DATE October 14, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Matt Stone talks about the new movie, "Team America:
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Matt Stone, co-created the animated comedy series "South Park" with
Trey Parker. Now Parker and Stone have a new movie called "Team America:
World Police." It's a send-up of action films and all the roles are played by
marionettes. The premise is Team America, an international anti-terrorist
police force, is hunting down a terrorist cell which possesses weapons of mass
destruction. In an early scene, the Team America force goes to Paris. They
take aim at terrorists hiding out there, but, oops, they miss the terrorists
and accidentally blow up the Eiffel Tower. They need help infiltrating the
terrorist group, so they recruit the one actor good enough to convincingly
pose as a terrorist, the star of the Broadway musical "Lease." "Lease" is
the filmmakers' hilarious parody of the musical, "Rent."
Every convention of action films is satirized in this movie, and these cliches
look particularly ludicrous enacted by puppets. We see marionettes talking
tough, shooting automatic weapons, blowing other marionettes through plate
glass windows. And there are tender moments in which marionettes passionately
make love. Politically, the film mocks everyone--arrogant Americans,
terrorists, dictators, the UN and celebrities turned political activists.
Here's a scene in which Kim Jong Il, sounding very much like one of the kids
on "South Park," is in his palace about to greet Hans Blix.
(Soundbite of "Team America: World Police")
Unidentified Man #1: (As Kim Jong Il) (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken) Hans Brix (foreign language
Unidentified Man #1: (As Kim Jong Il) Hans Brix! Oh, no!
Oh, hero. Great to see you again, Hans.
Unidentified Man #4: (As Hans Blix) Mr. Il, I was supposed to be allowed to
inspect your palace today, and your guards won't let me in to certain areas.
Unidentified Man #1: (As Kim Jong Il) Hans, Hans, Hans, we've been through
this a dozen times. I don't have any weapons of mass destruction, OK, Hans?
Unidentified Man #3: (As Hans Blix) Then let me look around so I can ease the
UN's collective mind. I'm sorry, but the UN must be firm with you. Let me
see your whole palace, or else.
Unidentified Man #1: (As Kim Jong Il) Or else what?
Unidentified Man #3: (As Hans Blix) Or else we will be very, very angry with
you, and we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are.
Unidentified Man #1: (As Kim Jong Il) OK. I show you, Hans. You ready?
Stand well to your reft.
(Soundbite of ominous music)
Unidentified Man #1: (As Kim Jong Il) Rittle more. Good.
(Soundbite of click, splash)
Unidentified Man #3: (As Hans Blix) (Makes gurgling, shouting noises)
Unidentified Man #1: (As Kim Jong Il) There you go, Hans Brix!
GROSS: What we're hearing is Hans Blix falling through a trap door into a
giant fish tank, where he's eaten by a piranha, a takeoff from a scene in a
James Bond film. I asked Matt Stone what inspired him to do a big action film
using marionette puppets.
Mr. MATT STONE ("Team America: World Police"): About that time, "The Day
After Tomorrow," the global warming movie, was sold to Fox, and it was this
big splash in the trades about how they got this huge, you know--there was a
spec script, they got all this money. And the one-liner that they were
selling the movie on, like sudden global warming causes worldwide catastrophe
and causes massive flooding and all these people dying, was just hilarious to
us. I mean, it turned out to be pretty funny in the movie, as it ended up,
but just even as a pitch, it was a funny pitch. So we got--through our
agents, we got a copy, an advance copy of the script, you know. This was
before "The Day After Tomorrow" was even shot, and we realized it's like this
is it. This is what we should do with puppets. You know, it just reeked of
that overwrought, you know, big-budget, trying to hit, you know, 15 locations
around the world, you know, having all these different characters, figuring
out a way to flood New York City and then figuring out a way to freeze it, you
know, figuring out these things just so you could have all these set pieces.
And it was really then that we were just like, that's what we should do with
puppets; the bigger and more overwrought, the better.
And then later, it kind of developed into a political thing with the world
police concept and everything, but it was a combination of just being kind of
raised on big overwrought Hollywood action movies, Bruckheimer movies, Roland
Emmerich movies, and being inspired by "Thunderbirds" and Gerry Anderson.
GROSS: Now, you know, one of the really funny scenes in the movie is a
send-up of the love scene that is in every action film, where like the two
characters kiss for the first time, and then--well, particularly in like '80s
movies, this turns into like the rock video sequence that's going to be like
lifted out and used as the rock video.
Mr. STONE: Right.
GROSS: So there's like an irritating, awful love ballad playing in the
background, and the characters...
Mr. STONE: Right.
GROSS: ...they kiss for the first time, then they take off their clothes, and
then she runs her finger down his tight abs, and then...
Mr. STONE: Right, yes.
GROSS: And then they start to really go at it and have sex. But you want to
describe the puppet version of this?
Mr. STONE: You know, when we first thought of the idea--Trey is a huge
musical fan, and basically, like, wants to do a musical out of everything, and
originally he was like, `We got to do a musical about this.' But then musical
wouldn't work with the Bruckheimer action movie. There was just no way to get
both those things to work. And the more we kind of looked at Bruckheimer
movies, the more we realized that they really are kind of musicals, and even
those movies that aren't musicals--you know, like you were talking about the
kind of cheesy '80s movies where people have the kiss and then they fall in
love and let's do a song. That's kind of a musical. You know, it's kind a
music video version of a musical.
