Viewers have been going down to South Park for nearly 20 years. That’s pretty incredible considering its humble origins, and if it weren’t for The Simpsons, we would likely all be marveling even more at the show’s longevity. More so than any other series featured on this list, South Park has demonstrated a willingness to change with the times in natural, almost seamless, ways. Originally the show focused on its four main characters: Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman. These four eight-year-olds got into trouble, cursed like sailors, and often found themselves being confused about the world around them. Even though it’s a comedy, it sometimes felt like a more authentic coming-of-age series than most programs that aim to be just that. Being constantly puzzled by the actions of the adults around them while more or less trying to act like them often reminds me of how I was at that age, when profanity was a new and exciting tool to make use of. Over the years, South Park has taken on a more satirical tone often poking fun at current events, politics, and celebrity culture. Throughout all of this, it’s remained one of the funniest programs on television.
By now most people are aware of the origins of the show. College students Trey Parker and Matt Stone experimented with a crude form of stop-motion animation that utilized paper characters as opposed to puppets or clay and created a short work depicting a fight between Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus. This short would be remade with Jesus taking the place of Frosty and would eventually lead to Comedy Central making them an offer to produce their own series. Ditching the pain-staking stop-motion process for computer animation that mimicked it helped to create the show’s signature look. The look of the program back in 1997 when it debuted could probably be classified as crude, but has improved by leaps since though the show has never abandoned its signature style. Improvements in technology mean Parker and Stone can now create great looking content in as little time as a few days. This quick turn-around makes South Park unique in the world of animation, and in non-live television in general, in that fairly recent events can be satirized rather quickly.
Part of the charm of South Park is that not only has the style changed with the times but characters have grown and changed throughout the years as well. Cartman is the most obvious as he’s gone from an annoying little twerp to a true sociopath with some homicidal tendencies. Randy Marsh has gone form a well-meaning father to become more of a narcissist with some (admittedly cliche by animation standards) moronic tendencies. Mr. Garrison has gone from a closeted homosexual, to transgender woman, and back again (I think?). Characters that initially existed for shock value, such as Big Gay Al when it was still rare to see homosexuals on television, have been discarded before they ceased to be funny any longer.
Perhaps most remarkable is how South Park has primarily remained a two-man show. Sure, Parker and Stone now oversee their own studio with a full staff but the two of them still write virtually all of the material for the show and do 90% of the voice work. It’s somewhat surprising they’ve been able to resist the urge to simply hand the show off to some underlings while sitting back to collect checks. Most shows that last this long see full turnover in their writing staff. Larry David didn’t last half as long with Seinfeld, for comparison.
This isn’t all to say that South Park is a perfect show. There have been plenty of moments where the show seemed to be running low on creative ideas. In its lowest moments, some may have considered what the show would look like with new voices contributing content but Parker and Stone have shown an ability to bounce back. The show has yet to truly hit rock bottom, but it’s probably safe to say its best years have past. So much of the program relies on shock value and after so many years there’s little the show can do to shock its viewers. When Cartman first sought revenge against Scott Tenorman by tricking the boy into eating his own parents I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Now seeing the character casually murder someone brings a much smaller reaction. Characters have been vomiting and defecating on each other for so long that the gags are neither truly funny or gross at this point. And of course the show’s longest running gag of Kenny dying each episode has long since been abandoned when that ceased to be funny.
When the show is firing on all cylinders though, it still proves to be very funny. Last year’s season premiere which lampooned the NFL and crowd-funding sites was poignant with its observational humor and seems almost funnier now in light of recent events with the NFL and Roger Goodell, in particular. The show has been so good for so long that viewers just have great expectations. When South Park sets out to poke fun at the latest celebrity scandal it almost needs to go for the less obvious joke. To liven up the last two seasons the show has opted to adopt a more serialized format with plot lines lasting multiple episodes and callbacks being inserted. It’s a change I don’t think many saw coming, but it’s one that has worked to make even the lesser episodes feel more important.
It remains to be seen how long the show will run for. Recently the season orders have been cut in half as Parker and Stone find it too daunting to create a full season’s worth of programs. Prior to that, the show had operated with two-part seasons occurring in the spring and fall so that Parker and Stone could have more material to work with. Clearly, it’s become more of a challenge for them to keep the show fresh but both insist that South Park is a part of them and the end is not yet in sight. This can only be considered a good thing for those enjoying satirical humor with their animation. The show has progressed from being about some potty-mouthed kids with an accident prone friend to something that’s actually pretty intelligent and cleverly produced (though the show is not above the occasional dumb or crude joke). And unlike most shows on this list, there’s still room for it to grow. Maybe in ten years we’ll be talking about South Park as the greatest animated comedy of all-time. Who could have predicted that back in 1997?