Insiders from Natasha Henstridge to Norman Lear dish on the controversial Comedy Central show, including the heavily censored Muhammad episodes, their acid trip at the Oscars and how to get an R rating (hint: just one rim job).
Back in 1992, two classmates at the University of Colorado took a stack of construction paper, some scissors and an old 8mm camera and pasted together a five-minute stop-motion movie that would launch a cartoon empire. The animation in that first film was primitive, even by Matt Stone and Trey Parker's lenient standards, but the contours of South Park were all there: A bunch of F-bomb-dropping grade-schoolers bring a demonic snowman to life and ask Jesus for help ("Oh my God, Frosty killed Kenny!").
In the years since, Stone, 45, and Parker, 46, have collaborated on many projects, including a smash Broadway hit (Book of Mormon) and a classic cult movie (Team America: World Police). But the two college pals' very first endeavor — a dementedly brilliant twist on Peanuts, in which each week the tiny tykes of South Park, Colo., spout obscenities (in one episode, the word "shit" is uttered 162 times) and commit blasphemy on everyone from the Virgin Mary to Tom Cruise — likely will remain their greatest artistic achievement.
"There was nothing like it on TV," says Doug Herzog, the Comedy Central executive who greenlighted the series and ushered its first episode on the air in August 1997. "In those days, there was no context for it at all." Just The Simpsons — but none of those characters went as Hitler on Halloween (like Cartman) or gave themselves testicular cancer in order to get medical marijuana (like Stan's dad, Randy).
Over the last 20 years — and 267 episodes — South Park has been a pillar of the network, remaining one of Comedy Central's highest-rated shows (watched by more than 8 million viewers a week). It has been translated into 30 languages and shown in 130 countries, nominated for 18 Emmys (winning five), made into a movie (1999's Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which grossed $83.1 million worldwide) and has spawned a merchandising industry generating hundreds of millions of dollars with everything from Mr. Hankey plushies to Cheesy Poofs (in a deal with Frito-Lay during season 15).
To tell the tale of the show — on the eve of its 20th season, premiering Sept. 14 — The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Parker and Stone, still very much involved in every aspect of the series, at their studio in L.A.'s Marina del Rey and more than 15 others involved in South Park's early development and production. The results: THR's extremely oral history of TV's most subversive cartoon.
The junior executive at Fox during the mid-1990s asked his friends Stone and Parker — who had moved to L.A. after college — to make an animated Christmas card featuring the foul-mouthed kids they had created for their University of Colorado film. Graden sent VHS copies of that short — a remake of Jesus vs. Frosty, this time with Jesus battling Santa — to 35 of his friends, who sent it to their friends, who sent it to their friends …
[Stone and Parker] brought it in to the Fox office, and I just remember everyone watching it and that moment being five of the most glorious minutes of my life. I didn't think much about it, then in January and February I would go to meetings and people would say to me, "Have you seen this crazy video?" And they would pop in The Spirit of Christmas.
Before we even began working on the series, the fact that George Clooney had made hundreds of VHS copies of The Spirit of Christmas and sent them out to all his friends was already the stuff of Hollywood history. When he did the voice of Sparky, Stan's gay dog [for episode four], he did the voice remotely. We never met him until he finally came by the studio to do a voice for the South Park movie.
Doug Herzog Everything was VHS then, so people were making VHS copies. I remember saying, "Hey, we need to be in business with these guys." I also remember thinking, "I'm not sure we can put that on TV."
Brian Graden I knew all my friends in Hollywood had seen the video, but I had no sense that anyone else in America had. Then Comedy Central made an offer, so I left Fox [which had no interest in the cartoon] in the spring of 1996 to start the pilot of South Park.
Matt Stone We shot the pilot ["Cartman Gets an Anal Probe"] for 60 or 70 days in Colorado. Every day we would be in Celluloid Studios in Denver — it was a slow time there. It was summer, so they just gave us the keys and we camped out there.
Trey Parker We slept there sometimes.
Graden It was an arduous process because every time there was a note from the network, that meant Matt and Trey had to cut out more construction paper and reanimate five minutes of video, which can take five days.
Stone That was an entire summer. Like, that's all we did that summer — us just sitting there in the dark. Now a [computer-generated] episode takes six days.
The lead singer of Primus composed the show's jangly theme song.