Mr. STONE: But yeah, that's--we did a lot of those kind of songs in the
movie, and there's always the--you know, you have to have that one where, you
know, they kiss for the first time, then you cut in--usually in a lot of
movies, they cut and it's the next morning in bed. But of course, you know,
we didn't want to do that. We wanted to have puppets have sex, and of course,
because they're puppets, we thought we could just do anything with them and
get away with it. But the joke was supposed to be--and the joke could be in a
live-action movie, too, that they're going to kiss for the first time, and
then they end up just having this two-minute, like--well, the condensed
eight-hour sexcapade. But in our version, it was about a two-minute
sex-making, love-making scene between the puppets that the MPAA had us cut
down to about 40 seconds.
GROSS: You know, I found that interesting. I read that the MPAA wanted to
give you--What was it?--an NC-17?
Mr. STONE: Yeah. I mean, what you do in the MPAA is you submit it to the
MPAA and then sometime, two days later, you get back an NC-17 or an R, you get
your rating. And, again, it was NC-17, they said you've got to cut--And we
were contractually obligated to deliver an R movie and, you know, the movie
should be rated R in order to get a wide release. So we had to cut it back to
an R. And, you know, I mean, I think the scene survives. And the movie is,
obviously, you know, more than about just, you know, two puppets having sex,
but it'll give us a lot more unrated DVD sales 'cause now everyone's really
like, `Oh, my God, what'd they do? What'd they do?'
GROSS: Now while we're on the subject of what rating board have to say about
your movie, I understand the British Board of Film Classification, in its
discussion of what rating to give your movie in England, said, `Terrorism
Mr. STONE: Right, yes. Brilliant observation by the Brits there, yes.
GROSS: Well, first of all, how did that affect the rating they gave you?
And, second of all, what's your reaction to that, `Terrorism isn't funny'? I
Mr. STONE: I don't know. I think that, obviously, you know, there's a lot
about terrorism that isn't funny at all, but I think, like almost every
subject in the world, there are funny aspects to it. And, you know, this
movie--you know, and it's been a hard tone to find out how to make this
subject matter funny because to us, I think you can--to Trey and I, we've
always had the ethic that you can write jokes and write comedy about anything
you want, and it doesn't mean that you don't think that that stuff is
important or that there aren't extremely dire aspects to things. But humor is
how a lot of people deal with things, and humor's how Trey and I deal with
So for instance, we have in the movie all the terrorists talk basically in
this Arabic gibberish which they just go, you know, `Dirka-dirka, Muhammad,
Muhammad Ali,' and they talk like--`Muhammad jihad,' and they just kind of
talk like this--you know, all we use is `Muhammad, jihad, allah, Dirka-dirka,
burka-burka,' and that's how they talk. And that, to me, is what terrorists
sound like when I look at their little tapes that they release. And all it is
is us making fun of terrorists. I don't think we're making fun of terrorism
so much as belittling terrorists, which--you know, we're big fans of, like,
the Warner Bros. World War II cartoons and even Disney did some World War II
cartoons where they would actually have Bugs Bunny, you know, going at it
with--well, they had one where he's going at it with Hitler, one with Tojo,
and they're incredible. And, you know, the one with Tojo's so racist now,
they won't show it.
But it's, like, to me, so much more interesting to watch those cartoons. I
think you get a better indication of how people were feeling at that time than
you do reading, you know, a newspaper from 1944 because it was obvious even
back then people could see that making fun of Hitler was psychologically
empowering. You know, and this was like Bugs Bunny putting on a little
helmet and pretending to be a World War II soldier, and it didn't at all
diminish the cause against facism, but it just was psychologically empowering
to take, you know, Hitler and make him into a cartoon character and hit him
over the head with a hammer. And I think that that's what we try to do with
terrorism and with Kim Jong Il in this movie.
GROSS: When you're doing the voices of the terrorists and of Kim Jong Il,
where is a line you had to walk between, you know, kind of mocking terrorists
and mocking Kim Jong Il and not making it seem like you're mocking Muslims or
mocking anyone Asian?
Mr. STONE: Languagewise, I, again, point back to the World War II cartoons
with Bugs Bunny and Tojo or Bugs Bunny and Hitler where they would just make
fun of German and Japanese and they'd be very racist, you know, drawings of,
like, Tojo. But, to me, it's like these people are our enemy. And once
they're our enemy, you can use any tool you want to make them feel--to
psychologically, you know, make yourself feel better than them and to make fun
of them. So I don't know, for us it never really was a problem.
Trey and I kind of grew up during the political correctness heyday of the '80s
and '90s, and I never really understood it and I still don't. And I really
don't understand political correctness, so it never even enters our
conversations. It was so obvious that we were making fun of Kim Jong Il and
making fun of terrorists, and it never even entered our mind that anybody
would be offended by that.
GROSS: Matt Stone is my guest, and he and Trey Parker are the creators of
"South Park" and of the new movie which is called "Team America."
Another thing that's really funny about the plot--I mean, in the plot, you
know, Team America is an international police force fighting terrorism. And
the team recruits a young star of Broadway musicals to join because he's the
only actor good enough to really go undercover and pretend he's a terrorist
Mr. STONE: Right.
GROSS: ...the terrorists. But, of course, you know, one guy on the team
looks down on him because he's a really just an actor. And that's such a
staple of so many, like, cop shows on TV, you know, where like the actor who's
going to play a cop on TV goes to the precinct to study what the real cops are
like. But, of course, this is a television series, so the real cops who are
looking down on the actor are really actors themselves who are playing a cop
in the TV series.
