Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Albany Daily News. Posted by Ryan Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Ryan Frost
South Park (Co-Creator), The Book of Mormon (Co-Writer and Co-Director)
Currently Known For:
Actor, Animator, Writer, Director, Producer, Singer, and Songwriter
1990s - Present
October 19, 1969
South Park (Co-Creator), The Book of Mormon (Co-Writer and Co-Director)
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“Sometimes what’s right isn’t as important as what’s profitable.” One of the most talented men working behind the scenes in Hollywood today, Trey Parker is the co-creator of the long-running adult animated comedy series South Park that first took the air in 1997. With the series still going strong today as Parker and his creative partner, Matt Stone, continue to keep audiences begging for more of the show’s iconic wit, Parker has also proven his talents on the stage as the co-writer and co-director of the Tony Award-winning musical, The Book of Mormon, which earned nine Tony Awards and a Grammy Award. As for South Park, the series has taken home five Primetime Emmy Awards and is Parker’s greatest success as the 48-year-old continues to have a firm grip on the series as an animator, voice actor, songwriter, producer, and director. So, how exactly did South Park originate and what’s Parker’s Hollywood story? Let’s take a closer look at the Colorado native turned award-winning animator!
The son of a geologist and an insurance saleswoman, Randolph Severn Parker III came into this world on October 19, 1969 in Conifer, Colorado. A gifted honor student described by his teachers as being incredibly shy, Parker might have been quiet in the classroom but, at home, he dreamed of one day taking the comedy world by storm as he studied every Monty Python sketch he could find. By middle school, he came further out of his shell and started entertaining his classmates first on the playground and then at the school’s yearly talent shows where, in sixth grade, he wrote and performed his first sketch, The Dentist. With Parker playing the dentist and his friend playing the patient, the sketch was meant to comedically depict everything that could wrong at the dentist’s office; however, Parker’s bloody antics on stage left the kindergartners in the audience in tears as teachers rushed Parker off the stage.
Although Parker’s first sketch wasn’t exactly well received, he refused to give up on his dreams of one day having a career in the music and film industry. By his teens, he spent most of his free time making short films with his friends using a video camera his father gave him. Parker’s passion for music also flourished in high school when he learned how to play piano, was named the head of the school choir, and often took the lead in numerous school productions. However, he couldn’t deny his love of comedy and usually pushed all seriousness aside to write comedic songs that inspired his first comedy album, Immature: A Collection of Love Ballads for The ‘80’s Man, which he cowrote with his friend, David Goodman.
Graduating from high school in 1988, Parker enrolled at Berklee College of Music but transferred to the University of Colorado after one semester. The transfer rekindled his interest in film and led him to enroll in a film class where he met a young math major from Colorado named Matt Stone. Bonding over their shared love of Monty Python, the duo started the first of many collaborations together including short film projects like First Date, Job Application, and Man on Mars. Always thinking out of the box, Parker took their collaboration a step further and created an animation technique using construction paper. He used the technique to create his 1992 film, American History, which earned a Student Academy Award.
Early Career and the Road to South Park
Inspired by his win, Parker teamed up with Stone and two other friends to launch their production company—Avenging Conscience. Using Parker’s construction paper animation, the group released their first animated short, Jesus vs. Frosty, in 1992 and then created a three-minute trailer for the fictional film, Alfred Packer: The Musical. The trailer was so well received that the college’s film department chair encouraged the quartet to extend it into a feature film. Together, they raised $125,000 and financed the production of the film, which premiered in Boulder the following year. Although they submitted the project to the Sundance Film Festival, the festival never replied, which prompted Parker and his friends to rent a conference room in a nearby hotel and offer private screenings of their own.
As Parker and his friends gained valuable film contacts in the industry, the film caught the attention of Troma Entertainment who purchased the film rights for $1 million. After the purchase, Parker and Stone moved to Los Angeles in 1995 where they spent the first few years getting their feet wet in the industry. “We were sleeping on floors thinking, ‘wow, another two weeks and we’re going to be f—king rich.’ And pretty soon two weeks turns into two months, and two months turns into two years, and you definitely stop listening,” Parker recalled of their early struggle.
Unsuccessfully creating and pitching several pilots, Parker and Stone briefly worked with Fox where network executive Brian Graden wrote them a personal check to create a sequel to their early short film, Jesus vs. Frosty. While Graden promoted the film to industry executives, someone else put the video online where it became one of the first viral videos in internet history. Before long, Jesus vs. Frosty gained a cult following but, even then, Fox refused to pick up the series because of its crude humor. That’s what led Parker and Stone to leave Fox and start negotiations with Comedy Central and MTV.
