How South Park stays relevant 20 years on

20 years may as well be an eternity in pop culture.

20 years ago, the brand new musical phenomenon worldwide was the Macarena. Dancing at the Crossroads, a tribute song to Wexford’s All Ireland winning hurling team, was top of the Irish charts. Mike Tyson still had not bitten any ears off, and his face was unblemished by tattoos. The world, and much of pop culture, was a very different place.

20 years ago, a show called South Park made its debut on a then fledgling channel, Comedy Central. Fast forward to the present day and this absurdist comedy about the misadventures of four foul mouthed third grade boys and the surrounding community is still as dynamic, fresh and arguably more relevant than ever. South Park is now the fourth longest running scripted primetime tv show in US history, behind only Law & Order, Gunsmoke (neither are still in production) and The Simpsons (Not funny or relevant anymore.) The show is also locked in for at least a further three seasons.

The 20th season, which debuted in Ireland on Friday the 16th of September, continues the show’s longstanding mission of mercilessly lampooning current events through the prism of a small Colorado mountain town. The recent outrage from white America over Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the American national anthem is translated to an elementary school volleyball game. The motivations for and effects of internet trolling and the hold that social media has over all of us are examined, with shocking, but ultimately hilarious allusions made to the tragic outcomes of online bullying.. Relevant issues such as the US presidential election, movie reboots and the power of nostalgia are also viewed through South Park’s well practised satirical perspective.

The result is a season that, so far, can stand shoulder to shoulder with any previous seasons in terms of both humour and social relevance. Given the volatile nature of American society in particular at the moment, there will be no shortage of targets for creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to eviscerate throughout the remaining eight episodes.

The question that remains, however, is how does South Park maintain its relevance and cutting edge after such a long shelf life? There are two main reasons for this, evolution and procrastination.

The creators of South Park have done an admirable job over the years of tweaking the show from season to season to keep it feeling fresh. Over the show’s lifetime, background characters have been brought to the fore and given their own backstories and episodes. New characters, such as season 19 and 20’s PC Principal, have been created, and given substantial storylines.

One of the boldest decisions made to revamp the show was the season 18 choice to switch from a standard sitcom storytelling format, in which each episode does not affect the following one, to a continuous storyline, expanding over multiple seasons. This choice drastically changed the show’s dynamic, opening up a whole new world of storylines.

The main element of the show’s creation that has kept it so pertinent and up to date is the last minute nature of the show’s creation. As shown in the excellent documentary ‘Six Days to Air, The making of South Park’, each episode is completely written, animated and delivered in the six days before it is shown on Comedy Central. This creative procrastination allows South Park to satirise events almost as they happen.

For example, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, South Park aired an episode mocking the hysterical reaction of the American public to his victory only 24 hours after, complete with snippets from his actual victory speech. Saddam Hussein’s capture was referenced in an episode that aired three days after the event.

This ability to commentate on events as they unfold is a massive advantage to South Park over competitors such as The Simpsons or Family Guy, whose shows can take up to eight months to complete production.

The continued success of South Park is testament to innovation and risk taking. By pushing the boundaries of both creativity and good taste with each new season, the show has managed to balance the dual roles of holding up a satirical mirror to society, while maintaining the offensive and outrageous comedy that made it so popular all the way back in the late nineties.

While The Simpsons continues to flounder, and other relics of that era fade into irrelevance, South Park continues to go from strength to strength.

Josh Cogley

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