3 Lessons in Storytelling from South Park: Lexicon Late Night Episode 7

David: Hello. Welcome to another episode of Lexicon Late Night. I’m your co-host, David Norcross, here with my fellow co-host, Justin St-Denis. As you know, in this series, we talk about some of the world’s best storytellers and try to learn lessons from them that we can apply to business. Today, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite storytelling duos of all time. It is Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the founders, creators, writers, voiceover artists of South Park.

So you’ve probably all heard of South Park. For those of you who are not fans, you probably imagine it to be a very crass, poorly drawn, profane, absurd, silly, ridiculous show. And you’re right. It is all of those things. However, it’s so much more within the absurd premise of these cut out little cartoon characters. There are deep storytelling lessons and best practices that we can all learn from. The show’s been running for quite a while now, right?

Justin: Yeah, so it originally aired in 1997. They’re now in their 26th season, spanning four decades, really. And the show has been incredibly successful. They’ve won a bunch of Emmy Awards. The South Park movie ‘Bigger, Longer and Uncut’ won an Academy Award for, of all things, best original song for Blame Canada. And as a Canadian, we don’t sound like that, guy.

David: Come on, buddy.

Justin: Don’t call me buddy, pal. But we all find it hilarious with the weird garbage can heads that flap around. As a Canadian, any time Americans mention us, we’re like, “Hey, they’re talking about us.” So yeah, very successful show. Obviously, they’ve courted a lot of controversy. They’ve made fun of tons of celebrities. The show is actually banned in China because of a fairly recent episode called Band in China. China really kind of did what was expected of them on that one. But as you were saying, obviously it is crass, silly, profane, poorly drawn on purpose. But there are reasons why it’s so successful. And like you said, it’s because of their approach and dedication to storytelling.

David: Exactly. So let’s jump into the first lesson, which is the focus on storytelling and structure. Now, the movie that you mentioned already, Justin, we’re not going to go into the hero’s journey because I think we’ve covered it every other episode. I think we have. But it is a perfect hero’s journey. That story flows so well, it hits all the right beats at the right times, and it’s a musical. I love that movie. I think it’s the movie I’ve seen more than any other movie, but we’re not going to talk about that today.

Justin: That says a lot about you, though, seeing that movie more than once. I have.

David: I’ve seen it at least 20 times. And obviously in that movie, there’s a lot of great family related songs about uncles and other members of the family.

Justin: Sure, it’s wholesome, good family fun.

David: Very wholesome. So let’s get to the first lesson then, Justin. So we’ve got a clip, I believe.

Justin: Yeah. So here’s a clip of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators, writers and voiceover actors of South Park, as you mentioned earlier, lecturing at a university seminar on writing and storytelling. So let’s hit the clip.

*Plays clip

David: Amazing. I know we’ve discussed how silly they are, but that structure, it’s so simplistic, but it’s such powerful storytelling because it forces you into building a good story, right?

Justin: Yeah, of course. If you have characters that are strong and you use this storytelling structure, you only need to come up with a premise. And then the episode almost writes itself.

David: And so they’ve always got this fantastic structure in every single episode, however absurd or silly it might be. There’s this underlying structural foundation that means that even the ones that don’t hit, they still have a really clear narrative. And there are also quite a sweet couple. They always have a little moral at the end. There’s always a lesson to learn in there, like some kind of ancient fable. So these guys really are storytellers at their core. And as silly as they seem, they really they’re as structured as any great writer could be.

Justin: And so that’s the lesson here for business leaders, is you can use this principle of not going and then and then and then using the therefore but principle. So in any content that you create, be it blogs, video scripts, in particular captions, social media captions are an excellent way to use this principle because if you’re just doing a hard sell, you’re going, we do this, we do this, this is great. You need us. That’s just. And then. And then. And then. There’s no story there. So if you can set it up this way, you go. Provocative opening statement or question. Okay. Therefore relevant background information. But you can’t do all of these things on your own. Therefore, or you might need help from us. That’s just the perfect way to structure the story of a caption.

David: Keep people on the slippery slope all the way through to the end.

Justin: Yeah. It’s the age-old writing lesson: The whole purpose of the first sentence is to get people to read the second sentence and so on until they’ve read the entire piece. And if you use this principle of “therefore/but’,  then if you have a good idea to begin with, then the thing kind of writes itself.

