Trey Parker & Matt Stone

Interviewed by The A.V. Club's Tasha Robinson
March 20th, 2008

It's been 11 years since creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone launched their animated Comedy Central series South Park, but against all odds, it's still funny, and they keep finding new sacred cows to kill. Sometimes the show is topical, with episodes taking on the Terry Schiavo right-to-die case, or the overbearing popularity of Pokémon or World Of Warcraft. At other times, it focuses more on the cheerful gross-out gags and shock value that have characterized Parker and Stone's live-action films, like Orgazmo, Cannibal! The Musical, and the marionette feature Team America. In October 2007, Parker and Stone pushed boundaries again with the three-episode story arc "Imaginationland," in which their kid protagonists travel to a fantasyland full of familiar fictional characters, just in time to witness a bloody terrorist attack taking out the likes of Charlie Brown, Mickey Mouse, and Dorothy from Wizard Of Oz. In conjunction with Imaginationland's release as a DVD movie and the commencement of South Park's 12th season, The A.V. Club recently spoke separately with Stone and Parker about dealing with copyrights, why they never want to do films again, and why having a popular ongoing show is both a blessing and an aggravating grind.

Matt Stone

Has there been any fallout from all the copyrighted characters you have killing each other horribly in the "Imaginationland" series?

No! Surprisingly not. We have a pretty crack legal team at Comedy Central that everything gets okayed by, so in an episode like this, they gave us pretty explicit guidelines about how much had to change. To a layperson, it's kind of mystifying as to why it's legal to use Strawberry Shortcake as long as she has cherries on her hat, and different-colored shoes.

Even though you still call her Strawberry Shortcake?

Yeah! I don't know why that's legal. I guess the legal thing is, as long as it's clear that it's parody, and the people who made Strawberry Shortcake had nothing to do with this show, then I guess it's legal. But believe me, I don't know. I am not a lawyer. Every one of those characters was checked by a group of lawyers who approved it and had it altered in some small way. They're not the exact versions, but they're enough to evoke them. No, we haven't heard a thing from anybody.

You've said in a lot of interviews that you can do whatever you want on the show at this point—that that's your agreement with Comedy Central.

Creatively, that's true. We don't get a single note like, "Eh, we don't like that scene… Can we put the boys in the middle more?" We haven't for, like, 10 years. But we do have Standards & Practices look at the script, and Legal does too. But we probably get more leeway than most shows. And if we want to do something special—like, we just did this Tourette's show, and we said "In order to do this show, we need to say 'shit' a bunch, or else it doesn't make any sense." So we made a case for it, and they let us say "shit" a bunch. And they let us say "cock," too. But it was within the realm of Tourette's, so it was okay, I guess. So there's always a negotiation process, and if we can give a reason for it that's defendable to them, and to our advertisers, then they let us do it.

Some people have theorized that you've actively been trying to get fired for years, that your writing is a continual process of "What could we do that Comedy Central just couldn't air, that would be a deal-breaker as far as keeping the show going?"

[Laughs.] Yeah! We haven't found it yet. And to be fair to them, by the time a show goes on the air, they've given it the okay, so they're culpable too in the court of public opinion. [Laughs.] Sometimes I wish I could get fired.

Do you feel pressure to top yourself, to be more current, to be more outrageous every season?

Hmm. No, we don't feel pressure that way. The overriding pressure we feel… On one hand, I'm feeling less pressure lately. We have a four-year contract. No one in television has a four-year contract. We have crazy job security, so it's in our own hands. And so the pressure is more like, we have this body of work that we're pretty proud of, and we don't want to muck it up in the last couple of years. Although, obviously, you're trying to get an emotional charge out of a show that's been around for a while, so you're looking for fresh snow to clomp around in. We don't feel pressure of, "Let's make this really raunchy." It's more about making a good story, which is 10 times harder. The raunchy stuff's really easy for us. We just really are offensive, raunchy people. The work part of it is making it have a story and make sense and make it worth 22 minutes of your time, which I feel is a tough thing.

