“We were on our friend’s film shoot at an all-night diner,” remembers Jason McHugh, who went to college with them and worked on their early projects, including Orgazmo. “Trey was shooting and Matt was the dolly grip and they did dirty-grandpa jokes all night long. The more they did it, the funnier it got.”
Somehow, each completed the other. Parker is far odder and more distracted (he kept texting while talking to me) and always half-submerged in his creativity. Stone, who wanted to be a “logician” when he grew up, is the more linear one. Parker is “just a big softy” with “a bit of anxiety about the world” who loves all sorts of music and musicals, says Toddy Walters, his ex-girlfriend, who also worked with him and Stone for a number of years. “I think Trey is supersensitive and imaginative, and sometimes people like that need someone to be their backbone and have their back.” They hash out ideas together, bidding up the absurdity, with Stone keeping a fix on the concept. But Parker is the writer and the musician. “Trey can be the genius boy in the bubble a bit, while Matt connects him to the real world,” says McHugh. “Matt Stone is like his name; he’s just really grounded.” Or, as Shaiman puts it, “Matt’s the wingman.” They seem to work perfectly in tandem.
Stone worked on Cannibal! The Musical, the feature Parker made in college, based on an obsession he had with prospector Alfred Packer, who led a group of Utah miners to Colorado but was accused of killing and eating them on the way. “Trey had been engaged to this woman named Liane, and that fell apart and he was horribly depressed,” says McHugh, so he named Packer’s beloved but disloyal horse after her (the movie is “all based on Trey’s breakup,” says McHugh). The Sundance Film Festival didn’t respond to their submission of the film for consideration, but Parker told McHugh he had a “vision” that they needed to be there, so they rented a conference room in a hotel and put on their own screenings. MTV did a news segment on their guerrilla screening, and connections they made at the festival led them to the same agent and lawyer they have today. Producer Scott Rudin saw Cannibal! and gave Parker a script deal. (Rudin, Parker, and Stone still work together; he’s behind Mormon. McHugh, meanwhile, still works with Cannibal!, which has become a stage musical played around the world, and he’s planning to bring it back to New York.)
Parker and Stone’s careers finally took off when a video holiday card produced for a then–20th Century Fox executive—featuring a battle between Jesus and Santa Claus for Christmas dominance witnessed by the four future South Park boys—became a much-passed-around videocassette among Hollywood insiders. (Yes, Kenny dies in the process, before Kringle and Christ are shown by the boys that it’s better to live and let live.) It got them the pilot on Comedy Central.
'When the scripts started coming in the weeks before South Park started, I thought, Can we get in trouble for this?” says Doug Herzog, the president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group who was running a struggling Comedy Central at the time. But “we were desperate for attention,” and Herzog knew that, if nothing else, the rudimentary cartoon, with its cussing kids and alien anal probes, would get that. As it turns out, the show became successful enough that Parker and Stone got a free pass to do almost whatever they wanted, even mocking Herzog. “They always say they write for themselves,” says South Park executive producer Anne Garefino, who was with the show from the beginning and is one of the producers of Mormon. “Because if you start to chase what other people think is funny, then you lose.”
An episode is written, computer-animated, recorded, rewritten, reedited, and broadcast all in a single week. Often the week includes an all-nighter. The quickness of the process is crucial: Parker and Stone decide on a target (say, High School Musical, or Inception, or Scientology), furiously research it, then figure out how to fit it into the tight little dramatic world of South Park. (In the Scientology episode, Stan is discovered to be the reincarnation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.) Never mind that one of the characters from the show’s start, Chef, was voiced by Isaac Hayes, a devoted Scientologist, who quit in protest. The guys felt it was just time to send up Scientology.
The speed can also backfire: Earlier this year, they decided to make fun of Inception, and since only Stone had seen the film, they used as source material something from the Internet that turned out to be a parody of the movie. But when they write scripts with more lead time, between seasons, they think they just aren’t as good.