As a kid growing up in Evergreen, Col., obsessed with movies and TV, Eric Stough’s dream job was to work on the Muppet Show. What he got instead was sort of the stoner-funhouse version of the that childhood dream, landing a gig as co-producer of South Park, everyone’s favorite absurdist black-comic animated hit about foul-mouthed little kids living in a sleepy mountain town.
“It really is a dream come true to work with people of that level of creativity,” Stough says, in a recent phone interview. “Going to work every day is like hanging out with your friends.”
It probably seems that way because Stough truly is “hanging out with friends” when he arrives at the South Park studio every day. SP co-creator Trey Parker is a childhood pal, dating back to junior high school days in Evergreen. And he met SP’s other creator, Matt Stone, a few years later, in college; Stone appeared in Stough’s senior thesis film.
According to Stough, Parker’s vision for how he would create and run the show was already in place when he pitched South Park to various network executives back in the mid-‘90s.
“They told Trey there’s no way he could do what he was proposing,” Stough says. “Trey said, ‘I’m going to go back to Colorado, get all my friends, and we’re going to do it.’ And that’s what happened.”
And all they did was find a way to produce arguably the most daring and innovative animated program in television history, on a schedule that makes even good men wince: The title of the new South Park documentary 6 Days to Air refers to the time allotted to produce a single episode.
“They [Parker and Stone] are very hands-on,” Stough says. “Trey writes the scripts, and he turns out about four pages at a time. Then we record voices—about half of which are done by Matt. Then we get art for storyboards, and then put dialog with storyboards for animatics…
“Every once in a while, we might get an episode that takes two or three weeks. We had a Warcraft episode, where over half the episode was done inside the video game, and we had to coordinate with [game creator] Blizzard Entertainment. But out of 240 episodes so far, 230 were done inside a week. It’s a different way of working; we kind of reinvented the wheel.”
Besides serving as the show’s original animation director, and now as a producer, Stough is significant in one other key respect; he is the model for Butters, a sweet, mild-mannered character who hovers on the periphery of the show’s four central figures—Stan, Kenny, Kyle, and Cartman—serving as a comic foil and chief recipient of Cartman’s potty-mouthed abuse.
Stough says the name “Butters” was originally a nickname given him by Parker, a mutation of the word “buddy”, and that the character was intended to reflect his own easy-going, agreeable disposition. “Trey has told me that I’m the most ‘anchored’ person working on the show, and I think they were looking for a contrast to the character Cartman,” he says.
“The nickname came from the idea of buddy, goody-two shoes, and then Trey went through this phase where he had a tendency to add ‘ers’ to the end of everything. I hated the name at first, but then I started growing into it. Now I’m honored that they’ve modeled a character after me.”
Eric Stough and South Park Executive Producer Frank Agnone will appear for a panel discussion and screening of 6 Days to Air, a documentary about the making of South Park on Friday, June 13 at 7 p.m. at Scruffy City Hall. They will also screen the show’s “Black Friday” trilogy on Saturday, June 14, also at the venue.