tv [untitled] January 24, 2011 9:00pm-9:30pm PST
what made america great is an independent, vigorous press. if a jerk burns a flag, america is not threatened. political speech is the heart of the first amendment. they're expressing their religious beliefs. now is the time to make justice a reality for all of god's children. captioning provided by the first amendment center, funded by the freedom forum. our guests today are the creators of south park, matt stone and trey parker, and larry divney, the president and ceo of the show's home: comedy central. it's great to have you here. i--we're sitting here at the u.s. comedy arts festival, and i've got this program in my hand. and here we go. "freedom in the arts, honoring norman lear, gary trudeau, oliver stone, matt stone, and trey parker." was that pretty much your intent, become a living legend in free expression here? yeah, i think-- this is pretty heavy company here. do you like that picture of us? yeah, when matt and i were, like, 20, i said, "matt, how can we be honored someday for anything?" and we figured, "let's do a cartoon and go that route." so it's-- "how can i be in the same room with oliver stone-- and not at the playboy mansion?" [laughter] where would i be? norman lear was here earlier
and talked about how much he enjoyed your show. and he sits down with a nephew, i guess, and he says the bonding experience-- and it was the highest praise. he said what he felt most positively by your show is that it's evocative and people talk about it afterwards. and he said that's all he ever hoped for with his programs. and that's the highest praise possible. yeah-- no, and it was really-- and coming from him, because we were definitely influenced by him as well. and when we saw-- you know, we grew up sort of more with sitcoms like diff'rent strokes and hello, larry and facts of life, 'cause that was supposed to be our comedy, and so it wasn't until a little bit later that we saw syndicated runs of all in the family. and we were, you know, really, like, "wow, this was-- what happened to this stuff?" 'cause it just went away when everything got so p.c. in the '80s. and, you know, you could never have had an archie bunker again. it was--really, when we started talking about, "how could you bring an archie bunker back? what if you made him a little eight-year-old fat kid?" that really influenced one of our characters, cartman, in the show. it was based on archie bunker.
(paulson) and i understand monty python was something you did watch that warped you early? yeah, a huge influence. monty python, because, you know, as trey said, all the comedy we grew up with was just so milk toast and just the same. and it was on p.b.s. they showed flying circus on p.b.s. i think it was wednesdays or thursday nights. and i remember, like, setting up a tv in my room just to watch that. and i really don't think we understood every-- we didn't understand a lot of the jokes or a lot of what was going on. but it was like, "what is this? this is new; this makes me"--you know. as a kid, you're intrigued by it. you don't want to be given this, you know, sitcom kind of--you know, like today's sitcoms that's just ring-the-bell humor and everything's the same. you know, kids want to be-- have this sense of discovery of, like, "i don't understand what's going on here, and i want to know what's going on." and that's, you know, watching python at ages five and six. in fact, you know, i thought that the way-- they talked that way because it was funny, not because there is an actual place that they came from. and i finally realized that there was this country that--you know, they talk like that. i figured it out about two years ago.
now, larry, i have to ask you. are these guys a blessing or a curse? they're both, and it's a great-- it's not a-- they're not a curse at all. i mean, when i first was exposed to south park, which was the spirit of christmas, a six-minute tape, i was tearing i was laughing so hard. i thought it was the funniest thing i've ever seen and turned to doug herzog, who was the president at the time, i said, "you can't air this," and he says, "you never know." (paulson) for those who haven't seen it, describe the spirit of christmas. you guys could describe it better. the spirit of christmas is, like, santa and jesus basically duking it out. and it's a lot deeper than that, but it was the most irreverent, the funniest groundbreaking use of language and characters in a setting that you've just never seen before. and i thought it was the funniest, funniest thing i've ever seen. and then when we finally put it on the air, we had advertisers, which is, you know, an issue we go around a lot, who wouldn't go near it. but for every one who wouldn't go near it, there were two who would. and it was a huge success for us. it was kind of like the uranium for the network in many ways,
because comedy central always looked to do groundbreaking things, and we had always, you know, tried to break the mold. we do not like to run sitcoms. it's a network where we try to do something different. even ben stein's money was a new take on game shows. every format we did was a new take on that format. this was brand-new in its format, in its expression, in its politic. and it was a funny-- and it's funny. and the common denominator for us: if it's funny, it works. and it did extremely, extremely well. as we went forward with it, there were issues, sometimes about, you know, what they-- what i would let them say and what they wanted to say. and mutually, we were able to work every one of them out. we do give them a lot of latitude. i want to talk about some of those. i'm curious. in a p.c. environment, you've done spirit of christmas, and hollywood's talking about it. and it sounds like a short leap to finding a home that would embrace you. was it that easy? no; and, in fact, the biggest thing was the same kind of-- and we even questioned, the same way larry did, you know, when people were like, "we gotta make this into a show.
