STILL SICK, STILL WRONG
For ten years, South Park has been the crudest, stupidest, most offensive show on television. And the funniest.
DEEP IN A MAZE OF ADOBE-colored huts at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort conference center in Indian Wells, California, men in polo shirts are striding to 8:30 A.M. meetings. Most are gathering to debate recent advances in re-wetting drops for contact lenses — "I have superior lens technology to Bob, I know that," one man jabbers, croissant in hand — but beyond the golf course, in a hut with a majestic plaque reading VILLA CAPRI, six Viacom employees huddle over coffee on polka-dotted chairs. This is the secret corporate retreat for Comedy Central's most popular, antinomian and flat-out awesomest show: South Park.
For the past decade, Comedy Central has footed the bill for twice-yearly South Park writers' retreats in Tahoe, Hawaii and Vegas, where episode plotting was trumped by strippers and dark nights of twisted fun. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show's co-creators, were younger then. With South Park's debut a month away, this is Day Three of their four-day spring retreat, and they have played golf and eaten dinner at festive Mexican restaurants while drinking themselves into a stupor. Not one episode has been written, but brains are being whetted for the onslaught of work to commence a week before the season premiere — each episode of South Park is created nearly from scratch a week before broadcast, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
For three long hours, Stone, 35, and Parker, 37, ponder future episodes about George Bush as a superhero and one centering on "ghost cats," genetically engineered felines from outer space. The complicated, affable and devilish Parker — possessed of schlubby sex appeal, like a young Bill Murray — grabs at a plate of sweet-potato fries, taking notes on his scratched-up laptop. Stone, who resembles the high school science teacher with a cool haircut who is always telling you how the world really works in his parched basso voice, drums on his leg. They wear T-shirts in primary colors and baseball caps. When they're deep in thought. Stone bites his nails and Parker bites his lip. They are damn cute, surrounded by a half-dozen equally adorable producers and writers, all wearing serene smiles and chortling at the silliest jokes.
Stone, it seems, is having some problems with the city of Venice, California, over the height of a fence he wants to build around his house, and has been subject to multiple community-board meetings in elementary-school gymnasiums presided over by gray-ponytailed dudes ("Anytime a guy with a ponytail is telling me what to do, I get bummed out," he says). It's not like Venice is such a perfect place — there are a zillion homeless people there and in Santa Monica, an observation that quickly turns into an hour-long assembly of an episode in which the South Park foursome — Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny — confronts the homeless while their parents argue about the best way to save them. "We should give the homeless designer sleeping hags and really nice clothes so they're pleasant to look at," says writer Kyle McCulloch, in Randy Marsh's voice.
"Let's give them $150 for a spa treatment," says writer Jon Kimmel.
"They'll use it for crack!" scolds Parker. "Let's give them really nice engraved money clips and see if they'll go away."
"OK, that didn't work — we've got to double the amount of money and crack," quips Stone.
Parker looks in the distance. "Oh, my God: The homeless are crossbreeding!" he declares. "They're starting to get jobs and homes. They're the hybrid homeless!"
"You mean like a Prius?" asks McCulloch.
"They're changing, evolving, buying homes," whispers Parker. "They're adapting!" He takes the voice of a South Park police officer. "We caught one." He lowers his voice. "He was about to buy a home." Everyone laughs, "At the end of the show, we'll run a placard that says, THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF HOMELESS PEOPLE IN AMERICA, IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HELP CALL THIS NUMBER," says Parker. "If you would like to help!" He giggles for a long time. "Oh, I don't care." Then he pretends to fart.
FOR THE PAST TEN YEAR — THE show debuted on August 13th, 1997 — South Park has satirized America's moral panic over issues big and small, from gay marriage to global warming to Lindsay Lohan's drinking habits. Taking the country to task for hypocrisies like the abandonment of the homeless is South Park's way, even though there's something uncomfortable about watching six adults make jokes about homelessness for a solid hour without ever once talking about solutions to the problem. It's the stupidest smart show on television, consistently pushing the envelope on scabrous humor with the perhaps unintended side effect of paving the way for dumber-than-dumb shows such as Family Guy. The silly parts of the show, say its authors, are the ones they really like. "I spend shockingly little time thinking about real-world stuff," says Parker. "As far as I'm concerned, I've got a computer, the Internet, an Xbox and PlayStation 3, so fuck off."
