Animating South Park with Jack Shih

INJ 76 | South Park

 

Jack Shih is an Emmy Award-winning animation director and producer known most notably for his work on South Park. He also has a side hustle as a voice-over artist.

Listen to Episode #76 here:

Animating South Park with Jack Shih

Our guest is Jack Shih. He is an Emmy Award-winning animation director and producer known most notably for his work on South Park. He also has a side hustle as a voiceover artist. Welcome, Jack.

Thank you.

Jack, if you weren’t working as a director, producer or a voice-over artist, what would you be doing?

I have no idea. I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. It’s an open-ended question.

You’re still young.

I’m not really. Two kids age you very quickly.

You were saying that you were a Psychology major as an undergrad.

Yes, that’s correct.

Could that be a hint at an alternative life?

I’m actually intrigued by what it is you do. The path before any of this happened to me was very stereotypically Asian-American, Chinese-American. I was looking to go MD, PhD or do research. I was published when I was fifteen, Molecular Biology and then I got woke. I made bad decisions. I made reactionary decisions and then I ended up in animation, film, television. Mostly just dumbstruck by the fact that you could study these things in school. I ended up going to grad school at USC, SC Film.

I’m actually visiting there. I’m excited about it.

They’re cool. They’ve got good people there. They’re right out the gates. When I started there, they were in their second year of the Master’s program and they did the smart thing, which was steal all the faculty from CalArts and install them at USC. That made us immediately legitimate. With a nine-year-old daughter, I keep telling my wife and my family, I should figure out the process of how I ended up where I am. When they asked me questions, I have answers but I don’t really have any answers.

Let’s work through some right now. You were published as a fifteen-year-old. That’s impressive. Do you have a tiger mom?

No, she’s not that by my standards. We’ve seen the real ones. I’ve seen them. You see them in the wild. Both my parents were immigrants so there is that element of it, but it’s not the archetypal drilled into the ground. When I wanted to quit piano, I got the, “You’re going to regret this when you’re older,” and that was about the extent of it and then I regretted it when I was older.

A tiger mom would strike me as being not impressed with an Emmy.

She’s quite impressed. She’s a mom. I would emphasize the mom and not the tiger part. If I sneeze well, she’s still proud of me. She dotes on everything. I was published because it actually was an interest of mine, science as a kid. My mom is a very accomplished scientist. I tried to be like her and follow in those footsteps at the time. That was the confluence of that event. It wasn’t like I broke out and had a basement lab of my own and did my own thing. It was just a kid wanting to be like his mom. I’m a mama’s boy.

I’m going to come back to this, but I want to digress because you’ve now twice done a voice. There’s a documentary called 6 Days to Air or something like that. Jack is shown in it. It’s about the making of a South Park episode. One of the things that I noticed is that lots of people do Cartman’s voice in the documentary. Not just Trey who does it, but lots of other people do Cartman. It’s an iconic voice. He’s an iconic animated character. I know this because my sister does his voice and she does it pretty well. It’s incredibly funny to me when my sister does the voice. Can you do Cartman?

I’ve been known to do that.

Not on command.

It’s so hard to just pull it out of nowhere. You’ve got to get in the character. I think he’s such a good character and I think people like to do the voice because he’s also a ticket to say whatever it is you want to say. You’re like, “That’s not me. That’s him.” For twenty years now, that dude has gotten away with saying a whole bunch of shit.

It’s a brief documentary. It’s a brief glimpse into the making of South Park, but the idea that people do voices and jump in and out of characters, that’s an accurate thing. That’s something that happens maybe in the studio, but in the writer’s room, when people are around the water cooler. I’m just curious how much these characters and personas pervade the workplace.

They do, it’s pervasive but I think more so just because Matt and Trey are there all the time. I think more of the people that are being annoying Cartman or just people like me walking around. Sometimes, it’s effective in terms of directing animation is to be performative with the actual voice in hand. When you’re talking about choices people are making in animation or how a piece of shit comes out of his mouth, it’s best to actually be the whole character. It doesn’t come across that well in the documentary because I would often hide from Peach, the cameraman. I can be very physical in terms of animated performance, in terms of conveying to the animators what we’re actually looking for, in terms of what goes on screen. As far as I know, it’s not like you hear people doing Cartman all day long. In fact when you hear it, you’re like, “Shut up. We hear it all day.”

You get plenty of Cartman.

There are lines that happen in certain episodes that trigger. They’re psychological triggers that you hear it and then the people hear it around the studio. Then people think something’s funny and they say it over and over because they’re one of the first people to actually hear it that it’s funny.

I’m sure that went around the office a lot before you even got aired.

Jimmy gets a lot of, “Fantastic, that’s great.”

Let’s back up, you’re at Vandy and you’re a Psych major. What happened between graduation, USC and the Master’s program? What made you go to West? What made you leap into this world that’s clearly not Molecular Biology and not even a research program in Psychology?

The nutshell is the future was lined up. I had a gig working and then studying for my Master’s in Psychology and I believe it was on the day that I was graduating. My family was there. I got a call from the professor saying he was going to transfer to Vanderbilt from Case Western. He got a counter-offer and said he wasn’t going to come. I politely declined with absolutely no plan in mind. I was taking the easy road and I had my life in Tennessee at the time.

Why move to Cleveland?

I never thought anything good came from Ohio. I ended up marrying someone from Ohio.

I got my PhD from Ohio.

I still don’t know if anything good comes from Ohio.

I sometimes wonder myself.