because the short actually had the kind of language that the south park movie had. i mean, it was very-- you know, very hardcore. and a lot of people said, "well, this is really funny, but you'll never get this on tv." but we knew it won't work without-- (stone) won't be funny without that language. without going that far. but we knew, you know, it's really all about limitations. we knew that as long as we're on television, we're pushing the television edge, it's okay, which is why, when we made a movie, we knew, "okay, now we gotta take it times two, 'cause now we're pushing the movie edge." if we'd only done south park the way it's on tv for a movie, it--no one would have said, "wow, this is really cutting edge, you know? and so we had the same-- you know, we had the same thoughts going into it as--you know, we were questioning it too, but we just knew there was something else there. there was also just the eye candy factor of it. people just liked how it looked, you know, which was an interesting thing. but we--and we got courted by a few places that wanted to do the pilot, you know. and the thing was, we just based it on, comedy central had the shows on that we watched,
which was, they were running monty python. they were running absolutely fabulous. they were, you know, running, kids in the hall. and it was the kind of comedy-- the only kind of comedy that we were really into. we didn't want to take it to mtv and have it become a kids show, which is, you know, all mtv really is anymore: nickelodeon. so, you know, that really wasn't a hard decision, you know? we knew that because they were airing the pythons, that still had that kind of material that was just as edgy as anything we've ever done, if not, edgier. there was a moment where you were ushered into a room, i'm sure, to watch the pilot. what was your gut reaction when you first saw it? brilliant; i thought it was funny. and to me, you know, funny is really the common denominator. you can do a lot of shows that have expression, but bottom line, it has to be funny. not only was it funny, you know, it was so unique and groundbreaking, provocative, you know, all the things that are in our "mission statement," you know, for the network: a unique point of view, intelligent, and very, very funny. and we looked and immediately knew that we had a hit on our hands.
there was no mistake about it. but what's fascinating is, we went through a phase of-- because then what happened was that the--- and i don't remember who-- what sort of branch it was, but they decided they had to focus-- they had to do a focus group on it. (stone) see, i didn't know that. we cannot stand the whole-- in fact, when we made the south park movie, we told paramount part of our deal is, we do not focus group this movie. an they were like, "what do you mean? it's the greatest tool," and blah, blah. a lot of producers and directors like it-- "wouldn't you want a focus group and find out what people want?" and we don't, 'cause somehow it takes the zen of the whole thing away when you're just counting laughs. and so anyway, they focus grouped it, and it did not-- it tested very poorly. (divney) really? really poorly with women. really poorly with women. that's right. and so we had to call-- and so debbie liebling, the executive at comedy central, had to call us and say, "guys, you know, it didn't test very well, "and so maybe we're going to-- we're not going to pick up the show." it was really--'cause we were supposed to go right away. "we're not going to pick up the show, but we want to keep working on it."