David: All right. So I think that’s the LinkedIn snippet probably right there that we’ve got. Sure. Well, can we just play a little thought experiment here for YouTube, for the real fans, for the folks at home? So you remember the 2004 election episode? Yes. Giant Douche and Turd Sandwich. Yes, of course. So let’s just go through that therefore. But premise. Okay.

Justin: I don’t remember it as well as the Casa Bonita episode.

David: So the South Park School mascot is a cow, but PETA wants them to change it. Okay.

Justin: Therefore they need to come up with new mascots.

David: So, they have an election. But the only people who but the only people who actually want to run for it are not taking it seriously. So they put together a giant douche and turd sandwich. Therefore, this.

Justin: Creates a moral dilemma for Stan, who doesn’t want to have to vote between the two. Exactly. Because the only picks are a giant douche and a turd sandwich.

David: Right. But they say he has to vote because that’s democracy. Therefore, he gets banned from South Park and sent to live in the forest with PETA. Yeah, but PETA take him in. Therefore he learns about their ways. But it seems they’re marrying animals. Therefore he has to leave. Yeah.

Justin: And then ultimately learn the importance of democracy. Exactly.

David: Exactly. Yeah.

Justin: There’s also P Diddy in this episode. Vote or die. Yeah. Yeah. Uh, yeah. I like your ass when you vote, bitch. He says that he does the song we can bleep this. In quotes.

David: In quotes.

Justin: Yes.

David: So definitely even that is a serious topic. They can make it fantastic. And that’s what’s great about South Park is that they can never pick a side ever. They’re just like, everything is dumb from every angle and we’re going to just analyze it.

Justin: But not in a nihilistic kind of way because there is a danger of falling into the okay, nothing matters. They always find a way to there’s always like an angle and some kind of lesson to it. And they’re equal opportunity offenders. And that’s something that they do very well, which actually leads us pretty nicely to our second lesson here. Exactly.

David: So they do try to look at both sides of an argument, and they do it by focusing on contemporary topics. So 2004 was the election. Obviously, at the moment the world’s going crazy, but every year, whatever’s happening, they do try and incorporate that into their storytelling.

Justin: There’s another episode that is not the storytelling point, but just the looking at both sides of an argument point where the rednecks, they love their country and so they want to have a patriotic song, country festival. And this is during the Iraq war, right? So it’s obviously very tumultuous times. It seems like it’s always tumultuous times in America for both sides. At least 500 years. Yeah, for sure. I mean, that’s so but the point of the episode is that the liberals who are anti war, want to protest the war and have a rock music festival, whereas the rednecks who are pro war want to have a country music festival. And then Cartman does this dumb thing where he knocks himself out because he’ll go back in time. So he doesn’t want to work on the school project with the other guys. And then he comes up with this elaborate way to go see what it was like with the Founding Fathers. And anyway, ultimately the lesson is that you need both sides, you need liberals and you need conservatives. And that tension between the two, that constant arguing is what creates better results for the world. So Americans would do well to remember this today.

David: Yes. If any Americans are watching, please do pay attention. But for South Park, as you said, they’ve been around 25, 26 years already. That’s a long time for any show to be on TV. Most shows don’t make it past ten seasons. Ten seasons is a lot of shows. Why have they been able to have so much longevity?

Justin: Yeah. So as we were saying, they comment on current events. A lot of the episodes are very topical in the current season right now, their 26th season, they make fun of Kanye West, they make fun of Harry and Meghan Markle. There’s a word I’m avoiding using there because of the country that we’re in.

David: That’s fine. It’s the British monarchy. Sure. Okay. Hundred percent British. I’m British. It’s his monarchy, too, Right? Exactly. We’re all good.

Justin: The King of England is also the King of Canada. Yes, And I’m happy about it.

David: I’m sure you are. But let’s talk about that a little bit, because it’s a great example. It’s contemporary. Obviously, we, Harry and Meghan, they are very visible. They’re on TV a lot, documentaries. They’ve got a book coming out that’s dishing dirt on the royal family. They’re very, very visible, seemingly by design.

Justin: Yeah. And yet their main complaint is that they want their privacy, which is exactly what the South Park episode makes fun of them for.

David: It is an absurd situation and it deserves to be treated as such. And South Park does a great job.