We got a call years ago that these guys were working on this little animated pilot for Comedy Central. They were a couple of college kids who were fans of the band, and I guess they approached me to do the theme song. At the time, Primus had just gotten a new drummer, so I said, "Let's have Primus do it." We had watched their Christmas thing that was going around, and we realized these guys were pretty clever, but there was no way in hell that they were going to be able to get something like that on television. More than anything, it was just an excuse for us to go into the studio and start experimenting.
Stone We wanted Primus to do the theme song, and then we needed a change. And we were like, "F—!"
Claypool If you listen to the outro, that's actually the original song. And they came back to us and said, "Comedy Central thinks the theme song is too slow and not peppy enough." At that point, we were like, "You know, we did this for you guys, we're out on the road, we're too busy to do this right now. We can't just go into a studio and rerecord this."
Stone We couldn't get their management to talk to us. They were like, "F— you, dude, take the song." Not from Les, but from the management. So I actually went down to Irvine and went backstage and found Les at this concert, and I was like "You have to record it." I got in his face. And he was like, "I'm on tour. I can't."
Claypool So they just sped it up and I redid my vocals. I believe I was playing Red Rocks [in Morrison, Colo.] and they sent one of their old high school chums up with a handheld tape recorder, and I just did my vocals into that.
Stone It was really awesome he did it.
Isaac Hayes III
The son of the late soul singer says the role of Chef rejuvenated his father's career.
He was very reluctant to do it in the beginning because I don't think he understood it. But at that time he had younger people around him like his assistant, who really, really, really encouraged him to do it.
Parker We went and recorded him in New York when he was like, "What's this dumb little pilot thing I'm doing?"
Hayes III It takes a little bit of a risk to jump into something as controversial as South Park after coming from the years my dad grew up in. He was a very respectful guy and really didn't curse and never really put his brand in jeopardy like this. It really gave him a huge second act as an artist, and he was very thankful and proud of that. That was huge for him.
Stone Isaac was the nicest guy, and we had a really great working relationship.
Hayes III It gave him an opportunity to feel a little love and admiration that I think he might not have gotten throughout those years while he figured out the changes in music. And it really opened up so many doors for him from a voiceover perspective. It gave him such a platform to continue to capitalize on as an entertainer. South Park was a blessing for him. It meant a lot to him, working with those people and having those types of relationships that he had.
Graden Eventually we got the pilot [about alien visitors] done and went to the focus group. It was the worst focus group I'd ever seen in my life: There were a lot of twos out of 10, and I remember three women crying because they said children should never say these inappropriate things.
Stone Yeah, the women did not like it.
Herzog But we were a fledgling comedy network looking for attention. We wanted to take a chance. But at the same time there was also a little bit of, "Well this is going to get attention one way or another — hopefully the right kind of attention."
Graden There wasn't any marketing [for the August 1997 debut] because it was a tiny channel, so I figured if we were lucky, maybe 200,000 people would tune in and we could kind of hold the baseline rating, which was tiny. But the premiere had [889,000] viewers. [It would reach as many as 5.6 million viewers as that season progressed.] We sort of pieced together that all the colleges were just starting to get T1 internet lines, so it actually had gone viral. But we had no idea. I know Comedy Central had no idea about this either.
Parker It was such a big hit that they were like, "We need more."
Herzog There were times, rare times, going back to the old days when we were still kind of in it script by script. I remember in the first season a script shows up called "When an Elephant F—s a Pig," and I went, "We can't call it that … or maybe we could." And it was a lot of how far can you push it and how far were you willing to go to defend it. And the truth is, I think we were overly careful in the beginning.
The storyboards for 2001’s episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” in which Cartman masterminds the deaths of the parents of the boy who has been bullying him (and feeds them to his tormentor in a chili).
Garefino I remember Doug called me once — we finished the show last-minute, but we were always under the gun — only time Doug was angry, and he was like, "Did I just hear the word 'shit' on my network?!" We forgot to bleep it. We were burning it at both ends. Everyone was up all night finishing the show, and we dropped the ball on that one.
Herzog I remember, before the show went on the air and I had seen a few episodes, waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking: "Can I do this? Are we going to go to jail for this? Is this legal?" because it was just uncharted territory. But the truth is, [Parker and Stone] always pushed it in such a smart way that we could, in our minds, go, "Well, there was justification for it." It was rarely gratuitous.
