During the Golden Age of Television, showing a toilet was one of the more risqué things that shows could do. Skip forward a few decades, and there’s South Park, using an animated piece of feces to celebrate Christmas, and even that ended up being fairly tame compared to future shenanigans that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would give audiences. But the show almost didn’t have a future, thanks to one particularly disastrous focus group.
The mildly sordid origins of Comedy Central’s most long-lasting scripted hit are chronicled in a recent EW oral history. It was a long and winding road from the duo’s Spirit of Christmas short films to their official network pilot, the wild and crazy “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe.” Here’s how show producer Brian Graden explained that episode’s first foray into public view.
We went to do a focus group. They were asked to rate the pilot on a scale of 1 to 10. There were 1s, and 2s, and 3s everywhere. We made three people cry—they were saying that it’s inappropriate for children to say those kinds of things. Matt and Trey asked how it went. I had been to many focus groups, but they had not. I’ve never seen a worse focus group, and thought, ‘Well, this show isn’t going to be the next year of my life.’
I can’t imagine how an episode where a child dies (for the first of many, many times) and another child gets kidnapped by aliens could possibly bring about any negative feelings in 1997. To be fair, though, these are probably the same people that wanted to crucify Fox execs for Bart Simpson saying “damn” and “hell.” Focus groups are usually the worst ways to perceive audience enjoyment anyway, as exampled time and again with both TV shows and movies. (And consumer products and video games and…you get the point.)
The Comedy Central President at the time, Doug Herzog, asked Parker and Stone to change the pilot’s ending. For most shows, that would just mean another day or two of shooting, but because South Park was still being physically animated by hand with construction paper, that meant another week of sleepless nights for the visionary pair. But it worked like a charm, and Comedy Central largely ignored the focus group scores and ordered it to series. Here’s where Herzog’s mind was at the time.
Anybody that tells you they knew it was going to be a hit—and the only people I would believe if they said that would be Matt and Trey—that’s just bullshit. Nobody knows, right? What we did know was it was really funny. We thought it was clever. And for a network that was still struggling to reach 50 million homes, we went, ‘At the very least this will get attention.’ But then I bolted up in bed just nights before we put it on the air, in cold sweat, I swear to God. I was like, ‘Wait, can I get arrested for this? Is this legal?’
And although the show has been in trouble with Christians, Scientologists, Mormons, celebrities, and just about every race on the planet, it’s still on the air, 18 seasons later. And that’s nothing to cry about.