Mr. STONE: Yeah.
GROSS: But in this movie, it's all that except that they're puppets. They're
not even actors, so it's a scream. It's really funny.
Mr. STONE: Well, there's just always--in every one of those movies, there's
always--in any team movie--and there's like "Alien" I'm thinking of or "Top
Gun" or any one where you have this team or a class or, `Hey, we've got to go
do it,'--you know, "Predator," just cheesy action movies, you know--well,
"Predator's" a great movie, too. But there always is that character that's
just an antagonist. He's not the antagonist of the movie but he's just an
antagonist to the main character. And he's just a--I don't know how to say it
other than crudely, but he's just--What do I say? He's just mean, like Iceman
in "Top Gun," just for no reason. Just inexplicably he's like, `Hey, man, you
think you're tough? Well, you're not that tough.' Who is this guy, you know?
It always comes out of nowhere and he always has kind of a crew cut. It was
Val Kilmer in "Top Gun." And there's another guy in "Alien" that's that way,
and they're always kind of questioning the protagonist, like, `Can you do it?
Can you do it?'
And it's just a cheesy device that injects some conflict into some scenes
where you're introducing the concept of--for instance, in this movie, you have
to spend time introducing the concept of Team America and you have to
introduce Gary and all the characters, and you have to do this in a lot of
movies. Well, there's no conflict in those kinds of scenes. And, you know,
as any movie screenwriter knows, a scene without conflict is not much fun to
watch. So what they do is they just invented this device which is Iceman in
"Top Gun" who's like, `Hey, you think you're tough?' Like, this guy comes out
of nowhere and just hates the lead character for no reason and just gets in
his way. So that's what Chris is in "Team America."
GROSS: Do you do any of the voices in the movie?
Mr. STONE: Yeah, I do a couple, Trey does some and we got, you know, a few
people to help us out this time because Trey and I are kind of out of voices.
We do them on "South Park" and, you know, we've done a few here, and we don't
really have that many voices. And even in this movie, it all kind of starts
sounding the same but we just kind of don't care. It all comes out of
necessity, not because we think we're really great voice-over artists.
GROSS: Well, the Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, sounds exactly like one of the
characters on "South Park" in "Team America."
Mr. STONE: Yeah, that's Trey. And especially because Kim Jong Il kind of
took on this new thing where he started screaming a lot in the movie or he had
very, very little patience, and when Trey screams, he kind of just always
sounds like Cartman. So people have been kind of comparing him to Cartman,
but Cartman's a great character. And I think if Cartman got his own small
Asian country, he would probably run it much like Kim Jong Il runs North
GROSS: My guest is Matt Stone. With Trey Parker, he co-created the new film
"Team America," a satire of action films with a cast made up of marionettes.
Stone and Trey Parker co-created "South Park." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Matt Stone, the co-creator of the new action film satire
"Team America." He and Trey Parker also co-created "South Park."
What was the initial premise of "South Park"? Like when you both dreamed it
up, what was it?
Mr. STONE: Well, again, it was like everything else, there wasn't really one
instant where it was like, `Oh, here, we should do this. This would be a
great idea.' It was an evolution of ideas, and it was a combination of a
voice that Trey and I would do in college that would make our film teacher mad
as hell where we would make fun of him with this little, like, stupid voice,
which basically became Cartman, and Trey's drawing style, which is about the
only thing he can do which is basically a "South Park" drawing style. And out
of necessity again, out of some assignment or something, we had to do a little
animated cartoon, we did a little--we used construction paper cutouts and did
stop-motion animation because neither of us could really draw that well. And,
you know, put that little voice that was annoying our teacher, put it on these
little kids and that's kind of how it started.
GROSS: Now Kyle, one of the characters that you do the voice of, is, like,
the Jewish kid in the story.
Mr. STONE: Yeah.
GROSS: And you're Jewish.
Mr. STONE: Yeah.
GROSS: What are some of the characteristics you wanted to give Kyle in this
largely Christian neighborhood?
Mr. STONE: I think Kyle being Jewish was more Trey's idea than mine 'cause,
you know, I'm Jewish simply because I look Jewish, because my mom is Jewish
and so I am Jewish. But I grew up completely secular and completely agnostic
and completely unaware of the fact I was Jewish until I was probably 17, which
is probably better because I remember there was a little Jewish kid where I
grew up named--no, I'm not going to name him but I can't--Greg something in
our junior high school and, man, he got his ass kicked all the time just for
being Jewish. And that's how cruel kids can be, you know what I mean?
Mr. STONE: Nothing too major but probably pretty traumatic, and Greg's
probably pretty screwed up from it. So I'm actually kind of glad that I
didn't end up too Jewish-looking where I grew up. But I think it was more
Trey's idea. Like, I mean, even though I do the voice of Kyle, it was funny
to make him actually little--that was his identity and stuff. It doesn't
really have any bearing upon me 'cause I am the worst Jew in the world. I
know nothing about the religion. I'm completely agnostic. My poor mother,
GROSS: "South Park" is really about seeing the world through the eyes of
not-very-bright third-graders who are sometimes mean-spirited and often really
annoying and, obviously, really adolescent because they are adolescent. Why
are you so interested in that point of view?