Stone We'd go down to the newsstand, and there's a little Cartman on the corner of Rolling Stone, there's a little South Park on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
Parker We thought: "It's not going to last. Take it while you can." We really had the attitude of, "Let's do this as long as we can, then we will go back to Colorado. I really think, up until four or five years ago, we really had the [mentality], "OK, when are we going to go back to Colorado?"
Stone We also decided to do Baseketball, the [South Park] movie, and a South Park album with Rick Rubin. We were like, "We'll do it, we'll do it" because we had been out here sleeping on couches for a few years, and when it hits, you take it.
Stone (left) and Parker voice an episode for season 20. The two do voices for most of the show’s characters.
Parker I remember at one point thinking, "Dude, I wonder if I'll ever see someone walking around in a shirt that has Cartman on it? That would trip me out." And then a month later, I remember exactly where I was in Westwood, we were walking to lunch and there was this kid walking, and I saw my first Cartman shirt and I was like, "Whoa!" I'd never experienced that before.
Herzog One of the things we noticed right away was the bootlegged merchandise. We would actually send people to the beach in Venice to go looking for bootleggers, and every Monday morning there would be a collection on my desk of crappy T-shirts and bad figurines. My favorite was all the marijuana-smoking paraphernalia; Cartman bongs and Kenny hash pipes.
Actor and guest star.
Beavis and Butt-Head maybe was the first, but South Park was the perfect stoner cartoon for us stoners, without a doubt.
Comedy Central senior vp enterprises.
The four boys have always been at the core of our consumer products lines. Over the past decade, Randy and Butters have also gotten a lot of love from the fans, and PC Principal became a major character just last season.
The first celebrity guest star to utter actual lines on the show. Wary of copying Simpsons-style cameos, Parker and Stone usually insisted that guest stars make only animal sounds (Clooney barked as Stan's dog; Jay Leno meowed as Cartman's cat, Mr. Kitty, in episode 13), but Henstridge was a special case as substitute teacher Ms. Ellen.
I heard a rumor that they had a crush on me from Species and asked me to come in and do a voice [for episode 11] just because they wanted to say hi, which is pretty funny. But, you know, 20 years later people are still in awe of the fact that I did a voice on South Park. That comes up all the time with fans.
Other early guest stars included Chong and Ozzy Osborne, with the rocker appearing on "Chef Aid" during season two.
IT ALL KICKED OFF WITH CARTMAN GETTING AN ANAL PROBE: The pilot episode, in which aliens visit South Park and Cartman gets abducted, wasn’t without glitches. At one point an animator’s hand is clearly visible in the frame. Also, Parker and Stone turned in a 27-minute cut, without room for ad breaks. Herzog suggested killing Kenny might not be such a hot idea: “I remember them looking at me funny, and I just sort of shut up and got out of the way.”
Osbourne It was soul-lifting.
Chong It was my son who turned me on to them, and I swear I've never laughed so hard. They reached out to us. Cheech [Marin] and I had broken up and got back together again for some part in ["Cherokee Hair Tampons"] where they decided to pay homage to Cheech and Chong. We were more than thrilled to be part of it.
Parker If you notice, seasons two and three are the only ones you'll see other "written by" credits. We were doing the movie [in 1998] and the show at the same time, so we tried out other writers because we thought that's what you do.
Stone [Dealing with the MPAA to get an R rating for the film], you had to wear them down. That's what always pissed us off about the MPAA, that it's a negotiation. It isn't their standards — it's a negotiation.
Parker It was resubmitted every week.
Stone You end up doing only one rim-job reference [because] some housewife in the Valley is like, "OK, one rim-job is OK." And that was Saddam Hussein's real penis, but then we made it a dildo, but it's all the same joke.
Parker At one point [in spring 1999, after the Columbine massacre in Stone's hometown of Littleton, Colo., sparked a national debate about the media's role in stoking antisocial behavior in young people] we actually talked to the studio, like maybe we should push the date.
Stone We also wanted a little more time [to work on the film]. And the heads of the studio were like: "It's a shooting, guys. People will get over it." But when our movie came out, there was a temporary [increase] in the checking of IDs to go see R-rated movies. We sold a lot of Wild Wild West tickets.
Robin Williams rehearsing "Blame Canada" for the 2000 Academy Awards.
Parker But the Oscar nomination [for "Blame Canada" as best original song] was a really big validation of South Park. We learned so much from doing the movie about what South Park should and shouldn't be.
