Comedy Central takes a wild walk in ‘Park’

Considering it’s a latenight, animated cable program that advertises itself, both on-air and in its official press kit, as the best place on television to find “anal probes and flaming farts,” it’s hard to think of Comedy Central’s “South Park” as a classic Hollywood success story. Yet, given the show’s origins and current hit status, a success story it is, albeit a rather peculiar one.

The show’s birth is certainly unique: Originally created two years ago as a bizarre, foul-mouthed video Christmas card by two aspiring, Colorado-based filmmakers in their early 20s — Matt Stone and Trey Parker — for former Foxlab (and current MTV) executive Brian Graden, the crudely animated, five-minute video titled “Spirit of Christmas” quickly began appearing in offices throughout Hollywood and gained cult status. It featured a profanity-laden, kung fu fight between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, among other things. But that was supposed to be the end of it.

“We had met Brian at Sundance when we made a low-budget film and struck up a relationship,” recalls Parker. “We had previously made a student film at the University of Colorado, the original ‘Spirit of Christmas’ (that version featured an insane Frosty the Snowman attempting to butcher the young heroes of ‘South Park’), which Brian liked. He asked us to make a video Christmas card for him to send to about 40 people. He paid us $1,200 and it only cost us $700 to make, so we were psyched to make that kind of money. A friend in Denver who made animated commercials let us use his equipment and we created the characters using cardboard cutouts over the course of about three weeks and then animated it in three days. We had no clue it would become so popular.”

Indeed, Parker and Stone never even put their names on the video, but eventually they were found out and Hollywood came courting. Last year, MTV and Comedy Central both made offers to do a show based on the foul-mouthed fifth-graders in their video, and the two men, with guidance from Graden, who exec produced the first six episodes, struck a deal with Comedy Central. “Comedy Central was very cool about letting us do the show ourselves and not inflicting any outside sources on us,” says Stone. “The fact that we had done a couple of small, live-action films and were getting help from Brian convinced them we could pull this off. Surprisingly, we have, at least so far.”

The duo landed the right to executive produce, write, voice, animate inhouse and create music for the show, power unheard of for young creators with no previous television experience. But Deborah Liebling, Comedy Central’s VP of West Coast development and the executive in charge of production for the show, says the move was a no-brainer for the young network as it came at a time when Comedy Central was ready to push aggressively into original programming and was seeking edgy animated fare.

The network paid for a pilot, and after a shakedown period, including a slight toning down of the coarse language used in the original video, Comedy Central agreed to order a 13-episode first season. By the fourth episode, another 13 were approved and Stone, Parker and their staff are now hard at work producing the second season. “South Park” has averaged a 1.8 rating so far this season, better than any other Comedy Central show and a solid number for any latenight cable show. The recent Halloween episode pulled in a 3.8, easily the best number the weblet has ever received.

“We agreed that only relying on coarse language — which works OK in a five-minute video, but can’t sustain a whole show — would not work,” says Liebling, “so there were a few small changes at the beginning. But at this point, we let them do their thing. Reaction in terms of ratings is a loud, clear bell that people are tuning in.”

Of course, it’s not a two-man operation anymore, as Parker and Stone now find themselves having to deal with business considerations, publicity and “perfectly insane” schedules. They now have a staff of 35 (13 animators plus sound and post-production teams) that produces the program completely inhouse from a small office in Westwood. The original designs of the “South Park” characters are still done as crude paper cutouts because Parker and Stone, neither of whom have an animation background, based the look on Terry Gilliam’s novel cutout style for animated portions of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

“Neither one of us liked animation much growing up,” says Stone. “But we were absolute ‘Monty Python’ freaks, so we mimicked that when we came up with this idea.”

Once designs are scanned into the computer, the entire show is put together at their offices on Silicon Graphics workstations, running Alias software. “Like many shows, when the script is done, we do the soundtrack first and then make an animatic,” says Parker. “We do storyboards, drawing every scene, and lay it over the audio, where you can watch it, sort of like a slide show. Then, we send that to Comedy Central, get their input, make a few changes, and then have our animators put it together in the computer. Generally, it takes about three weeks to do an episode.”

As far as the future, the duo promises “South Park” will continue to push the envelope of bad taste. The Thanksgiving episode, for example, features the gluttonous character Cartman traveling to Africa to learn about starvation.

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