Mr. STONE: You know, it just gives you great latitude because, you know, when
we started doing "South Park" in I guess it was '95, '96, '97--I mean, we grew
up in the late--you know, the '80s and the '90s when this whole kind of thing
of through the eyes of a child because children are so innocent and if we
could just see the world through the eyes of a child. And we just took that
and basically turned it on its ear because, to me, children are the, you know,
incarnation of evil. I mean, they're so self-interested, they're so greedy.
You know, naturally they are just that way, and children need to be taught
manners and need to be taught limitations.
And it really--I think it's fundamental to "South Park" and a lot of people
don't see it, but Trey and I definitely do, that there's an extremely
different world view that goes along with "South Park" than other shows which
is society basically makes us good. We're not born good and society makes us
bad, that there is a certain public kind of trust between everyone, and that's
the only thing keeping us from all killing each other. And children need to
be taught that, and you see that in "South Park" all the time, that the kids,
when they're unguarded, just go off and do the most asinine things and the
most evil things. And they need to be taught by the parents who, a lot of
times, are, you know, hypocritical and not even following their own advice.
You know, they need to be taught limitations and they need to be taught these
things because if not, you know, if they're left to their own devices, they're
GROSS: There's a classic episode of "South Park" in which the four-letter
word for excrement that starts with an S-H...
Mr. STONE: Yes, I know that word.
GROSS: ...that you can't say on the radio--where it becomes OK, it becomes
legitimate to use that word in school, and no one's going to punish you for
it. And then people start using that word over and over and over again in
school and in town. And it turns out if you say that word too much, you get
really ill; you get some kind of awful, like, intestinal virus.
Mr. STONE: Right, because it's a cursed word. There's a curse on it.
GROSS: Exactly 'cause it's a cursed word, yes. But it's so thrilling for the
kids at first to be able to say that word in school.
Mr. STONE: Right.
GROSS: What did curse words mean to you when you were a kid? Like, what
power did they have?
Mr. STONE: Yeah, I don't really remember. I was not allowed really to curse
around my parents. And it wasn't this explicit thing where they said, `You
can't say that,' but it was there was just a level of decorum that--you know,
I just had different rules around my parents than with my peers. So I don't
know, for me, it was just freedom.
And those words are so powerful because they are taboo and they're so good.
Like, I cuss way too much in my normal life. I'm terrible. I have a terrible
mouth. I can shut it off, you know, for an interview like this, but I'm one
of those people that really people sometimes go, `Man, you need to, like, lay
off 'cause you just use the F-word way too much.' And I am that way. I don't
know, maybe I should have learned more limitations when I was growing up.
But that's like, I mean, that's the fun part of "South Park," and that's
what's so funny to me about, like, the current, you know, thing going on with
the FCC and with Howard Stern and stuff is it's interesting line because, at
one hand, we kind of like--people say, `Well, you're fighting the same fight
that Howard Stern is fighting, to be able to say whatever you want to say.
And it's kind of true but, on the other hand, it's like those limitations on
what you can say on advertiser-supported cable is the standards that we're
always bumping up against. And it's that friction that makes it funny. If
there weren't any standards at all, I don't know if we would change "South
Park" a whole lot and have it be a language free-for-all because I just don't
know how fun that is.
GROSS: So how did you get permission from Comedy Central to use the S-word I
think it was 162 times?
Mr. STONE: Yeah, well, we called them and we said, `We want to do this show.
We have this concept and we think it's kind of smart to do it this way.' And
they thought it was great and they basically called the advertisers and said,
`Are you OK with this?' And they said, `Yeah, you know, as long as it doesn't
become every day. But if it's this kind of thing, we're behind you.' And they
actually got advertisers to support them on it, so it was fine. But on a
regular basis, you know, they aren't sure even in, you know, reruns and stuff
that they don't want to have all these limitations all the time, so I have to
to check with the advertisers, `Are you OK with advertising with this or with
this?' So in that particular instance, all the advertisers were like, `Sure,
go for it,' which was pretty cool actually.
GROSS: Matt Stone. He and Trey Parker co-created "South Park" and the new
movie "Team America." Stone will be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, killing Kenny each week on "South Park." We talk with Matt
Stone, co-creator of "South Park" and the new movie "Team America." Also, we
meet J.J. Abrams, the creator of the TV series "Alias" and the new series
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Matt Stone. He and Trey
Parker made the new movie "Team America," a parody of action films in which
all the characters are playing by marionettes. Parker and Stone also
co-created "South Park," the popular animated series on Comedy Central, about
a group of kids in South Park, Colorado. When we left off, we were talking
about "South Park."
Isaac Hayes is a recurring character on "South Park." He plays Chef.
Mr. STONE: Yeah, Chef.
GROSS: And he's the chef and the coach at the school. And he's, like, one of
the great, you know, soul singers of the '70s, and he did the theme from
"Shaft," one of my favorites.
Mr. STONE: Yeah.
GROSS: And how did you think of him, then how did you convince him to do
Mr. STONE: All right. Hold on a second. (Coughs) You know, when we got the
order to do the show, it was like--it became kind of this weird--you know, we
were like, `Oh, my God, we have six episodes of a show that's going to go on
the air.' It's, like, `Who can we get?' So we called--my favorite band at
the time was Primus. We literally just wrote them a letter saying, `Would you
please do the theme song?' And they did. So it was like dream come true,
And then actually with Chef--Trey and I were doing all the voices, and we
actually--me or Trey wanted to do that voice. We were going to be like, `Hey,
what's going on, children?' and just kind of do that voice ourselves. And we
were going to pitch it down, so it was really, really low, like an older black
man's voice, how they can just be really, really low. And we wanted to do it
ourselves. At the time Comedy Central was like, `You can't do that.' And
it's kind of true in a lot of Disney cartoons and a lot of other cartoons,
they won't let their gender--Their gender?--race specific with the voiceover;
they won't allow a white person to do a black person's voiceover. They
probably don't care the other way. but at the time they were like, `You know,
you need to have a black person do this.' And we were like, `Well, you know,
we have this character who sings all these soul songs.' I was like, `Why
don't we get ...(unintelligible)?'