It was a really childish and it was too many John Hughes movies telling my parents, “You know me, I’m not going to do this.” I was like, “I don’t need you. I’m going to stay here.” A few months there with being on my own and having no plan, I realize living off of people I knew sucked and it was lame. I had to live off my brother. I’m from LA and I was like, “I’m coming back to LA. Don’t tell mom and dad because I’m independent. Can I live in your apartment?” I did that. I had the two most useful Bachelor degrees in Theatre and Psychology. They’re real powerhouses in terms of income. Kids out there, that’s the coffee party 101.

When was this?

In ‘95, the mid ‘90s. I ran into someone who was like, “You should apply to go to graduate school,” because I was interested in film. They offered up the SC film program. I knew I couldn’t afford it because I didn’t have any money. SC is not an affordable institution.

It’s not an easy film program to get into either. I’m not sure what it was like back then.

It was probably pretty easy if I got in at that time. I’m just kidding. It was strenuous. It’s the top film school in the nation. It’s elite.

I know it is now.

It was probably. The conversation or argument would be NYU or USC. Everyone on the West Coast would say USC and everyone on the East Coast would say USC unless they went to NYU. I ended up getting in. My mom’s a professor there so I was able to get a remission to enlist. I was able to go with her help to that program. It was in ’97. It was only a two-year program at the time. I think now it’s three, which is good because there was a lot to get in, in that short amount of time. Sitting in classes, deciding whether you should watch Disney or Warner Brothers’ cartoons seemed like a nice thing at the time. I kept looking over my shoulder like, “Is this for real? This is what they’re they saying? I guess I’ll watch that cartoon.”

South Park, interestingly enough in ‘97 I think was half-inch viral and people were dubbing the VHS tapes. I was finishing grad school and I was at SC Film. I was certain I was going to come out be a Chinese-American Studio Ghibli, make these beautiful features and animation. I got nominated for the Student Academy Award, a regional, not a finalist and it’s on my high horse. Someone brought in that spirit of Christmas on half-inch and everyone’s laughing and I’m sitting there. At the time too, I was like, “I’m going to animate 2D drawing because I was a purist. I stepped into this. I’m a purist and this whole fascination with computers is going to go away. I’ll pick your stocks for you too.” I was asked by my peer group, “What did you think of South Park?” I said, “That’s great. I would never work on a show that looked like that because it’s a writer’s show. It’s a writer’s show and they don’t care what it looks like. It moves how it moves and it’s not elegant.” I probably went on with some more colorful language to describe it. I was like, “These people don’t know anything about animation. They don’t know anything about timing. What is this?”

I spoke to Mike Reiss of The Simpsons. He’s a writer for The Simpsons. We talked a little bit about the animation. I’m trying to get an idea of the beauty of animation. If you were to judge relatively, how is the animation in The Simpsons? Is that the kind of animation that you would have found worthy of your talents at the time or are we talking even higher levels?

I actually thought that early Simpsons stuff on The Tracey Ullman Show was very cool-looking. Then it gets distilled into a refined style. I’m a huge Simpsons fan or was. Is that show still on?

People like to do Cartman's voice because it’s a ticket to say whatever it is you want to say. Click To Tweet

Yes.

I’d just like to say that because that’s what people say that about South Park all the time, “That’s still on? Thanks for that. Is it investment banking still a thing? Are you still miserable in your office?” It’s a different style. Simpsons is the Godfather, Godmother of all the hell spawn that has come after it in terms of Fox animation. Even though I’m taking a shot at what South Park looked like before, in terms of animation, stylistically it matched what the writing was. To me, there’s always this association like Hayao Miyazaki and how beautiful Spirited Away is or Totoro, all the classic Studio Ghibli movies. They fit the tone and the messaging of the movie and the style of the movie. To me there’s always a, “Does it match with what it’s trying to do?” I love everyone in their work, let’s just say that. Like Power Puff Girls, stylistically it matches what it’s supposed to be. Some people, especially now the proliferation of 3D is everywhere, some shows look 3D but they don’t need to look that way and there are just too many resources.

When you say they look 3D, what does that mean?

It literally is 3D like models but it falls short in terms of connecting with characters. The interesting thing to me about South Park has been there for twenty years is seeing how it has evolved. Not only as visually, the style of the show and what it’s become, but how that works hand-in-hand with how he’s able to tell those stories. It also goes hand-in-hand with how we actually execute the making of the show. To be able to do it in the times that we do it now, which is not how it was when it started. It started out much more conceptually as a traditional show. We worked all the year round trying to get these shows done. We would never get them done. There would always be a last-minute thing. The core group that has been there for a long time are all-star procrastinators. It’s next level at what is being done in that short amount of time. That evolved over the twenty years.

It’s Trey and Matt, who’s that group?

Anne Garefino, one of the EPs, she’s been there since the beginning. Another producer, Frank Agnone has been there. Adrien Beard who is Token is also the head of the storyboard department. He’s been there from the beginning. Eric Stough who is Butters, which is based on him. He is sometimes referred to by those who know him as Butters. He’s been there since the beginning. He worked on the pilot with them. Greg Postma has been in the storyboard. He’s been there for twenty years. That’s core.

Overall, how many people are there?

In the entire studio, I guess there are 75 but that’s probably including accounting and PAs and staff.

The bills need to get paid.

People need to get paid.

Those checks need to get processed.

Those humongous checks.

I asked who those people were because I think that matters. I’m interested in this idea. It’s why I’m excited to talk to you. When I spoke to Mike Reiss of The Simpsons, he has a book out and he talks about the production schedule of a Simpsons episode. From beginning to end, it’s about nine months. Yet, South Park equally beloved show, call it what you will but incredibly successful, long-running animated show. You and the group, these 70 people make an episode in six days.

It is inaccurate. It’s actually closer to five and as we’ve eased into this, we’re like, “If we can do it in five, let’s just do it in four.” We’re not getting any done that first day.

