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“We’re Not That Kind of Show”

Like pretty much everything else, ‘South Park’ became political in 2016. Cocreators Matt Stone and Trey Parker discussed how they pulled that off — and how they don’t want the show to revolve around Donald Trump.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Matt Stone and Trey Parker assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election. When that didn’t happen, they — like nearly everyone else in the comedy world — had to scramble, and they managed to build an episode of South Park in 24 hours. They joined The Bill Simmons Podcast to discuss how that episode came together, the previous season, and where they want the show to go moving forward.

What Fueled Last Season (It Wasn’t Trump)

Trey Parker: Where we were going with the thing, it’s all about how girls [have been] slighted. Girls have been marginalized in South Park too, just because we do all the voices and it’s hard for us to have people come in at 3 in the morning and change all the lines. We were heading down this whole path [with] this big boy-girl war going on, and everyone thinks, "OK well hooray, Hillary’s gonna be president." And that means that Bill Clinton is the first gentleman. That to us was the most ironic, coolest thing to focus on. "OK, there you go, you win, he’s officially the first gentleman, how do you feel, girls?" And that’s where the whole season was going and that’s what really got torn apart. [Mr.] Garrison was supposed to come back and just start teaching again and all this stuff and we were now just locked in to this other [timeline].

Matt Stone: I came in completely worked up about two film reviews, one was the Star Wars: The Force Awakens review in The New York Times, which was [a] good, positive review, and the Ghostbusters reboot review in The New York Times.

So this is like the dumbest, smallest thing to get mad about in the whole world, but it really fueled the entire season more than anything. … I’m talking about the elite, I’m talking about the tastemakers, I’m talking about the people who should know better, I’m being a snob here when I say: The new Star Wars movie does not get a good review in The New York Times in my world. That just does not happen. That’s not a grown-up movie that gets grown-up reviews in a grown-up thing, right? And I like the movie, I thought it had amazing acting and I don’t wanna sit here and bad-mouth that, but this is like lab-grown meat. This is a secondary derivative of something that was from 40 years ago. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s like the same movie [from] 40 years ago.

And then with Ghostbusters it was like, "Here’s this pretty shitty movie with a lot of talented people," which makes it even worse, not better. It’s not more excusable that it has talented people, it’s worse. And the review in The New York Times for that was "Girls Rule. Women Are Funny. Get Over It." So that’s where Cartman’s, "Just get over it" [came from].

So this is why [Donald] Trump [was elected], was basically [the idea]. And it wasn’t so much J.J. Abrams is responsible for Trump, it was the same soft-headed thinking that [sees] our highest level of film reviewers start to play this little game, this jockeying game about like, "Oh, but there’s women in it so it’s part of this other thing." It’s like, "Dude, that’s a shitty Ghostbusters remake." That doesn’t get a good review. What is wrong with this world? And then just because it’s our show and we can do it we just said, "And Trump. And there we go, it equals Trump." And so we’re gonna make that, we’re gonna cross this.

Parker: What was so funny was all the Trump shit that was going on and we’re actually having this whole election year and everything, but really weekly what we’re talking about is going, "Yeah dude, fuck Star Wars, man." To me, I kept equating it to the Happy Days reunion special where they would do that reunion thing where they get all the people back and they kinda do a half-ass story, but it’s all just about having people walk onto camera and having everyone clap for them and everything, and that’s exactly how the new Star Wars felt to me. It was just a reunion special. It was just a big, "Remember this? Remember that? Remember this? Remember that?"

Stone: That was where Member Berries came from.

How the Election Episode Came Together

Bill Simmons: What were your options that night? So it’s Tuesday night, 8 o’clock, and you know you have to blow up that election show. What was on the table that you didn’t do?

Stone: Go black was what we talked about. [We talked about] airing the show as-is and just being like, "Here it is, it’s a document for history." We called [former president of Viacom Music and Entertainment] Doug Herzog and said, "We can’t get the show done. It’s just really screwed up, and sorry." And he was like, "I’m at The Daily Show, everyone’s crying, I’ll call you back," or something like that. It was like, his world was like, everyone was coming to him saying, "We can’t do this tonight."

We show up Thursday morning and start another one. No time to process.

Parker: We just got to the dry erase board and just started erasing shit and filling in and going, "How can we line this all up to make it make sense?" By 9:30 or 10 we kind of had it figured out. I think [Herzog] would have been OK with us just going black, but it was also nice for at least real die-hard South Park fans to see that everything was still [going]. Everyone was so shell-shocked and it was like you didn’t want to see that the world had changed. You wanted to be like, "OK, this horrible thing has happened, and [Trump] has been elected president, [but] South Park’s still on the air. The sun’s still rising. Water’s still clear."

Stone: Other people had to get up and go to work. It just was like so self-indulgent to be like, "Ah, don’t know what to do." It felt lame.

Where South Park Goes From Here

Simmons: I still support [Saturday Night Live] and I’m glad it exists, [but] I hate that they’ve embraced celebrities to the point where if they’re really killing somebody on the show, like whether it’s a celebrity or a politician or whoever … it always gets to the point where [that celebrity] comes on and then it’s never the same after that, and I don’t know how that works with satire.

Parker: I think they’re doing better than ever because of it, but it’s like now every week I’m seeing a headline about how SNL ripped on the Trump administration this week. They’ve become that show. And that was part of the bummer for us about [last] season was we didn’t want to make it a big Trump thing, and we kept thinking it was gonna go away and we didn’t want to get caught up in just being a political show. There’s plenty of good political comedy out there. We like to dabble in that and do that one week, but then the next week we [just] want to do fart jokes. We love to change tones. And it’s interesting ’cause now people are [saying], "OK, well let’s see how you deal with Trump this coming season." No one ever said, "Oh, the new season’s coming, how you gonna deal with Obama in this season?" We’re not that show and we never were.

Stone: It’s hard. What do you do if you’re [SNL]?

Simmons: What do you do if you’re you?

Parker: Fart jokes.

Stone: Well, I’m glad that we’re not putting anything on the air right now. At the end of last season, we needed to go. We were both so exhausted and had nothing to say. We were just like, "I don’t know. We gotta go away." So I don’t envy people who, through that tumult, try to go on and be funny. I actually think it’s hard, I think it’s kinda comedy-killing. People come up to us all the time like, "Oh man, you got so much good material," and I’m like, "I don’t think it’s that great of material."

Parker: [Trump] is taking a little something, which is like the button pushing. He takes that from you first and then you can make fun of that, but it’s like, "Fuck, I mean, what do you do?" You wanna push the button. The comedian pushes the button, that’s the natural order of things.

Simmons: In the last 20 years, can you remember somebody who almost couldn’t be parodied because he was a parody?

Parker: If you have like a little monkey and it’s running himself into the wall over and over and you’re like, "That’s funny, but how am I gonna make fun of the monkey running himself into the wall?" I can discuss the monkey running himself into the wall, I can copy the monkey running into the wall, but nothing’s funnier than the monkey just running himself into the wall.

Stone: Or if I flip off the principal and the principal flips me off back, that’s really funny, but I really don’t know where to go from there, you know what I mean? I moon him and he moons me back. If he moons first, [it’s] like, "Oh fuck, that guy shouldn’t be the principal."

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.