The genius of South Park is to always offend, offend them all
While many television parodies have existed through the years, none have managed to push boundaries of comedy the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone do with South Park. Nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, the animated hit continues to be every bit as razor-sharp and edgy in ridiculing society’s trends as it was when it began two decades ago — if not even more so today.
Most importantly, the show has stayed faithful to its philosophy of being a clear-headed and unbiased referee ... if the sports were offenseveness and satire. The South Park team has proven time and again to be masters of them, hovering well above others in the space trying to do the same.
In Parker’s own words on The Charlie Rose show, “The people screaming on this side and the people screaming on that side are the same people, and its’s ok to be someone in the middle laughing at both of them.”
This mentality is what makes South Park stand out and above the rest. While other shows cross the line for the sake of a particularly joke for shock value, Parker and Stone jump far past it to create full educational narratives that encompass the entire truth spectrum.
“We can’t just make jokes, we gotta make stories,” Parker says later in the same interview.
He and Stone have become the benchmark for equal opportunity offenders. South Park exposes narcissism hiding at the core of self-righteous movements, as well as calling out the extremities driving such causes to trend in the first place. Nobody is at a safe distance from the show’s witty and irreverent whip — not religion, not political correctness, not racism, not celebrities.
“This is our show and everything on the show is basically what we want to say,” Stone explains.
To keep that advantage over competitors, South Park’s maintains its consistency and authenticity and has so for multiple years.
The two creators write, direct, produce, voice and edit the entire show along with a small team of animators. They see their solid and tight teamwork as the generator of South Park’s distinctive voice of impartial reality. And what makes it resonate so clearly and timely season after season is its ballsy, almost irresponsible creative process, enforced by an impeccable work ethic.
Unlike the contrarian opinion that writing the show consists of simply taking bong hits and playing video games until inspiration strikes, the comedy duo brings each episode to life from scratch each week, including its ideation, in exactly six days from Thursday to Tuesday. It’s then aired on Wednesday.
This strategy allows Parker and Stone to use news fresh out of the oven, allowing South Park to be the most fun, offensive, and maybe even unbiased news program on-air today. It allows for the material to be relevant and in the now, but comes at a cost.
“It’s not fun to do, and you know what, South Park was never fun to do,” Parker admits again to Charlie Rose. “It’s hard, hard work.”
Though the stressful and exhausting process is certainly not in vain. It gives it potency, most evident in the “Best Friends Forever” episode based on the Terri Schiavo case, which aired hours before his controversial death. The episode earned South Park a 2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program. It’s a clear illustration of the show’s ability to pin down a fair and sober standpoint within the storms of often ridiculously off-point and self-gratifying debates in society.
Another tool in the team's arsenal is its flexibility and wide room for creativity in terms of possible storylines. Unlike with Family Guy and The Simpsons revolving around a particular family, South Park takes place in a town, which despite being pretty small for reality standards, is big enough in the fictional universe to embody an entire world.
“We’re lucky enough we’ve created a show where it’s not about a family or a kid – it’s about a town,” Parker explains. “We can sit down in the writers’ room and go, ‘What’s going on in the world? How do we have that happen in South Park?”
This is why viewers can understand storylines, references and points without being up-to-date with the actual events the plots are based on — something which other shows might be able to learn from.
And in the more than two decades, nothing has managed to sway South Park away from its offensive and noble quest to highlight what’s going on in the world — not fear, nor internal conflicts of interest. Not even violent threats from worldwide terror.
In 2010, Parker and Stone were threatened by a radical Islamist group over their depiction of their prophet Muhammad. Because of the controversy, the episode was severely censored by Comedy Central against the creators’ will. Responding to the network’s decision, Stone reflected on South Park’s ideology, their own form of activism.
“Cartoonists, people who do satire, we’re not in the army, we’re never going to be fucking drafted and this is our time to do the right thing,” Stone said to NPR.
Yet Parker and Stone's positions haven’t been without internal conflict, too. In 2006, Isaac Hayes, the initial voice actor behind South Park’s character Chef and believer in Scientology, left the show because of an episode in which Parker and Stone mock his religion.
It's not so smug to think it has all the answers though. There’s a certain moment in the first episode of the 19th season where Parker and Stone hint that even their opinions shouldn’t be regarded as an unquestionable moral high ground:
“We’re two privileged white boys who have their laughs about things they never have to deal with,” the character Cartman says to Kenny.
Even so, that quote, along with 20 seasons of unmatched satire, demonstrate a high level of self-awareness and sober judgement. Two social facets that certainly wouldn’t hurt the world from moving forward if we could all go down to South Park and leave our woes behind.