Justin: So they do that. They comment on current events, but they also have certain stories that are entirely character driven. So they do a nice mix of both. And I think the lesson here for business leaders is that you should definitely comment on topical things. So depending on your industry like ChatGPT, comment on that, the PDPA, all of these kinds of things, how supply chain disruptions will affect businesses due to the war in Ukraine. All of these things are worth commenting on, but in whatever industry you’re in, there are certain things that will always remain true. So we call this ‘Evergreen Content’ where it doesn’t really matter when you’re posting it because these principles are true today. They’ll be true in ten years. They were true ten years ago.

David: Absolutely. So that 2004 election episode is true. Every single election, the choices are always those two options. But anyway, businesses have to stay relevant because customers change industries and companies that don’t evolve die. Blockbuster was replaced by Netflix. Hotels are going the way of Airbnb. So as you said, you need some to stay relevant to lead conversation, to be a thought leader, you’ve got to be talking about contemporary stuff, but especially for things like SEO, you need that evergreen content that’s going to last a long time. That will always be helpful, like a guide to doing business in Thailand, right? It doesn’t change that much. Going back.

Justin: Good example of evergreen content for South Park is just the development of the other characters. So like, for example, Randy, he was definitely just a side character. But as the show evolved, they realized the potential of that character. And then there are certain episodes that are entirely just Randy based, and he is a fantastic character. Like the one I have in mind is the one where he has a few too many beers and then he drives home and then he has to join Alcoholics Anonymous. I should have, but and then therefore this whole thing. Yeah, but just the fact that they have this, like, rich cast of characters, they can tap into them whenever they want to do one of these evergreen episodes. But then whenever something comes up in the news and current events, they can comment on that as well. So yeah, business leaders should be doing the same thing.

David: So I think we’ve got our LinkedIn clips already. Again, I want to segue here. So this topic actually is super relevant to the movie as well. So you’re probably a bit young too when the movie came out, I guess I was 16.

Justin: So this is what, 1997. 1So I would have been nine years old. So a bit young. But I’ve seen it.

David: I think it came out after the first season, maybe of the second season. So there’s like three layers of things happening in that movie. There’s a simple hero’s journey narrative, which is funny, but then obviously the concept of the movie is that these innocent kids go and see a dirty cartoon which makes the kids swear, which causes the parents to complain, right? It was a meta commentary on what they’d experienced in the first first 1 or 2 seasons. And the whole lesson was like, it’s not our responsibility to raise your kids for you. Yeah, like we’re a dirty cartoon. Like if you can’t take care of your kids properly and it kind of fits into that zeitgeist. It was the same like Eminem kind of era, Marilyn Manson kind of era. There was a lot of that going on. So even from the start, they’ve always been very meta and commentating on what’s happening around them, what’s happening to them, and there’s nowhere else to fit this in. But obviously they’re going to the Oscars moment.

Justin: I actually remember we had a memo sent out by the teachers to all of the parents saying, ‘Don’t let your kids watch South Park because it’s making them swear so much.’

David:  And it happens in the movie.

Justin: Yeah, and we were definitely doing that.

David: Um, hopefully no singing about Kyle’s mom.

Justin: Well… Don’t say it. Don’t do it, Cartman. Um. Okay, so getting a little off track here. So let’s, let’s bring it back to the lessons to business leaders. So our third and final point, we have a clip for this one. And this is all about following a proven process. So let’s hit the clip.

*Plays clip

David: Amazing. I didn’t know they did this even. The six days to air thing, I had no idea that’s how they put it together. But I guess that’s why they can be so contemporary. Like when there’s a new election, there’s a new president coming out. They’re able to have an episode that week with the new president, right?

Justin: Yeah, they did that with Barack Obama when he was elected over John McCain.

David: And they tried to do it with Hillary, but they made it about Hillary and then it wasn’t Hillary. So they had to pull it out in the end. I didn’t know that. Yeah, in the Trump election.

Justin: On the six days to produce an episode that seems insane. It does. I don’t think there’s any other animated show that does that because animation, as we know here at Lexicon, is very labor intensive and takes a long time. Yep.

David: That’s the benefit of having that simple style that they’ve now got computer programs for. But it’s incredible that they can go through the six days they’re in a room with the whiteboard. The first day or two, they’re coming up with ideas. They start to script it day three, then they start to animate it. Then the voiceover work at the end. I think they’ve only ever missed one episode in all these years from doing that.

Justin:  But it’s, you know. Do you remember which one? Offhand, I don’t either.

David: No. No, I don’t.