Stone Some people were stoked when we showed up at the Oscars in those dresses. [Parker and Stone also admitted they were tripping on LSD.] Michael Caine being one. But I remember Gloria Estefan was super-pissed. It takes a lot of energy to be that rebellious. It took so much energy to get those dresses made and all that stuff. We were so, like, punk rock — you know, like, against all of that stuff. But Trey was nominated for [a best original song Oscar], and that's cool. So how do you go but not go? How do you not be a part of it? Drugs.
ON ACID AT THE 2000 OSCARS: When Parker’s “Blame Canada” was nominated for best original song, he brought Stone to the ceremony as his guest — and they wore gowns (Parker’s was modeled after J.Lo’s famous 2000 Grammys frock). “We talked about [going in] big duck outfits,” Parker has said, but he was worried they wouldn’t be allowed into the theater.
The TV legend was invited into the writers room by Stone and Parker for a brainstorming session in 2003, just before the 100th episode. He ended up doing the voice of Benjamin Franklin in that episode.
They asked if I would sit in with them for a couple of days, then this role came along and they asked me to do that. There's nothing like South Park anywhere. I never did anything like it. It's all by itself. I look at South Park, and I am confident it is adding time to my life.
Stone The show got way better. It started hitting its stride in the sixth, seventh and eighth seasons — that's when [the storylines] started to feel more modern.
Parker I used to look back at those first few seasons and be embarrassed.
South Park won its first Emmy in 2005. The show beat out The Simpsons, Family Guy, Samurai Jack and SpongeBob SquarePants for outstanding animated program.
Stone It's cool to win. It's like you don't want to give a shit because you're punk rock, but then you win and you're like, "That's cool."
Parker It's like, we don't give a shit about winning, we just don't like to lose. It's like, "That show [won]?! F— that show!"
Also in 2003, Parker and Stone decided it was time to honor their favorite Colorado restaurant, Casa Bonita. For the seventh season episode "Casa Bonita," the duo went out of their way to make sure all details were correct.
General manager of Casa Bonita.
I got a call from South Park studios wanting to talk about an episode they'd done. My first concern was that I've seen South Park before, so I know it is not always super kind to the topic it's about. And they said, "No, they love Casa Bonita and it would be a nice representation of the restaurant." So I signed the waiver, and the rest is history.
Parker Four years ago, it came up for sale and we had 10 minutes of like, "We should buy it," because they do have a few things up there now where they're like, this is the South Park Casa Bonita. There are people who go to Casa Bonita because of South Park.
South Park's 2005 "Trapped in the Closet" episode depicting Tom Cruise.
Herzog I never heard from Tom Cruise's camp [about the infamous 2005 episode "Trapped in the Closet," in which the star is depicted hiding in an actual closet, refusing to get out], but we did our best to let everyone know that it was coming. I let the people over at Paramount [Comedy Central's sister company that has Cruise's Mission: Impossible franchise] know, gave them a heads up. But I think everyone understands Matt and Trey are going to do what they're going to do.
Stone When we did the Scientology episode, [Isaac Hayes, who was a Scientologist] came over, and I sat with him. It was like a day or two after, and it was pretty obvious from the conversation that somebody had sent him to ask us to pull the episode. It had already gone on the air, and we didn't tell him because we didn't want him to be held accountable. Plausible deniability. [Four months after "Closet" aired, Hayes quit the show via a statement, supposedly in protest.]
Hayes III Isaac Hayes did not quit South Park; someone quit South Park for him. What happened was that in January 2006 my dad had a stroke and lost the ability to speak. He really didn't have that much comprehension, and he had to relearn to play the piano and a lot of different things. He was in no position to resign under his own knowledge. At the time, everybody around my father was involved in Scientology — his assistants, the core group of people. So someone quit South Park on Isaac Hayes' behalf. We don't know who.
Stone We sort of figured out the whole picture a bit later, but that's totally what happened.
Stone (left) and Parker flanked their TV idol, Norman Lear, in 2003. “Trey has often said that Cartman was based on Archie Bunker,” says Stone. “There probably wouldn’t be a South Park if Norman hadn’t fought for All in the Family and all the other shows he did.”
Hayes III My father was not that big of a hypocrite to be part of a show that would constantly poke fun at African-American people, Jewish people, gay people — and only quit when it comes to Scientology. He wouldn't be that hypocritical.
Stone It really sucked, the whole thing. This statement put out that he was quitting, it kind of called us bigots.
Parker But we knew in our hearts there was something way more rotten going on.
