When it comes to success stories in the entertainment world, it does not get much better than the one about a pair of regular guys from Colorado, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who took cutout paper dolls, animated them and triumphed on cable television, on the Web, at the multiplex and on Broadway.
Last week, Stone arrived at a coffee shop in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York so bundled up that he resembled Kenny, who always shows up on "South Park" encased in a big orange parka. He was leaving the next day for London, where the fourth production of "The Book of Mormon" will soon begin a run.
Over the course of 16 seasons and 237 episodes, "South Park," an assault on good taste built on the misadventures of four crudely animated and crudely spoken boys, has entered every pore of the culture. In the meantime, the two creators have helped put Comedy Central on the map, made four feature films, produced a sitcom and landed a Broadway hit with "Book of Mormon," produced by Scott Rudin and Anne Garefino, and created along with Robert Lopez.
Now Stone and Parker are about to finish a video game version of "South Park," and they recently announced that they were forming a production company called Important Studios, valued at $300 million.
The success of "South Park" is a stark lesson in the fundamentals of entertainment: If you tell stories that people want to hear, the audience will find you.
This is true no matter how fundamentally the paradigms shift, or how many platforms evolve.
"We've been doing it long enough to figure out that content will ride on top of whatever wave comes along," Stone said.
You might think that after all they've accomplished, they would be ready to step back a bit, and this is essentially true. Don't worry, they aren't going to actually kill Kenny, who is ritually sacrificed in every episode. But "South Park," which generally has been produced in two batches of seven episodes for a total of 14 every year, will be cut back to a single run of 10 episodes, beginning on Sept. 25.
"Why did we do seven and seven to begin with?" Stone said. "We just sort of made that up. And we are switching to 10 for the same reason. It just sounded like a good number, and we won't break up the year so we can more easily do other stuff."
The change sounds casually tossed off, but there is nothing unformed about the thinking that drives their choices.
"There is no appointment viewing anymore," Stone said. "In our first season, you had to show up on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on the comedy channel to catch the show. Now, I don't even know where or how people watch our show. We sort of don't really care about ratings. It's more important to come up with work that will add to the library in a way that we're proud of and will make people want to catch the show wherever they want to."
That could happen on Netflix, on iTunes, on an ad-supported streaming format on Hulu, or hosted by the servers in the Los Angeles offices of Stone's and Parker's company.
The two men had the prescience to negotiate a 50-50 split on all digital revenue with Comedy Central, and part of the reason they remain so engaged is that they have real participation in the "South Park" enterprise.
"We have always owned our stuff or acted like we do," Stone said as he worked his way through a late lunch. He pointed to Louis C.K., the comedian who took his last comedy special directly to fans on the Web, as an example of an artist moving to the sweet spot of the business that she or he creates.
"Owning your own stuff means that you control not only the content, but the life you are living while you are producing it," he said. "And then, if things go well, you can be part of the upside."
Stone thinks it's silly for creators to rely only on outside financing. Why drop years of sweat equity into creating something but not invest any cold hard cash?
"It took us four years to work out 'Book of Mormon,' and when you think of the opportunity cost of that — other projects that we walked by — it would be sort of silly not to put money in," he said.
As a result, they have a big stake in "The Book of Mormon," which is about to clone its fourth version in London — following New York, Chicago and a touring production — and has combined gross income approaching $5 million a week. That is part of the reason that they were able to create a studio.
"Disruption is overrated," he said. "If you tell good stories, the platforms are sort of beside the point. We made the most analog thing you can think of, a play at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, and it worked out as well as anything we have ever done."
He went on to suggest that each time new a distribution avenue opens, it has become a window of opportunity for their content. In a week when Netflix broke through to report a profit and Apple seemed to bump up against the upper limits of the hardware that delivers entertainment, the "South Park" guys are proving anew that content will maintain value.
"Nobody even cared about DVD rights when we got started," Stone said. "There was nothing there. But we started with shows on half-inch tape and people bought them, and then it was DVDs, and then the Web, now iPads and Netflix. Each time, it worked out."
Doug Herzog, president of the Viacom Entertainment Group, which owns Comedy Central, echoed that sentiment.
"'South Park' has yet to meet a platform it hasn't been able to conquer," Herzog said. "We're happy to take as many or as few as they can produce. Frankly, I'm surprised it took them this long to get to a schedule like this."
Reached by phone, Parker, a musician as well, said "South Park" ran like a rock band. "Now instead of putting out two albums a year, we are only going to do one, which is more manageable and ensures that it will be something we are proud of."
Given the loyal and frantic fan base for "South Park," the creators' decision to cut back on the number of annual episodes would seem risky — except they have been right about a lot of things and have the artistic and financial independence to show for it.
"We want to keep 'South Park' going for a long time to come, and given what is going on in television, I don't think it matters as much how many episodes you have," Stone said.
And just in case I did not grasp the level of devotion that Parker and Stone inspire, a young man suddenly stepped up to our table with his shirt off. He began speaking rapidly about the impact of "South Park" on his life. He explained that he took off his shirt so we would not forget him, but later Stone could not remember his name.
"He will forever be 'shirtless dude' to me," he said.