At this weekend’s San Diego Comic-Con Hall H presentation about the upcoming 20th season of South Park, an oddly poignant video opened the proceedings: a fake ad treating the show like some kind of trusted lifestyle brand, following a girl as she’s born, grows up, and moves to college, all with the show in the background. It was meant as a gag, but it was something of a comforting reminder: The world has changed a lot in the past two decades, but South Park has always been there for us when we needed it.
Right before the panel, we caught up with the show’s creators and stars, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. As they sat behind a conference-room table filled with mediocre convention food (“You want some of the nacho chips? They’re fantastic!” Stone remarked), they chatted with Vulture about the ways their anti-p.c. crusade differs from that of Donald Trump, how they feel about Hamilton unseating their Book of Mormon as Broadway’s hottest ticket, and how they predicted Pokémon Go in 1999.
Did you watch the Republican National Convention?
Matt Stone: I will say I sadly watched a lot of it. But I watch horror movies, too.
How dead inside did it make you feel?
Stone: Dead-ish. Yeah. Dead-ish. It was tough. It’s part of the homework of staying in touch with the world for our show. But yeah, semi-dead-ish. Didn’t make me feel good.
Trey Parker: I watch all the highlights the next morning, because I’ve got better shit to be doing.
Stone: I live in New York now, so I’ve been out here [in California] working this week and haven’t had my family, so I’m just off work at five and I’m like, fuck it, and I grab a drink and sit there and watch it. I think if I was at home —
Parker: You’d be watching Disney Channel.
Stone: I’d be playing with my kids and doing life and stuff.
You’ve done a lot of elections on the show.
Stone: Yeah, we’ve done, like, four presidential elections.
Does this one feel special to you?
Stone: Well, we’ll see. From inside the show, no. It’s always hard because presidential elections just suck up all the oxygen. We don’t wanna do a whole season about an election, but we’ll probably do — we always have a show on the day after, so we’ve done that. We’ll have to get into the season and see. We don’t wanna make the whole season about it, that’s for sure.
Watching this election, have you felt like the country’s in a uniquely bad place?
Parker: Feels like the same old shit to me.
Stone: Yeah, I don’t think the country’s in an especially bad place. We’ve done the show through the Iraq War and 9/11, you know what I mean?
Parker: We had to air shows a month after 9/11.
Stone: Oh, yeah.
Parker: That was harder.
Given that your last season went hard against the concept of political correctness, and Donald Trump has made fighting political correctness a cornerstone of his campaign, do you find any common ground with him?
Stone: “Political correctness” — I feel like that’s becoming a catch-all term for just shit that you don’t like. I don’t think I probably agree with Donald Trump, but we did a whole bit about political correctness last year. We’ve been interested in that debate for a long time. But not everything is political correctness gone mad. Sometimes you just shouldn’t say something. And there’s a huge difference between what can be said in a cartoon or through the mouths of fiction, and what somebody who’s going for elected office should say. Those are two different standards of political correctness.
But I do think there’s a legitimate … comedians, especially, that’s probably where we identify and have the most sympathy with anti-p.c. forces, is within comedy. Not talking to people or trying to get elected. That’s a different standard. There’s shit that you shouldn’t say running for president that Cartman should totally be allowed to say within a satirical cartoon. When I see a politician or a Donald Trump say “political correctness,” I’m like, “That’s not the same shit that we’re talking about in the writers’ room. There’s satire over here in cartoons, and you’re standing onstage in a suit and you want me to vote for you.” Different standard, you know?
Parker: We just started last season feeling like, There’s another big resurgence of p.c. And our attitude was just like, Dude, are we gonna make it? When are they gonna kick us outta here? That’s always been kind of our mentality, is like, we just keep hanging around and eventually people are gonna say, “Get the fuck outta here.”
Because the world will find you too offensive?
Parker: Because it’ll be like, “You guys just don’t belong here anymore. The world has moved on. The world has grown up.” There’s a change here and it’s not like we’re the old guys that are fuddy-duddies; it’s like we’re the old guys that are doing the stuff that isn’t … are we not gonna be welcome here anymore? That’s really what the big idea was supposed to be behind this season, was this town saying, “Shit. It seems like the country’s doing this and we’d better fucking change or we’re fucked.” Whenever we used our emotions to fuel the show, it makes for a way better show than us talking about politics and saying, “This is what you should think. This is who’s right and who’s wrong.” It’s, “Where are we caught in the middle of this?” That always ends up being what the show’s about.
Stone: And we identify with comedians, but then you hear some comedian say, “These college campuses, these kids aren’t laughing at my jokes anymore.” It’s like, maybe you’re fuckin’ old. Maybe we’re fuckin’ old! If people aren’t laughing, they’re not laughing. If the laugh is that people are afraid to laugh because of some strict p.c.-police speech code, that’s something to tackle with. But maybe they’re just not laughin’! So we put that into the season and put that into P.C. Principal scolding the town in this meta [way], scolding the town, scolding the show, saying, “What is this thing from the past?”
It was fascinating to watch liberals and progressives react to P.C. Principal, because he was provocative in a way your characters hadn’t been in a while. You’d see people who were fine with horrific obscenity, but who saw you lampooning this character and went, “Maybe Matt and Trey have gone too far this time.”