and so matt and i and brian graden, who we were producing it with, got t-shirts with a big check minus on it, and we walked into this meeting with check minus shirts on. they're like, "guys, you didn't get a check minus. we all got a check minus." like that was supposed to make us feel better. "we all got a check minus." and so what happened was-- the focus group got a check minus. we had sort of been in hollywood for three years doing pilot, doing things. and so we kind of said, "here's another one that's just not going to work." and so we had an opportunity to go make a movie, this movie, orgazmo, that we got the money for. so we're like, "we're going to make this movie." and they're like, "you can't do that." and then finally a couple months later, they said, "you know what? maybe we will try. write another script, and we'll see." and we ended up writing the kathie lee episode, which became another episode. we wrote that, and then-- you know, but it was all-- again, if it had been based purely on focus groups and that kind of thing, it would have never been on the air. there are people who would find it hard to believe. that comedy central actually has somebody who controls content,
that there are censors at comedy central. 'cause you do--you do push the envelope a bit. who has that job, and what do they do for a living? we have a woman by the name of renee presser, who has many titles, depending on who's defining her. and she works in our legal department. and there's a couple of issues. you know, we have a standards and practices department, and it's basically to work with the talent. and we don't have a scripted policy of what is right and wrong, but certainly language is the biggest concern we have. and the advertisers are-- and these guy's know this, 'cause we debated about this quite a bit. the advertisers are very cautious to be in certain content, and language is the biggest one. strangely enough, it's very hypocritical at times when you look at some of the content that they do support, like in daytime soap operas and so forth. you know, they talk about, "well, i can't be in south park," which is, you know, so much smarter than anything else that they're in. it's an economic balance that we have to maintain. and the standards and practices people, really, that's not their concern. their concern is, "what is this show?
"from an expression standpoint, how is it going to appeal to the viewer?" and at the same time, if there is what they think is an advertiser's concern, they'll bring it up to advertising. sometimes we get into fights about that. sometimes there will be fights. like as we speak. like right now. like right after this. so it's not a fistfight. it may get to that. it might with the ad sales guy. can we get some fresh blood on the floor here right now? absolutely. we have one on right now that they're writing for next week. i don't know if we can talk about it. we should talk about it, i suppose. there's a spoof on the subway sandwich thing done. with jerod. with jerod. we get the heads up, so we tell the ad sales guys. the ad sales guy came in and said, "they cannot do that episode. they just cannot do it." i said, "it's probably down the line. it won't be a problem." i find out it's next week's episode, which is usually the case. see, they corner us a little bit that way. there's no chance to move. but see, this is to me the scariest thing. that's a good one. it's honestly the scariest thing, because here we have, "we love the u.s.a." we love to talk about our freedom of speech.
we love to talk about it and what a free country we are. here we are, and we cannot put a show on the air that we want on the air because of a sandwich company. right? (ken) right. and you've got this big corporation who is dictating what people are going to see and not see. and they don't want people to think badly of their subway-- you know, subway sandwiches. so we can't go on the air saying, "subway sandwiches, "which, to me"-- you know what? we're indicting them. it's really us who are not letting them do it. we haven't even told subway about this. right. they're assuming subway's going to freak. this is a dynamic, right? at the same time, subway cannot tell us what content we should do on south park. they don't have to advertise on that show if they don't want. we talked about this yesterday, and i talked to the sales guys about it. we are going to go to them. we think they should advertise on it. that would be the coolest thing to do. whether they do or not-- probably not. it's also one thing if subway was an advertiser on south park and we were doing a show where we were making fun of subway. i think it would only be responsible if the network were to go, "hey, by the way, "you bought this time during this time we're going to be making fun of you."
i think that's fair enough for them to go, "you know what? we're not going to advertise." but what bs us is that we're talking about their advertising during other programs on comedy central. and then they want to control something; we think they might. but we're willing to take this risk. we are going to say, "go ahead, do the show. call it something else, if you would, if it doesn't change the creative on it, you know? but we don't want to. they don't want to, but they have to. see? they have to. they have to. that's censorship. see, the first amendment doesn't apply there, i guess. right. well, you're absolutely right. it depends on how you look. is the message not getting across that they want to make? (stone) i feel like-- i fell like, um, you know, being a hard-core capitalist like i am. i feel like it's a company's-- i guess it's their prerogative to do what they want to do with their money. but on the other hand, it's also-- it's also just, to me, supremely un-american, and it should be called out every time it's done. and it's done in every-- this is all the networks. so we actually-- this stuff should be out.
