And the triumph of no-brow culture
It was Trey Parker's big slab of meat that first attracted Matt Stone. (A juvenile lead, sure, but did you catch the talking turd on the Christmas show?)
All pooled up like some long-lost members of Slaughter, Parker and Stone, the creators and executive producers of South Park, are sitting in the back of a black stretch limousine, talking about the origins of their suddenly successful union. The limo packed with pals, colleagues and girlfriends past and present – is heading from Westwood, Calif., to the NBC studios in Burbank, where the duo will make its mass celebrity debut – its first-ever Tonight Show appearance.
Stone, 26, wearing tight black leather pants, is tall and rock-star skinny, with a dark, slightly wild 'fro – he's the inspiration for Kyle, one of South Park's few Jews. The 28-yearold Parker – who inspired South Park group leader Stan – is more solidly built, blond and mildly leading-mannish.
The duo first met back in the early '9os, making student films at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Stone would responsibly graduate with a degree in math and film. Parker, the more artistically driven of the two, got booted out for missing too many classes; he was already directing his first feature, 1994's Cannibal: The Musical, a $125,ooo production whose budget he scrounged from friends and family.
"My film was called Giant Beaver of Southern Sri Lanka," Parker says, recalling the film he was making when he met Stone. "It was sort of a Godzilla thing, but with a huge beaver. I had a little girl dressed in a beaver costume rampaging a town."
This is where that aforementioned slab of meat enters their misty memories.
"I went over to Trey's apartment, and there was this huge roast on the counter," recalls Stone as his friends check out the limo beverages. "So Trey starts cutting off big slices of roast and handing me pieces, and I thought, 'This is cool.' Everyone else at college has little dishes of beans and rice, or noodles."
Seven years later they've dazzled Hollywood with scissors and construction paper, creating South Park, the only TV show from the latter half of 1997 that made a dent critically or commercially. The cable smash instantly upgraded Comedy Central's ratings and, according to the network, has moved more than a million T-shirts and $30 million in merchandise since the show debuted last August.
Comedy Central is claiming that the Christmas episode drew a 50 share of 18- to 24-year-olds and that ad rates for South Park sell for 6 times the network's standard prime-time rate. "South Park is the Michael Jordan of basic-cable series," says Comedy Central president Doug Herzog.
Not too shabby for an uncompromisingly hilarious and curiously affecting show featuring hard-cussing, crudely animated third-graders, flaming flatulence, gay pets, a lusty lunchroom soulman, alien anal probes, a Hitler Halloween costume, a character (Kenny) who dies in almost every episode and, yes, Mr. Hankey, the world's funniest turd. Set in the Colorado county that is the supposed alien-abduction capital of the world, South Park is far more scatological than logical. Adults are jerks, Jesus is reduced to hosting a community access show called Jesus and Pals, and Patrick Duffy turns up as one leg of a monster called Scuzzlebutt.
South Park has established Parker and Stone – who say they don't get Woody Allen but love Jerry Springer – as the kings of a new, nonsnobby but bluntly smart fin de siécle comedic sensibility. Neither highbrow nor lowbrow, it's a sort of humor that's distinctly no-brow – an edgy, rude point of view that can get pretty trippy. "We did an appearance at UCLA recently," Parker says. "All these kids asking, 'Where did you get the idea for this? And where did you get the idea for that?' And we were like, 'Acid. Acid and, uh, acid.'"
South Park has proved intensely popular with critics, teens and college kids, and has even become something of a cause célèbrecwith assorted showbiz big shots. Early booster George Clooney was willing to bark the small role of Sparky the Gay Dog in the moving "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" episode. When the two attended a KROQ Christmas concert in Los Angeles, they found themselves treated like real stars by assorted alterna-icons such as Fiona Apple and Beck. Tiger Woods has volunteered his vocal services, and, according to Parker and Stone, Jerry Seinfeld's representatives expressed interest in Jerry's playing a role on South Park. The Seinfeld people were put off, though, when offered the Turkey No. 2 role in the Thanksgiving episode. As Parker recalls, "The manager said, 'This is Jerry Seinfeld. Call us back when you have something bigger.'" How about Turkey No. 1?
South Park is just the beginning of the pair's wise-ass world domination. Up next is Orgazmo, an uproarious but shockingly sweet film recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. In the movie, Parker stars as an earnest, soon-to-be-married, martial-arts-obsessed Mormon who gets caught up spending boogie nights in the porn game in order to pay for a church wedding; Stone effectively plays a dopey, horny porn stagehand and photographer. And last month, Parker and Stone went into production on Baseketball, a new comedy by one of their idols, David Zucker of Zucker brothers fame (Airplane! and The Naked Gun). Parker, Stone and longtime pal Dian Bachar star as pioneers of a new sport mutation that takes over America.
