South Park, the foul-mouthed little series that could, premiered on August 13, 1997. The number-one movie that day: the Mel Gibson-starring Conspiracy Theory. The number-one song: “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans featuring 112. Caitlyn Jenner’s daughter Kylie was three days old.
The celebrity targets add up over the seasons, and South Park has been around for a lot of them. Twenty seasons, specifically, after tonight’s premiere. That puts the show in rare company. Only three scripted U.S. primetime TV series have lasted longer than South Park: The Simpsons (did it), Law & Order, and Gunsmoke, which, as far as I can remember, didn’t debut with an episode about anal probes. That’s amazing. Even more amazing: it’s still really good.
How is that possible? How can Comedy Central’s crudely animated show about vulgar children living in a mountain town be so successful, and more importantly remain so vital, for the entirety of Kylie Jenner’s life? Here’s how.
Most shows are content introducing five, maybe six characters in the pilot. Add any more, and you run the risk of confusing the audience. In the first episode of South Park, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” we meet Cartman, Kyle, Stan, Kenny, Ike, Wendy, Mr. Garrison, Mr. Hat, Chef, Ms. Crabtree, and Officer Barbrady. The final four aren’t even on the show anymore. South Park has done a remarkable job of establishing a universe then constantly tinkering with who belongs there. Randy and Butters are arguably South Park‘s most popular characters, but they’re barely in the movie musical South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, which was released during season three, and didn’t get dedicated episodes until season four’s “Something You Can Do with Your Finger” and season five’s “Butters’ Very Own Episode.” Randy, more than any other adult character, has since become Stone and Parker’s surrogate.
That might sound weird about a guy who carries his balls around in a wheelbarrow, but maybe they can relate to Randy, a middle-aged father who acts like a child. He’s all selfish impulses, whether they take the form of getting addicted to a video game or becoming obsessed with something because he saw someone do it on TV. Randy desperately wants to remain young. In “You’re Getting Old,” Randy tells his wife Sharon, “I just feel like I might not have a whole lot of time left and… I want to enjoy it.” Parker and Stone have been around the block a few times — they probably feel the same way.
Staying Politically Young And Jaded
Parker and Stone don’t do much press, but they did tell the Daily Beast that fans shouldn’t expect to see Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton this season. “[We] didn’t really want to service Trump as a character,” Parker said, while Stone added, “We were like, f*ck him, we don’t want to give him the satisfaction.” But they did describe the presidential nominees as “the giant douche and the turd sandwich,” which is also how they jokingly referred to George W. Bush and John Kerry during the 2004 election. As a teenager, I remember being wowed by how revolutionary those giggly nicknames sounded (“Wait, you can call the guy who’s going to run the country a giant douche?”), and I imagine today’s teens feel the same way about Garrison-as-Trump. Parker (a registered Libertarian) and Stone exist between political parties. Stone once said, “I hate conservatives, but I really f*cking hate liberals,” so South Park is able to make fun of everyone equally. This can be off-putting (they sometimes come across as the college freshman who obnoxiously thumb their noses at all authority figures), but this distrust of politicians will keep them forever young with the youthful and the jaded.
They Killed “You Killed Kenny”
My first memory of South Park was of someone in my middle school wearing a Kenny t-shirt. It read “Oh my god, you killed Kenny!” (These were the days were a fifth grader could wear clothing that said “killed” on it.) I asked him what show this was from. He made fun of me for being “so lame.” So maybe I’m biased, but I was never a fan of the “killing Kenny every episode” bit. Eventually, neither were Parker and Stone (who, in 2002, said, “I am so sick of that character”), and it was dropped around season six before being revitalized by season 14’s three-part Coon saga. The aliens, or background “Visitors,” are another early-season element that’s pretty much been dropped, too. Instead of running a joke into the ground, or ending every episode with an obnoxious vanity card, Parker and Stone are canny enough to realize when a gimmick has reached its logical conclusion. That’s how we got Butters.
The Simpsons remains frustratingly stuck in time. Bart will always be 10 years old, Homer will always end up back at the Nuclear Power Plant, and Lisa will always be in second grade (except for the episode where she wasn’t). This resistance to change worked fine in season 5, season 10, and even season 15, but The Simpsons is entering season 28, and there are no new stories left to tell. On the DVD commentary for the classic South Park episode “You’re Getting Old,” where Stan becomes cynical after turning 10, Stone said, “The form of the show, being one where everything’s going to be okay in the end and it’s going to reset, it’s sort of like an immature view of the world. And I think that’s why some of these cool new shows that are serialized… it’s a really cool form to just say, well, the world doesn’t work that way.”
South Park pre-dates the Golden Age of TV, which began roughly the day The Sopranos premiered, when few shows, especially animated shows, bothered with serialization. That changed in the 2000s, and after nearly 250 episodes of life resetting, South Park joined the rest of television by embracing arcs. First with Randy Marsh as Lorde, then last season with P.C. Principal and Mr. Garrison running for president. It wasn’t always successful — the general theme of season 19 was political correctness, but that point sometimes got muddled with diversions about gun control and native advertising — but it added an urgency to the serialized episodes, and made the side trips, like “Tweek x Craig,” extra fun. Plus, at least it was different, and sometimes being willing to experiment is good enough after two decades.
An Insanely Tight Production Schedule
If you haven’t seen 6 Days to Air, you really should. The 2011 documentary shows how Parker and Stone, with some help from producer Bill Hader (!), put together an episode of South Park in under a week. It’s a mentally exhausting process, but it’s worth it when something big happens, and Parker and Stone can comment on/mock it while the news is still fresh. For instance, they’ve had nine months since the last episode — that’s nine months where they could have been working on an evergreen premiere for tonight. Instead, the episode is about Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem debate, which recently entered the public discussion. That’s going to draw more eyeballs than a random episode about Cartman being mean to Stan for the 196th time. The risk of a rushed, half-thought-out episode is always there, and there have been duds (like “Let Go, Let Gov”), but the reward is usually worth it.
It’s Still Really Funny
South Park returns for season 20 tonight at 10 p.m. EST.