Trey Parker On Growing Up (Or Down) Over 20 Years Of ‘South Park’
"Sometimes Matt and I look at each other and we're like, 'Are we still here? Like, what's wrong with people?'"
Trey Parker, one half of the legendary comedic duo responsible for South Park is exactly the kind of guy you’d imagine him to be: confident, jokey and approachable.
Despite an illness that’s kept him off the phone with me for our previously scheduled interview, when I get a hold of him he’s bright and ready to talk about his recent career about-face: a starring voice role in Despicable Me 3 as the villain Balthazar Bratt, a 1980s child star turned retrograde yo-yo-wielding villain.
Parker, who has been writing the long-running South Park with his creative partner Matt Stone for two decades now, is also a motormouth. Once I ask him a question, off he runs with it. He regales me with stories of his work behind the scenes (and in the studio) on South Park; of his young daughter, who is following in his footsteps as a mini-me voice artist; and of his deep love for musicals, which spawned the smash-hit Book of Mormon, currently touring Australia.
Parker starts off by telling me all about his gastro — something called “C. diff”, which is “like food poisoning but for ten days” — and we go from there. So, you know, about what you’d expect from the creator of South Park.
Junkee: Let’s talk about Despicable Me 3. It’s quite different from the work that you’re most well-known for. Why did you choose the project?
Trey Parker: Honestly, when it came into my agent that they were asking me to do this, first I was flattered. I was just like, “Well, no one’s ever asked me to do that before!” But it really was because my daughter was two at the time, and so she was just getting into starting to watch things. The idea of doing something that my daughter could actually watch was really appealing. Being able to take her to a premiere for something that I wouldn’t get in trouble for her seeing!
How different was it working on a kids’ film as opposed to the adult content you’re more used to?
I mean, the thing is that South Park is written like a kids show. So for me the big difference was just doing something that I had no control of. That’s something I really haven’t done. Also, it was interesting to walk in and have pieces of the script — I mean they’d kind of tell me what was going on in the movie but I’ve still never read the whole script.
With animation you’re kind of working in a vacuum and so it was just the amazing feeling to walk into the studio and just do all the lines and walk out and be like, “Wow, I don’t have to do anything else!” Because for me [on South Park] yelling the lines in that room is sort of the first feedback I get, so leaving that studio is always like, “Ok I’ll just rewrite that because that’s not working”. It was just really refreshing to just act.
I mean, you do so many voices. How do you develop the voice for a particular character?
I didn’t want to get, like, crazy cartoony with it. And I told them, you know, there’s only about 80 voices I can do and I’ve done them all on South Park. So I was like, “Guys, we’re not going to make him sound like Mr Garrison or Cartman or Mr Mackey”. I really decided to not do anything too cartoony, and instead just kind of do like an enhanced version of my own voice.
Yeah, it is quite similar to your own voice, isn’t it?
Yeah. It’s basically a lot like Stan’s dad. Which is me, basically.
Looking at South Park — the show’s been going for 20 years. What keeps it fresh for you and Matt?
I think it’s just the fact that we do it ourselves, instead of hiring young writers, which might make it better. But we sort of view it as our band. And so every season is our new album, and we don’t want to get bored so we always try to do something a little different. Each season, each album we want to make is just a little bit different, and expresses different things, and I think you can kind of watch us grow up — or down — over the last 20 years. But I think that that’s the big thing; it’s never become a show by committee, you know?
“We get to do really fucked up shit and people throw awards at us.”
And what are some of the challenges of running a really controversial show like South Park?
Honestly, it’s pretty crazy, because we get to do really fucked up shit and people throw awards at us. Sometimes we’re just kind of amazed. We thought a long time ago we were going to get kicked out of town eventually. And sometimes Matt and I look at each other and we’re like, “Are we still here? Like, what’s wrong with people?” But, like I said, we get together and it’ll be like getting the band in the studio. And then everything we’ve been dealing with and thinking about the last year kinda comes out.
Last season you guys chose to take on the US election and how ridiculous that situation was. Why did you take on that topic in such a long-running way?
We became a victim of it. We’d already done our Trump show; we’d already made fun of him. So then we kinda did the thing going, “Well, fuck it, whatever. Hillary’s going to win so we’ll start down this track.”
We thought we’d just have fun with it while we could. But we were really more focusing on how we were going to tear down Hillary once she got elected. And then we were just like everyone else going “Are you serious?” Like, “Dude, this fucks up our show!” You know what I mean? It definitely got political and we were trying to talk more about trolling and that parallel of it, and what trolling is and what we are — you know, are we trolls? That was more interesting to us.
“We just kind of want to get back to Cartman dressing up like a robot and farting on Butters.”
But a lot of people are now saying, “What are you going to do with Trump this season?” And it’s like, we don’t want to do the Saturday Night Live thing and become that show. Because there’s still other funny shit in the world; there’s some fucked up stuff in the world. And we’ve said it hundreds of times: he’s really hard to make fun of because he does it so well on his own. We just kind of want to get back to Cartman dressing up like a robot and farting on Butters.
How do you balance the cultural satire and the funny, less consequential stuff you guys have on South Park?
I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t. Last year it got really serialised and I think it was too much for us. Just like we do with every season trying to be a different album, what’s awesome about doing South Park is you can totally take on Scientology one week and be like, “Holy shit they did this to Scientologists?”, and then the next week it’s just a big kiddie show.
We don’t have this big specific axe to grind on any one thing. And, to me and Matt, our favourite episodes are the ones where it’s just about like Cartman messing with Butters, and kids being kids, and that’s dumb. But that satire, and that more political satire, it’s not what we get off on.
Book of Mormon is in Melbourne right now. What made you and Matt decide to do a musical?
I’ve wanted to do a musical since I was little kid. Musicals were everything to me, and that’s why, when we got the chance from Paramount to make a South Park movie, I said “Yeah, I want to make it a musical”.
My first independent film out of college was actually a musical. Musicals are everything. Music is really more what I was about — and songwriting and everything. You know, I grew up as a piano player. And it’s funny because in Despicable Me there’s a lot of ’80s references and ’80s themes. So there’s a lot of time where [Balthazar Bratt’s] singing ’80s songs to himself, and I got them laughing pretty hard. I would just sit there singing ’80s song after ’80s song, and they’re like “Keep going, keep going!”
What do you think was your favourite thing about doing Despicable Me 3?
I can tell you my favourite — I’m really glad I remember this. So I’m at the theatre with my daughter. I remember we were seeing that movie Sing, and the Despicable Me 3 preview comes on. I hadn’t seen the trailer in the theatre and my daughter had been with me two of the times when I was recording the movie. She’s actually done some voices on South Park, so she kind of gets that that’s what Daddy does.
And so we’re all sitting there in the theatre, and the trailer ends and everything goes silent, and my little girl — she was three at the time — she goes, “That’s my daddy!”. My heart just broke, and I was just like, ‘ok, it’s all worth it’. But now she thinks that everyone does this… she goes up to people now and asks them what voices they do.
Love TV and film as much as us? Junkee is presenting Video Junkee 2017 in July, a new festival for lovers and creators of online video. Video Junkee is on July 28 & 29 at Carriageworks in Sydney, featuring keynotes, masterclasses, screenings, interviews and more. Tickets are on sale now.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.