It's also the most ideologically opaque political show on television, fostering an open-ended dialogue on difficult questions like whether one has a duty to obey unfair laws or if there is a God in an evil world. Unlike The Simpsons, which is intellectual and pleasantly dumb in its portrayal of American life, using both 10 further a leftist agenda, South Park offers simple parables — often with an optimistic message — to take aim at all issues without ever showing its hand. "If Matt and Trey came out and said what they were about, all of a sudden people would watch the show with a map," says Penn Jillette, a close friend. "But you shouldn't have a map to look at during the ride. You must trust the art and not the artist. They'll never say what they're about."
After spending most of South Park's run also at work on movies — BASEketball, Orgazmo, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America, a $35 million marionette sendup of Jerry Bruckheimer and America's derring-do — Stone and Parker have been almost exclusively focused on South Park in the past couple of years, with good results. Their tight production schedule allows them to respond to news quickly, churning out shows on topics such as the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case, Hurricane Katrina and a particularly scathing episode characterising Scientology as a moneymaking scheme and portraying sect members Tom Cruise and John Travolta hiding in a closet. In March 2006, Comedy Central parent Viacom, which had pulled reruns of an episode featuring the Virgin Mary hemorrhaging blood, canceled the Scientology rerun allegedly as a favor to producers of Cruise vehicle Mission: Impossible III, also owned by Viacom. This infuriated Stone and Parker — eventually, Viacom capitulated — but they really lost it when Isaac Hayes, voice of the ribald school chef and a Scientologist, quit and issued a public statement calling them bigots. "There are reports that Isaac had a stroke and Scientology quit the show for him, and I believe it," says Stone. "It was a brutal, up-close, personal thing with Isaac. If you look at the timeline, something doesn't add up."
Stone is the guy who always argues with the network while Parker snickers on the sidelines — he doesn't like confrontation. They don't argue much with Comedy Central, but the knives came out in April 2006 over a planned episode in the face of worldwide riots sparked by the depiction of the Islamic prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper cartoon, which is considered sacrilegious by Islamic law. Stone and Parker wanted to show the image anyway. "I really felt we had to do this," says Stone. "I know I'm a total pussy living a privileged life on the west side of Los Angeles while soldiers and policemen protect me so I can say things like 'fudge-packing faggot' on my television show, but this was our duty. Comedy Central wussed out because they thought their offices on 57th Street in Manhattan were going to get bombed." Says Comedy Central president Doug Herzog, "The guys were coming at us all week with questions like, 'Can we show some of Mohammed? Can his turban be showing? Can part of his turban be showing?' It was, quite frankly, retarded. But did we overreact by not showing the picture? Absolutely. At the time, nobody was ready to take the chance."
Stone and Parker met at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Stone was a math geek and Parker a film nerd cutting class to make hand-held videos such as The Giant Beaver of Southern Sri Lanka, a movie about Godzilla-like beavers ravaging a town, and later Cannibal: The Musical, for which they raised $125,000 from friends' parents. Both grew up solidly middle-class in the Colorado suburbs, playing video games, practicing tae kwon do and working in the pizza industry (Parker at Pizza Hut, Stone at Little Caesar's). They come from close-knit, happy families and say that they have few significant childhood demons. Stone's dad is an economics professor; Parker's father is a government geologist and his mother is an insurance rep. Stone played sports at least a little bit, whereas Parker was a pussy hailing from the nerve center of Pussyland: musical theater, the leading man of many high school musicals. And he sang in the choir. Friends say he didn't know how to throw a Frisbee.
To not be a pussy, then, is of foremost importance. Most of South Park's humor either advocates radical individualism (everyone is stupid, so don't listen to anyone but yourself) and/or a conservative agenda (this is a great country, and you're a pussy if you're down in the mouth about President Bush). Neither Stone nor Parker will delineate his political views, and both contend that the libertarian label, which has been applied to them in recent years, is not entirely appropriate. (As far as the "South Park Republicans" tag that was affixed to their fans a few years ago to define the "cool" part of the conservative movement, they say it's a dumb notion.) They won't talk about the war, even to voice an opinion on President Bush's new troop-deployment plan. "I wouldn't even begin to say I know enough to say if it's right or wrong, because whomever is telling you it's wrong is full of shit too," says Parker. Neither votes —"like, ever," says Stone. Parker waves a hand in the air. "Each election is a choice with a douche or a turd, so who cares," he says. "If Gore had beaten Bush, things wouldn't be much different."