Justin: Perhaps one of the more controversial ones.

David: Yeah, I don’t think it was. I think they just had nothing. They just couldn’t put together something quality that week.

Justin: Which actually goes to a point we’ve made in a previous episode of Lexicon Late Night, if you don’t have anything that’s good enough to post, you’re better off not posting.

David: Right. So their process is insane, first of all, given that they write it, they do the voiceover that they, Trey and Matt, I mean, they never have a bad day. Like how were they able to do that every week? It’s incredible. But as you were saying, the lesson is a proven process. Doesn’t have to be six days. It can be six months, six weeks, six years, six hours, whatever it is. But if you’re doing something right, you need to build a process to make sure that you can replicate it. You can bring other people in. You can make sure that the success you’re having one time is repeatable.

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. So you need to set up a calendar and you need to find a way to stick to that calendar. And the way to do that is with a proven process of a timeline. Okay, So here’s step one, step two, step three, step four, publish, and then you need to coordinate effectively between teams. In this case, these guys, it’s all the things you said. It’s scriptwriting. Well, it starts with brainstorming and then there’s script writing, then there’s animation, then there’s voiceover acting. And then of course there’s editing at the end. And the fact that they have this process and it’s repeatable and it’s documented, this is what makes them able to do this crazy thing of producing an episode in six days.

David: Absolutely. So you can usually do this yourself if you’re a business, but you might need to get a consultant in to sometimes help you put together your process. But a question for you, Justin. What is the proven process for producing Lexicon Late Night?

Justin: Good, good question. Thank you. So.

David: Of course, so we have social media calendars for the two of us, for our personal brands or executive brands on LinkedIn. And then based on these calendars, we have certain dates where we would need a Lexicon Late Night clip to go live that day. So therefore that determines when we need to shoot an episode when we’re about to run out of content, that’s when we produce new episodes. So it’s almost like a six days to air situation, to be honest, because two Mondays ago we decided, okay, so we saw we were running out of content in the bank, so we need to film another one. We decided we have a bunch of episodes and topics that we wanted to cover. We both chose South Park. We had a little brainstorming session about the points that we could cover. I went and wrote the outline last week, and showed it to you. You had some notes for the outline. We’ve got the outline done. We send it to the video guys to prepare. We have a little pow wow session before the shoot to make sure we’ve got all our points covered. Then we shoot the actual content. Then the video editors do their brilliant work of putting all of this together, selecting the clips and so on. I write all the captions or the team writes the captions and I check them and then we schedule and we’re ready to go. So you’re seeing this today. We filmed this probably about a month ago, and everything that happened before that took about two weeks.

David: And obviously we filmed in this glamorous production studio in Bangkok that we’re in right now with the beautiful city background and the big moon behind us.

Justin: Yeah, it is nice, isn’t it? It’s not just a green curtain. Of course. Sorry. Breaking the fourth wall there.

David: It’s Conan O’Brien’s studio.  So even something as simple as just two. Two fellas having a little chat. Something as simple as this. It takes a lot of prep to make sure it gets right. Pre-production is as important as anything else. The animation of South Park on its own is not that impressive. It’s the storytelling. It’s the structure. Combine all those pieces together and you get something truly brilliant.

Justin: Yeah. So just to recap lessons here for business leaders. Okay. Number one, storytelling. Okay. Don’t go. And then. And then. And then you need to therefore and then but. You can therefore and but your way all to the end. And then you can make something great with that as long as you start with a good idea. Point number two is to comment on current events, but also don’t forget to produce evergreen content as well. And lesson number three, proven process.

David: Absolutely. And watch the whole video to learn more because that’ll be a good LinkedIn clip. And very meta description there. So I think that’s it. South Park, if you haven’t ever seen it, there’s probably about 1,000 episodes to watch, so get caught up. Lots of great lessons here. Have fun with it, as those guys do. You don’t have to be so serious, but underneath, every successful campaign is a good story. And if all else fails, Blame Canada.

Justin: Yeah. Come on, guy.

David:Thank you. Good night.


About the speakers.

The speakers are members of Lexicon’s executive team with over 40 years of marketing experience between them. Lexicon is a leading digital agency in Bangkok, Thailand. 

David Norcross is Lexicon CEO and an award-winning entrepreneur with a focus on B2B storytelling.

Justin St-Denis is Lexicon Director of Digital Storytelling, a former journalist and an experienced social media strategist.



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