Parker ultimately decided that Comedy Central was a better fit for the show’s style of humor and was elated when Comedy Central executive Doug Herzog commissioned the short into a full series. Given a budget of $300,000 and using Parker’s early cut paper animation technique, Parker and Stone spent three months working on the pilot episode and named the new series, South Park, after a small town in the Colorado basin known for its folklore and UFO sightings. The pilot aired in August 1997 on Comedy Central and instantly became one of the most popular cable television shows making Comedy Central a top cable network.
Settling into Fame: South Park and Other Projects
With the overnight success of South Park, Parker and Stone became instant celebrities but never envisioned the series would last more than a season. Although they struggled writing the second and third seasons of the show, they finally found their rhythm and adopted a one-week turnaround to write, animate, and broadcast the show to ensure its spontaneity. With South Park now entering its 21st season, Parker and Stone continue to find ways to keep the show fresh and fun for themselves and for their massive audience.
“I think it’s just the fact that we do it ourselves, instead of hiring young writers, which might make it better,” Parker says. “But we sort of view it as our band. And so, every season is our new album, and we don’t want to get bored, so we always try to do something a little different. Each season, each album we want to make is just a little bit different, and expresses different things, and I think you can kind of watch us grow up—or down—over the last 20 years. But I think that’s the big thing: it’s never become a show by committee.”
That perspective and the combined talents between Parker and Stone are what have earned South Park millions of adoring fans and numerous awards including five Primetime Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, and an Academy Award nomination. It’s also what’s afforded the duo to expand their talents with other projects like That’s My Bush! (2000-01) and Team America (2002-04). In 2008, Parker and Stone opted to tackle another dream—musical theater—and teamed up with writer and composer Robert Lopez on a theatrical project—a musical titled The Book of Mormon: The Musical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Spending four years perfecting the project, Parker and Stone anticipated an off-Broadway debut but opted to open it directly on Broadway in 2011. The production received rave reviews and has since expanded into two national tours with a film adaptation in the works.
Following the success of South Park and The Book of Mormon, Parker and Stone put some of their fortune aside to launch their production studio, Important Studios. In recent years, Parker has even extended his reach to the silver screen as the voice of villain Balthazar Bratt in the 2017 Disney film, Despicable Me 3. For Parker, the decision to take the role was easy thanks to his daughter.
“Honestly, when it came into my agent that they were asking me to do this, first I was flattered. I was just like, ‘Well, no one’s ever asked me to do that before!’ But it really was because my daughter was two at the time, and so she was just getting into starting to watch things,” Parker said. “The idea of doing something that my daughter could actually watch was really appealing. Being able to take her to a premiere for something that I wouldn’t get in trouble for her seeing!”
While many criticized Parker for doing the children’s film, Parker brushes off the idea and promises he didn’t do it for a paycheck. “I’m like, ‘Dude, trust me, I’ll show you the pay stub—I didn’t sell out.’ I made that much off of Book of Mormon in one night. It wasn’t that,” he says. “There were people going, ‘Oh, he’s got a daughter—he’s going soft now.’ Meanwhile, I’m writing last season’s episodes of South Park and I'm just like, ‘Just watch the show.’ I definitely don’t feel that way. I have those two lives.”
With the promise that he’s not going soft, the award-winning Parker continues to push the envelope in the industry, which is exactly why he’s not afraid of South Park coming to an end. In fact, he and Stone have been waiting on ‘the end’ for decades. “Every year in the middle of the season, we say, ‘Ok this is it.’ And we really thought that two seasons ago when we were doing all the PC Principal stuff. We were like, ‘This is it—we’re going to get run out of town with our middle finger up.’ Because we felt the culture changing, and I think it still is on that track,” Parker says.
Refusing to play it safe, South Park is still going strong but even Parker knows that the end is coming. “The witch hunt is coming. Our day is coming. One of these days, out of nowhere, we’ll do something and they’ll go, ‘How dare you!’ and we’ll be done. But what people don’t realize is, we’ve thought this for 20 years. We’ve been ready for it. Our bags are packed in the car and we’re ready to go back to Colorado. And it’s cool, man.”
While the 48-year-old Parker might be perfectly fine with packing his bags and heading back to his native Colorado, there’s no rush to do so—at least not yet. Instead, he stays busy working on South Park and reaping the benefits of creations like The Book of Mormon that have earned him a cool $500 million. So, how does he spend it all? While Parker is the first to admit that he partied hard in his early years prior to his first marriage to Emma Suglyama in 2006, a divorce in 2008 was enough of a wakeup call to settle him down. Now, he’s happily married to Boogie Tillmon and, contrary to popular belief, hasn’t gone soft now that he’s a father to his stepson and daughter, Betty Boogie Parker (2013). As for the secret to his success and the popularity of South Park, Parker says it’s simple—“I think one of the reasons the show has survived is that it has a big heart at its center.” That it does—crude humor and all!