While Stone is in fact deeply immersed in politics and a serious reader of nonfiction books about the Middle East, I practically have to wrestle him to hear a smidge of his politics: He's against the War on Drugs, progay marriage, against socialized medicine and basically in favor of free markets, except in cases like dropping public funding for roads or education. As for Parker, who owns a couple of guns, the closest I can come is his paraphrase of Team America's climactic monologue: "There's a difference between dicks and assholes. Because there are terrorists, assholes, you've got to have dicks, people who hunt down terrorists. Dicks are bad, and it sucks to be a dick, but it's way worse to be an asshole, and because there are assholes, we need dicks. So shut the fuck up, all you pussies!"
Try to argue back to this kind of logic, and the joke's on you, much to the glee of Stone and Parker. "We went to a party in Malibu on the beach recently," says Stone, "and this woman came up to us, like, 'Oh, my son is at the University of Colorado, and I can't get him to go to class, because he snowboards all the time.' I'm immediately thinking, 'Fuck you and your kid,' because I couldn't afford to snowboard in college, Then I say, 'Yeah, I still go to Colorado to visit my family.' She's like, 'So they really are just a bunch of gun-toting hicks out there, aren't they?' I'm like, 'I just told you my mom and dad and sister live there.' Then Trey walks up to her and says, 'George Bush is a great man.' She looked like we'd poured acid in her ear. We were laughing our asses off." "That's the most punk-rock thing you can do in L.A.: say 'George Bush is fucking awesome' instead of talking about how lame it is that he's fighting for oil," says Parker. "The only way to be more hardcore than everyone else is to tell the people who think they're the most hardcore that they're pussies, to go up to a tattooed, pierced vegan and say, 'Whatever, you tattooed faggot, you're a pierced faggot and whatever.'" He looks very pleased with himself. "That's hardcore."
THERE ARE SIXTY ANIMAtors, writers and producers who work on South Park, but if there's one solitary genius behind the show, it's Parker. With at least three sides to his personality — lovable and upbeat, a happy-go-lucky anime character; Cartman incarnate, a fat. selfish, self-satisfied American; and a dejected, woeful artiste — he writes all of the episodes, with input from the writers and Stone. When he's thinking, he has one of those faces that goes through a million expressions a minute and only relaxes when laughing, he laughs in long, manic spurts, over almost anything. He can't keep his wallet and keys in one place, say friends, and often will stop pumping gas midway through filling his tank because he gets bored and wants to go.
Like a lot of punks, he's searching for that one pure thing in life but hasn't found it yet. Parker needs Stone, who acts primarily as South Park's producer, as a stabilizing force — he things that they laugh about together, he believes, are funnier than what he laughs about with anyone else. "Trey has all of the elements of any creative genius," says Anne Garefino, South Park's maternal executive producer. "Sometimes he's tortured, sometimes he's a performer, and sometimes he's morose and in his own head."
The intense South Park loyalists who work for the show, some of whom have been around for most of the ten-year run, largely serve the cult of Parker, the nicest bully in town. "Trey is the ringleader of South Park, it's kind of like a fraternity that lives on," says Eric Stough, a friend from South Park nick-named "Butters," for his sweet, righteous nature. (Once, in the office, Stone threatened to kill Butters after Butters farted on him, so Butters locked himself in his car, but Stone and Parker followed him and pissed all over his car. When Butters tried to pull away, he hit a production assistant's car by accident.) In an extreme example of a Hollywood guy staying un-Hollywood by keeping his friends close, Parker's buddies are almost entirely the same ones he had in high school and college. Now obscenely wealthy — Parker owns eight homes in vacation destinations such as Kauai, Hawaii, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, including houses for his parents and sister — he and Stone, say friends, graciously pick up the tab for group vacations and sixteen-course dinners with $800 bottles of wine.
