I had a lot of arguments with my parents over South Park. First airing in August 1997, I was just starting high school, and a post- 11pm air time was deemed far too late for my brain to be awake and then functional the next day. I think my parents assumed it was a flash-in-the-pan immature cartoon with no merits and some throwaway catchphrases that would be gone within a year.
But fast forward 18 years, and South Park is still going strong. Its 19th season is airing in the UK, with most of the original cast still involved. So how has this show not only maintained, but thrived, where others have failed?
It comes down to two men: Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Recent interviews demonstrate that they still have a solid friendship, something not easy to maintain in the showbiz world. The characters they have created are cartoon embodiments of crude adolescent humour, but at the same time you cant help but like them. The trials they face are based on their confusion at things going on in the grown-up world (in the season 2 episode ‘Spookyfish’, strange things happen in South Park because there is a misunderstanding over who ‘Aunt Flo’ is). Early episodes ended with Kyle proclaiming a moral point by starting a speech with ‘you know, I learned something today…’, whereas Parker and Stone allowed later episodes to speak for themselves.
This development of characters and plots also helped South Park to move with the times. Early episodes showed a crudely cut-out Kenny dying every week, earning the catchphrase ‘Oh my god! They killed Kenny!’ a place in pop culture history. But thankfully, as the graphics have improved, so have the characters been fleshed out. We saw the boys friendship group develop, learned about the Marsh family dynamics, and discovered where Kyle and his family really came from. Each character reacts differently to newcomers and situations, because by now they are fully realized characters with their own personalities and nuances. This reflects the growing up of Parker and Stone and their developing talent, and stops the show from going stale.
Obviously, a show that parodies topics such as religion, homosexuality, racial slurs, abortion and the prophet Mohammed is going to come in for some criticism. But Parker and Stone have never shied away from taboo subjects, even when it meant one of their voice actors leaving (Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef, quit over an episode lampooning Scientology). Their use of real-world events in the narrative often makes for uncomfortable viewing, but Parker and Stone then use their characters to make valid points about a social issue, often taking a situation to its grotesque extreme in order to point out how ridiculous it is.
And its clearly what its audience wants; so far, South Park has never even been threatened with cancellation by their broadcasting network, unlike its peers The Simpsons and Family Guy, and their contract has been renewed for a further 4 seasons.
So in short, the numbers speak for themselves; Parker and Stone are still raking in an average of 2 million viewers per season whilst still delivering the goods to Comedy Central. Since South Park started they have produced 19 seasons, made two full length feature films, written and produced a Grammy- award winning musical and made a console game (which by the way, is some of the most fun I have had gaming in a long time). And they have proven that no matter how clever their metaphors are, and however cutting the subjects they tackle, you cant beat some good old-fashioned toilet humour.
I never did convince my parents on just why South Park is so good. But I’m glad it hung around long enough for me to be able to choose my own bedtime.