So we had a really short list. It was--Isaac Hayes was our first choice.
Then I think we had Lou Rawls on there. And what's the other guy? Barry
White. And so we sent out tapes to them to them. I don't think we ever heard
from Lou Rawls. Barry White respectfully declined because he's a very
Christian man, and he thought it didn't reach his standards. We sent out "The
"Spirit of Christmas." And Isaac Hayes called back and said, `Sure, I'll do
So Trey and I flew to New York to record Isaac Hayes. We were so freaked out.
You know, we'd never even worked with anybody except for our own friends in
Colorado, and here we are doing Isaac Hayes. So then Isaac Hayes--he shows
up, and he has no idea what he's going to do. So now we're sitting in the
studio. He goes, `All right, what's going on?' And his agent had basically
just said, `Yeah, you know, he's into it. He wants to do it.' But Isaac
really was, like, just going to a gig to do a voiceover. And so we had to sit
there and explain to him, `Well, you're this big, fat black guy that lives in
this little town in Colorado. You're the only black person there, and you
sing soul songs.' And he was, like, `OK. That sounds good.' So we were,
like, `All right.'
This is funny. Trey was actually so freaked out because he had to sing this
song that Trey, who's the brilliant musician of the two of us--I'm a
lower-level musician--went to the bathroom and made me teach Isaac how to sing
that song, which was the most ridiculous--if there was a camera crew there,
that would have been the funniest thing in the world, watching me try to teach
Isaac Hayes how to sing a song, which was...
GROSS: What did you have to teach him that he wouldn't have already known?
Mr. STONE: Well, just, I mean, you know, he was like--we had to listen--we
had to temp track because we had to make--no, we didn't have a temp track.
That's right. We just had the music track. And he's like, `How does it go?'
And Trey ran away and went to the bathroom because he was so afraid. So I had
to sit there and go (singing) `I'm going to make love to you, woman. I'm
going to take you down by the fire.' He would sit there and go (singing) `I'm
going to make love to'--and I'm like, `No, no, no, don't hit that note.
(Singing) "I'm going to make love to you, woman."' And the fact that I was
sitting there, you know, teaching this song, this little ditty, to this soul
legend was just--it was just unbelievable. But I did an all right job. I got
the stuff across to him, and he took it and ran. But that was one of those
times where I was just, like, `Man, Trey, damn it, get back here.' Trey
freaked out and ran away (laughs).
GROSS: Another "South Park" question. There was a long period--and I don't
think this is still happening--when the character Kenny, one of the kids in
"South Park," died a violent death every week. How did you decide that that
was going to be, like, a ritual each week?
Mr. STONE: That came from the original--when we did the original, original,
first cartoon Trey and I ever did together, it was called "The Spirit of
Christmas." And it was actually the kids had to fight Frosty the Snowman, and
in it Kenny died. And, you know, the kids yell, `Oh, my God, they killed
Kenny. You bastard.' And then we came out to Hollywood, and our friend
wanted us to do another Christmas card, and we really just wanted the four
boys back together. And no one had ever really seen the other. You know what
I mean? So we just did it again and killed him again because it didn't really
matter. And then when we got--and then it was like, `You guys, people want
you to do a TV show based on this.' So it was like, `Well, hell, you know, we
want those four boys back together, but we'd already killed them in this
little thing. But, you know, who has ever seen it?' But a lot of people had
this seen, you know, that.
So then we just came up with the idea that, `Well, what if he just dies all
the time?' And that was actually one of the biggest--I don't want to say
fights but struggles. It was like the network and all of our writer friends
were like, `You can't do that. That won't work.' `Well, no, he'll die every
episode, and he'll just inexplicably be back next week.' And they're
like--and they were probably right in a way. They were like, `It'll ruin the
logic of the show. You can't kill off a character and bring him back every
week. It just--you won't question it, you won't be with the char'--all this
stuff. And it was one of those things where Trey and I--I don't know why--we
just kind of stuck to our guns on that one for some reason. Everyone was
like, `Don't do it, don't do it,' and we did it. And it turned out to be a
really good decision because people really liked it.
But then we did it for about, God, I don't know, 70 episodes or something, and
five years we've killed off Kenny every year. And it really started to become
a pain in the butt because we would get the whole episode written, and then,
you know, we would just animate the end of the show without Kenny there. And
Kenny's such--a kind of a prop anyway. It's so hard to make a character out
of him anyway because you can't really hear him. And we started to have a
new--it started to be a pain in the butt to have to, you know, think of how he
died. So we just decided, `Well, let's just not kill him anymore for some,
and then we'll kill him, sometimes we won't.'
We've always been like that on "South Park." As soon as it became the rule,
we always tried to break the rule. So, like, in the first season, Chef sang a
song in every episode. And as soon as that became a liability, we're like,
`Sorry, Chef doesn't need to sing anymore.' And that's always been--I think
that's one of the reasons why the show remains at least fresh for us, which is
important--is because we never get that feeling like, `OK, factory time. How
are we going to kill Kenny?' You know? And we've always been that way. As
soon as there's a rule, we're just going to break it.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you a whole lot for talking with us today.
