Rewind to 1992. Two students at the University of Colorado, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, sit down with construction paper, and a little too much special glue.
The result is an animated short film titled “The Spirit of Christmas", also know as “Jesus vs. Frosty". Three years later, in 1995, Fox executive Brian Graden pays Stone and Parker $1,000 to make another animated short as a video Christmas card. Armed with a new batch of construction paper and glue, they create another animated “The Spirit of Christmas” short, “Jesus vs. Santa".
“Jesus vs. Santa” makes its way around the internet before it eventually catches the attention of the American cable network Comedy Central. They hire Matt and Trey to develop the South Park series, which premieres in the United States with “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” on August 13, 1997.
Like the two “The Spirit of Christmas” shorts, South Park’s debut episode is animated using traditional cut paper stop motion animation techniques: The 22 minute long episode took between three and three and a half months to complete. The initial reviews are negative, both at home and abroad, and most focus on the low, obscene comedy.
“Sophomoric, gross, and unfunny.” - Hal Boedeker, Orlando Sentinel on “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe”.
But from the bad reviews grow a dedicated flock of followers who managed to see South Park for what it really is: Intelligent, dark, adult satire with the occasional over-the-top dick joke crammed in for shits and giggles1.
Since the debut in 1997, South Park has become an enormous success. 257 episodes and counting, a feature-length movie, several video games, tons of merchandise and more controversies than you can shake a stick at.
One of the things that fascinates me about South Park is how the series has evolved and developed since 1997. Technically, Matt and Trey have moved from construction paper, glue and stop motion to computers and server farms for rendering. Still, they are retaining the home made look of the series, which I think is great. But the big advantage of using computers over stop motion is the production time per episode is dramatically reduced. A new episode is now typically created in less than a week, and the short turnaround time means that it’s possible to relatively quickly produce an episode about a current event.
It’s not only the technology that has evolved. Many of the characters have also changed quite a lot. That characters in a TV series evolve is necessary to keep it fresh and interesting for the viewers; stale characters is a surefire way of getting your series cancelled. But that the characters change doesn’t necessarily mean that they change for the better. In my unprofessional opinion, this is for instance the case with Stewie from Family Guy. He has gone from a supervillain in the making to a guy with no goals and ambiguous sexuality. I’m not saying that is wrong, I’m just saying that Stewie is no longer the engaging character he used to be.
South Park, on the other hand, has been able to develop a wide range of characters over the years, with the most notable one probably being the loveable Butters Stotch. He debuted as an unnamed background character in the first South Park episode and from there on his role gradually increased, becoming one of the series’ most recurring characters beginning with Season 3. Trey and Matt have also, in a bold move, killed off one of the main characters, Kenny, only to, in a perhaps even bolder move, revive him again a year later.
The creators of South Park is are not afraid of a little controversy, and they’ve touched on pretty much every sensitive subject. Abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, drugs and religion are but a few of the topics the show has covered. When you put your hands in hornet’s nests like these, you of course get loud and rabid reactions, both from groups and individuals. Several American schools punished and expelled students for wearing South Park-related clothing, the show has been labeled as “dangerous to democracy”, and several groups have called for a boycott of the show, its sponsors, and the networks which air it.
South Park has also tried to depict Muhammad a few times, but that has often ended in a royal mess of death threats, censorship and pulled episodes. Two episodes from season 14, simply titled “200” and “201", were even removed from the region 2 and 4 release of the South Park DVDs. Both episodes can, for some reason, be found on the region 1 release, but one of the episodes is censored. Interestingly enough, Muhammad is one of the characters in the episode “Super Best Friends, which aired in 2001. But this was before depicting Muhammad became a touchy subject used by both extremists and scaremongers alike, and Muhammad’s appearance in the episode went by pretty much unnoticed.
The controversies surrounding South Park has also led to some internal changes. One of the cast members, the late Isaac Hayes, departed South Park after Comedy Central aired “Trapped in the Closet", an episode that pretty much tears scientology to pieces. That particular episode was never cited as the cause for Hayes leaving the show, but Hayes was an active scientologist.
After 18 years and 257 episodes, South Park still continues to evolve and develop. Even though each series is now down to only 10 episodes, and Matt Stone is no longer heavily involved in the production - the last episode he was credited for co-writing was aired back in March 2008 - the show continues to be one of the greatest adult animated series on TV. Or a “curdled, malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit”, as it has also been called.
And I love it.
“Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” was mostly about Cartman and the anal probe, though. If there was any social commentary in the first episode, I, for one, missed it. ↩︎