As if that weren't enough, Parker and Stone also have a band. I've seen rock & roll future, and its name – for the time being, at least – is DVDA. "It's a reference from Orgazmo," frontman Parker explains. "We learned that as a female in porn, you get paid for different things you do. If you do straight, you get so much. If you do anal, you get so much. If you do double vaginal, double anal – well, that's the highest thing you can do."
"As soon as we heard that, we said, 'That's our name,'" says drummer Stone.
Though their schedule leaves little time for rehearsal, DVDA are the greatest and certainly the funniest band you've never heard of. Their originals include the hairy anthem "I am Chewbacca" and the protest number "Fuck That Guy From Bush" (which decries the fact that he's "fucking that girl from No Doubt"). It seems unlikely that DVDA – featuring South Park audio producer and onetime Cher sideman Bruce Howell on guitar – will stay unheard for long. A recent gig at the ultragroovy Spaceland in L.A.'s Silver Lake drew a gaggle of record execs bidding for the South Park soundtrack. Of course, there may have to be a band-name switch first. They're toying with Dude, That Middle Part Kinda Sounded Like Deep Purple.
Two years ago, Stone says, "We were seriously starving. Down to a meal a day." Salvation came in the form of The Spirit of Christmas, one of the least likely big breaks in Hollywood history. The obscenity-laced five-minute short was commissioned by booster Brian Graden, then a Fox executive, as a Christmas card. He gave the pair $1,200 to spend. "They pocketed half of it," Graden says. The result found Jesus and Santa Claus kicking each other's asses and featured memorable lines like, "Dude, don't say 'pig fucker' in front of Jesus!"
Passed around within and without the industry, The Spirit of Christmas became an underground smash. "Right after The Spirit of Christmas, it got to the point where we were doing three meetings a day and getting offered multipicture deals from every studio," Parker recalls as the limo pulls onto the NBC lot. "I got a call from my agents saying, 'Trey, you've been offered to direct a picture for a million and a half dollars.' And I said, 'Wow, what's the movie?' And they said, 'It's Barney: The Movie.' I said, 'Who the hell wants me to direct Barney: The Movie?' They said, 'They want it to be a G-rated thing, and they saw that you can make really funny stuff with kids since you did The Spirit of Christmas.'"
South Park is a poisoned place in the heart, a taste-free zone where kids say the darnedest, most fucked-up things. If Seinfeld made television history by positing that adults are petty, nasty, self-serving beasts, South Park has, during its nine-episode history (four new episodes are due this month), suggested that such lousy behavior doesn't begin at the age of 18.
By facing the ugly truth that our inner children are baby-faced sadists with big eyes, the show has broken our sweetest taboo and revealed childhood as a dangerous and obscene place. As the warning before the show explains, "The following program contains coarse language, and, due to its content, it should not be viewed by anyone."
"That's how we pitched the show when we went around town," says Parker. "There's this whole thing out there about how kids are so innocent and pure. That's bullshit, man. Kids are malicious little fuckers. They totally jump on any bandwagon and rip on the weak guy at any chance. They say whatever bad word they can think of. They are total fucking bastards, but for some reason everyone has kids and forgets about what they were like when they were kids."
"It's a total projection of what I remember," says Stone. "I remember making the poor kid eat the worm. I remember thinking, 'What's the meanest thing I could possibly do here?'"
As the success of The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill demonstrates, hard truths go down more comfortably in cartoons. "I think it's definitely easier to take the truth in animated form," Parker says. "It might be hard to make live-action little kids dying funny. That would be difficult to do, even with special effects. But since it's a cartoon, we can control these kids in a way you never could with a real kid. We can make them act the way real kids act. A kid actor would try to be all sweet, and then you get Webster, and who needs shit like that?"
The sweetness of South Park is hardly conventional. For instance, sensitive Kyle always takes the time to notice all of Kenny's passings. "We really focused on what the world looks like when you're in third grade," says Brian Graden, now program chief at MTV. "Which is kind of surreal and fucked-up."
"We figured out pretty early having heart makes it all the more subversive in a way," says Parker. "There was some funny stuff on Ren and Stimpy, but I could never get into it because it was like, 'Here is something fucked-up, and here is something fucked-up, and here is something fucked-up.' But if you do something with a little heart and character, it's 10 times worse because it sucks you in."
Parker and Stone credit Comedy Central vice president Debbie Liebling with understanding their vision. Other TV executives were telling them that their show couldn't work without the potty language that marked The Spirit of Christmas. But Liebling saw that the show could be more than a "fuck"-fest.