Mr. STONE: Oh, thank you very much. It was cool.
GROSS: Matt Stone. He and Trey Parker co-created "South Park" and the new
movie "Team America."
Coming up: J.J. Abrams, creator of the TV series "Alias" and the new series
"Lost." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: J.J. Abrams discusses several television shows he's
created, including his newest, "Lost"
TERRY GROSS, host:
One of the most critically acclaimed shows of the new TV season is "Lost."
It's about what happens after a commercial airline crashes, leaving the
survivors stranded on a mysterious island where they face dangers, some of
them supernatural, lurking in the jungle. We learn about the characters
gradually through flashbacks. "Lost" was created by J.J. Abrams, who also
created the series "Alias" about a CIA agent leading a double life. Another
Abrams creation is "Felicity," a TV series following a college student in New
York. Abrams wrote the screenplays for the films "Armageddon" and Forever
Young." Our TV critic, David Bianculli, is enthusiastic about Abrams' new
series, "Lost," and spoke with him about it.
Here's a clip from the pilot. Matthew Fox from "Party of Five" plays a doctor
who takes care of others before taking time to tend to himself and a nasty
gash in his side. He takes a travel sewing kit and asks a dazed survivor
walking by, played by Evangeline Lilly, to stitch him up and close the wound.
(Soundbite of "Lost")
Ms. EVANGELINE LILLY: I might throw up on you.
Mr. MATTHEW FOX: You're doing fine.
Ms. LILLY: You don't seem afraid at all. I don't understand that.
Mr. FOX: Well, here's sort of an odd thing. When I was in residency, my
first solo procedure was a spinal surgery on a 16-year-old kid, a girl. And
at the end, after 13 hours, I was closing her up, and I accidentally ripped
her dural sac. It's right at the base of the spine where all the nerves
come together, membrane as thin as tissue. And so it ripped open. Nerves
just spilled out of her like angel hair pasta, spinal fluid flowing out of
her, right? And the terror was just so crazy, so real. And I knew I had to
deal with it, so I just made a choice. I'd let the fear in, let it take over,
let it do its thing but only for five seconds. That's all I was going to give
it. So I started to count: one, two, three, four, five. And it was done.
Sewed her up and she was fine.
Ms. LILLY: If that had been me, I think I would have run for the door.
Mr. FOX: No, I don't think that's true. You're not running now.
GROSS: David Bianculli asked J.J. Abrams to describe the filming of "Lost."
Mr. J.J. ABRAMS (Creator, "Lost"): We went to Hawaii, where we shot for 40
days, which sounds great, but it's actually--it is sort of tough when there
are no interiors and you're out there. And it was a pretty, you know,
grueling but incredibly challenging and fun shoot.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
What are some of the things about location filming that are so difficult?
Mr. ABRAMS: Well, there's a sequence that's in the first hour of the show
where, as an example, they are in the rain in the jungle, and they go to find
the cockpit of the plane, which has fallen into the jungle. And they go to
retrieve a transponder, where they hope to be able to send a signal. And they
get to the cockpit, and, you know, it's leaning against this enormous tree.
And they climb up the cockpit, inside--and they get into the cockpit, and
there's a pilot who's actually still alive. But the entire scene, the whole
sequence, was shot--you know, if it had been a film, they would have built a
set, they would have built, you know, the interior of the cockpit, they would
have--it would have been somewhat, you know, feasible and comfortable. And
this was just--you know, we had a cockpit of a plane in the jungle that they
just placed against this tree. And essentially it was like, you know, `Good
luck.' Just--you know?
So we were in there--we literally shot, you know, the sequence in this
enormous cockpit that was, you know, at a, like, 60-degree angle. And it was,
you know--we had all the rain, and a lot of it was real rain. And it was, you
know, muddy and smelled horrendous, and we were in this can. It was one of
those things where the fun was sort of--the fun level was so high that it
didn't matter that it was just, you know, sort of hard to do: to have all the
crew in there and all the lighting, and it was hot. It just was just one of
those things. I'm not complaining that it wasn't, you know, a great time, but
at the end of the day it was--doing that for four or five days, shooting with,
you know--it was a real jumbo jet, and it was lying there dressed remarkably
realistically, so it looked as if this thing had just crashed. The fact is
that, you know, it's a horrifying sight. And with all the smoke and sort of
rubber burning and all that stuff we were doing, it just wears on you. And
after, you know, two, three, four, five, six, seven weeks, you know, you're
out there, and you're shooting this stuff, and it was just exhausting, you
And so we did, you know, the shoot there. And when you don't have any
interiors and you're just shooting outside for that length of time, it just
can be one of those where after a while you feel like, `God, I miss
"Felicity." Those kids in that dorm room, that was so--you know, you can't
believe how easy it was to do those scenes.
BIANCULLI: How prominent are "The Twilight Zone" elements of "Lost" going to
get as we get further into the season?
Mr. ABRAMS: There are a lot of elements to the show that excite me, and the
primary one, really, is, well, the cast of characters. I mean, the people who
are on the island, to me, are kind of the only reason to tell the story.
They've all got a history. And we're using flashbacks in order to see who
these people were just prior to and long before this flight in every episode.
