NYCC2011: A Roundtable Interview with Arthur Bradford, Director of "South Park" Documentary "6 Days to Air"
It’s probably not a surprise for South Park fans to learn that the show’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are fascinated with humor centering on people with disabilities. It might be surprising to learn that the two used some of the money that the show has made to produce the entertainment series How’s Your News?, where people with assorted disabilities do “man on the street” interviews. How’s Your News? began from a program at Camp Jabberwocky run by author and filmmaker Arthur Bradford, whose long relationship with Parker and Stone eventually led to 6 Days to Air, a documentary on the making of South Park which gets its title from the cycle time to create a single episode of the show. The documentary recently screened on Comedy Central in conjunction with the 15th anniversary celebrations of the show.
Toonzone was able to participate in a roundtable interview session with Bradford at the 2011 New York Comic Con to talk about 6 Days to Air and the unique individuals behind South Park. Questions we asked during the session are marked.
TOONZONE NEWS: I read that you’d met Matt Stone and Trey Parker because they’d approached you about your “How’s Your News” shorts, is that correct?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Exactly. I had been working at a summer camp in 1994, way back before South Park, and a friend of a friend gave them a VHS tape of these films I had done at the summer camp. I was teaching a video class there, and I had some people with disabilities interview people on the street, and Matt and Trey called me up and said they really thought the interviews were great. The interviews were funny in a really nice way, I think humor with people with disabilities always kind of fascinated Matt and Trey. They were always really interested in that sort of humor, and we became friends. They sent me “The Spirit of Chirstmas” and told me that they were going to do a series, and as soon as they made it big, they wanted to fund something that I could do outside the summer camp, and that’s how How’s Your News? (the series) came about.
TOONZONE NEWS: Oh, so you actually knew them before South Park, even.
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny because when they showed me the pilot for South Park, I thought that it had no future, really. (laughter) I just…I couldn’t believe that a show like that was going to be put on the air, and be a hit. Obviously, I was very wrong about that.
Q: How many days did it take to make the documentary?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: They do each episode in 6 days, but I wanted to shoot as much as possible. I looked at it as sort of embedding, the same way a reporter embeds with the troops in the field. Their run is 7 episodes, so that’s 7 weeks. We shot for about 5 of those 7 weeks. I knew right away that we wanted to collect material for a longer documentary which we’re still shooting. 6 Days to Air is about the making of one episode, but we’re still working on the longer documentary, which is about Book of Mormon and other things that Matt and Trey do.
ARTHUR BRADFORD: I had approached Matt about doing this documentary. They had executive produced How’s Your News? for MTV in 2009, and when that didn’t get renewed, I was looking for another project. I asked Matt if I could pitch this idea of doing a documentary about South Park and he actually said no. He just said, “We don’t want to have cameras in there, it’s too intense,” so I said OK. I couldn’t force him. Then when Book of Mormon came along, Matt said, “You know what? We actually would like you to do a documentary about Book of Mormon. It’s new, we think it’s an interesting process.” So I was all on board for that, but it actually was hard to get all the clearances with Actor’s Equity and stuff on Broadway. The process of trying to put that together made us kind of rethink the South Park thing, and then with the 15th anniversary coming up, the timing just was right. Comedy Central was really interested in having the documentary made and we just slowly eased into it. I wasn’t sure how much access we were going to get. I really wanted to get into the writer’s room. That was my big goal, and they had not promised that. What we did, if you see the documentary, is we used little surveillance cameras to keep it from getting self-conscious in there. I think that worked out.
Q: What was it like working with Matt and Trey? Was it like what you were expecting because you know that they’re kind of wild and goofy?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: They’re really inspiring people. When I first met them back in the 90’s and they were telling me how funny they thought those films I had made with people with disabilities were, I wasn’t sure what to think. I mean, they were these two kind of crazy guys from L.A., and Trey had dyed hair, and they laughed at everything and made fun of everybody. I had never met anybody like that. I realized…and I believe this about South Park and it’s true about them: they have a heart. They’re really smart guys and they don’t make fun of anything without backing it up with some thought. So I really respect that. I think that as crude and sometimes mean as their humor can seem, they’re really nice, sweet guys. They really honestly are. They also are super-crazy. The hours that they keep to make that show are unbelievable. You guys probably pulled all-nighters in school and stuff, but it’s like they just do that over and over again. Every Tuesday night, they stay up all night. Trey is drinking Red Bull, chugging Dayquil. I mean, I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s pretty crazy.