subway isn't--you know, we haven't indicted them yet. they haven't said anything. but any company that puts that kind of pressure, that's a supremely un-american move, and i'm going to boycott that company, 'cause that's what companies listen to. but we also, you know, we don't think that they will pull out, even if we did subway, if they'd use the name subway. i think that they would most likely stay on the network, 'cause they want to reach the audience. at the same time, advertisers support us very heavily. we do a very fine business with them-- above the market average, and they do buy this content, because we do reach the audience that wants this content. and every year, it gets better and easier. we have a thing called the out list, where certain advertisers don't go in certain shows, but every year it gets better, and they're on the network more and more. there are some advertisers in the past who would not buy the network-- never mind any show-- because of what we were. and that has now shifted. some major ones-- fast food restaurants-- that weren't on us before are on us in a big way now. so we've had to educate 'em about this, i think we still have an educational process to do. and saying to them, "you know what? they're going to practice it.
because what they're concerned about is, they get a letter from their customer, and they start boycotting them. they get one or two letters up in the corporate office, and then they pass it down, and everybody freaks out. so where the soul of this really lies remains to be seen. and this dynamic has taken on its own. we are even participating in this dynamic to some degree, but we do feel very strongly that we are pushing it more than anybody else, and we will challenge them on this more than anybody else. i knew that language was a problem on the show, but i never dreamed it was subway. that's what's so fascinating. the language issue-- the language issue-- sometimes we're like, "oh, come on, can't we say blank blank?" you know, we've obviously pushed the envelope with that. we did a whole episode with the "s" word and why you can't say it on tv. but that stuff's not that interesting anymore. it's an economic kind of thing. that's a good example. they called and said, "we want to do the 's' word 162 times." it's very classy of you to say "the 's' word." we don't want to sully your program with the "s" word. (divney) we're lucky we're even on here. but i thought about it. you know, i was not going to do it because of this language issue.
i said, you know, "we can't do it." and a sum total of how many times? 162 times. but it was so satirical. it was so smart. how can we not do it? and advertisers sponsored it; that show was sponsored. (paulson) and it was really reminiscent-- and we got 5,000 e-mails the next day from the parents-teachers council, my sister-in-law being one of them. those were negative e-mails? totally. it's also, i think, one of the defining shows that, at least last year, kept south park in the news, kept us, you know, as still a-- you know, there were a lot of articles at the end of the year. they were like, "south park is still a cutting-edge show. and that's--that's what's so hard for matt and i, is, we've got this job after, you know, almost 4 1/2 years of doing this show, of trying to stay on the edge. and we don't want, you know, south park to be-- just sort of twiddle away and become just a cutesy little show, you know? and that's why we'll always do it ourselves. you know, but it's such a challenge to--to constantly push it, which is why there is this dynamic, you know? you would never see the simpsons ripping on subway sandwiches, ripping on that whole-- you would just--
that, to me, is what differentiates south park from a lot of the other shows, is that-- you can be edgy in many different ways. and one of them is in this way of, "oh, my god, "they have this--they're even-- subway does commercials on there and here they are taking the piss out of subway." i was struck when you said, "let us do it," because you guys have got tremendous clout. and yet you're not able to carve out a contract that says, you know, "we can call any sandwich we want"? no, no, because of these-- obviously, we can't. because it's tv. (divney) they can't. you know, i'll tell you, they're great to work with. i mean, i--you know, i would never want to, all of a sudden, us start leaking the essence of this show by being too restrictive. that way, we all lose. i think we are certainly the network that has gone further than anyone else. but is it really where it should be? no; i mean, there's real capitalistic enterprise answers to a lot of this. and we do absolutely continue to challenge this and to push it. is it where it should be dourer? no, de facto; this is how we do it. and the first amendment says, "congress shall make no law."
it doesn't say subway shall make no calls to complain about-- and they may not, by the way. subway may be very happy. yes. yes. you talked about pushing the envelope. and i was struck, though, with a show with 162 references, how much like lenny bruce that was, which was, lenny bruce used to use racial epithets over and over and over again and saying it doesn't mean anything. take away their power. and you absolutely captured that today. and yet, if your mission is to sort of push the envelope, to do what others wouldn't do, to find comedy in new and different places, will you run out? i mean, are there any standards left? which is exactly why-- obviously now, it's not like we can do a show-- "oh, let's do a show where we say, you know, the "f" word 162 times." you know, it's like it's-- you've got to look for new ways to do it. [voice quivers] but, you know-- (stone) no, but sometimes-- we're always fascinated by-- the reverence, like, "oh, you're doing this, and this is new." and we're like, "thanks, but there have been "a lot of people doing this stuff, "from norman lear with all in the family to lenny bruce to george carlin." i mean, it isn't, brand-new to say the "f" word, you know?