Let me tell you why I’m interested in this. I’m going to give away the kicker, the punchline and the idea that I’ve been working on for my new book. We have this tendency to think of the lone genius or maybe the lone geniuses, the two geniuses, and we know who they are in this story. Of course, these people have extraordinary talent. Edison had extraordinary talent. Steve Jobs had extraordinary talent. In the world of comedy, Robin Williams had an extraordinary talent. We can point to these people. Matt and Trey clearly are those. If you think about it, what a run. Everything these guys touch turn to comedy gold. It’s absolutely incredible, “Let’s try theatre,” Tony Awards.

I was really happy for them just so they could understand what success was actually like.

“Let’s make a movie with puppets.” It’s really incredible. Nonetheless, every genius, whether it be in the world of science or business or arts and in this case comedy, needs other people. You listed a bunch of people who have been with them over the years. To do this in six days requires not only a group of dedicated people, but people who work well together.

Which is amazing because a lot of us don’t work well together.

Let’s talk about the process and especially where you come in and what you do. I want you to prove me right. I would call this group genius. I want a glimpse into that world and why that’s the case.

I’d love to prove you right. I’m really good at doing that. One thing I’ll put on the table that distinguishes our show, the South Park television show, from shows like The Simpsons is the scale. That’s at both ends where I think we’re able to do what we do because the scale of the production is smaller, meaning fewer people are involved. We’re much leaner. We’re like tuna in the ocean but actually, we’re a plump tuna. You could trim a little bit of fat off this tuna and we might be even faster. It is part of the process that you’re talking about. The one thing that I do want to put on the table is in terms of writing, I’m pretty certain that Trey has authored every single episode. Whereas on The Simpsons, you have a writer’s room that sometimes 20, 24 people dip.

Mike comes in as a consultant once a week to punch stuff up.

You are getting no disrespect. I know some of The Simpsons people and those guys and girls are crushing it. There are no hacks in that room. It’s a testament to this lone genius idea. We have circled the wagons around creating an atmosphere to allow Trey to do his thing. We’re usually doing an episode the week that it airs, so we’re finishing a Wednesday night episode on a Wednesday, sometimes night. In terms of picture locking it, we tried to land before 11:00 that Wednesday ideally, in order for audio to get a picture lock cut that they can sweeten.

What does picture lock mean?

Shows are made up of scenes and scenes are made of shots. To be locked, each shot remains 138 frames and it’s not going to move. With our show, which is very different, we’re unusual because we’re producing footage for broadcast day one. When we get a page of script, we begin production on that. Whereas something like The Simpsons, if you look at their production schedule and calendars, is they front load everything and they work on a script, then they get a script and the script is locked. That thing isn’t moving. It will move and punch up and rewrite later on down the line. Generally speaking, they have a completed script. That completed script gets recorded and then it gets storyboarded and then that gets cut together. Before they go into animation production, before they murder all of the people that are working for them, that’s pretty much tightened down and locked. They have a different system than we do where they’re doing key layouts and then it’s gone. I think it still goes overseas and it gets in between, then it comes back. They’ll review and edit and then that’s pretty much it.

For us, since we’re going in, we get a scene, we don’t know where it stands necessarily in the story, beginning, middle or end. That’s when Trey with that group will pretty much convey to us, “This is not the beginning of the show. Cartman’s had a falling out with Stan. He’s on his own. He’s trying to get Butters to do this thing with a bucket. We don’t know where the bucket comes from. We’ll explain that later.” We just have a general idea of where it fits inside the show. It’s also so our editors generally know how to begin building the show. Our world is nonlinear in terms of what stage the show is in, because starting Thursday, most likely Friday and really Saturday afternoon, we’re hopefully getting pages of scripts while we are in animatic phase overlapping with script that we’ve already gotten that has now been storyboarded. They’re concurrently designing new assets and new elements. If there are a new character and new backgrounds, those are getting built into our 3D software, Maya. We use Maya. Anything that’s animated, we’re putting back into the Edit Bay and we’re doing dailies on those. Trey is in on all of this. He’s in every phase. He’s in the writer’s room with his writers. He sits and he records pretty much everything. He and Matt will record everything.

Is the recording happening also more or less every day?

Yes. Every time there’s a draft or script, they’ll go on recording.

They basically are building out a scene at a time?

South Park is a writer's show. They don't care how it looks like. Click To Tweet

Yes and he’ll also go and rewrite scenes as we’re going. Everything in our world is touchable until it’s on TV. Even then, sometimes between the original air date, Wednesday and Saturday, there might be some changes but not really. To the audience, don’t actually go and look for them. That’s it in terms of production.

This is incredibly complex and it has this visual element that we can’t capture. It’s so striking. The contrast, nine months, six days, equivalently beloved products. It shows there are these two ways to do it too.

To your point, the core group of people, and saying core’s not fair. Everyone there is important. I didn’t say equivalently important. They’re all important. Some just to kick around. We don’t do that. It’s in 2019. It’s a safe and wonderful workplace. There are conversations that Trey will have with Adrien about design and the “hard stuff” because he’s well-aware and we’re all aware that to do it in six days, you can’t leave the standing rib roast type of shit for Tuesday night. A lot of that stuff, they’re just heavy lifting. There’s going to be the wall of zombies like in that Brad Pitt movie, World War Z, where they did the zombie tower thing. I forget what episode it was in. He came forward with that early on. This is the evolution of the show that I alluded to earlier is nowadays, there are visual jokes that matter and there are visual jokes that he wants to land. In order for certain things to be funny, there is an emotional range in these characters that have to be there where he can do that now with a more refined style. I don’t think they are as funny in its original conception of what the show looks like or original execution.