A lot of the humor in South Park feels disgusted and frustrated with the world, like you're basically asking "Why are people such idiots?" Are you actually emotionally involved in the issues you address with the show?

Sometimes. But it's cool, because we get to express our frustration through a little fat kid screaming at the top of his lungs. So it can be taken semi-seriously. We get to enjoy that same distance that the Jon Stewarts of the world get to too. They demand that they be taken seriously, and as soon as someone takes them seriously, they crack a joke. I love the fact that Trey and I have gotten awards for being topical and satirical, but at the end of the day, we are just making jokes. If you ask me how to really solve the health-care crisis, I have fuckin' no idea, and I don't want to be a part of it. But I can make a little fat kid yell some emotional truth about it. That's what we've figured out over the years. If you're gonna make it a TV show, you would never do the actual politics of something, but you would do the emotions behind the politics. Who cares if it's a right-or-wrong policy—here's how it makes me feel. You're not gonna get into a policy discussion with Cartman and Mr. Hankey and Jesus and shit.

Do you still get outrage from your viewers?

We never hear about it. They might complain to Comedy Central, but those letters never get to us. There's a really funny thing that was on the Internet. If you search for FCC violations for South Park… Somebody published a bunch of the actual FCC complaint forms that people had filled out. Penn and Teller are on there, The Simpsons, Family Guy—we're not the only ones. And those are hilarious. There's just a bunch of people bitching about the show. But we never hear any of that. And anybody who knows us—like, if my mom doesn't like something, she probably just doesn't tell me.

Do you ever want more feedback? Do you want to know how people are reacting, or are you happier being insulated?

It's two-sided, because on one hand, it's really fun when you flip off the principal and the principal yells at you. But in general, we do the show because we want people to like it. [Laughs.] We are entertainers. We're trying to entertain people. At the same time, we've been doing it long enough to realize we're still not a mainstream show. We still get a fifth or a fourth of the viewership of Family Guy. So we're still on cable, we still consider ourselves an alternative show, and we've always been that show that realizes there's this group of people that's not into South Park, but there's this group of people that loves it. Twenty percent of people got this joke, and they love us for it, and we'll piss off the other 80 percent just for them. But in general, we want people to like the show. [Laughs.]

Speaking of ruffling people's feathers, have you spoken to Isaac Hayes since the Scientology episode blowout?

We haven't. I heard he was on tour, I heard he had a stroke. We haven't.

Has that been hard?

Not really. It's not like we were really good friends. I think there was something going on more with the Church of Scientology than with Isaac, though I haven't talked to him about it, and I have no evidence of that. It's not something we keep in the front of our minds.

With "Imaginationland," it felt like the germ of the whole thing was the line "The terrorists have captured our imagination." A lot of South Park episodes reach a point like that, with a line or an exchange that suddenly reveals what the episode is really about. How do those episodes get started? Do you begin with a story, or the central issue, or does it vary?

It totally varies. That's the ephemeral, like, I wish I knew what the process is. You're totally right that someone said that: "Oh, the terrorists bombed us in our imagination," and then instantly everyone got it. And once we got that metaphor going, we realized we could do so much with that. Also, aside from the whole political metaphor, it's so rich as far as making fun of the Chronicles Of Narnia, Harry Potter—little kids in fantasylands. We actually entertained making another South Park movie based on that, but we ended up making a three-parter, which I think was better. But sometimes it's a joke, sometimes just a line, and we follow it and see where it takes us. The "Imaginationland" idea felt big enough to where we could make a whole episode of that at least.

Some reports on the Internet make it sound like you started off trying to make it as a feature film, and for some conspiratorial reason it never happened.

We talked about it, and it just didn't feel right. It didn't feel big enough. It felt somewhat derivative of all the other imaginary characters. And also, more than anything, we have to make 14 episodes a year, and that's our hungry baby that has to be fed, so that was part of the decision. The other form we kind of made fun of was—there's been a lot of great TV writing in the last few years, and I'm not a big TV viewer, but you know, the 24s and the Losts and those kind of serialized shows that keep those balls up in the air every week. We kind of wanted to try that. How do you take it to the next level? That was fun for us, to be able to serialize something, and do that "Okay, see what happens next week!" That was the form we were going after.