(divney) you know, when married with children was on fox, they had these immense problems with advertisers; and people wouldn't-- advertisers wouldn't even be in the show. you know, married with children now is a fine off-net syndicated show everybody likes. the line moves. it continues to move, and i think society, you know, is where the fodder where these guys go and pluck from, like, you know, what is going on. but it also kind of goes like this, because, i mean-- and a fascinating, fascinating story is, we actually had a show last season where we wanted to say the "n" word, right? no, no, cannot say; no way can we say "n." then we just, like, go, "okay, we're having a fight." "okay, how can we do this?" and we finally got to the point where we could start to say it and then we had to cut-- cut away. but basically, you know it-- it was said. (stone) you knew the character was saying the "n" word. 'cause the joke--it's the joke of the entire show. you thought the whole show was about one thing, and you find out at the very end that mr. garrison, the teacher, is just a total racist and--and says this word. and so we argued and argued and argued,
they never let us say it. not the "n" word on our network. you'll never have it on a network. last week, matt's in new york watching comedy central at 1:00 in the afternoon. 1:00, and they're playing blazing saddles. and the "n" word is all over it, not bleeped, not-- you know, whatever. and we're just, like-- i'm sorry. [laughter] that was really bizarre, though. i want to emphasize to the audience at home that before we sat down, we said you can say what you want. so the reference to the "f" word, the "s" word, and the "n" word, not imposed by us. no stretch on free expression. they're just being classy, so we appreciate that. well, you know, we've got parents. we know how to talk around mom and dad, you know-- how to talk when grandma's in the house. south park got an early reaction, but, you know, looking back at the clips and the reviews, sometimes it took magazines six months to catch on and to write about it without rage. yeah. that didn't happen with that's my bush. it was sort of attacked before it was ever on the air. and--and you were on the hot seat. (stone) yeah, he was on the hot seat. hot, hot; it was fun, actually.
(ken) what was the idea behind that show initially? it was a sitcom, uh, just basically-- it was more kind of a send-up of sitcoms. but the idea was, it's starring george bush and laura bush and, originally, the bush twins in the white house. 'cause it's your family sitcom. it's your family sitcom. somewhere along the line, we--one of our writers on this show wrote sides, wrote a little scene. we were casting-- we were casting many different-- like, we were seeing what kind of cast we were going to even have. and we were casting-- doing initial casting call for the bush twins, the bush daughters. and he wrote a scene that was pretty over-the-top. it was about them being like lesbians and stuff. it was all implied; it was pretty stupid. but it was never going to be in the show. it was just for casting purposes to get people-- that got leaked to the internet, and then it made, like, page six or something. yeah, hit the papers. some tabloid picked it up, and it just--boom. and it was like, "matt, trey, lesbian bush daughters," and-- so that was never the intent, to-- no, in fact-- and i think that, then, people-- although, that's kind of a funny--
anyone who saw the show saw that it was this outrageous show. but again, at the heart of it, we made george this very lovable, nice guy. absolutely. we made his wife just-- you loved her. and we wanted to do the same with the daught-- we wanted this perfect family. that was the whole joke. and the truth is, you know, two months after, we decided-- and we all got past this when we made the show-- you know, they all started getting busted, and they were all over the place, you know? the lesbian thing was a red herring. you would have played them comedically? absolutely. basically like-- once that stuff gets started, you can't control it. (parker) actually, one of the-- there was a character on the show named princess. we turned her into a secretary. but the daughter-- we were going to actually call the daughters not by their real first names. we were going to call them princess and something else. yeah, muffin or something. but princess, who ended up on the show, that's how one of the daughters would have been, completely lovable, sweet, just a little dingy. we only have a few minutes left. we have to talk about your adventures in motion pictures. adventures they have been. and two movies-- your two movies,
