South Park, that show you perhaps vaguely recall from the '90s for being crappily animated and totally tasteless. People have been headin’ on up to South Park for two decades now, and there’s something that business owners can pick up on their way through this town in Colorado.
Currently in the middle of its 20th season, South Park is the second-longest running animation of all time, behind only The Simpsons.
But while The Simpsons has seen a marked decline in quality over the second half of its record-breaking run, South Park has arguably only improved with age, with the current season taking on such weighty issues as internet trolls, privacy, the US election and – of course – Donald Trump.
This ability to remain not only consistently successful, but also relevant, provides some vital lessons for business owners:
1. Embrace your limitations
The first episode of South Park was filmed using stop-motion techniques, created entirely by hand using construction paper. An arduous, three-month process, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (pictured right) swiftly made the move to software animation, but kept the extremely basic aesthetic.
And though plenty of people have been reluctant to embrace the show due to this “crappy” (as Stone has described it) animation, it has in fact become a real strength.
Whereas most cartoons take the better part of a year to produce due to the in-depth animation process, each episode of South Park is turned around in just six days.
This allows the show to reference incidents that have occurred only days and sometimes hours before going to air, making their style of satire the most biting on television.
In their book A Beautiful Constraint, Adam Morgan and Mark Barden of eatbigfish note that “A constraint should be regarded as a stimulus for positive change — we can choose to use it as an impetus to explore something new and arrive at a breakthrough.”
It’s exactly what Parker and Stone have done for 20 years, and what we should be aiming to do in our own businesses.
2. Stay lean and nimble
Having an entire 22-minute show written, performed and animated in the space of just 144 hours is unheard of in cartoons – hell, it takes longer than that to put together an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
It’s a gruelling process, with producer Frank Agnone once noting, “We work between 100 and 120 hours in a seven-day week to deliver the episodes.”
The process is only possible because they do all the work in-house at South Park Studios, whereas most other shows farm the animation work out to cheaper studios overseas.
The harrowing schedule also means they only produce 10 episodes per season, but that gives them the rest of the year to explore other creative endeavours.
This has led to the duo creating films such as Team America: World Police, other TV shows (the single-season sitcom spoof That’s My Bush!), universally praised video game The Stick of Truth (with another on the way), and even the Tony-award winning Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon.
It has also allowed Parker and Stone to change South Park itself, with the two most recent seasons being serialised story arcs as opposed to the one-offs of the previous 18 years.
Parker and Stone’s ability to pivot from a variety of creative platforms while maintaining control of their central product is a testament to their business agility.
Add in the fact some 70 people work at South Park Studios in LA, and that the show itself is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to parent company Viacom, and it basically decimates any excuse you may peddle about why your own company takes years to implement new strategies.
3. Grow with your audience
While South Park continues to centre around the adventures of Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny, over time the show has grown to have a much broader ensemble of characters.
This season has had a particular focus on Kyle’s father, Gerald Broflovski, and his secret internet trolling, while Stan’s father, Randy Marsh, has been a prominent character and fan favourite for a number of years.
“A lot of the jokes moved from the boys to the adults,” Stone said in a recent interview.
“So instead of Stan or any of the other boys having this big voice, it’s Randy who has this big voice, and it’s because that is who we relate to now. Luckily Stan has a grandpa because the jokes will probably move to him eventually.”
The four boys are still prominent, but Parker and Stone have made the adults in South Park a bigger feature, as they themselves are 20 years older than when they started – and so are their audience.
While it may have happened organically, the show has changed over time to reflect that both the creators and the people tuning in have grown.
You don’t want to kill the goose that lays golden eggs, but at the same time the original formula isn’t going to always work.
4. Be fearless and don’t compromise your values
Chef was a central character for South Park’s first 10 years, until Isaac Hayes, who voiced the character, had quit due to the show satirising Scientology. Hayes, a Scientologist, cited the show’s “ntolerance and bigotry toward religious beliefs as the reason for his departure.
In response, Stone said “In 10 years and over 150 episodes of South Park, Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslims, Mormons or Jews.”
He also told the AP that he and Parker “never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we did Scientology. He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin.”
For two guys that make a show with a bedrock of toilet humour, Parker and Stone are incredibly principled, describing themselves as equal opportunity offenders. In essence, if you've laughed at them making fun of a particular religion or sect of society, you have no grounds to be offended when it’s your patch being lampooned.
It’s got them in plenty of trouble over the years, and even censored by their network.
In short, the pair are fearless, refusing to bow to anyone, even at risk to their own lives.
Now, you don’t need to go around pissing everybody off to be successful, but you do need to stand for something. Have principles that you build your business upon, and don’t compromise those core values for anyone or anything.
It may cost you some business, but do you really want to work with or for people who don’t agree with something you fundamentally stand for?
Jason Dooris is the CEO of Atomic 212°.
*Images courtesy Michael Yarish and Comedy Central.