One of the examples that I always bring up is, I forget all the names of the episodes because they were just crammed in and the names change over the course of the five, six days. It’s when Kenny dies for real. There’s a moment that Cartman is in the hospital with Kenny and he’s talking to Kenny. It’s a sincere moment where he is saying, “Everybody thought Stan’s your best friend. I just considered, you and I were best friends,” which is funny because he’s tormenting this poor kid all his life. In order for that joke to land and be funny, you’ve got to feel that the fat kid’s heartbreaking, come up and it doesn’t work if he’s being super loud. It’s a quiet and sincere moment. In terms of the animation, the style of South Park in terms of animation is more poetic than prose. There is a limited number of movements, Haikus. In that, what’s important is these conversations that he’s having to Adrien about design and what the scale of shots look like, giving them reference points and then us also being in the rooms to identify this is important in terms of how this episode looks.

Can I ask if you did that shot? Is it close up as you might in a movie with Cartman?

It’s pretty tight. It’s tightened up just so you can see him petting the bed sheet. It’s very intimate. That’s another thing that has changed if you look over the history of South Park. Maybe it’s my Theater degree, but you look at it initially and it’s very elementary school staging, “Did you see what that guy said?” “What did he say?” They’re all talking to a camera and they rarely are looking at one another and it’s very flat. You move into season four through six or seven, it’s a very much like high school theatre where there’s now thrust on the stage and there’s a little bit of depth in it. Characters learned to turn and face one another when they’re talking to each other, look in the eye and the blocking becomes important. The perspectives become a more single point. You move into seasons seven to twelve, where now everything is in depth. There was a window there where everything looks like it’s in a tunnel, “Look how much depth we can get.” There became stylistic changes like we did Major Boobage where it’s rotoscope animation integrated with South Park’s 2D. We did World of Warcraft where there’s a fully 3D environment using Blizzard’s Warcraft and Machinima, that’s what they call it. Having that still be South Park alongside South Park. All those conversations that he’s having a need to be had and understood by the people that are there because in that short timeline, you don’t have the opportunity to swing and miss.

You can’t fix the zombie tower.

“Is this close enough for the zombie tower?” It still happens even last season. There are still shots that are, “Where’s that shot of everyone blowing up in Canada? All I wanted was a mushroom cloud with 100,000 people dying.” You’re like, “It’s coming.” We’ll do parallel in the production floor, “This is what he wants, this is what he’s looking for. We may try to skin that cat three ways in parallel just to see what comes out.”

I’m sure people are having a little bit of trouble tracking some of the languages we’re using, because they just don’t know anything about animation. I’m one of those people. Is there a primer of sorts that if someone was like, “This stuff is really interesting?” Is there a book or is there a YouTube video or is there something that you think that they could look at to go, “I want to understand more about animation?” Does something come to mind?

No. I would just say ignore it and move on.

That’s fine. I have a tendency to do this. I go down a rabbit hole, which I never knew about. What you do is complex. What you do takes either academic training or an apprenticeship, plus years of experience. You watch it and you’re like, “These are drawings. It seems simple, but obviously it’s not. I want to learn more about these things.”

Which I probably take for granted that I’m like, “Every idiot knows what that means.”

It was to be the same thing if I started talking about the design of an experiment and the reporting of the results.

Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about double blinds. Let’s talk about how to implement the proper, “There’s no control model. There’s no control variable here. If the test actually knows about this information, he’s going to give away some stuff. Did you see the gorilla? There was no gorilla.”

You’re finishing up film school and you’re accomplished. You’re a little big in your britches, “I never would work on something like this.”

I was big on my britches and not accomplished. I was younger.

You’re aspiring, you’re not accomplished. You’re like, “I would never work on a show like that,” and yet you worked on a show like that. How does that happen?

I did because I was not accomplished. I was big in my britches. Bills started coming.

Are you still in your brother’s apartment at this point or have you moved out?

I was still in my brother’s apartment at this time. I think by this time his roommate had left and I conveniently slid into that spot but I was not contributing. Thank you, brother, for all of that.

By the way, another example of the guy behind the guy. Speaking of brothers, Picasso had a brother. Picasso’s not Picasso without that brother.

Van Gogh as well, Theo.

Maybe I’m thinking of Van Gogh and not Picasso.

I don’t know if Picasso had a brother.

It’s Van Gogh who had a brother who we should all take a moment and thank that guy. What’s your brother’s name?

Jeff.

Thank you, Jeff.

There’s something that you had said about resources. Basically, it’s all just film school stuff. It seems more complicated I think the way that I’m presenting it because what is typically a straight forward and more linear method of doing animation, you never go to phase B until you’re through phase A. We just happened to be doing all phases simultaneously, which makes it sound complicated.

We're able to do what we do when the scale of the production is smaller and less people are involved. Click To Tweet

The key that what allows you to do all phases simultaneously is you have this hedge, which is you might be working on the same scene in three ways.

I don’t want to overplay that because hedging that is a very dangerous thing because that requires three times the amount of resource to yield one thing. I’m a huge systems human being. I love systems, whether they are neural pathways in systems for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or whatever. By the way, all the new Psilocybin research is crazy.

My buddy, Shane Mauss, he’s a comedian and he’s become an expert in Psychedelics. I don’t know if it’s come up yet. I’m working on a secret project that I taped with him with this book, How to Change Your Mind, the Michael Pollan book. This stuff is hitting the mainstream. It’s fascinating.

What’s his name? Graham Hancock. I was listening to him on Rogan and he talks briefly about Ayahuasca. He is the Hancock. I want to get his new book. He wrote Fingerprints of the Gods. It was written in ‘95. It’s all about the huge gap missing in human history of other advanced civilizations. It’s pretty cool stuff.

You said you’re a big systems guy.