Q: So did you have to keep the same schedule they did when they made the documentary?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Yeah, that was kind of the rule we kept for ourselves. We wanted to earn their respect because the thing about Matt and Trey is that they make fun of Hollywood and the media, and I knew when they had agreed to do this documentary, I wanted to make this really different. It wasn’t going to be just a puff piece and it wasn’t going to be 60 Minutes, where they just come in for a few minutes and they just kind of ask the same questions everybody else asks. I wanted to make this different and I wanted to earn their respect. Our rule was with the camera crew was that we weren’t going to go home until they went home. So on Tuesday, we got there at 9:00 and we didn’t leave until 10:00 AM the next morning. We always left after Matt and Trey. That was kind of our thing. Not that I didn’t crash out on the couch sometimes, and if you look at our footage, sometimes because I was shooting one of the cameras, I’m literally falling asleep as I’m shooting at 4:00 in the morning. I would try to interview Trey sometimes at 4:00 AM, and he would be all jacked up on caffeine and I couldn’t even form sentences. But it was a really interesting experience, I think. I haven’t pulled all-nighters like that in a while.
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Yeah, I mean, that is kind of the way it is. I don’t want to…the writers are very important, and the word “writer” is maybe not the right term in some ways, but they contribute a lot. Vernon Chatman, Ann Garefino, and Matt Stone…Trey really needs those people to bounce ideas off. At the end, it’s almost an efficieny thing. Trey is the one who writes.
Q: He just remembers everything?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing. There is not a pen to paper in that room. There’s a dry erase board, where Trey will write down stuff, and a lot of times, he’ll go back and look at the dry erase board. He’ll write down plot points, sometimes on the dry erase board. A couple of times, he would ask us for tapes of the thing because he couldn’t remember some joke, but a lot of times a lot of jokes, some really funny jokes…and Bill Hader is one of the writers, too. He’s great. Unfortunately, I don’t think the documentary conveys their contributions as well as it probably should. A lot of people were like, “Does Bill Hader do anything except just laugh in the writer’s room?” because he’s just laughing, but he really does. I just think that’s the way it comes off in the documentary, but Bill is a big, big part of that, as is Anne Garefino and Vernon and Susan (Hurwitz Arneson) and Matt, they’re all really important, but Trey is the kind of guy when he tells a joke, he looks around the room and makes sure everybody’s laughing. So he trusts all his people to figure it out.
Q: Did you contribute any ideas to Matt and Trey during the filming?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: (laughs) I really wanted to a lot of times. It was funny I’d be hiding in the corner so I wouldn’t be on camera, but they’re sitting there trying to come up with ideas and they have no time, and I would think, “Oh, I have an idea for that,” but I’d be really embarrassed if I said something and they thought it was a bad idea. It’s funny because our cameraman P.H. O’Brien would be on his headphones listening, and we would joke that he would come running in with an idea to help them out. But every time, it was really tempting to raise my hand and say, “Oh, what if Cartman does this?” But no, I didn’t do that. They have a real set way they do that show.
The funny thing is that you know how they ended this season with this kind of cliffhanger? They had all summer to try and figure out how to solve that, but they didn’t. They really do like to procrastinate. So Trey came in to this meeting with the whole staff and he said to everyone, “If anyone has any ideas how to get out of this hole we’ve dug ourselves into, let me know. I don’t know how to do it.” But I don’t think anyone actually approached him with an idea. The way they do this show is really amazing. They’ll get ideas from anything. A burrito could get delivered and that becomes part of the episode.
ARTHUR BRADFORD: That’s always a question about South Park, and I think if someone ever tells them that “you can’t do that,” then they immediately want to do that. So that’s kind of the rule on South Park. One thing that was interesting in our documentary, the episode is “HumancentiPad,” an Apple parody, and while they were writing it, Steve Jobs was really sick. So it was brought up. I remember they spent several hours asking if they wanted to make Steve Jobs…originally he was a really evil guy where you click “Agree” and you get sewed to the butthole of somebody else. They had this discussion of whether they should actually make fun of Steve Jobs, and if you watch the episode, it’s sort of a nice ending. That’s an example of Matt and Trey sort of pulling back and saying, “Hey, this guy is really sick, let’s not be too harsh on him.” I think they’re really glad about that, since he died. So they have a heart, but honestly, if anybody tells them they can’t do something, they’re going do it. The Muhammad thing is a pretty good example of that.
Q: I was going to ask about if you were worried about the timing, about Steve Jobs and how he died.