They like to have fun with their money too. In the office, Parker will give someone $5,000 to eat pickled pork lips bought on the Internet or put them in a cash-grab machine for thirty-one minutes or make them cat six McDonald's McRib sandwiches and four Starbucks lattes in one sitting (the kid puked up some of it, and he made him drink the puke). One year, he refereed a two-month-long weight-losing competition in the office. The pool was $3,700. The winner lost forty-eight pounds in nine weeks. "Right before we gave him the money, I was like, 'Wait, let's get a box,' " says Parker excitedly. "I told him he won and he could have the money or the box. He took the box, which actually had $8,000 in it. It was seriously one of the most exciting moments ever." He shakes his head. "He took the fucking box."
It's a Tuesday evening last month and Parker and Stone are relaxing at Parker's house, a grandly decorated 1920s Craftsman built on a former avocado grove in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood. They hang out away from the office together but not all the time. "Matt and Trey went from being superclose college buds with nothing on the line to guys in their mid-twenties with a lot on the line and fighting over who was doing what," says David Goodman, a close friend. "Now they've hit a mature balance where they can do fun stuff outside of work, but they know when enough's enough and to take a break."
It does not seem very hardcore here. All the furniture — teak Balinese chairs, comfy chocolate-colored loungers and multiple closed-eye Buddhas, serene in rock quarries — came with the place. Says Parker, "I'm not a Buddha fag. just so you know." They've been back from the retreat for a few days and before that on vacation. Parker can't sit still: In his month-long break, he went to Lake Tahoe, Laguna Beach, Vegas, Denver, Hawaii and twice to Japan, a trip he made with his wife, Ema Sugiyama, 30, a Japanese woman whom he met at a bar. She's now studying to teach Japanese at the University of California and is currently at class. A photo of the two of them on their honeymoon at Disney World last year — they were married in Hawaii by Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family — sits on the mantel, with the pride of place of a formal wedding photo. Parker wears Mickey Mouse ears; Sugiyama has Minnie's.
Parker's living room has two flat-screen TVs surrounded by leather club chairs, one for his Xbox, the other for his PlayStation. He points at a glass case next to one of the chairs, which contains an iron headpiece and body armor. "I bought that to impress my wife's father, because he's a total Tokyo person, and he wasn't super stoked his daughter was going to marry an American," says Parker. "I don't think he grasped how rich I really was, and I wanted to show him so he knew his daughter was going to be all right. We walked into this store in Tokyo, and this armor was on sale for $270,000. I put it on my AmEx."
Fancy toys, video games and antique Japanese swords pop up all over the house, with a sideboard full of presents left over from a Christmas party. Stone grabs an organic soy candle and a bottle of tequila, later slipping them in his gray wool man-purse, possibly to re-gift to his long-term girlfriend. Parker dawdles in a foyer where a purple Star Wars laser is set up on an armoire. "Did someone give you one of these lasers for Christmas?" he asks Stone, who shakes his head. He stares at it cutting through the air. "I don't know who this came from," he says.
Three of their friends, including Goodman, show up for shabu-shabu, Japanese food cooked at the table. "I've been witness to many gross things Matt and Trey have done to other people with their private areas, front and back," says Goodman later. "A while ago in Cabo San Lucas, one of the guys passed out in our hotel room and Matt stuck his full penis and balls on his face while I took pictures." Parker is by all accounts the worse offender. "A few years ago. Trey had a habit of sneaking up on a bunch of us while we were sitting around watching football," says Goodman. "He'd stand behind us, quietly turn around, pull his pants down, spread his legs apart and go, 'Hey, guys.'"
They sit around the kitchen table, talking about advances in digital cameras as Parker plays a song from Godspell on the stereo. I ask him if he likes The Producers, one of my favorite musicals. "It's a terrible musical with terrible songs," he says. "I hate it because I love musicals." He's grinning, which I guess softens the blow, and pours me a cup of Shochu, a Japanese liquor. Neither of the guys take drugs, the last time they took acid was at the Academy Awards in 2000, when they were nominated for Best Song for the South Park movie and showed up dressed as Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow — but they do like a drink now and again.