One facet of what I’m doing there is in terms of the production floor is channeling resources to make sure we make it to the end.

Is that the major job of an animation producer?

I will say a lot of the way we do things in there, because of time and just because of the nature of the environment is a little bit different. Like producing, there’s some more hands-on stuff. There are times when it’s like putting together a team and what’s that budget look like and all of that business. A lot of it in our day-to-day practical show schedule is that macro-organization.

Does that fall on your shoulders?

Yeah, to a certain extent, dealing with the hand that I have and how to play that hand. There are very rarely occasions where it’s doing to bring in outside people for this. That’s a difficult thing because as everyone is important, they’re also important because they know the drill. In department to department, it’s very different. What a Thursday looks like to storyboard versus what a Saturday looks like to the technical directors and what Tuesday night looks like for animators or Wednesday morning or Wednesday afternoon looks like for the animators in terms of what their workload is. For that reason, I always think it’s necessary that there are stable systems in place to encounter how to deal with all the weird shit that comes up. After twenty years, you think, “We figured everything out. Nothing’s going to surprise me now,” and then he comes in and he’s like, “Did you guys see that new Tarantino movie?” You’re like, “What is it?” “I love this,” or the 300 episode.

As an aside, the neat thing about this six-day production schedule is that it allows the show to be topical. Something happens in the news, something happens in pop culture, it can be incorporated into next weeks.

We’ve been on long enough that I think four election cycles and we’ve done something with each election, the last three, I think.

You know one or the other person’s going to win so that week you can build it in.

In this last election, I remember sitting, eating dinner in Butters’ office and I was like, “This is the most relaxed election episode,” because we were certain that this dipshit was going to lose and there wasn’t a lot of onus put on contingency. Right around then, the horribly awful news started to roll in, “This isn’t what’s supposed to happen.” Ironically, we did a parody of the election, a Canadian Donald Trump, which apparently nobody saw because then this never would have happened if people saw it. You’re like, “We thought it was funny, he was running for President. When we all took it seriously, it was too late. We’ll let that happen.” That episode, this is where the lone genius comes into play, is he was able to take a show that was built out in a certain way. I think he completely rewrote five scenes of the show. Retooled a handful of other scenes and made sense out of something that otherwise didn’t and that was overnight.

What happens if Trey gets food poisoning or has flu?

He’s not allowed to do that, “Can we do a rerun? What’s going on?”

Could it be done? Let’s suppose he’s like, “I need a break. You guys take it this week.”

I don’t think he would ever do that. I’m like, “Would he do that?” Telling the party line, “No. No one could ever do it without him.” He’s been sick and you can hear it. You’re like, “All of a sudden Randy, Stan and Cartman all have a cold.” “What’s going on around you, guys? I don’t feel so good. I’m feeling stuffy.” There is that. We’ve had to adjust our schedule for his health at times. We missed one. There was a power outage on a Tuesday night and that kills us because we’re losing four hours of time there.

Isn’t that amazing? Four hours can make or break.

I probably annoy the crap out of everyone where I’m operating in a world where to me every five-minute chunks matter. I’ll go over something and someone gets up to go to the bathroom, “What are you doing? Don’t you think you could do that first and then go to the bathroom later?” It’s a little tight. There is a guy that works there and sometimes he’s like, “Are you okay?” I’m like, “I don’t know. There is something I need to do.” “A little while ago, you said you need to go to the bathroom.” “That’s it. I’d got to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back. Hold on. Don’t follow me in there.”

As an aside, if you want support for why your employee should hold it, there’s research on how when people are holding a full bladder, they’re actually better at delaying gratification in other ways. They can actually be more focused on tasks and so on.

I’m just going to be filling water bottles and like, “It’s Tuesday at midnight, are you thirsty? Maybe you should be.”

The idea is that it activates this general ability to delay gratification and thus, to be attentive and focused on the job at hand. It’s very fascinating research.

Do they do that with kids with ADHD?

I think this is done with college because it’s hard to do research on that population. They do it on college kids mostly. This is fascinating. One of the other things I want to ask about is and this is in part from talking to Mike and then from watching the documentary again. That’s only just a very small snapshot in one particular week. Is it a happy place? It seems like a happy place.

I’m very happy. I don’t want to change a thing. I love it there.

I can imagine, especially with that frantic production schedule. It’s a place where people laugh a lot and they seem to get along. They like each other.

It’s a very intense place to work and it is not for everybody.

Some people are good at delaying gratification to be attentive and focused on the job at hand. Click To Tweet

Who’s the ideal character to be part of this group?

It would depend on the department. People who can take directions quickly. I’m a huge John Wooden fan, the UCLA basketball coach. He’s full of Woodenisms, as they’re referred to. One of them is, “I don’t require that you follow blindly, but I do require that you follow.” It’s that type of mentality because it’s dangerous to say that anyone in there is a robot because everything is sometimes fresh or different or new. People are often saying, “You’ve done it for twenty years so you can recycle a bunch of stuff.” It doesn’t happen because technology has changed so much. The look of the show has changed so much. I think we as a group of humans, I started in the range of mid-20s to early 30s. Now people are afflicted with children and families and they’re like, “Don’t you want to go home?” “No, I’m fine. Let’s do an all-nighter tonight.”

It gets harder to do an all-nighter as you get older too. I have zero all-nighters left in me.

It’s not good for you. That’s why when you say it’s a happy place, I think people are happy, people are rewarded by the product. There’s some satisfaction to not waiting nine months to see your work on television, but then also you’re on it on more of a razor’s edge of what the impact of a mistake is. Forget about the bladder issue. Some of these people are up for 26, 28 hours. I probably shouldn’t say that for California’s Labor Law. It’s like that. In Wednesdays, it’s a long shift and really under California legal laws and accordance with their laws. If people need to sleep before they go home, we encourage them to do that. It can be intense. The level of intensity is different for different players in the cast. If you don’t like it there, you don’t last it. You would get out of there.