Herzog We always have their backs. The few times where they might look back and say, "You didn't really have our backs there," that's just a place where we'll have to agree to disagree.
Parker What pissed me off about episodes 200 and 201 [the controversial 2010 shows in which South Park poked fun at the prophet Muhammad, prompting Comedy Central to black out the character and bleep his name, the first and only time an episode has been censored so heavily] was that I thought the episodes ended up being really good. [The episodes are not available for streaming.]
South Park producer who joined the show in 2001.
[After the Muhammad episode was censored in 2010] Trey bought a ticket to South Africa and showed it to the head of the network because [network star Dave] Chappelle had fled to Africa. So that was the threat. [Parker never actually went.]
Herzog We were protecting everyone who works here. That was the decision we needed to make.
Parker We were so exhausted by it all, we were like, "F— it, just get on to the next episode." That was the hardest we've ever pushed back.
The Denver Broncos depicted in the first season of South Park in 1998.
It seemed everywhere Parker and Stone went, they were beloved by fans and the media — except for one place: Colorado. It wasn't until 2008 that the pair felt as though the state was truly enthusiastic about their creation.
Parker For a long time, Coloradans were the people and reporters who did not like us. If you look back, reviews of the South Park movie are almost 95 percent positive; the negatives were The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.
Stone But it turned around.
Parker I totally remember the year the Democratic National Convention was in Denver  and at [Denver International Airport] they put up big things of "This is what Colorado is" that they were proud of and one of them was South Park. And I was seriously like, "Wow! They've never done anything like that. They've never taken any ownership and said they like us."
Governor of Colorado.
Trey and Matt are a rare breed. How many artists consistently create smart, incisive and wickedly funny material? Let alone for 20 years straight? We think of journalism as the unofficial fourth branch of government — a free, independent press is crucial to the success of our democracy. Likewise, satire is key to keeping our culture honest. South Park keeps it real — and keeps us real — and we love it for that.
Mayor of Fairplay, largest city in the South Park valley.
It definitely has brought people up here, a lot of tourists. There is no doubt about it. And it has kind of put Fairplay on the map in a positive way because people come up here for that, but then look around and say, "Wow, this place is really pretty."
South Park's weekly production often comes down to the wire. In fact, at least once every season, it appears as though an episode will not be completed in time for air. However, South Park has missed only a single deadline, which happened in 2013 during the 17th season. That episode, "Goth Kids 3: Dawn of the Posers," was delayed after a car accident in the area knocked power out to the studio. Parker and Stone say that it was serendipity.
Parker It was one deadline that we weren't going make anyway. So it's this really weird thing that happened when the power went out.
Stone Everyone was like, "Seriously, what did Trey do?" because we were that screwed on that show.
South Park executive producer.
We can be changing lines at 6, 7 a.m. the day of air. Through the years, it's a tenuous row to hoe in making sure the guys don't feel too much creative pressure, but enough pressure that the reality of making air is always relevant being that we're six days at a time, per episode. It's not even hours here at South Park: We micromanage minutes to maximize what we can get out of every hour, every day.
The SNL veteran and occasional South Park writer who in 2015 contributed to the creation of South Park's latest character, PC Principal.
I was telling a story [in the South Park writers room] about how I got yelled at [during a party] for saying something that wasn't PC, and then Trey just started doing PC Principal — he just started doing it in the room. That's when the best stuff happens — it springs out of Trey. It made me laugh so hard I fell out of my seat.
Parker I remember we were in the room [for the 19th season], and the big news was Caitlyn Jenner. And I was like: "Things have changed, dude. I don't think we can do a Caitlyn Jenner show. I think we would get run out of town." [They did anyway, portraying Jenner as the vice presidential running mate to Mr. Garrison, who wants to build a wall on the U.S.-Canada border.] We try to come in every season with a new attitude, like this is what makes this season different than last season. But at the end of the day our favorite shows are when Cartman is f—ing around with Butters.
Herzog The Daily Show and South Park were absolutely the one-two punch that ultimately put Comedy Central on the map. South Park broke first and biggest. So, to a certain degree, South Park, to this day, now 20 years on, remains a foundational part of Comedy Central and a huge part of Comedy Central's history and Comedy Central's rise and Comedy Central's ultimate success. And, you know, it is the foundation on which the house of Comedy Central is ultimately built.
Lear As long as they don't feel old and stale, [the show] won't feel old and stale. I would guess they would quit before the network quits, if there's quitting to be done.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.