How involved are you these days with the storyboarding and animation?

Trey is. Trey's really the director, so he approves the look of new characters and stuff like that, and he really directs the shots, directs the episodes, but we have a whole team of storyboarders, like, six people now, and character designers, they do all that stuff. Really, 90 percent of our work is just writing and coming up with ideas. And a lot of times, that crosses with "That character doesn't look good, what do we want it to look like?" But most of my day is spent in the writers' room, sitting there trying to think of what's funny. And for Trey, it's a combination of that and directing. And because it's animated, we get to write, animate, look at it, change it, go "Oh, that's working great, let's do more of that; oh, that's not working great, let's not do any more of that," so it's a little more organic and holistic than normal writing. We don't write a script, then shoot it, then look at it. We get to work on it the whole time.

How has the collaboration between the two of you changed through all of the projects you've worked on together over the years?

I don't know. We don't really think about it that much. We started out in independent films, and you do whatever you have to do to get it done. Obviously, we have a lot of people helping us who've been here for 10, 12 years, so it's more than just me and Trey that have evolved into this weird huge organism that does the show. A lot of times, we're just co-writers, a lot of times it's a producer-director relationship. Sometimes it's just buddies. It changes with whatever needs to be done. But Trey has always been the director. I've never really wanted to be. I'm not good at it. I probably deal with more business stuff than Trey does. But interviews, we kind of split it up and have fun with it. But it changes from thing to thing.

What can you say about your current movie projects?

We don't really have any—we're not really doing much with movies right now. We're kind of just concentrating on the TV show. Movies are hard.

What have you learned from your past live-action movies that you want to put into effect on the next ones?

Uh, they're hard, and I don't want to do 'em any more. If you're gonna do a movie, you'd better be damn sure you want to do that movie, because it's gonna suck to make. They are really, really tough to make. It's the business of movies, it's the fights that go along with the level of budget, and more than anything, it's the creative constipation of having to live with one idea for two or three years. It's just not that fun. And what we love about South Park—even though we've been living with South Park for 10 years—we feel like we can do anything in any show, and we can say "Oh my God! The things we talked about today will be on the air in nine days!" And that's a fantastic way to live your life. I feel like we have this incredible, blessed existence, where we can really work on something, get into it, get our hands dirty. Sometimes we're like, "Oh, we're doing an episode about the Vatican," and I'll go read a bunch of stuff online—you have this excuse, kind of like a writer, to get into new ideas and subjects and stuff. And that's fantastic. I mean, I love Team America. I'm glad we did it, I'm proud of it. But would I ever do it again? No. It was horrible—it was a hard, hard thing, to live with a joke for two years, and go "This is still funny, I think this is still funny." It's just not as fun a way to live your life as TV. I don't know how else to say it—TV's just fun. And even then, it's not fun! It's still hard work, it's just, movies are really hard work.

With that sort of immediacy in mind, have there been current events that you've wanted to tackle in one way or another, but that you couldn't find a humorous way to address?

No, we really don't do that much timely—we do some stuff, but you can hopefully watch an episode in five years and still like it if you didn't know what the news was of that week. Hopefully. There used to be times where we'd say "Oh, I wish we were doing the show right now, I would have ripped on that guy," and stuff like that, but now when we aren't doing the show, I'm mostly just thankful not to be working.

What would you say are the hardest episodes to write?

Sometimes they're the ones where we start with a point and then we try to shoehorn a story around a point, and it doesn't come out of the story organically. Those just kill us. Or when we try to put two ideas into one episode. You'd be surprised—"Oh, it's about this." "Oh, wait, what's it really about?" "It's about that and that." "Okay, it needs to be about one thing." We've learned that the hard way over the years. I don't know about the easiest, but the best episodes come from "This is a great story with actual emotion in it." And then all of the sudden, when you have a real good story with a real emotional center to it, it actually makes its point. And the point may be what you started out wanting to make, or different, but it will make sense, and it'll be cool. Whereas the ones where we go, "Oh, we want to do a show that rips on this." "How do we do that?" "Okay, how about Kyle gets a letter—" And you just start talking—they always suck that way. They're so hard. We don't make that mistake as much any more, but we do every once in a while.