It probably would be mutually agreed upon.

What we do often when we hire, at least on the production floor side of it, is we’d make a general agreement that your first season is going to be a trial both ways. Do you work for the show or does the show work for you? There have been times we’ve had to part ways with people and the amount of relief they have because a lot of the people that get into it, they’re not going to quit. I can do all-nighters. I can do this environment and they’re going after it. It’s a full charge. You tell them like, “We don’t know if it’s working out so much.” They’re like, “Thank God. You guys are crazy.” It’s a very dysfunctional family because even beyond the twenty-year-old people, we don’t turn over people a lot.

Something’s working there. It’s just working for this right type of character. That makes sense. How did you become a character there? How did you get into it? You have a bedroom in your brother’s place.

I was living my best life. I got a call and I was stoked because it was from Paramount and I thought, “Here we go, feature film is calling me.” They called and I called back and they said, “We’re doing an animated feature call for the show, South Park.” This was ‘98. I don’t know if it was in the middle of its first season or whatever. I respectfully declined when they initially called because I thought, “What’s that? That show’s never going to last.” They called back. Also, full transparency, I was doing storyboarding for live action and stuff. I had the opportunity to sit across from Irwin Winkler who was a producer or director of Raging Bull and a lot of movies. I’m like, “I’m sitting in a room with the guy.” He’s talking about Marty. I’m like, “He’s talking about Scorsese.” I had a couple of these experiences in completely different directions to go in. When that opportunity came, I had other things in the hopper. They had called me back.

In fairness to you, who could have known in this town?

They did. I was like, “These guys are really sure of themselves. They don’t know what’s about to happen.” They called back and we’d talked about it and I said, “I don’t know, it’s not an animator’s show.” They were calling me just as an animator not to direct or anything. Their pitch was, “We want people who can elevate it and take it off of the small screen and help put it on a big screen.” That was enough for me to say, “It’s a three-month gig. I’ll take this. It lines up with my schedule. I’ll take the credit. I’ll move on and nobody I went to school with ever knows that I worked on that thing,” because who watches credits that deep into the movie? Its only use is telling your mom or your besties. I went there and started working on the feature. That’s how I started there, which was the beginning of their second season. That’s also insane. They were doing their second season of the show and then we’re doing concurrently a movie. They created a second crew to do the movie while they were also doing the TV show. I thought these dudes are nuts. Which it turns out, “I was right.”

As an example of how nuts they are, in the documentary, they go to the Academy Awards and they’re tripping. They went to the Academy Awards dressed as women and were on acid or LSD.

Can you imagine if someone tried to do that now? The world has changed.

It has indeed. It would have broken the internet. It probably helps to be a little bit of a different drummer person to make a show like South Park.

I signed on for three months and I thought that was crazy too. You can’t animate a feature in three months. In addition, their script wasn’t done. I thought, “These guys didn’t go to SC Film.” It’s great that they didn’t for everyone and who is a fan of the show. In three months, they had to do a rewrite. Some tragic things happen. Columbine happened in the course of that movie. Matt’s from Littleton. There were things that impacted not only their just human lives, but it affected what the storyline was. I could be totally wrong about the details of this, but parts of the script had kids taking over their school. That’s not funny. That’s not cool. We can’t talk about that.

I thought they were going to shut the production down. They were like, “Sit tight, we’re going to rewrite this feature script and we’ll be right back.” I was like, “What?” Then three months became five months and there were extensions in it. The writing was on the wall with how these guys and the women that were there, how they work was they’re pushing to whatever these deadlines are. The thing was, technology wasn’t what it is now back then. Everything was done on computers at that time. When you would finish a shot on your computer, you would need to send it to what they call a render farm, which is just huge blades of data where it’s then converting your computer frames into back then film, a 2K image, frame by frame and that took time. You would finish a shot, you wouldn’t expect that shot to be done rendering for hours and hours, six hours, some heavy shots, maybe half a day. Where now, it’s pretty seamless. The only thing that holds us back is, “My wrist hurts.” “Get up. Get to work. It’s already back.”

Humans are what slow things down, not technology.

Sometimes. We’re limited mostly by human power. Some of the human power runs into a computational power or computational failure or computational error. That stuff adds up quickly that you have to safeguard against. In our building, we’re not the traditional old school Disney systems where, “Peter, you’re good at physical comedy. You animate Cartman and you don’t do anyone else.” Everyone in our building animates everybody. People have their strong suits. Some people are good at the physical stuff, some people are good at sexual stuff and some people are good at dancing.

Some are really good at poop.

I think that’s general, if you’re not good at it, I try to get you up to speed there. There are a lot of great poop conversations when Cartman has diarrhea, “Why would you have him hit mom in the face? That’s just wrong. What are you doing? Get it off her face.” “I thought it was funny.” “You’re just rude, respect your mother.”

This is for me, fascinating. At various times, when I give talks, I don’t think I’ve ever really written about it, but I talk about these animated primetime comedy television shows, Family Guy, South Park, Simpsons, etc. and how they get away with what they get away with. One thing is they get away with what they get away with because they’ve been on the air for so long. They pushed the boundaries for so long, they already have so much license. The stuff that happens now probably couldn’t happen in season one. I’ve trained the standards and practices of people. The other one is, if I may for a moment talk about humor research, the work that I’ve done and forgive me, audience, if you know this stuff, the work we do in the Humor Research Lab says that that humor arises from things that are wrong yet okay. Things that are threatening yet safe. Things that don’t make sense yet make sense or what we call benign violations.