"There were places that wanted it," recalls Parker, "and there were places that were like, 'Spirit of Christmas is great, but you can never make the show funny without them saying "pig fucker."' We didn't believe that, but after you hear that enough, you say, 'All right, let's pack it full of language.' Making the pilot, we went through a lot of changes. At first we said we just have to put in dildo and every word we can get away with. After the pilot, we started to let it be more natural. We don't have to force it."
For that reason, Stone says, "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride" – a cry (or fart) for tolerance in a harsh world – is their favorite South Park episode, beating out such enduring classics as "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe," "An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig," "Starvin' Marvin" and "Mr. Hankey – The Christmas Poo."
"If you had what we did on any other show, you would have gay groups jumping down your throat, but we did it in such a way that it also had amazing heart," Stone says proudly. "It's still just as fucked-up – it's like an after-school special that has been chopped up and put in a blender."
Like the Monkees before them, Parker and Stone work and live together. Their home is an apartment in a beachy L.A. neighborhood. Though they have plenty of friends nearby, Parker says, "Neither of us knows anyone else who can afford to live where we live."
Still, remarkably, they claim that they can't remember the last big fight they had. As Stone puts it, "We never have had any big blowups, because we're big enough dicks that if we did, we'd never talk again." Both have girlfriends, but both admit they're funnier when they are not attached. "I am far less creative in the presence of a girlfriend," says Parker. "When I am in a relationship and my girlfriend is around, I am the least-funny guy you've ever met. When I'm at a bar and there's a girl I've just met and am attracted to, I'm the funniest guy you've ever met."
"It doesn't mean I don't like my girlfriend," adds Stone, "but there's no bigger incentive to be funny than a chick you want to get together with. That's when you bring out the big guns."
Parker and Stone's office in Westwood – yes, they share one – is a pleasant pigsty, perhaps because Parker has been staying over after some late nights at work and perhaps because this is exactly the sort of utterly unorthodox workplace they dreamed of since childhood; it feels like a slightly geeky but ultimately ultracool college party with lots of fancy computers. The staff totals 46 – and includes five old school friends – though that number looks to double soon. On the main floor animators work away, using high-tech equipment to capture the show's low-tech look, while others gather around a Sony PlayStation. A board with plans for a future episode – in which the forces of good, represented by the Cure's Robert Smith, battle those of evil, personified by Barbra Streisand – lists scenes with titles like "Boys Lick the Carpet and Listen to Indigo Girls to Become Lesbians" and "Wendy Has Barf Montage to 'Memories.'
Parker grew up in Conifer, Colo., in Jefferson County – which butts up against the real-life South Park – the son of government geologist Randy and insurance representative Sharon. "I was extremely introverted except with good friends," Parker recalls. "It was all about math and science and tae kwan do." That is, until he was 13, when his dad bought him a video camera and he started making a movie every weekend. "In high school," says South Park writer David Goodman, a friend of Parker's since their days at Evergreen High in Conifer, "Trey was a bit more shy but still Well ahead creatively. It was clear he was going to do something." Before Parker went off to college, he and Goodman made an album called Immature: A Collection of Love Ballads for the '8os Man, which included tracks like "Dead Ballerina," "I Spit on Your Love," and "I'm Gonna Find You and Kill You."
Matt Stone was born in Houston and grew up in Littleton, Colo., a Denver suburb, with his economics-professor father Bud (now retired) and homemaker mother Sheila. Asked to describe himself as a kid, he answers, "Cute. Hot," then quickly adds that he was an honors student. In sixth grade, he took trigonometry at a local high school. "I was geeky but got into trouble," he says.
"I wouldn't say he was a troublemaker," his mother says. "I'd say he was always a good kid. He did have one teacher in elementary school who said he wasn't reading the novels she had picked out during reading time. I asked what he was doing. She said he was reading the encyclopedia." As for Stone's resemblance to Kyle, she says, "Yes, we did have a little duck hat like that – it gets cold in Colorado."
Parker and Stone left Colorado for L.A. in 1994, with Cannibal in hand. Among their early boosters was David Zucker, who handed Parker the job of directing a film meant to make light of the Seagrams purchase of MCA that was to be screened at an industry gathering. Parker delivered Your Studio and You, a witty black-and-white faux-industrial film that found him directing such nonstarving types as Sylvester Stallone; Demi Moore and another director named Steven Spielberg. The Zuckers and the South Park crew still have a mutual-admiration society going. "The Kentucky Fried Movie was one of the first films that made me want to direct," Parker says. "They tell us that watching us is like seeing themselves when they were our age. And for us, watching them is like seeing us old."
