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.