"I'm a raging alcoholic," says Parker, sipping away. "I always drink with dinner, and then I keep going, every single night, by myself. I've tried every pill, and nothing makes me feel as good. My wife says she prefers me when I'm drunk because I'm far more interesting." His quiet, ever-present assistant refills the glass. "I'll sit here all night and I'm like, 'Fuck, yes, I'm going to drink this whole goddamn bottle.'" He smiles. "The world's going fine, and everything's as it should be. Have a drink, and you're cool about shit."
THE NEXT DAY, STONE AND PARKER are at the South Park offices, and their mood is more tense. Although they work only about five months of the year — eight weeks during the fall South Park run and eight weeks for the spring season — they act like they're in finals during that time and usually gain about fifteen pounds. Catered food is brought in, with a coffee truck coming by the offices around nine at night. For the next two and a half months, they won't be out of the office much, other than to sleep. They have good ideas for this season, they think. "Last year we got so much kudos for issue-related shows, and we started to think, 'OK, this is what works,'" says Parker. "We grew up with Monty Python, and we loved that when you tuned in each week, you had no idea what you were in for, unlike American sitcoms, where you're always going to get more of the same. This season, one week the show's going to be really topical, and the next week it'll be about Cartman's balls."
Their offices remain open when South Park isn't in production, but these days Stone and Parker don't have many projects other than the show and a possible movie musical with Avenue Q creator, Bobby Lopez. Their friends are here at work: "I'm the go-to fart-on girl," says Jennifer Howell, a friend who works for their production company, Important Films. "Matt and Trey like to pin me down and fart on me, or fart on my food when I walk out of the room. One time, flying first-class to Toronto, Trey stood up on his seat and farted in my face. At the airport gate, they like to play 'angry boyfriend,' screaming at me and pretending to hit me in the face." She laughs, perhaps a better sport than she should be. "There's nothing I can say to embarrass them in return, other than say they have small penises or my friends say they were really shitty in bed. Plus, they've warned me that any revenge I exact will come back a hundredfold."
As animators scramble to put drafts of new images in front of him, Parker strolls around the offices, a Culver City warehouse resembling an AT&T call center and decorated in puce and light blue. He throws a handball against a wall every minute or so. All of the offices have flat-screen TVs; Parker's has a treadmill, too, for a little exercise here and there. He's also got a signed photo of Saddam Hussein on the wall, a gift from the Army's 4th Infantry Division. "I'd go to Iraq," he says. "It would certainly give me an idea for an episode." Thwack!
The office is set up so that entire episodes can be created and produced on-site, then beamed to New York via satellite by 11 A.M. for broadcast that evening. Every morning, except Wednesday — when Parker is home, getting drunk, he says — there's a writers' meeting starting at 9 A.M. for a couple of hours, or as long as it takes to get Parker's juices flowing. He writes six pages each day, which is about four minutes of material. As soon as he's done, he and Stone run into the sound studio to record all the voices without any retakes (celebrity and female voices are redubbed at the last minute), and the storyboard department begins to draw the scenes. Within three hours, scenes appear on the editing room's Avid machine in preproduction form. This file is called the "animatic," and it's passed around the office before being divvied up among animators. About 350 shots are used in each show, and Parker can make changes to any before Wednesday morning. On Tuesday, when the office stays open for twenty-four hours, he writes about sixty new lines.
Today, Parker is working on a new scene. He's in one of the editing suites, a cozy pod strewn with model airplanes and lad mags, fiddling with the Avid. There's a hand-drawn Cartman, in black and white, addressing the crowd. In short:
"I waited until Butters was totally asleep, right? And then I got my camera, and I pulled down his pants, and I took a picture of his wiener in my mouth! Check it out! I got his full wiener in my mouth. I got him good."
"How is putting his wiener in your mouth getting him?" asks Kyle.
"Because that makes Butters gay now!" says Cartman.
"No, dude, that makes you gay," says Kyle. "Putting a man's wiener in your mouth makes you gay."
"Kenny, that doesn't make me gay, does it?"
"Muff, muff," says Kenny.
"What can I do?" asks Cartman. "How can I reverse it?"
"The only way you can cancel it out is to get Butters to put your wiener in his mouth," says Stan.
"Shit," says Cartman. "Hey, Butters, I got a surprise for you."
"What is it?" says Butters.
"It's so fucking awesome," says Cartman. "It's the best surprise ever."
Parker laughs the entire time, staring at the screen completely transfixed.