SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
Do you recognize this voice?
Mr. TREY PARKER (Co-Creator, "South Park"): (As Eric Cartman) You will respect my authority!
STAMBERG: If you don't, you are probably not a male between the ages of 18 and 24, otherwise, you would almost certainly know that it's Eric Cartman, the most famous of the foul-mouthed fourth graders who inhabits South Park, the Colorado town that is the setting for Comedy Central's most popular show. Nine-year old Cartman is number 10 on TV Guide's top 50 cartoon characters of all time. He's also the subject of today's In Character, our series exploring famous American fictional characters.
We sent NPR's health policy correspondent, Julie Rovner, to Los Angeles to do the story. We will let her explain why. Oh, and you know that disclaimer they usually show before each South Park episode warning how the show will offend just about everybody? Well, consider yourself warned.
JULIE ROVNER: Okay. I interview important people every day, congressmen, senators, presidential candidates, but I've got to admit, the prospect of interviewing Eric Cartman, entrepreneur, con man, and all around juvenile evildoer, made me more than a little bit nervous. Who's your hero?
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) This - this might sound kind of egotastical, but it's actually, I'd have to say myself, and it's only because like, if you - if you - if you could see me, like, I actually do really cool stuff and most of the kids think I'm really cool and just basically everything about me is so cool that I sort of just, I look up to myself and it becomes this sort of - goes back on itself. You know, like, I look up to myself and then it raises me up and then I'm looking at myself and it raises me again. I just get cooler all the time.
ROVNER: I admit it, I'm a fan. In fact, I've been a fan since before there even was a South Park series. We'll get back to Cartman in a minute, but first let me tell you a story. Back in the beginning, which is about 12 years ago now, there was a five minute short called The Spirit of Christmas.
(Soundbite of TV show "South Park")
Unidentified Group: (Singing) We wish you a merry Christmas.
Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) Wait a minute.
Mr. MATT STONE (Co-Creator, "South Park"): (As Kyle) What?
Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) Aren't you Jewish, Kyle?
Mr. STONE: (As Kyle) Yeah, I think so.
Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) Dude, Jewish people don't celebrate Christmas.
Mr. STONE: (As Kyle) What?
Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) You're supposed to sing Hanukkah songs.
Mr. STONE: (As Kyle) (Singing) Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay. Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel...
Ms. ELISA GOODMAN (Former casting director): I'm Elisa Goodman, I'm from Los Angeles. I'm married to Ken Marcus(ph), who is Julie Rovner's cousin.
ROVNER: Elisa used to be a casting director in Hollywood. Her casting partner, Abra Edelman, had a niece who was married to comedy writer Matt Silverstein.
Ms. GOODMAN: And he gave Abra a tape of "The Spirit of Christmas" and that's how we first learned about it. It was pretty outrageous.
ROVNER: To say the least. You've now heard just about all of it that we can play on the radio. Suffice it to say the plot involved Cartman and his pals, Kyle, Stan, and Kenny, magically summoning skater Brian Boitano to break up a fight between Santa and Jesus. Really. Now when they got the video, Elisa says they were given instructions.
Ms. GOODMAN: That it was a secret tape and that we could not make copies of it. I think it had come from George Clooney, if stories are consistent.
ROVNER: The story goes that Clooney made hundreds of copies of "The Spirit of Christmas." Apparently, so did everyone else who laid hands on it or so says Trey Parker, the voice of Cartman and the co-creator of South Park. Parker says he and partner Matt Stone were amazed at how that video, originally commissioned for $2,000 by a Fox Studio executive as a Christmas card, got around.
Mr. PARKER: The Internet was just starting at that time, but it was all getting passed around on VHS, which is so funny to think about now, but it created this - this - you know, it took, instead of being, the - you know, it wasn't like Chocolate Rain where the next day it was all over the place, it was like two months later, all of a sudden people were saying, hey guys, I want to show you this thing I saw in New York and they're showing us our own stuff.