And so you're going to get a chance to see who these people were and who they
sort of are now, which is, really, for me, part of the pleasure of working on
the show--is getting to sort of do that. Simply, you know, speaking visually,
spending one hour just in the jungle or just, you know, on the beach, it is
gorgeous, but you've got to modulate it a little bit. And so I think that the
flashbacks also help in terms of getting us off the island.
"The Twilight Zone" aspects to me are going to always be present, but the show
is in no way a straightforward sci-fi show. The fact is, you know, I've had a
lot of discussions about this--you know, sort of: What is straight sci-fi,
and what does that mean exactly? And, you know, whether it is, you know,
something that is more obviously science fiction, like, you know, "Alien" or
comedically science fiction, like "Back to the Future," or more subtly, you
know, science fiction, like the stuff that, you know, David Cronenberg might
do, you know, to me the use of extraordinary circumstance sort of colliding
with ordinary people is the most interesting story-telling.
BIANCULLI: Let me ask you some questions about "Alias" now. You pulled off a
very strange plot twist a couple of seasons in by adding two years in between
seasons, changing things and then going back from there. How was that
received by most fans? What are you doing to start this season?
Mr. ABRAMS: We've always done weird things on the show. I mean, "Alias"
is--it's such a specific--it's like having, you know, a kid that is really
quirky. And people kind of look at the kid and go, you know, `That kid's
interesting.' I think the thing about "Alias" is that given the kind of
twists and turns you do, you've got to be really careful what you do because
saying that someone is dead and then learning that they're not, saying that,
you know, a character has a roommate who then gets killed and is replaced by
an evil double, these are, like, the most embarrassing things to say because
you say them, and you feel like an idiot. I mean, literally, just now I'm,
So we trade in a very strange place on that show. And the key to that show is
I think it's done well when we commit to the A version of what is ultimately,
you know, B premise. When you say `spy show,' when you say, you know, sort of
`normal, at first at least, college girl by day and sort of spy by night,'
and--you know, you're creating a world that clearly cannot exist in real life
without sort of having an attitude. And so the thing about the twist we did,
that two-year jump, that to me was one of the twists that I feel wasn't quite,
you know, thought out as well as I wish I had thought it out. The two-year
jump, to me, was something that I thought was a, you know--it was an amazing
reversal at the end of an episode.
I mean, she literally wakes up--you don't know, you know, where you are and,
you know, you're--I think the character was--she was lost and scared. And
then she ends up finding out that the man who she loved, who, you know, three
scenes earlier had basically had this great weekend plan with and everything
was looking really rosy--and she discovers that, you know, two years have
passed, and this guy's married. And so it was sort of, you know, a great way
to end the year because it felt like, `Oh, my God, now what?' The problem was
for me that the `Now what?' didn't live up to, you know, the actual response,
didn't live up to the question.
And the show, to me, in that last season got away from the thing that I loved
about the show, which is that the characters relate to each other in sort of a
specific way. And I felt that we were misusing almost every key relationship
on the show. We had eliminated two relationships that I really did love of
her friends. You know, she and her father sort of didn't really have much of
a story, which was a mistake. And, you know, despite all that, we still did
some stuff, some entertaining episodes and some stuff that people really--you
know, it's some people's favorite season. So I have no idea, again, what the
hell people want.
But this season, which begins in January, of "Alias" we're doing--we did a lot
of, I think, really cool stuff to get everything kind of to click back in to
where it was in the beginning. And...
BIANCULLI: How do you do that? How do you course-correct?
Mr. ABRAMS: Well, we looked at what we had, and we said, `Well, you know,
what's the best version, you know, of this show? How can we get back to the
thing that we all love about this show?' And we realized that there were some
fundamental, you know, choices that we could make that would almost make the
paradigm of the show that of the first, you know, two seasons. And it was
really a question of saying, you know--I mean, look, someone like David
Kelley, who, you know, to me is one of the masters of TV writing--I mean, this
guy, he'll do anything he wants, and you'll believe it because he did it. So,
for example, he'll have a character who was always the secretary in the law
firm show up, you know, in an episode and say, you know, `So I've been going
to law school for the last couple years, and now I'm a lawyer,' you know. And
you're like, `The hell?' And in the next episode she's a lawyer, and you're
now sitting there wondering and thinking--he just would make, you know--and,
you know, I've only done these couple shows. So I sort of like--I'm still--I
have so much to learn still, and I'm still watching what other people do.
And what you realize is you can, you know, debate forever over the--you know,
how you do something and, `Is it possible?' If you know it's the right thing
to do, you've got to figure out how to do it, and you just need to do it and
commit to it. The key is you can't make it so far-fetched that the audience,
whether new or, you know, a loyal viewer, feels like it's something that's too
preposterous. I do think that given the sort of hyperreality of "Alias,"
that these adjustments that we've made are some of the least-egregious things
we've done. And immediately I think the show, you know, reaps the benefits of
BIANCULLI: Another "Alias" thing that I'm fascinated by is the fact that you
sometimes introduce the theme song and the title credits 10, 12, 15 minutes
into the show, where they shock me...
Mr. ABRAMS: I know. Yeah, I know.
BIANCULLI: ...because I'd forgotten that they haven't been here yet. I've
never seen this before. Why do you do this?
