Yes, I’m serious. My post today is about the storytelling lessons we can learn from possibly the most tasteless and offensive TV show of all time: South Park.
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually watched an episode of South Park in quite a long time. But I’ve seen many episodes over the years, and I am embarrassingly fond of the movie Team America (one of the most tasteless and offensive movies I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the funniest), which was also written and directed by the creators of South Park: Matt Stone and Trey Parker. So I feel confident that they continue to be tasteless, offensive and funny – and damn good storytellers.
I recently stumbled onto a very brief video clip of Stone and Parker making a guest appearance at what appears to be a film class at NYU, and I was struck by the simple but powerful lesson they shared.
That’s the curse of funny people: it’s easy to forget that part of the reason they are so funny is because they take the craft so seriously.
I’ll admit, I was a little surprised by how seriously these two took the concept of storytelling when talking to a group of students. But that’s the curse of funny people: it’s easy to forget that part of the reason they are so funny is because they take the craft so seriously.
It’s not hard to imagine Stone and Parker just sitting in a writers’ room making fart jokes all day long, but you don’t keep a show running for 18 seasons as one of the highest-rated series on Comedy Central by accident. No, there’s some brainpower at work here, which became clear as Matt and Trey addressed their audience.
Cause and effect
In discussing how their writers’ room worked, they revealed that although they brainstorm and develop individual funny scenes, the key to turning those scenes into an actual story is in making sure that each scene causes the next scene to occur.
Why is this important? Because if there’s no relationship of cause and effect between scenes, you end up with simply a list of events or plot points, without anything driving the story forward. Parker pointed out how this is a common problem in the work of inexperienced writers, but Stone noted that he sees similar problems even in some current films, leaving him wondering, “What the @#$% am I watching this movie for?”
To avoid this pitfall in their own work, the South Park writers developed a very simple litmus test for determining whether they had achieved the desired causation between scenes, by seeing whether one of two words could be inserted between each scene: [Read more…]