Six Days To Air: The Making Of South Park

Six Days To Air: The Making Of South Park

The season of South Park that wraps up next month marks the show's 15th. That's pretty impressive, but just to keep things in perspective, 60 Minutes is currently in its 43rd season, and while the cast of South Park is more animated than Morley Safer, it's doubtful that Morely and the gang could get away with spreading 14 episodes across six months a "season." Last weekend's season premiere of 60 Minutes actually included a profile of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, maybe because the show felt compelled to show the last remaining fans of the departing Andy Rooney what the competition is like these days in the professional wiseass division. The segment came complete with clips from Cannibal! The Musical, and recognition was paid to the dynamic duo's current status as the Tony-winning auteurs of a smash hit Broadway musical. While it's true that flashing any five seconds of the first season of South Park on the screen immediately makes 1997 feel like a very, very long time ago, the truth remains that Parker and Stone have only taken about 15 years to get to the place it took Mel Brooks more than three decades to reach. (Steve Croft, who anchored the profile, mentioned that discerning Broadway babies regard The Book of Moron as the best new musical in 10 years, and while he didn't specifically say that this means the best new musical since The Producers, I figure it must be either that or Urinetown.)

Croft treated Parker and Stone very respectfully, honored their work with the word "satire," and even laughed at their jokes, while noting in voiceover that the precious few moments of South Park that were included had to be carefully chosen, because so much of the show cannot be included as part of a wholesome network broadcast. It's not his fault... well, not entirely his fault... that the segment left with you the feeling that, while Kroft and his producers find Parker and Stone and their success interesting as a cultural phenomenon, their idea of a hip, "different" stage musical is more along the lines of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Both the 60 Minutes report and Comedy Central's "making of" documentary, which eavesdrops on the team as they spend a work week trying to lash together a new episode, are a tribute to how much respectability 15 years of professional dependability, an Oscar nomination, and some Tonys can ultimately bring you, even if you have BASEketball to live down. 

Neither show mentioned that particular speed bump in our heroes' careers, but the Comedy Central documentary does flash back to the days when cable news channels were reporting on South Park as the unlikely new flavor of the month. None of the footage shown really captures the horrified tone of some of the coverage the show inspired when it was new, at a time when even those reporters and analysts vying for the title of America's Nanny were tired of railing against Beavis And Butt-head. This should be the point where I invoke John Huston's line in Chinatown about how politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all become respectable if they last long enough and observe that Parker and Stone's rising cultural prestige has come along at the same time that their TV show has lost its teeth and become tame and predictable. The only problem with that is that the episode they're brainstorming in the documentary happens to be "HumancentiPad," arguably one of the sickest jokes of Parker and Stone's career to date and inarguably one of the funniest and most creatively unhinged things seen on television this past year. If, as a lot of people seemed to think, Stan's crisis of cynicism in the last couple of episodes was a veiled declaration by Parker and Stone that they're getting too old to keep doing this shit, the message isn't getting through to the finished work.

The Comedy Central program, a rat's nest of interviews, nostalgia trips, and what looks like security-camera footage of Parker and Stone and their strike force team members at work, looks less like a real documentary than a DVD bonus feature that ended up on the air by mistake. That's not to say that it's not without interest. A lot of DVD bonus features are kind of interesting, especially if you happen to be a big fan of the people involved. For one thing, getting to see the magic happen will answer any questions you've ever had about why South Park has the kind of weirdly concentrated production schedule it has. The show seems to be conceived and executed in short, intense bursts of inspiration that grow out of whatever is really nagging the creators on a given day. They are not the kind of guys who can just laugh off having seen a heavily promoted big movie that's so bad it's insulting. It becomes more and more labor-intensive as the week grinds down. It's like watching a vise tighten. One minute, Parker and Stone are hanging out with their producers and writing staff, laughing at their own jokes, and the next, they're staring into the face of an all-nighter, wearing the kinds of expressions usually worn by people steeling themselves before asking if there's been a call from the governor. Not having enough material doesn't seem to be the usual problem. At one point, a stunned-looking Parker mutters, the script is "a minute short, and I have four scenes to write."

To hear them tell it, Parker and Stone's one-week-per-episode work schedule, which would probably kill one or both of them if they tried to turn out many more episodes at a time, is just something that developed and that they've embraced as a good fit for their process. They talk as if they're as puzzled as anyone about where their inspiration comes from and trust to constant pressure to force it to keep coming. There may be something else behind their self-imposed sweatbox regimen, too, maybe a fear that being able to relax and take their time would set them on the road to self-indulgent pretentiousness? "I always feel like," Parker tells the camera, "wow, I wish I had another day with this show. That's why there's so many episodes that we've been able to get done, because there is a deadline and you can't keep going. Because there's so many times that I'd say, no, it's not ready yet, it's not ready yet. And I'd have spent four weeks on one show. All you do is start second-guessing yourself and rewriting stuff, and it's over-thought. And it would have been 5 percent better." Parker and Stone have always acknowledged the influence that Terry Gilliam's animation for Monty Python had on them. Do they see some of the bloated, undisciplined work Gilliam has done as a film director, on those occasions when he's been allowed to lose control of both his budgets and his filming schedules, as a cautionary example?

Those of us who've spent the past few days seeing Steve Jobs, over and over, exhorting people to make the best use of their time on Earth by doing what they love, can see Parker and Stone as both inspiring and cautionary examples themselves. During their week in the salt mines, they dress like 40-year-old undergrads, and eat like them, too. (Asked what the McDonald's food he's wolfing down does for his creativity, Parker says, nothing; it just "makes me happy, for five minutes.") As they stress out and cocoon in their offices and forget what combs are for, you realize how much they must love what they're doing, because nobody would do this just for the money, so long as they already had carfare back home. It was probably statistically inevitable that two guys who graduated college in the early '90s would find a way to become rich and famous while recreating the environment of an all-night, junk food-fueled snark session. All in all, it was probably the right two guys.

Stray observations:

  • Producer Vernon Chatman: "They've said 'fuck you' to every celebrity, pretty much. Which they were doing before the show, too. They would fart on celebrities at parties. Now they do it on the air, and the celebrity smells it." For a follow-up, we go to visiting kibitzer Bill Hader, explaining the difference between South Park's and Saturday Night Live's respective attitudes towards the famous: "SNL is like, we might want this person to host..."
  • What is it like for a woman sitting in on the writing sessions? "I've learned that men, they really, super... they dig poo."
  • Executive producer Anne Garefino, on the phone to Standards and Practices: "When they shit into each other's mouths, we're not going to see feces in the iterration that I've seen so far, but I don't know what's going to happen at the end. We haven't written the end yet. Maybe. Yes, we see them being sewn together. Yeah. Thanks, happy Easter to you, too."
  • If it turns out that I have at some point quote Parker as saying something Stone actually said, or vice versa, I'll just say right now that I apologize for it, but I'm not shocked. I'm sure their mothers could tell these two fellows apart under any circumstances, but for me, it's like one of those couple who've been married for 40 years who are turning into each other, especially now that they're both getting bald.