South Park is still relevant; in fact it may be the most important comedy on air today. From reasons that are financial to artistic, here's why...
It Brings Comedy Central Tons of Cash
Then South Park came around, and everything changed. The crude, controversial show brought media attention and hordes of curious young fans to the network. Comedy Central wasn't even in most markets until the South Park fever caught on, and so many people requested that Comedy Central be added to their cable systems that the channel became available in over 50% of American homes by 1998.
Comedy Central has certainly broadened its lineup in recent years, and scored major wins with acquisitions like Futurama, but South Park is still their most well-known property and their highest-rated series. The premiere for the 2010 season had 3.7 million viewers -- the show's highest-rated season premiere since 1998. In 2004, Comedy Central (which owns the series) sold the syndication rights for an estimated $100 million. Then there are the untold millions the series has earned from international merchandising. To say the series is a cash cow would be a vast understatement.
That money means the network is all but guaranteed profitability, and it lets them take risks and invest in new shows.
South Park Pushes the Industry Forward
South Park changed the animation genre by showing that you didn't need a high animation budget to make a great show – you just needed great writing. Many series followed suit, and most of Adult Swim's current and past original series have taken the South Park model, with varying results. Crudely animated, shoestring budget shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021 started a copycat trend that's continuing today, but those shows couldn't quite emulate the brilliant subversive humor of South Park.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become well-known for their amazing ability to crank out episodes in seemingly impossible time frames. Oftentimes episodes are delivered on the day they're supposed to air, and weren't we all impressed and amazed by the post-election day brilliance of "About Last Night..."? South Park's production process makes everyone else in the biz look like slackers.
The series has also been at the forefront of digital broadcasting. Southparkstudios.com offers full episodes immediately after the show has aired on television, and Trey and Matt inked an unprecedented deal that gives them a 50-50 split of ad revenues that come from Internet versions of South Park. Creators almost never see ad revenue, and this deal serves as a new talking point in the battle for writers and directors who want to be fairly compensated for their work on digital platforms.
It's Some of the Best Social Commentary on TV
There's a certain level of fearlessness surrounding South Park. It started from the beginning, when the creators weren't afraid of a TV-MA label, and stuck to their guns, and you can see it today in episodes like "200" and "201", where Trey and Matt took on religious extremism and earned serious death threats because of it. Despite the censoring of those episodes, the point came through, and of all things, an animated comedy show about foul-mouthed nine-year-olds was lauded for treading where no one else in the business would.
In an age where millions of people feel disgusted and disenfranchised by mainstream media coverage of current events, South Park found its audience by simply telling it like it is. The show routinely rejects political correctness, and questions the social norms of its time. It speaks to a generation of people that is tired of being told what to do by people from another era, with outmoded sensibilities. The series provides an unfiltered view of its topics, and treats its viewing audience like adults (adults who like poop humor, but adults nonetheless).
The Humor is as Good as it Ever Was
But South Park is still hilarious, and socially relevant. Each episode of last season had the potential to set off a media frenzy, and although there were some low points, the best episodes of the season rivaled any of the Greatest Hits from the series' history.
Part of the brilliance of the show is its flexibility and range. One week it might be a celebrity spoof, the next week it may be a comedic homage to classic films like Tron or Scarface, one week it may be mostly toilet humor, and the next it may be something entirely original from the twisted minds of the writing team. The episodes are hardly formulaic, and that's what keeps the show fresh. You never know exactly what to expect, and that's what keeps us coming back for more.
South Park: Season 15 debuts Wednesday, April 27th at 10:00pm ET/PT on Comedy Central.