How South Park has managed to remain relevant and entertaining for nearly twenty years
With 19 seasons under its belt South Park counts as one of the longest running animated shows on television. In fact, there is only one show that has been on longer: “Simpsons did it”. This was a reference to the fact that The Simpsons had been on for so long, that every new idea by Trey Parker and Matt Stone had already been done by them. Who could have expected that one day they would be able to say a similar thing about their own show.
19 seasons, 1 feature film, 3 music albums, an acclaimed video game and a number 1 hit later, what started out as an animated short made with only construction paper, glue and a very old 8 mm film camera, has turned into a staple of entertainment. With its twentieth season and a sequel to the popular video game South Park: A Stick of Truth on the way, this juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down.
In this article we take a look at how South Park has managed to stay fresh for all this time. After all, how does a show that has already “been there”, manage to stay interesting?
Throughout the years, South Park has evolved in more ways than one. For one, it is clear that the quality of animation has vastly improved. Where the characters still somewhat resembled actual paper cutouts in the first few seasons, the show now utilizes shading and even 3D images during certain scenes. But the more interesting evolution lies in the themes of the episodes. South Park can effectively be divided into three eras, each with a different story telling style. We will discuss each era chronologically.
The early years
In its pilot episode, South Park focused on the same crude humor that made the digital shorts popular. It was panned by critics, but the show quickly found its footing. The fourth episode of season 1, Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride, was even nominated for an Emmy Award, ultimately losing to, you guessed it, The Simpsons. These episodes mostly tell random funny stories and introduce us to the characters we now know and love. Satire is not really an important part of the show yet, although you can see some of it in episodes like Starvin’ Marvin, which deals with American indifference toward Third World countries. At this point South Park is just about laughs, and lots of it.
A staple of the early years is the phrase “Oh my God, they killed Kenny” “You bastards!” Poor Kenny, in the first few seasons he mainly exists to die horribly in every episode. The comedy here is very effective, but it is also indicative of South Park as a show that is still in its younger years. As the show starts to mature, it moves away from the well of ‘Dead Kenny’-jokes. The biggest shift happens in season 6, aka the season without Kenny McCormick. In the penultimate episode of season 5 Kenny dies, ‘for real’ this time. And he stays dead for nearly all of the following season. It is a major turning point in the history of South Park, and serves as one of the biggest indications that the show is transitioning from ‘crude’ comedy into something more substantial.
The middle years
It is hard to pinpoint exactly where the early years end and the middle years begin. Gradually, poking fun at things that are currenly happening in the world becomes part of the South Park formula. A lot of this has to do with the decreasing length of the production schedule. At first, creating an episode from start to finish would happen across the better time of a couple of weeks, whereas in 2011 that same process was done in merely 6 days. In the documentary 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (which I recommend watching if you are a fan of South Park), Matt Stone explains this was not a conscious decision but rather a gradual turnover.
This change allowed South Park to become one of the most topical shows on television. Whenever something major is going on in the world, South Park is able to make fun of it in the same week. The most notable example is the 12th episode of season 12 titled About Last Night…, which includes parts of Barack Obama’s victory speech after winning the 2008 election, an event that happened only 24 hours before the episode aired.
While the short turnaround of episodes transformed South Park from ‘just’ a television comedy (albeit a very funny one) into an almost necessary part of public discourse, it also turned out to be the shows greatest downside on certain occasions. For example, in the 10th episode of season 14 Insheeption, Parker and Stone aimed to do a parody of the succesful movie Inception. However, due to time constraints neither was able to actually see the movie, which caused them to mistake lines of a CollegeHumor short for actual lines from the film. In this case, their need to do a parody in only six days backfired.
More often than not though, South Park‘s topical satire produced great results. So why change a winning formula?
The current years
At the start of this article I compared South Park to The Simpsons. One of the complaints often heard about that show is that it grows stale in its later seasons. Luckily for South Park, The Simpsons did it, so there is no need for them to do the same. At the start of season 18, Trey Parker and Matt Stone made a conscious decision to ‘spice up’ the South Park formula a bit. Although it is unlikely that this choice was in any way motivated by The Simpsons, it is remarkable to see the differences between the two shows at this point. Instead of choosing ‘the safe path’ like some would argue The Simpsons has been doing, South Park finds a breath of fresh air through the introduction of continuity. The South Park DNA is still very much there, only now actions carry over from episode to episode.
While it is true that South Park had been no stranger to continuity, as evidenced by the Kenny-free season 6, it was never incorporated to quite the same extent as it was in season 18 and 19. One of the most memorable examples of continuity is Randy Marsh’s secret identity as New Zealand pop singer Lorde. It started as a quick joke where Randy impersonates Lorde at a party at the end of Gluten Free Ebola, but in the next episode The Cissy it turns out that Randy has been Lorde all along. Matt Stone and Trey Parker liked the idea of having stories carry over from previous episodes, so they chose that short scene and expanded upon it. The reason was that they needed a B-story, but more importantly because they wanted to poke fun at some of their critics. Some reviewers thought that Randy was actually Lorde at the end of episode 2 and got mad about it, which is why Stone and Parker made sure that it actually happened in episode 3. This is another great example of South Park using its short production schedule to its maximum potential.
In season 19 South Park fully embraced continuity, and even introduced political correctness as the underlying theme of the season. Personified of course, by no one other than PC Principal himself. The new Principal of South Park Elementary became a major recurring character throughout the season, and as a result it feels like the most cohesive season South Park has ever had. Not a small feat for a show in its 19th season.
What’s to come
Throughout its impressive run, South Park has kept viewers on their toes by changing up its approach to story telling. An increased focus on satire helped it stay relevant, and the inclusion of continuity can give the show the longevity it needs. Therefore, it is no wonder that the upcoming season, airing on September 14, will have continuity as well. But that is not all fans have to look forward to. The new video game South Park: The Fractured but Whole is set to be released on December 6, 2016. It will be a sequel to the critically acclaimed video game South Park: The Stick of Truth. Additionally, the show has already been renewed up to season 23. All in all, it means that there are plenty more stories to come from this little town in Colorado. For the foreseeable future, South Park shows no signs of going South.
Image Credits: Comedy Central / Ubisoft