Los Angeles Times
College buddies Trey Parker and Matt Stone needed a theme song for their upcoming TV show, an irreverent cartoon about four foul-mouthed young boys in a Colorado mountain town called South Park.
When they asked avant-garde rock band Primus to record the intro music, not even bassist and vocalist Les Claypool thought they had a chance of making it to air.
“We thought ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ [the short films that laid the foundation of ‘South Park’] was very cool,” Claypool said. “But we never thought it was gonna get on television, let alone become a worldwide phenomenon.”
A quarter century after the series’ 1997 debut episode, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” the Comedy Central series is still cranking out profane and often timely episodes, with recent shows dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (“Back to the Cold War”) and gentrification (“City People”).
Now to celebrate the series’ 25th birthday, Parker and Stone are coming full circle with a concert filmed at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre near Denver, headlined by Primus and alternative rockers Ween. The concert, which will debut on Comedy Central and streaming service Paramount+ on Aug. 13 and 14, respectively, will feature musical numbers from the series’ history.
“It’s a wonderful thing to see these guys — who we never thought they would ever get on television — come in and basically change the world of comedy,” Claypool said. “To still exist after 25 years is a major accomplishment. But to still be relevant after 25 years? That’s epic.”
The entertainment industry’s streaming revolution and subsequent obsession with locking down well-known brands has proved highly lucrative for Parker and Stone. In 2019, the pair sold the “South Park” U.S. streaming rights to HBO Max in a deal valued at roughly $500 million. Last year, ViacomCBS — now Paramount Global — inked a $900 million deal for Parker and Stone to continue the series through 2027 and create 14 new hourlong TV movies for Paramount+. Full “South Park” streaming rights go back to Paramount by 2025.
The often baffling streaming landscape has given them material as well as riches. A two-part special, “The Streaming Wars,” lampooned the rapidly shifting media landscape through a plot involving water rights, popsicle stick boats and the return of climate-change surrogate ManBearPig. (It makes more sense when you watch it.)
The two-night Red Rocks performance marks a natural homecoming for Parker and Stone’s “South Park,” from which musical numbers have become some of the most memorable moments, including “Let’s Fighting Love” from “Good Times with Weapons” and the “Les Misérables”-style medley in “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” The eclectic Ween, also longtime friends of Parker and Stone’s, made a guest appearance on the Season 2 episode “Chef Aid.”
“‘South Park’ is very punk rock, and Ween is punk rock, in that we will give you what we have, and you will accept it and you will accept it graciously or you can get lost,” Ween’s Aaron Freeman said. “If you don’t like what you’re watching on ‘South Park,’ you can go somewhere else, and that’s what makes them brilliant.”
The L.A. Times spoke with Parker and Stone about “South Park’s” longevity, how they try to keep the show fresh and their “deep fake” movie that fell victim to COVID-19.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: So you guys are in rehearsals now, right?
Trey Parker: We’re still trying to learn songs.
Q: Songs you wrote, of course.
Matt Stone: Touche.
Parker: Yeah, songs we wrote 20 years ago. So many of the songs are about our balls that it’s hard to keep them straight.
Q: How did this concert come together?
Stone: It was probably 18 months ago.
Parker: We were just sitting around talking, like, “We should have a party. Who should we get to play at our party? Let’s get Primus and Ween. And maybe we should do a song.” It started evolving from there.
Q: “South Park” has never seemed particularly nostalgic. Have you changed with age?
Stone: We’d have to be pretty coldhearted not to recognize that this is where we grew up, and some of our first concerts were at Red Rocks.
Parker: For us, this actually is a big party.
Q: How are you keeping the series fresh after 25 years?
Parker: We’ll sit there in the writers’ room sometimes and just be so stuck, and I’ll be like, “How can we not know what the f— we’re doing after 25 years?” We never want to repeat ourselves. There’s definitely tropes, but for it to be funny, it’s got to be new. Just going, “Cartman is fat, and he likes cheesy poofs” is not going to make us laugh.
Q: Do the hourlong specials help open you up creatively?
Stone: I think it cuts both ways. I really like the “Pandemic Special” and the “Vaccination Special” Like a lot of people, we had to go fully remote, so we had to come up with a new production process, and that was pretty painful. The longer ones are sometimes really satisfying because Trey gets to write stuff that breathes a little more.
But then, we just went back to do our first series of six regular 22-minute shows after the pandemic, and I thought they were really great. It’s almost like going back to our roots. It’s like a pop song that’s gotta be three minutes. These last hourlong specials we did were hard. We had a hard time finding our groove.
Parker: After we had done some specials and we went back to the regular season, it was definitely like, “Holy s—.” They felt so fast. And it felt like, “Dude, we’ve already got 15 minutes but we’ve got to finish this story.” It was nice to go back to that, but it was also definitely jarring.
Q: “South Park” is often very topical, but you’ve always said your favorite episodes were the ones with the kids just being kids. How do you balance that?
