South Park, the animated series on Comedy Central, is easily one of the most offensive, raunchy, funny, and politically-astute TV shows ever made. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone leave no topic, no punch-line, and no joke unturned in the show that has been going strong for the last 17 seasons. The co-creators forever changed the way we watch cartoons, and since launching the show, have made or starred in 3 movies and have written and directed a broadway musical that won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
South Park isn’t just unique in terms of its on-screen material. It has also developed a reputation behind-the-scenes for having one of the fastest productions schedules in television. Some cartoons like The Simpsons can take up to 8 months to produce just one episode. South Park, on the other hand, writes and produces an entire episode in only 6 days. That kind of speed in making a hit show is unprecedented, and with the creator’s hectic and in-demand side projects, it’s almost a miracle they can finish an episode at all.
So how do they do it?
Not long ago, director Arthur Bradford released a full-length documentary about the making of this iconic show. It gave the audience a chance to experience first-hand the hilarious work that goes into making South Park one the most-watched cartoons in history. According to Parker and Stone, it was never always such a fast turnaround. But as time went on, and as the show took over the televisions of people around the world, they spared not one second in their 6-day production schedule.
Thanks to that documentary, we’ve been able to take a look back at the arduous but rapid 6-step process of making a single South Park episode.
1. The Writers Room
Every television show has to start somewhere. For South Park, it’s in the writer’s room. Since the beginning, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been the primary writers on every episode. If you’ve seen the show, you might be wondering how hard it is to make jokes about farts and make fun of celebrities like Tom Cruise and Kanye West. But when you have only 6 days, and the pressure is on, being funny can be one of the hardest things to do in the world.
Thankfully, Parker and Stone have several other writers hired to help, including Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live fame. Sometimes, writing even one scene can take hours. But, eventually, things take off. Parker paces furiously around the room as the jokes and plot points start to rapidly emerge. With every punch-line Parker belts out, the other writers laugh as if its the first joke they’ve ever heard. Despite long moments of silence from everyone in the room as they desperately try to think of something new, once the ball starts to roll an episode is born.
2. The Best Animation Team
Technology is partly to thank for making the turnaround of a single show so efficient. As Stone mentions, what took days or weeks to accomplish in the past with expensive and specialized equipment can take only a few hours with modern Macintosh computers “right out of the box.” Every animator in production has to work as fast as possible and be at the beck and call of Parker who, once the basic story is hashed out in the writer’s room, completes the details of each scene, including the dialogue.
The animation team is not just “drawers” and “colorers”. They are also storyboard artists, lip syncing experts, and professional sound engineers. They have to be creative and dynamic. For example, if Parker and Stone want to parody another cartoon in an episode such as Heavy Metal, it’s the team’s job to figure out how they’re going to replicate it when time is of the essence. Without the skill and expertise of the animators, producing an episode of South Park in 6 days would be impossible.
3. Avoiding a Judge
The writers of South Park hold nothing back when they’re gunning for a laugh, even if that means making a celebrity or public figure the constant butt of a joke. But that doesn’t mean they can get away with everything, and they are certainly not above the law. That’s why when the writers imagine a scene where, for example, a character is defecating into another character’s mouth, executive producer Anne Garefino battles it out with the FCC to make sure they’re not going overboard. In a show that makes its name pushing as many boundaries and breaking as many taboos as possible, having a joke or parody rejected by the higher authorities can be a devastating blow.
Many times, the whole premise of an episode can rely on it. In one one episode, Parker and Stone make fun of allegations that Tom Cruise is a homosexual. To avoid being sued for slander, they never explicitly state that he is gay. Instead – cleverly – they show Tom Cruise literary refusing to come out of a closet. In this instance, taking advantage of a popular euphemism probably made the joke about Cruise a lot more funny, while avoiding any nasty defamation suits.
4. Edit, Edit, and Edit Some More
Write, animate, and make sure you’re not breaking any laws: simple, right? Actually, not so much. After the show is written and animated, it goes through a pretty rigorous editing process. Each aspect of the show is reviewed by Stone, Parker, and the supervisors shot for shot to ensure nothing is missed and nothing is where it shouldn’t be. Before they do this, Parker, Stone, and other actors add one one last thing the show couldn’t exist without: voices.
Parker and Stone have been doing the majority of the voices since the show started back in the late 1990s, even playing additional voices as the years have gone by. Cartman, Stan, Mr. Garrison and Randy are a few of the characters Parker plays. Kyle, Butters and Kenny are Stone’s characters. In the sound studio, they can be seen laughing hysterically at their own absurd voices as they read off the dialogue. That’s a good sign. Even though the creators are now the creme of the broadway crop, they still know how to laugh at what they themselves call toilet humour and immature punchlines. It’s the creators’ personality – their excitement and energy in the process, even after years of making the show – that keeps this quirky show from becoming stale.
5. The Worst Episode Ever
A self-effacing creative cartoonist rarely thinks his or her work is as good as the audience thinks. What’s funny and well done to others is sometimes nothing but anguish for the person behind it all. That goes for Trey Parker, who, throughout the process, is paralyzed in fear, thinking this episode may be the worst — ever. Although he’s been partners with Matt Stone since the beginning of the show (and on a slew of other successful projects), Parker still does the majority of writing, voice work, and even the music. That’s why when Parker finds himself in a creative slump he can’t seem to shake, the production comes to a halt.
As seen in 6 Days to Air, Parker solemnly trudges around the office, almost like a beaten prize fighter, while the rest of the team watches and waits…and waits…and waits… But, eventually, as he has done a hundred times before, he gets back to work, writes the last scenes, and gives the team the go-ahead. Despite the show’s raunchy humour, it still requires a creative inspiration that doesn’t always come easily. Many would argue that self-doubt and anxiety are an inevitable part of the artistic temperament, a temperament that’s inextricable from the creative process.
6. Wrapping it Up
Finally, with only 5 hours to air, the production wraps up. By the time they finish, the team has been up all night on the 5th day, making sure everything is perfect. Staff members can be seen sleeping under their desks and falling asleep on couches with their iPhones still in their hands. By now, everyone is relieved, and happy they can go home for some much needed R&R; everyone except for Parker. At this time, he’s back in his hyperbolic funk, thinking that the episode is somehow the worst there is, almost ashamed that they’re releasing it “on the world.” Still, the show must go on. Producer Frank C. Agnone runs the final cut to the L.A.’s satellite uplink centre where it will be broadcast in the Comedy Central’s headquarters in New York City. There, he waits for an official roll, and watches the episode as it’s broadcast. Parker might have been worried that the episode is an unfunny dud. But what he doesn’t see is the staff at the uplink centre holding their stomachs laughing throughout. The episode is finished, broadcast, and making people laugh without a hitch. And the whole thing only took 6 days.