Matt Stone and Trey Parker have made serious bank because of their storytelling skills. Team America, South Park and their hit-musical, Book of Mormon – they’ve all been huge hits.
But how do they come up with storylines like PC Principal and Sodo SoPa — and turn them into money?
Rule #1: Don’t be a b*tch
In the six days it takes them to write, voice, and direct each episode of South Park, absolutely no idea is off limits. This is no surprise, after all, these guys fart on celebrities (literally) and wear dresses — while tripping on acid – to the Oscars. They give no f*cks.
Their sole focus is to be funny and this ideology leads them to pursue “outlandish” ideas and satirize “off-limit” topics.
Parker and Stone start writing each South Park episode by sitting down with a few guest writers (like SNL’s Bill Hader) and spitballing random things they think are funny. In recent seasons they’ve drawn inspiration from America’s trending social and political issues. But how do you make taboo topics funny?
Good comics say what we all think, but rarely express. Great comedians, however, take it a step further and make us discover a new way to think about a topic. Parker and Stone are so successful because they’re constantly tackling trendy topics and deconstructing them in ultra-critical creative ways.
Their anti-establishment humor is how they got Comedy Central to approve first season of South Park. In 1992 Parker and Stone created a short film called “The Spirit of Christmas,” where Santa and Jesus battle it out. They transformed the “War on Christmas,” a topic almost every American is aware of, into a violent and crude battle between two seemingly untouchable figures.
It quickly became a hit amongst Hollywood’s inner circles and EW reported that when Comedy Central president Doug Herzog watched it, he greenlit them for a pilot. All the focus groups hated the pilot, but Herzog stuck to his gut; at the very least, he knew that it would bring more attention to the network. Call them edgy, call them crude, but as Drake says, “Any way you put it, b*tch [they] made it.”
Rule #2: Satirize successfully with the ‘Therefore and But’ method
In order to satirize something you have to thoroughly research the topics you’re covering. The reason these dudes can simultaneously crap on people and introduce moral lessons in South Park is because they delve so deep into a topic that they form deeply-rooted opinions on it.
Parker and Stone don’t start with the theme and then reverse engineer a story. They told Jimmy Kimmel that they let the theme emerge organically, while they’re finishing up the script. While discussing topics they begin to piece together how their characters will fit into – and react to – the story.
They promote the concept of “Therefore and But.” Instead of “this happens and then this happens and then this …” they want the story to be about “this happened, THEREFORE this happened, BUT this happened, so THEREFORE this happens.”
In other words, action in one part of the story produces a reaction in the next. The line from beat to beat is clear and direct for the audience. This tactic creates drama and keeps the story progressing. Stone told mtvU that whenever they finish writing he’ll go back to look at the beats of the script to see if he can replace any “and thens” with “therefores” or “buts.”
Rule #3: Stop second guessing and set firm deadlines
Parker and Stone told 60 Minutes that they strongly believe in deadlines. If you give yourself too much time on a story, it’s rare that you’ll finish it; you’ll always be second guessing your ideas and thinking of ways to change the script. By giving yourself a due date, you’re forcing yourself to be creative and find a way to get it done.
So what actions can you take for storytelling success? Start by watching the news, and staying informed about what’s happening in the world. Do your research and try and understand the perspectives of the players involved.
Be brutal with your truth and follow the “Therefore and But” method to give your story momentum. Then set a deadline and force yourself to finish.
You might not love your final piece of work, but at least it’s there. Now you have something to refine instead of lots of ideas and nothing to show for them. You’re welcome. Or, as Cartman would say, “Respect my authoritah!”