There’s a whole world of things that threatened the way the world ought to be. For example, pooping on your mom. That’s a perfect example. Obviously, pooping on your mom is not inherently funny, not necessarily. What makes that thing that’s wrong and threatening, okay? The beautiful thing about animated and for South Park in particular, because a lot of these shows are families, this is kids mostly, the main characters are kids. You can kill a character every week. You kill Kenny, a little kid every single week. It’s okay to do it. It can be funny to do it. One of the things that I’ve always argued is these are not real people. These are animated. A real kid, an actor pooping on his actor mom, less funny, very real animated characters. You have what we call psychological distance. There are these different forms of psychological distance. There’s time. Things that were wrong long ago are easier to laugh at the things that are wrong right now at the moment. There’s spatial distance. Things that are wrong happening right here in this space are harder to laugh at than the things that are happening wrong on the other side of the planet.

There’s relational distance, so things that are wrong that happened to strangers or even better enemies are easier to laugh at things that happened to friends and family who were close too. There’s this notion of what’s called hypotheticality. Things that are wrong in the hypothetical are easier to laugh at things that are happening that are wrong in reality. Clearly, South Park at all has this distance that allows you to turn up the volume on the violations. In a sense, the human centipede is horrifying on the screen when it’s actual people sewn together. It’s funny when it’s animated characters sewn together.

Horrible stereotypes that are sewn together like the Japanese guy, “You do a vanilla paste or cuttlefish?” “You said the cuttlefish?” That’s historical though. Animation has a number of those elements all rolled packaged into one. If you look back in the history of some of the animation, like the old Warner Brothers stuff, there are some odd things happening where the dog is pounding. It’s got a flea on it and there’s a scene where it’s scooting its butt on the floor and then pounding itself with a hairbrush and then he stops, freezes and he looks in the camera and he goes, “I’m starting to like this,” and then it just goes on. There are these moments where you’re like, “That’s so odd and strange,” but because it’s an animated dog, people are okay with it.

You have a lot more license is the simple way to put this. By the way, I actually don’t think in any way it’s cheap. It doesn’t detract from the art form or anything like that. What it allows you to do actually is get bigger laughs because the bigger the violation, the bigger the offense discussed that happens when you fail. The bigger the laugh when you succeed. I think it’s why these shows are so incredibly funny is because you can push the boundaries in ways.

Have you noticed in your research in the last five to seven or eight years, I would say 2013 is like the demarcation? When they started talking about iGen or Gen Z and call-out culture and social justice warriors. We make fun of that with PC principal to a certain extent. It’s less forgiving, “Just because it’s animation doesn’t mean you can say that.” Things of like that nature where before it was much more what you were talking about where, “That’s just South Park being South Park,” where you can show Lucas and Spielberg raping Indiana Jones in animated form, which we did as accurately as possible in terms of what would that actually look like. If you did that live action, that would be horrible. What kind of weird people is like, “Remember that scene in The Accused when Jodie Foster was on the panel? Let’s redo that one with Spielberg and Lucas.” You’re like, “That’s weird and gross.” I even think you couldn’t do a lot of this stuff we did if you were starting now.

I don’t have data on this but anecdotally this certainly seems to be the case. Here’s the problem, I do think that young people get a little bit of a bad rap when it comes to this because the problem is we have what psychologists call confound. That is at the same time, that seemingly people are becoming more aware of the issues of whatever-ism you want to talk about and how it connects to media and popular culture. People setting more boundaries is also the same at the same time that people have a microphone or megaphone that they used to not have. How much of this is just an amplification of what would be there anyways? How much of it is that the Zeitgeists of a generation has changed? I don’t know what the answer to that is.

There is that component because when you’re talking about a relationship or relational distance or the distance that’s created between whatever the violation is and whatever you’re seeing, with the advent of the internet, social media specifically, that distance apparently is a lot smaller. It’s right there in front of me and that I think is a hand-in-hand with the echo chamber or the megaphone of like, “Now, I’ve closed down that distance, where it used to be something I assumed to happen in Arkansas is happening right here in the palm of my hand and it’s amplifying.”

Also, the other thing too is that things are taken out of context and they also arrive in the hands and the minds and hearts of people who they’re not intended to arrive in. Let’s take the Indiana Jones situation. There are people who and for good reason, think that rape is not a good topic for comedy. I think I can safely say that. Think about South Park twenty years ago versus South Park this year. You do that same kind of scene. Twenty years ago, you had to be in front of the TV. Now, you’re probably a South Park fan. You’re watching the whole show. You’re laughing, you’re having fun and even if that seems a little off-putting, you roll with it.

Humor arises from things that are wrong yet okay, things that are threatening yet safe, and things that don't make sense yet make sense. Click To Tweet

You’re a fan, you’re loyal, you like it and you’re having fun otherwise. Now, you can see that scene take as a non-fan outside the mindset of this playful 22 minutes and it’s dropped in your lap on Sunday morning at 9:00 AM or whatever it is. Now, it’s this perfect storm. It’s not the right set, it’s not the right setting to steal from the psychedelic stuff. It’s not even the right person for it. You’re not just going and telling your friends, you have an opportunity to blast it out the way you want and also then to be able to talk to the other people who weren’t aware of it. I think these are complex topics. I actually think they’re good topics for comedy to be jostling, tussling with because I think that it can push comedy to be even more creative and better. I think a lot of comedies are lazy. I’m not suggesting South Park’s lazy. That clearly is not the case based upon our conversation but to push comics to be better about those.