Stone: And it’s easiest for us to put that in because there is that kind of performative, online, white man that just goes crazy. That’s the guy we can make fun of the easiest and the most effectively. We know that guy. And that’s Trey’s impression of a frat boy, which is just funny. There are people like that who exist, but a character’s a character for a reason — it’s a ridiculous mashup.
Parker: Everyone knows that guy.
You’ve moved into a mode where plots carry through whole seasons. What’s liberating about that and what’s constraining about it?
Stone: Liberating? Well, P.C. Principal being a good example of it — we started the season, we had this character, and halfway through the week, I remember going to Trey and saying, “I think that’s a really funny character! You do comedy and you strike a little gold, you don’t throw the gold away — let’s stick with that!”
Parker: We were gonna kill him off or write him off and that was gonna be the end.
Stone: We’d done sitcom structure before, where you reset. But we were just like, What if we have a new principal? And then in the second episode, we did this Donald Trump thing, and then in the third episode, we had this idea of Whole Foods coming and it was like, We should just leave the Whole Foods there. It’s just the way TV has gone, from sitcoms to our friends “catching up on a season.” It’s mostly liberating. We tried to go totally serialized at the end of the season, where we threw up balls and just … you watch serialized TV, they throw up balls and in the next episode, they catch the balls and throw ‘em back up and nothing lands? That didn’t work so much for us. We kind of liked the serialized-lite thing, where there are certain elements that carry through, but every show is still, Here’s the Yelp show; here’s the guns show.
Parker: When we got into the end of [the last season] and got really, truly serialized for a bit and we got to the end show of that and said, “That person’s doing this, this person’s doing that,” suddenly we said, “Well, what if everybody suddenly got a gun?” And then, oh, it’s the gun show! That’s what makes this show different. Even though all these balls are in the air, it’s fine, but it’s got the thing that it’s about. It’s not just part three of a ten-part thing.
Will this next season also be serialized?
Stone: I think so. Yeah. That’s the intention: to go in and try to come up with bigger themes, a bigger canvas. That was fun. That worked.
Parker: But making seasons is like making an album. You can sit around and talk about what you want the album to be all you want, but then when you go into the studio, what comes out is always not what we expected. We always end up, especially by the end of the season, going, “Wow, how did we end up here? I have no idea!”
Are there any topics that you’ve been waiting to dig into once you get into production?
Parker: Y’know, it’s funny: It’s almost like everything that happens — and this is part of being around for 20 years — but everything that happens where people are like, “Man, people are freaking out about this,” is like, we talked about that ten years ago! Everyone’s talking about Pokémon Go, and it’s like, we did Pokémon in literally 1999 and the whole idea was that it was a bummer because kids were getting into Pokémon and there was a computer chip in there that was tracking them and sending all the information to Japan. We made fun of Pokémon Go in 1999!
Stone: We did that Trump episode last year and we were worried more that, like everyone else thought, that that was gonna be a brief, fizzle-out thing. We were worried our episode would seem kind of light, or like, “Why did you make fun of this marginal guy that didn’t matter?” We were actually afraid of that more. It’s nice that we have an off-season to sort of assemble. But nothing in particular’s like that. Because when you do that, you’d be like, “I wish I was at work right now!”
Parker: And it’s always more like, “Glad we’re not at work!” [Laughs.]
What do you think of Hamilton? It replaced Book of Mormon as the hot Broadway ticket.
Stone: Well, fuck them, that’s what I think! [Laughs.] I’ve seen it twice. I saw the off-Broadway and I saw the Broadway. It’s amazing! It’s an amazing show. It deserves all the accolades.
Does this motivate you to do the next musical so you can unseat it from the throne?
Stone: No. I mean, I’d love to do another musical if we had an idea.
Just expand the Tweek and Craig ballad out! It was the fall jam of 2015!
Stone: “Tweek and Craig: The Musical!” [Laughs.]
There are a lot of envelope-pushing cartoons on right now that I feel like owe a real debt to South Park, especially Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman, and Animals. Do you guys watch any of those? What do you think of them?
Stone: I love BoJack Horseman. I watched the whole first season and thought it was amazing. It took me a second, too! That show’s kinda weird. It took me a second of like, This show’s fuckin’ weird. I mean it owes a little debt to South Park, I guess. But it seems like it’s its own tone. Which were the others you mentioned?
Rick and Morty —
Stone: Haven’t seen it.
— and Animals on HBO.
Stone: Animals, I’ve just watched a little bit and I liked it. I met one of the guys who did it, Phil Matarese, and he was really cool.
Trey? Have you seen any of them?
Parker: No, but I’ve seen every episode of Doc McStuffins. My daughter’s gonna be three next month, so literally all of my TV time is that stuff. I think Wonder Pets owes a shitload to us. Seriously! Do you watch Wonder Pets? They literally copied our stuff.
Parker: When we first came out, we were starting to do the things with real photos, like David Hasselhoff’s face and everything. And I first saw Wonder Pets and I’m like, “They’ve taken photos of pets and fucking done that? We fucking did that first!”