Parker: It’s easier to be fresh about something topical because it’s new. The writers’ room always starts with us sitting around a table going, “All right, what’s going on?” Just like in any office. But even in the season we just did, some of my favorite things were Butters riding a horse and Cartman living in a hot dog. Just kid stuff.
Q: Right now the main “South Park” episodes stream on HBO Max in the U.S., but the hourlong specials are on Paramount+. Is that confusing for viewers?
Stone: Now that it’s gotten to a point where it’s on two different services, it probably is confusing. At the time, HBO Max was a big ascendant streaming service and it’s still got pretty great s— on it. So we weren’t bummed about that. At the end of the day, having it all living together will be great. But if you’re in a business for 30 years, that’s just not going to be the way it happens all the time.
Q: I mean, HBO Max changed ownership between then and now. They were owned by AT&T. Now it’s Warner Bros. Discovery.
Stone: Everybody involved in that HBO Max deal — which felt like a great deal — got fired immediately, right? You can’t keep your head straight. We’ve been at Paramount for a long, long time, and we’re psyched that everything will eventually get unified. You work for a media company. You open the internet one day, and we work for somebody else. Everybody has that experience in media.
Q: What was the closest you ever got to losing the show?
Parker: It was the same as everyone. It was the first few months of the pandemic, and it was the first time we were going “Oh wow, maybe that’s just it.” Matt was the first one to say, “This thing’s gonna go on a long time. Let’s just start figuring out how to do it from home.”
Not a lot of people know that we were a day away from starting production on the first feature movie we had done since “Team America: World Police.” We were going to start shooting on the day that the pandemic shut everything down. It was months and months of getting ready for that movie, to just being like, “Nope, it’s over.”
I went to the office to start packing up my things because I was just kind of in shock. There was a few weeks of just depression, and then I just got happy ’cause I’m like, “I’m just gonna hang out with my daughter and watch ‘Harry Potter’ and build Legos.” And then Matt said, “Let’s go remote.”
Stone: We always come back to “South Park.” It’s always there for us. We definitely want to go do other s— in life, whether it’s creative or just travel or whatever. We always want to do a movie, but movies are so hard to get going. We did Broadway and that was an amazing experience. But then you come back, and there’s those four boys, and it’s like we don’t have to go into startup mode.
Q: What was that movie and what’s the status?
Stone: It’s sort of on hold.
Parker: It was very timely and the timeliness of it has passed. We’d have to majorly rethink it to do it now.
Stone: We were working on a “deep fake” movie [with actor and comedian Peter Serafinowicz]. We have a deep fake company [called Deep Voodoo], and we have all these deep fake artists working for us. Even though the script was sort of timely, we ended up keeping the deep fake part of the studio going.
Parker: It was going to be “Deep Fake: The Movie.” It was about this guy who looked exactly like Trump because we deep fake Trump’s face onto him. And it was this whole funny thing because, of course, it ends up with Trump just naked and getting run through the wringer and everything, and that’s why it was so funny and so timely.
Stone: I don’t know, he could be running again. The technology became the thing we stuck with. Kendrick Lamar used the studio to do one of his last videos.
Q: How do you see your place in the debate about “cancel culture?”
Parker: We are always reacting to things, and we’ve reacted to that in a huge way. We created PC Principal, which is one of our favorite recent characters, around all that. We’ve kind of beaten that horse to death, actually. We’re just used to it, because when we started the show, we were 20-year olds, and it was all about, “You can’t say that.” Well, we just said it. And now it’s the exact same thing, but it’s flipped.
Stone: It does feel like we used to be punk rockers flipping off the principal, and now we’re old men telling people, “Get off my lawn!” For us, it’s material. The world changes. It’s interesting. I like comedians that wrestle with it, and I think comedians should be given a lot of space to do that.
Q: Are there any topics that are particularly interesting to tackle right now?
Parker: When people say, “How can you make fun of that?” or “How can that be funny to you?” I’m like, “Everything’s funny to me.” They think that if you find humor in something, that means you don’t care about it. But the truth is, I’ve spent more time in a room analyzing and processing things through comedy with Matt than I do going out and talking through something with a therapist. When the pandemic happened, the first thing we’re doing is making jokes about it. That’s how comedians think.
Q: When you started, there were shows like “The Simpsons,” but now there’s a bunch of animated shows for adults. Do you guys feel like you’re partly responsible for breaking the doors open?
Parker: For us, it was “Beavis and Butt-Head.” That was the time where we were like, “We could do that.” We never watched “The Simpsons” and said, “We can do that.” “Beavis and Butt-Head” had this really handmade feel. We really bonded over that.
Stone: We pitched “South Park” as a show about four little boys who live in a town. Remember, even though “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “The Simpsons” were definitely the forerunners to everything that we did, that also narrowed what people thought would work. They passed because they thought people would only watch a show about a family, not four boys. Now they’re watching animated shows about all types of characters. There was just a step-by-step process to get there.