The untold truth of South Park

South Park is just as vital and relevant as it was in 1997, when creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone introduced indelible characters like the moralistic Stan, the nightmare child Cartman and the always dying Kenny. The duo have become a comedy brand unto themselves with movies like 2004's Team America: World Police and the hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, but here's a look at the little cartoon that started it all. 

It started as a viral video

When Parker and Stone were film students at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1992, they used construction paper, glue, and a very old 8mm camera to create a crude, animated short called The Spirit of Christmas (also known as Jesus vs. Frosty). Featuring a group of foul-mouthed Colorado kids (sound familiar?), it was a massive hit at campus screenings. But Parker and Stone didn't think about it much until they moved to Los Angeles and their indie movie Cannibal! The Musical caught the attention of FOX executive Brian Graden in 1993. He loved The Spirit of Christmas so much that he made 100 VHS copies and sent them as holiday cards. Two years later, Graden gave the pair $2,000 to make another, and they delivered Jesus vs. Santa, which was widely bootlegged around town. George Clooney reportedly distributed 300 copies to his high-powered friends and, within a year, multiple TV networks asked Parker and Stone to pitch a show.

Many of the characters are based on real people

They say to "write what you know," but Parker and Stone tend to write about who they know. They drew inspiration from their own lives to create many of the citizens of South Park: Cartman's mom Liane (known for her promiscuity) is named after Parker's ex-fiancée; Butters is based on the duo's childhood friend and South Park animation director Eric Stough; and Cartman is named after their high school friend Matt Karpman. Even Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, comes from Parker's childhood. When he'd forget to flush the toilet, his dad would warn him that Mr. Hankey would crawl out of the toilet and eat him.

They make episodes really fast

While other animated series can take up to a year to produce one episode with the bulk of the animation work shipped overseas, an average episode of South Park has a super-quick production schedule of just six days. That means the show can comment on breaking news almost as fast as live-action shows like Saturday Night Live or Last Week Tonight, but the process can be grueling. Often turning in completed episodes the same day they're scheduled to air, Parker and Stone lead a team that writes, records and animates using a program called Maya. And unlike many other shows that run for 20 years, South Park's creators remain extremely involved in the day-to-day operations. Stone coordinates production, Parker heads up the writing and both provide the majority of the character voices. They've only missed a deadline once: in 2013, when their studios lost power.

Parker and Stone made headlines for almost missing a deadline again in 2016, when they narrowly avoided late delivery on the premiere episode of the much-hyped 20th season. Less than 48 hours before Parker and Stone had to turn the episode in to Comedy Central, they weren't done writing the show, let alone animating it. They were out of ideas for the final third of the episode, and were still brainstorming with staff writers with less than two days to go. Somehow, yet again, they figured it out and ended up getting the show written and animated on time.

Why Kenny had to die

One of the show's earliest catchphrases, "Oh my God, they killed Kenny!," refers to South Park's concept of killing off the main character Kenny in every single episode, only to have him return alive and well at the beginning of the next. It's funny and innovative, but not entirely original. Parker and Stone got the idea from MTV's '90s sci-fi cartoon Aeon Flux, in which the titular spy died in most episodes. Parker and Stone also drew inspiration from one of their childhood friends named Kenny who skipped school so often that rumors spread that he'd died. The cartoon Kenny doesn't always die in later seasons, although he was semi-permanently killed off for a while in season 5 until Parker decided to bring him back. Kenny lives!

Parker and Stone don't do it alone

Most episodes credit only Trey Parker and Matt Stone (or sometimes just Parker) as writers, but South Park employs a large staff of writers and consultants. Lots of famous names have popped in for a residency in the writers room: Bill Hader juggled Saturday Night Live and a burgeoning movie career with writing for South Park; Kristen Schaal (Bob's Burgers, The Last Man on Earth) wrote for a dozen episodes in 2007; The Book of Mormon co-writer Robert Lopez has served as an uncredited consultant; and sitcom legend Norman Lear (creator of All in the Family and Good Times) even dropped by at age 81. Lear served as a creative consultant on the episode where the boys learn Earth is just the set of a reality show created by aliens. Evidently, the man who invented Archie Bunker also brought us the ice cream-pooping taco.

Timmy!

Timmy is confined to a power wheelchair and afflicted with an unspecified condition that includes elements of palsy and Tourette's Syndrome (he has a lot of tics and can only say, "Timmy!"), but Comedy Central reportedly didn't want the character on South Park. Executives were worried Parker and Stone would make fun of people with cognitive disabilities, but the duo countered that the other kids on South Park would treat him as just one of the gang. Fans immediately took to the character, and Parker claimed people began shouting "Timmy!" at him on the street instead of "Oh my God, they killed Kenny!" Many critics praised South Park for including Timmy (and later another physically disabled character, Jimmy) for raising awareness of issues facing the handicapped. In one poll, disabled viewers voted Timmy the "Greatest Disabled TV Character."

Kanye couldn't take it

One of the things South Park does best is tear down celebrities (if not the culture that makes celebrities out of questionable people in the first place): characters confuse Stevie Nicks with a braying goat; Stan's 45-year-old dad turns out to be teenage pop singer Lorde; and Barbra Streisand is depicted as a city-crushing mecha dinosaur. While most celebrities skewered have silently taken it in stride, Kanye West unsurprisingly did not. In an infamous episode, Kanye doesn't understand a joke about fish sticks and eventually concludes that he must be a gay fish. But the real-life Kanye later dissed South Park in his 2010 song "Gorgeous," citing his intention to "choke a South Park writer with a fish stick."