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Yeah, I was. Fortunately for us, Steve Jobs isn’t in our documentary that much. It did occur to me. But then, it was interesting because when it was broadcast, they showed the “HumancentiPad” episode before they showed our documentary, and I was really glad that they had that whole discussion about not going overboard with Steve Jobs, because he does sort of come off as a nice guy at the end. And honestly, Trey is a huge fan of Apple. South Park is brought to you by Apple Computer, so obviously they don’t think Steve is too bad. I was a little bit woried about it, but in a way I think it made it more topical because people were thinking about Apple, and it was OK. It’s funny because that “HumancentiPad” episode just happened to be the one we did for the documentary because we had it really well documented, and I thought it was particularly interesting that they got right on a plane from New York and got right to work on that one. But honestly, that wasn’t the strongest episode of that run and Matt and Trey would agree. It was a little bit sloppy and they kind of felt that way, so it’s an interesting episode to make a documentary about. It would have been cool if we had done a documentary about the “City Sushi” episode, which I think a really strong one in that, and we have some really good material that we’re going to show tonight from that one, too. We had stuff on a lot of the other episodes that was really strong too, and that’s why I feel so strongly about making the longer piece.
Q: Were there any secrets while making it? Like anything they do in particular when writing that helps them come up with ideas?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: I honestly think film students and writing students should watch this documentary because their methods are interesting. Their method is really to paint themselves into a corner so they can’t procrastinate any longer and they have to do something. I think that’s what writer’s block is, that you can’t make up your mind and they have to make up their mind. Trey’s secret is that he’s always walking. So during the writer’s meetings, everybody’s sitting around a table like this and Trey is walking around in a circle, because Trey is the guy who writes the words. Every episode of South Park is written by Trey Parker. He gets a lot of help from everyone else. I thought it was interesting that he’s always walking, and I asked him why he always did that and it was to keep the blood moving. That’s kind of an interesting secret, I think. There’s a lot of interesting tips in the movie on how to make things a little bit better. As crazy and weird and wild as Matt and Trey are, they’re really good examples of work ethic and what to do. I think young writers and filmmakers can learn a lot from watching them. I certainly learned a lot. Doing this documentary was just an excuse to ask all these these questions. I’ve known them for 16 years, but had a lot of questions I wanted to ask them, so finally when I had the camera, it was a good excuse to figure that out. And I still have more questions, honestly. They’re fascinating guys.
ARTHUR BRADFORD: We did spend a lot of time with the animators. The South Park team that they have in there is super, super accomplished. They are so fast. We talk to head of animation, this guy named Jack Shea, and he talks about how everybody here has to be really fast. You can be a really good animator but if you can’t turn something around fast, that’s not helpful for them. We got them to get out the original paper cutouts that they had for the pilot episode and it was stop-motion animation with a camera. They make a lot of interesting points that it’s still stop-motion animation, but it’s on computers. It used to be they had these special custom computers, but now they just use Apple computers out of the box. We talked to a lot of the animators, and the storyboard people, too. I’m not a technical guy or an animator myself, but I think we could do a documentary just about the way they do that show. It’s very sophisticated how they create a very unsophisticated look on South Park. Maybe for this longer thing, we’ll keep exploring that.
Q: Are you still continuously filming for the longer documentary?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Yeah.
Q: How much overall are you looking to get from them? I mean, how long do you look that you want to be there and continue filming and get the whole process from them?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: I think we’ve got a lot of South Park footage now, because we spent all that time in there, and then we went back just a couple of weeks ago when they went on Jimmy Kimmel. That was just a typical day for them. They went in, they tried to figure out what they were going to do for their next episode, then they got into a car, drove, went on Jimmy Kimmel, and then drove and went back to work. That’s the kind of guys they are. After this, I’ll go back to L.A. and film a little bit more. Right now, I’m looking to film a bit outside the office. We’re going to do a trip to Colorado so we’ll go back to the South Park basin and talk about the real origins of the show. I want to do some more stuff about Book of Mormon, too. I’m interested on how that’s going. We’ll probably keep filming for, if I had to guess, probably like six months to a year. Not constant filming, but just checking in with them. They’re at an interesting point in their lives right now. They keep talking about being middle-aged and how there’s always speculation how things are changing for those guys. It’s funny because they talk about how they’re getting old but they’re kind of at the top of their game right now. They have a hit Broadway show, South Park is doing great, it’s a pretty interesting time.