both of them, were initially rated nc-17. is that right? right, there was orgazmo, which is a movie that trey mentioned that we did years ago, before south park was on the air, that we financed independently and then got picked up by october films, which at the time wasn't owned by universal, i think it is. they were a fully independent company. and we got an nc-17. and we said, "okay"-- at the time, we were like, "okay, what do we need to do? what do we need to cut?" and just for the people who are watching this, that means, like, no one can see it. basically, it means your movie's dead. well, that's what it means: nobody under 17 allowed-- with a parent or not, no one allowed. what it really means is, no multiplex will carry your movie. there's very few, just independent theaters. it's just so wrong. i mean, just the nc-17 is a ridiculous notion that i, as a parent of my child, if i want to take him to saving private ryan and it's nc-17, someone-- some organization can tell me i can't. you know, that's my kid, you know? and i should be able-- if i want to take him to a movie, i can take him to a movie. i let my kids see some of that stuff,
and some of the drek that's rated g and pg. but the m.p.a. is the scary-- i mean, we could go on forever, because that's even scarier than, you know, a sandwich company sort of deciding what's on a show, (ken) i think you actually have a shot to negotiate with them. well, you do, only if-- only if you're a signatory. that's the difference between an independent and studio movie. when we were doing an independent movie, they wouldn't return our phone calls. we were just little nobodies who had made this million-dollar movie. and at the time, we're like, "what can we change to get an 'r'? and then they said, "well, we gave you an nc-17, "and we can't tell you what to change, 'cause we're not a censorship group." that's what they tell you. you are. you know, and they're like, "well, sir, we can't give you any specifics." so then you have to go and do a thing where you go and basically get on your hands and knees and beg them. so i went in there, and i'm all just-- and there's these 80-year-old people all staring down at me. and i'm like, "look, there's no nudity in this film. "there's no sex in this film. "it's all just language
that you're giving this an nc-17 for." and i was, you know, stated my case, and they're like, "okay, thank you. step outside, and we'll tell you what we think." step outside, and literally i didn't even get a chance to close the door before the guy comes out and goes, "it's still an nc-17." and we're like, "can we try again?" "no." it's just-- you can, but it costs-- you've got to do another avid cut. you've got--you know, it's so cost prohibitive. and so then the fascinating thing is, we do the south park movie, and that, from the beginning, is with paramount pictures, right? so the m.p.a.a. gets a cut way before the movie's even done, and we get a call from the studio going, "so the m.p.a.a. thinks you need to take this out, this out, and that out." and we're like, "wait a minute." (stone) they had very specific notes. they wouldn't do this when we were-- you know, i thought they weren't a censorship group. and--and there was this whole process of the studio working with the m.p.a.a. to get that "r" and then give and take and give and take and give and take. that is so frightening, because it was only because it was a big studio movie. when i was just a filmmaker-- you know, when we were just filmmakers on our own
trying to do this-- i know that the m.p.a.a. is illegal. i know it is. i know if someone was to challenge on legal grounds, it's basically a cartel setting up rules. the big guys get to set up the rules. even the little guys have to follow, but they have no say. what did you have to lose to get south park in the theaters? well, we ended up--every time they said, "cut this," we would put something back in that was worse. (parker) they made the movie worse. there's no question. they made that movie raunchier and raunchier. and here's the fascinating thing. here's what it all came down to. so now we're a week away. we're a week away from the movie coming out, and it's still an nc-17. you know, we've done this give and take, but we really kept just making it worse and worse, 'cause they just made us angry. and, um, finally, scott rudin, the producer from paramount-- (stone) there was one joke. i can't remember what it was. and we called up and said, we are not cutting this joke. i don't care; i don't know what we're going to do, but that's just too bad. and then scott rudin, he's like, "okay, i'll call you." scott rudin called somebody, probably sherry lansing. she called somebody else. and the next day, the movie was an "r," and not a frame of it changed.
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