What's the time ratio between sitting around and talking it out vs. somebody actually sitting down and banging out the words on paper?

Oh, minutes! Trey really writes most of the dialogue on the first pass, just because we need it so fast. We'll be in the writer's meeting and be like "Oh great, we want to put this in it, we want to do this and this—but what is the scene?" We kind of come up with what the scene will be, "Here's the main joke," and literally Trey runs off and writes it and I go deal with other shit. Sometimes he comes back in and says "Well, that didn't work." But it's minutes. We start an episode on Thursday, and it's on the air in six days, so the writing is done concurrently with the animation.

Obviously you're insanely busy, and you're not champing at the bit to get back in film, but are there other projects you'd like to do and just can't get away for?

Yeah. There aren't any specifics I can tell you, like, "Oh, I wish I was doing this right now." But there are movie ideas, like "That is such a cool idea for a movie!" And I've gotten offered to do it with this person?" And it's something that we're like "That's going to be a great movie!" "Well, we're shooting! Three months, you could come along!" And you just go "I can't—I've gotta go do this stupid show! [Laughs.] Like, a really good friend of ours, Brian Graden, who runs MTV, is getting a big award from GLAAD, the gay and lesbian group, and he asked us to give him the award. It's kinda of mucky-muck but it's in New York, and it would be totally fun, we could see a bunch of old friends, but it's next Monday, and I can't go. We have these dates we're committed to every year, unlike a movie, where you can move stuff around. But the show has to go on the air in nine days, so you know where I am. I'm here, I can't go anywhere. But in another way, it's good because I think it's a good thing to have to be stuck to.

Trey Parker

So from your perspective, what's currently going on with your current movie projects?

That's a good question—that's what our lawyers and agents want to know, too. [Laughs.] It's been a weird year out here with the strike and everything, and for us, Paramount's been in such transition, and that's where all our deal was. We had some movies that we had brought in going, "Ah, maybe these are things we would want to do." And they're still there, everything's just been hanging out, but at the same time, every five months, we've gotta come back to South Park. So we're still deciding—as we're getting older, we're gonna not try to kill ourselves all the time by doing South Park and movies in our downtime. So we're just gonna wait until we find that one that's the perfect one.

My All-American and Giant Monsters Attack Japan!—are either of those things you feel definitively are going to happen? Or are they both just ideas?

Well, they were scripts that we liked, and we basically acquired them through Paramount, and they're two things that we're working on to figure out which one we really want to do.

Matt was really clear that he's really not eager to get back into films because it's such a huge undertaking and takes up so much time. Do you feel the same way?

Yeah, Team America just about killed us. Literally, just about killed us. And we sort of came out of that going, "All right, let's never make movies again." But we say that all the time, just about every time we finish a movie. But we kind of thought for a while that what we were sensing ourselves becoming was producers, because when we're killing ourselves on a movie, we would look over and see the producers eating a sandwich, and we'd think, "Wow, that's what we should be doing." So we're like, "Let's go start finding other people's work, and we'll produce stuff and let everyone else do the work." But the truth of the matter is, that's just not who we are. So we're kind of realizing we have to be creating stuff.

Matt seemed to be saying that you still have a really hands-on involvement with the animation of South Park. More so than he does.

Yeah. Just being more the director, it's sort of always been that way. I'm the one in there looking at every single shot and giving notes on every look and every walk cycle and all that stuff.

Is there a satisfaction in doing that all personally still?