Oh my God! It's Jerry Springer! Now everything's been worthwhile." Matt Stone – his mouth as open as Cartman's around Cheesy Poofs – is overwhelmed. He and Parker are in their adjoining dressing rooms at the Tonight Show when Springer – who's doing a cameo in a skit involving midgets – stops by to say hello to some young admirers.
Stone earnestly explains to him that the gang watches Springer's show after work, that it's a source of inspiration and that they even had a party to screen his recent Jerry Springer: Too Hot for TV! video.
"Ah, you guys are all on drugs," Springer says. "I don't like cocaine. I just like the way it smells."
"Everyone has a drug joke for us tonight," Stone exclaims. Earlier, Jay Leno – who seems fond of Parker and Stone, and has made his own South Park cameo – had taken one look at their heavy-metal garb and remarked, "I know crack is popular with the young people."
After Springer makes his exit, one of the midgets from his sketch knocks on the door to tell Parker and Stone what a big fan he is. Other admirers come out of the woodwork. Parker signs autographs which include the lyrics from assorted Journey classics – because, he explains, "their songs tend to be so fuckin' deep."
Before going on they don't seem nervous, even though this is the first time they will be meeting the masses of a network audience. "You have to realize there are people who go on The Tonight Show because they have, like, the world's biggest potato," Parker says. "I like to think we're like the potato guys."
After the taping, Parker, Stone and crew jump back in the limo and head to a local restaurant and bar that they especially enjoy because they've discovered that it's a big hangout for actor Jeff Fahey, of Body Parts and The Lawnmower Man fame. His very name has become a source of nearly fetishistic pleasure.
"We go because Jeff Fahey goes there," says Parker as we approach the joint. "We go to his table and say, 'Come on, guys, everyone do the Jeff Fahey dance.' We'll do this really fucked-up dance. He gets really pissed off. Then we sing to him, 'Jeff Fahey, Caveman Warrior From the Future' or 'Jeff Fahey, Lesbian Caveman From the Future Bus Driver,' like themes from television shows he could be in."
Tragically, there'll be no Jeff Fahey dance tonight. "Dude, Jeff Fahey's not here," Stone announces sadly after scanning the room. "Should we leave?"
Instead they settle for a fairly sober evening – Parker and Stone are in training for Baseketball. Over dinner, they take turns telling stories about one another. Associate producer Jennifer Howell testifies to Stone's "attachment to his testicles" and Parker's "generosity at titty bars." Goodman makes up a story about Stone beating the crap out of a little old lady. Liane Adamo, a friend of Parker's seated next to him, talks about the time in high school when she had a terrible headache in choir: "He was so kind about trying to get my mind off my headache that he smacked me in the head. I love him to this day because of it."
As the conversation goes on, the volume gets sufficiently boisterous to drive one couple away from the next table, where they are soon replaced by a party that includes an actor – not Jeff Fahey but Bill Paxton, who's deemed not sufficiently mockable.
Later it comes out that Adamo inspired South Park's Wendy Testaburger, the girl on whom Stan has such an intense crush that he pukes whenever in her presence. Parker explains that they were high-school sweethearts who later got engaged, until she dumped him for "some a cappella singer." He was devastated – his pain somehow helped inspire Cannibal: The Musical, in which flesh muncher Alfred Packer's much-ridden horse is named Liane. Now, partly as payback, he invites her to assorted "Treyworshipping" events like tonight's. "The amazing part is, she comes," Parker says.
So in a sense, he's still throwing up on her. In the days that follow, the South Park gang scatters for holiday breaks. In a Colorado mall, Parker finds himself mobbed as a Christmas-present shopping trip turns into a spontaneous Tshirt-signing event.
Perhaps wisely, Parker and Stone then head off to spend the New Year's holiday in Beijing. While checking out the Great Wall of China and doing spontaneous comedic re-creations of the massacre at Tiananman Square, they find time to speak semiseriously of their good fortune and ponder the future of South Park.
"The only way we'd want it to go on for a long time would be if it would change almost to the point where people would say, 'Yeah, South Park is on remember when it was about, like, four boys in Colorado?'" Parker says, back in L.A. Stone, too, wants to make sure they go more in the direction of "the most Dali-esque Monty Python sketch than some banal sitcom."
"Right now with every script you can say, 'Dude, this is so fucked-up,'" Parker says. "But the minute it becomes about 'Now Cartman should say his Cheesy Poofs stuff,' then fuck it. We're in the business of making people go, 'What the fuck is this?'" As Stone puts it, "We would view success as finally getting to the point where we get canceled because no one gets it."
This story is from the February 19th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.