found that they almost unanimously hated it, with women being especially critical of the show’s content. It was only due to the strength of the Spirit of Christmas short’s enduring popularity that the network took a chance on it anyway. And, hey, let’s face it, it was 1990s Comedy Central who had The Daily Show and… well, The Daily Show, that anyone actually watched. And this was pre-Jon Stewart Daily Show mind you… so ya. By “anyone actually watched”, we mean like, the producer’s and casts’ mothers.
The gamble paid off. To illustrate, in 1997 the Comedy Central had a reach of about 9 million households, and their highest rated show was earning only $7500 per 30 second commercial spot. A mere year later, largely on the back of South Park, they had jumped to being broadcast in over 50 million households and the average cost of a 30 second commercial on the network was $40,000, with South Park itself earning $80,000 per 30 second ad at that point.
Naturally, the show was hugely controversial from the start, both seeing its ratings skyrocket and gaining an incredible amount of criticism in the media and among certain parent groups led by Karen’s the world over. Taking it in stride, in response to early criticism suggesting that South Park was nothing but a base level, crudely animated show containing nothing of more substance than its fart jokes, the pair created the characters Terrance and Phillip, who within the context of the show are Canadian comedians who only tell fart jokes and are deliberately animated more poorly than other characters.
Over the years, the show has gone on to be recognised and, indeed lauded, for its unflinching, often unique and surprisingly deep, fair, and well thought out take on social issues of the time. Particular episodes they were generally well applauded for include the likes of being praised by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for the episode Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) commending the show’s sensitive and nuanced portrayal of the impact of the N-Word in the episode With Apologies to Jesse Jackson, and the Tourette Syndrome Association complimenting the show’s well-researched and highly accurate representation of Tourette Syndrome, a rarity in Hollywood, in the episode Le Petit Tourette.
Surprisingly given there is no one and no topic off limits and over the years the pair have lampooned almost every group, religion and race, this has only ever really caused friction behind the scenes twice- once when they planned to air an episode featuring an image of Muhammad and another time in an episode mocking Scientology.
The episode showing an image of Muhammad, simply called, 201, was heavily censored by Comedy Central in response to threats from certain extremist Muslim groups towards the studio and Stone and Parker personally. The pair found the censorship ridiculous, especially considering the show has repeatedly mocked figures such as Jesus and Buddha, but in this case respected Comedy Central’s decision because, to quote executives, “they didn’t want to be blown up”.
The episode mocking Scientology, on the other hand, called, Trapped in the Closet, caused no friction between Stone, Parker and Comedy Central, with the pair recalling that they were pleasantly surprised when the network gave them the go ahead to mock Tom Cruise and this particular famously litigious organisation, especially as the show included revealing information that the organization had previously managed to keep secret from all but their biggest donating members.
The issue with this one, however, was then series mainstay Isaac Hayes, who voiced Chef. Hayes, who was a Scientologist himself, refused to take part in an episode mocking his faith. Stone and Parker thus decided to release Hayes from his contract without incident and issued a short statement, “We never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we lampooned Scientology. He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin.”
But in the end, when you make fun of everyone, whether equally, intelligently and with a surprising amount of fairness to all perspectives, and even empathy at times, or not, pretty much every episode of the show gets criticized by some group or other- something Stone and Parker completely understand, once being quoted as saying: “We’ve been waiting to get canceled for 18 f***ing years.”
In fact, according to the duo, they’ve intentionally been trying to see how far they can push what they can get away with for over 2 decades now and are still consistently surprised when they get given the go ahead to make episodes about the topics they do. Of course, it helps that the franchise has brought in in excess of a billion dollars to date and is still going strong, for example a recent deal for streaming rights of the show which brought in a whopping $500 million.
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