The motivation was, we started South Park, and after about a year, people started saying, "All right, here's what you do: You dump this off, you delegate this to other people. And you guys sit back and—" 'Cause literally, we would be making the same amount of money if we were sitting at home approving stuff. The thing is, for season two, we kind of listened to everyone, and we started working on other stuff, and we let other people write scripts, and it was just crap. And we started to see it slipping, and I just went back in and said, "No, I'm gonna do this all myself." The problem is, especially with our schedule, doing a show in six days, really the only reason we can do that is because it all goes through one person. In terms of being able to go, "Okay, I'm gonna go write this, and then I'm gonna voice it, and then I'm gonna direct it," it's obviously a much more streamlined process than having to say, "I'm gonna go write this, and then we'll bring in the actor to do the voices, and then the director will look at it…" It's really the only way that this show can get done the way it does is by really just filtering it through one person.

Why do you create the show on such a tight, grueling schedule?

Actually, it's been interesting, because we've tried many times, and last year was the last time we really tried—we came in over the summer and said, "Let's just do some stuff. There's no deadline, there's nothing." And we wrote and directed and created some of the worst crap we've ever made in our entire careers. I always like, in the interviews too, I like to fancy myself more of a musician than anything else, but it really is—for me, writing an episode of South Park, it's like sitting down and writing a song. When you sit down and write a song, you kind of have the idea for the song, and you sit there at the piano and you kinda just write it. And then of course later there's some dinking around with it and changing some stuff. But there's this thing that happens when the song first comes out, that sort of magic when it first comes out of the ether, and you can't even really explain where it comes from. That happens so much with music, and people understand that with music. But I really think that a lot of movie and TV should be the same way.
So much of what you see now in Hollywood is written and directed by committee, and you can see it. Things are so workshopped and so run around the room, and so overthought. And finally, once you have a draft and then a draft of the draft, then they go in there and they work on every single little joke, and "Is there a gag here? Is there something here?" You would never do that with a song. You would never sit around for a month and talk about what a song should sound like, and what the chorus is going to be. To me, every episode is like a song, and every season is like an album. There's that part of the day when you first get the idea and you say, "This could be really funny." And you sit down and you write it. There's just something that happens there that doesn't happen when you really give it a lot of time beforehand. And that's basically my long-winded answer of saying I'm a procrastinator. [Laughs.]

How would you say your collaboration with Matt has changed over the 15 years or so you've been working together?

It's changed in that we're kind of like a married couple now. We've got such shorthand in the way that we can talk to each other. When we're sitting there and we come up with an idea, and it's like, "Oh this could be good," and it's like, "Yeah, this is like that—" "We're pulling a whatever." We have words for almost everything. We kind of know the pitfalls in structure. When we started South Park, we didn't know how to write at all. And we've sort of become writers as the show went on, and learned structure, and learned—if you look at the first few seasons, they're just a mess. And thank God we got by on them because they were so shocking and new and crappy, and that was funny. But we wanted—both of us, we push each other to make it better every season. And I think there's been seasons where I've wanted to do it, and there've been seasons where Matt's wanted to do it, [but one of us is] just kinda not quite into it. But we always bring each other up, and—this is something we learned from Scott Rudin a long time ago—before every season, we try to get in that mode of, "Okay, this is important. A lot of people want to be doing this, and we're blessed to be in this position. Now let's treat this seriously and let's work." And we're kind of hard on each other, and we make each other work. And when one of us is being a baby—and it's usually me—Matt's the only one that can yell at me and tell me to quit being a baby. It's just stuff like that.

With that all said, do you still enjoy it?

No. But I've never enjoyed it. That's what's so funny. People always think that making the show is so much fun. Especially people that don't know what it's like to write, and stuff like that. It's always been totally stressful, totally just wanting to kill yourself every day because you're under so much stress, and feel like there's no way you can pull it off, and all of that stuff. And then when it's over, when the season's done and you're proud of what you did, then you totally enjoy it. And when you're out on the golf course thinking, "Wow, that was a good season," then you really enjoy it. But coming here to work in the morning, I fucking hate it, and I always have. [Laughs.] Any job is a job. If you have to be doing something, then you're probably not enjoying it.