Q: Is that where the idea for the episode where Stan turns 10 came from?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Yeah, I think South Park is…I mean, this is my opinion, Trey would maybe deny this in some ways…but there’s a big autobiographical element to South Park. Everybody knows Stan is Trey and Kyle is Matt, and they play out their mental thoughts on South Park. About that “you’re getting old” episode, tonight we’re going to screen this little bonus thing that wasn’t in the broadcast about that episode and it’s really interesting because Matt’s 40th birthday happened then, so they’re talking about feelings about getting old and then it directly plays out on the show. It’s really interesting how much of that show parallels their lives, definitely.
Q: You said you had some unanswered questions for the next documentary? What were they?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Some of it I would keep secret, but I still want to know what drives those guys. I’ve asked them that, but I feel like I don’t have the answer. I mean, honestly, they could just be sitting on a beach right now. They’ve made a ton of money, they’ve proved that they’re talented. So why do they continue to pull all-nighters and just drive themselves into the ground for this? What is their driving force? I still don’t completely know that answer and I think I want to find that out.
ARTHUR BRADFORD: I don’t know all the answers to that. The thing is that Comedy Central thing we broadcast feels a little bit in-house to me. That was a Comedy Central production, and it was very much about the South Park 15th anniversary. I want this feature film to feel a little more autonomous so it’s not just a promotion for South Park. This feature film is going to be more about two big, real talented people and how they put together this very unique product. I would like it to be like most documentaries are, playing at film festivals, and then potentially even do a theatrical release, dvd, broadcast. The way feature documentaries are done now. Time-wise, that’s probably a year from now.
Q: Was there something that happened while you were filming that you wanted to put on the Comedy Central special but couldn’t?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Yeah, there was quite a bit. We had to cut a lot of stuff for various reasons. Just things that they didn’t want to bring up timing-wise or something was too personal. When we got cameras in the writer’s room, we had to have this agreement of trust that if something got said that was going to be misinterpreted, that we wouldn’t go put it out there, because they have to feel like they can say anything in that writer’s room. And you’ve got to imagine that if what you see on South Park is offensive, think of what they say in the writer’s room. There’s a ton of harsh stuff that gets said in there that we cut out. I guess I would be betraying their trust if I said it now (laughs), but believe me, stuff gets said in that writer’s room that’s funny, but you wouldn’t want to broadcast it, you know?
Q: What was the most memorable thing about making this documentary, that’s going to stay with you?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: (laughs) I think it’s probably just that feeling of the sun coming up and just being brutally exhausted and watching Trey just hammering it through. I’m so tired I can’t even focus the camera, and he’s operating an Avid, writing, and recording, and the sun comes up and the show is going on the air that day, and they’re still finishing. I just remember that Wednesday morning sunrise that’s just a crazy time and just the amount of stress they put themselves through boggles my mind. I’ll never really forget that. I mean, I was in physical pain after pulling an all-nighter and I wasn’t even on deadline like they were. It’s kind of like watching an athlete or something. It was kind of awe-inspiring.
TOONZONE NEWS: You are also a fiction writer. Did you find skills in writing fiction cross over into writing fiction, or will stuff in the documentary be coloring your fiction in the future?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Oh, that’s interesting. Probably. Both Matt & Trey are really interesting guys. They are not boring people, so probably something about my writing will cross over into that. Probably, when I’m writing late at night, and I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m tired, I’ll go to bed,” I’ll probably think about the way Matt and Trey do their stuff and I’ll keep writing (laughs) in that way. And Trey said this one thing and it’s in the documentary, I thought that was amazing advice for any writer where he says when he’s writing, if he can change the “and”s to “but”s or “therefore”s, like “this happens BUT this happens THEREFORE this happens” as opposed to “this happens AND this happens AND this happens.” I thought that was just really good advice. If I was going to teach a fifth grade creative writing class, I’d say think about that, so when you’re coming up with your plots, see if you can change the “and”s to “but”s or “therefore”s. It makes for more interesting writing. It was like going to school in that sense. It was really educational.
Another thing I’d like to point out about this documentary is that we really approached this like as a documentary. The expectation for something like that was that you could just make this promotional, and it’s like a reality TV show or something. For instance, the lead editor for the film is Chad Beck, who edited the Academy Award-winning film Inside Job, and I think it was an example of how South Park is highbrow and lowbrow. It appeals to third graders in Kansas, and the fact that we could get this editor who does this all this highbrow political stuff wanted to do a documentary about South Park. It shows that this subject has some depth. It’s not just a shallow subject. I think there’s a lot of depth to it.
Toonzone News would like to thank Arthur Bradford for taking the time to speak with us, as well as the folks at Comedy Central PR for setting it up and our friends in the press who participated in the roundtable. New episodes of South Park air on Comedy Central on Wednesdays.