Maybe lazy isn’t the right word but from my lens, there’s definitely an impact into hearing the echo chamber in some of the more recent storylines. There is a knowledge that the world is watching, which is a weird thing to say after your show’s been on for twenty years. There is an expectation that South Park is tip of the spear, the front line of push it to where it can go to. My job there is creating this creative bubble in order to get whatever he wants to say out there because back to lone genius is in order for him to have the ability to make the statement or make the show about what the show is supposed to be about and find what’s funny about that is putting them in this bubble. If you’re in the bubble, you’re constantly getting feedback as to like, “Is that okay to do? Can you do that now?” I’m agreeing with you and trying to prove you right again. It is lazy in some way like comics that pushed the boundary like the Lenny Bruces of the world and Mitch Hedberg, are in their own ways are presenting material in a way that is different.

With regard to this project, one of the things I talk about is I have this group genius idea that I’ve been developing. Another one is what I call Good Comedy Creates Chasm. That is that good comedy’s not warm tea. It’s either iced tea or hot tea. You have got to choose, do you want to serve the hot tea customers or do you want to choose the iced tea customers? South Park fits that model perfectly. If you tried to create a South Park episode that made everyone happy, it would make no one happy. Having a bit of that, call it a bubble or whatever where you’re focused on.

What’s interesting about that is in my experience there, when you look at things like the show and the narrative and whatever they’re putting out, they’re frustratingly fair in a lot of these situations.

In terms of equal opportunity and in terms of making fun of people.

On any issues, they’re making fun of both sides.

They’re making fun of Hillary and Trump.

I don’t use conservative-liberal anymore because everyone now I feel like is centrist-left, centrist-right and there are the megaphone people that are actually right wing and left wing. You do get conservatives that are like, “I’m sure that Matt and Trey are conservatives because they were hating those liberals.” I’m like, “Really?” Then another side is like, “You really stuck into those conservatives.”

There are equal opportunities.

They’re two different individuals where one may lean a little more left on some things and one may lean a little more right on other things. I’m like, “You guys are always in the middle of the river, just pointing it going like, “Look at that,” and this is what’s amazing about that. In terms of making everyone happy, there is an element of, “We are making everyone happy.”

On a political dimension, that may be the case but on a disgust dimension, that’s not the case. I was hopeful for this conversation and you have delivered. I appreciate it. I do have one final question for you. What’s one thing you’re reading, watching or listening to that’s great, that’s outstanding?

I read a fair number of books.

The one where you’re like, “This is so good.” It doesn’t have to be a book. It doesn’t have to be the best. It just has to be one of the best.

I really enjoyed The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. I love that Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind.

The Coddling of the American Mind actually fits with our earlier conversation. There’s an Atlantic article that they wrote that then they turned into a book. I think The Atlantic article does most of the work, the book’s a little bit puffed up version of that but very focused on college campuses and these megaphones and the origins of this. Their thesis if I remember, I think I can articulate it correctly is that well-meaning parents and university administrators have put in a set of protections or protecting young people in a way that actually is backfiring and putting them at risk because they’re not able to tussle with difficulty. What they’re doing is shouting down on opposing perspectives.

Unintentionally, because I had no idea that question was coming, but it’s pertinent to this last point about lazy comedy because the extrapolation from what you are articulating, which I think is 100% correct, is if in the university setting you aren’t allowed to challenge an idea, where does that challenge come from? Does that then fall in line or lockstep with comedy? That’s an arena where that was also fair game. You had different perspectives. You have right wing, left wing comics and people are naming things and offering real editorial but shrouded in like, “Isn’t it funny when she referenced her breasts?” “I guess that’s funny.” That’s the whole idea of if you can’t intellectually bash heads with anyone, whether it’s in a conversation like we’re having versus a TV medium where it’s one directional and you’re broadcasting versus social media, which is unilaterally just diarrhea everywhere, that to me is the most intriguing thing about all humanity which is humor, drama and everything on it. People experience things differently.

The idea that everybody’s staying in their own silos. These are the kinds of rights that you only venture outside of your silo in order to yell at someone else’s silo.

The presumption that if you feel damaged by something, there was actually a commission of fault that lies elsewhere.

The critique I think of this is that they cherry-pick a bit in terms of their anecdotes and stories. I can tell you this as a university professor, personally I see very little of this behavior. I do see some of the sensitivities that people talk about and I see a little bit of that. I sometimes wish my students would be a little tougher. I will tell you this first of all, I’m glad that students care about these things because for a long time they were asleep at the wheel. The other thing is as a profession, professors are pretty safe. That’s the push back on that idea but it’s certainly a fun read and it’s provocative.

I think you’re right in that Atlantic article. It is more to the point and I think the cherry-picking idea is puffing up the piece a little bit. Reinforcing it may be taken by some people as like, “They’re not pulling data from the other data sites that say otherwise,” and I get that feeling too.

It’s a great read and something that I think if you have a kid or if you work in a professional space, these are things that you should be aware of.

Thinking about safe spaces and then thinking about the conversations that we have in our building, they’re just very straight-faced about like, “How he’s penetrating her,” or that sort of things. It’s important for the joke to land that happens like this. We actually want to see that. Don’t cover that up. We’re a fairly diverse group of people from those who identify as male and those who identify as female and racially and ethnically and culturally. Then you’re having these conversations that are open but it’s always just about whatever the work is and there is that distance where we’re like, “We’re talking about work. I’m not actually talking to you as a person.”

I could see how you could very easily talk two conversations about penetration. One that is based upon the episode and one that’s not. One gets you in trouble and one is a requirement for the job. Jack, this was super fun. I appreciate you inviting me to your house to do this.

You’re very welcome. Thanks for coming by.

Cheers.

Resources mentioned:

About Jack Shih

INJ 76 | South ParkJack Shih is an Emmy Award-winning animation director and producer known most notably for his work on South Park. He also has a side hustle as a voice-over artist.

 

 

 

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