Mr. ABRAMS: It's literally like--it's one of my favorite things to do, which
is just sort of have the show play and have a long first act. I mean, we've
had first acts that I think have gone 21 minutes or long or something, and
then we'll just do the opening credits. And we just sort of feel--it's this
bizarre thing that we just--I can't really explain it. And, you know, at
first I thought, `Oh, I'm going to be really clever, and we'll do this. And
people will get sucked in, and the ratings will be higher. And then you'll
be, you know, by the time you get to the'--it never helps our ratings.
I mean, like, there's never been a benefit to it, other than I think it
feels--it's just funny to me that we do this on the show. And it's--there's
no reason other than that, really; that I feel like if an actor's working and,
you know, you're rolling with it, let's not cut away. And then, you
know--do you remember "The Fugitive" movie, the Harrison Ford movie?
Mr. ABRAMS: I remember watching that movie and having that same reaction,
where the credits came up fairly late into the film. And I had that same
reaction. And I thought, `Oh, my God, this is so cool. This is all preamble?
Oh, my God.' Like, there's a very interesting psychological, I think,
interaction between--you know, for the audience where you're watching
something and there are credits on screen. I think that for some people it's
irrelevant; that they don't even, you know, look at them or recognize them.
But I do--for me at least, it feels like when I'm watching a scene and there
are credits underneath it, it oddly takes the onus off that scene having to be
an excellent scene. So that--a lot of times when we'll have a scene that's
kind of ehh, a little clunky, it's not quite the greatest scene, and we'll go,
`OK. Well, if we make that the first scene of the second act and put credits
over it and'--it kind of takes the edge off that scene having to be, you know,
just the greatest thing you've ever seen. So it's sort of like credits can
kind of be a little bit of, you know, a shellac or something to kind of make
the thing seem a little shinier than it is.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our TV critic, David Bianculli,
recorded with J.J. Abrams, creator of "Alias," "Felicity" and the new series
"Lost." We'll continue the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR's TV critic, David
Bianculli, recorded with J.J. Abrams, creator of the new series "Lost." He
also created "Alias" and "Felicity."
BIANCULLI: You got interested in writing, specifically writing for film, very
early. And you got exposed to more television than most young people do. How
did that happen?
Mr. ABRAMS: My father is a TV-movie producer, Gerald Abrams. And as a
kid--you know, he had an office at the Paramount lot, and I would go with him
to work on occasion and just wander around the lot. And it was a fantasy. I
mean, it was just the greatest thing, especially because--my favorite thing
was walking into the facades of buildings and looking around the backside and
seeing that, you know, they were nothing and they were actually storage rooms
usually. But it was that weird thing where it was sort of like this desolate
"Twilight Zone" sort of feeling.
In fact, the first episode of "The Twilight Zone," which is my favorite show
of all time, which was called, I think, "Where Has Everybody Gone?" or
something like that with Earl Holliman--and it was essentially inspired, I
learned later, when Rod Serling was walking around a back lot, you know, much
like I did when I was a kid. And he, of course, came up with a genius idea.
I mean, for me, it was more just--it felt cool to walk around a place where
movies had been shot. I'd go into action...
BIANCULLI: How old were you, and what years were these?
Mr. ABRAMS: Oh, well, I was born in '66. I can tell you what happened, which
is that, you know, I'd go into "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "Mork &
Mindy." They would be rehearsing these shows, and no one would be in the
bleachers. But I sort of would get to know the guards a little bit, and
they'd let me in. I'd sit in the bleachers, and I'd watch them rehearse these
series. And, you know, it's very odd because, you know, you're watching the
show at home as a kid, you're watching "Happy Days," and there's the Fonz and
there's Richie and there, you know--and then you go and you're sitting there
in the bleachers, and they're all wearing their, you know, civvies; they're
all wearing their clothes that they'd wear, you know, any day of the week.
And it was sort of this odd--you know, it seemed kind of like a play
rehearsal. And it was amazing, like, watching Robin Williams rehearsing for
"Mork & Mindy" and, you know, seeing him just go off and be, you know, crazy.
It was just such an insight into the process. And so I always loved watching
the half-hour show being put together.
And then later my father actually told me--we were watching "Mary Tyler Moore"
one night. And there was this laugh that was this classic, distinct laugh
that you heard. It was like (demonstrates laugh).
BIANCULLI: James L. Brooks.
Mr. ABRAMS: James L. Brooks. And my dad said, `That's James L. Brooks. He's
the, you know, creator of the show.' And being aware of that and listening to
that laugh over the years on "Mary Tyler Moore" and on "Rhoda" and on "Taxi"
and hearing not just the laugh but the timing of the laugh--I mean, he would
laugh in places that no one else was laughing. And it was a laugh about the
process of putting it together. I mean, I was so acutely aware that--I'd
think, `Why would he be laughing there?' And I realized, `Wow'--you know,
when they were rehearsing it, the actor, they must have, like, been working on
some piece, and it was the buildup to what the audience laughed at, the joke.
But he would laugh. And, you know, he was very unself-conscious with his
laugh, so it would kind of come very loudly in places.
And so growing up, I always felt like I was sort of--whenever I'd hear his
laugh, I felt like I was sort of in on how he was putting it together, even
though, you know, I might have been wrong. And years later I got to know Jim
Brooks, and I talked to him about this. And, you know, he just smiled because
I think, you know, he understood what I meant.
GROSS: J.J. Abrams created the new series "Lost." He spoke with FRESH AIR TV
critic David Bianculli. "Lost" airs Wednesday nights on ABC. The new season
of "Alias" starts in January. J.J. Abrams has also been tapped to direct the
next "Mission: Impossible" film.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.