ROVNER: That video would lead to "South Park" the series and two Emmys and a Peabody Award later, the rest is TV history. Last month, "South Park" launched season 12 with send-ups of Britney Spears, teen drug use, and the fall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. And how did Cartman come to be the star? Parker says at the beginning the four boys really didn't have particularly distinctive personalities. Parker and Stone based Stan and Kyle on themselves and their families and set the show in the Denver suburbs where they each grew up. But Parker says Cartman was quick to break out of the pack.
Mr. PARKER: I'd say within the first season we kind of realized, we're like, oh, Cartman's like a little Archie Bunker. You know, and we were big - we were big fans of "All in the Family" and we were going back and seeing some of those reruns and we're like - and we kind of realized what we had there in him was this kid, and especially because he was eight years old, he was kind of free to say whatever he wanted. He could dress up like Hitler and he could do this because he's eight, you know, and he doesn't - he doesn't really know what he's doing. He doesn't care, he's just a product of his environment.
ROVNER: That environment being the only child of a single mother, living in a small town, eating junk food, and watching a lot of television. The overweight Cartman…
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) I'm not fat, I'm big-boned.
ROVNER: Sorry, the big-boned Cartman quickly became the protagonist of South Park's political incorrect pokes at serious topics. In the current season's debut, the show took on fundraising for medical research. Cartman gets HIV from a botched blood transfusion, then purposely gives it to Kyle.
(Soundbite of TV show, "South Park")
Mr. STONE: (As Kyle) This isn't funny, AIDS isn't funny, dying isn't funny, so shut the (bleep) up.
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Well, excuse me, Kyle, for trying to keep some optimism, you know. You know, sometimes when things seem their darkest, you just need to try and stay HIV positive. But if you want to be so HIV negative all the time...
Mr. STONE: (As Kyle) Knock it off right now. This isn't funny at all.
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Are you sure?
Mr. STONE: (As Kyle) Yes.
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Are you HIV positive?
(Soundbite of punching and groaning)
ROVNER: But giving his best friend HIV isn't even close to the worst thing Cartman has done on the show. Parker says that probably goes back to an episode from 2001 when Cartman actually ground up a rival's recently deceased parents and served them to him in a bowl of chili. Parker said there was some serious debate in the writers' room about whether that was a going a step too far, even for Cartman, the show's unquestioned villain.
Mr. PARKER: We had that idea and we thought it was really funny, but then we're like, all right, well, we're obvious - we're setting a new bar now, you know. And, there was a big thing, you know, we're like, okay, well he can't kill - we don't want to make him a murderer, but you can obviously see how if they were going to be dead, you know, then he could feed them and so we debated it for a long time and then we did - and there was a definitely a rad - there was some people who were big Cartman fans. They're like he wouldn't do - that's crossing the line, that's crossing the line. And then there were other people going that's awesome because no other show would have done that and so...
ROVNER: But in recent years, Parker says, he and Stone have probed a little deeper into what or who has made Cartman what he is and have decided it's his mother.
Mr. PARKER: It sort of became obvious to us in, you know, we always had this thing where Cartman's mother was so sweet. She was the one that was just overly sweet to him and giving him whatever he wanted, and especially, you know, we came out to L.A. and we started to meet people out here and I don't know if it's worse in L.A. than most places in the country, I hope so. But in L.A. we were starting to meet so many parents who were just so desperately trying to be friends to their kids, you know, and it was the thing we really picked up on, you know, was just like these are making these really evil kids, you know.
ROVNER: Which led them to pen an episode in which Cartman's mother brings in Cesar Millan, also known as the Dog Whisperer. The real-life Millan trains owners to be dominant pack leaders to their dogs. Here he tries to help Mrs. Cartman bring her son to heel.
(Soundbite of TV show "South Park")
Unidentified Voice Talent: (As Cesar Millan): Okay, let me show you how to express the dominant energy. What I've done is I've brought over some Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Ooh, Colonel?
Unidentified Voice Talent: (As Cesar Millan): I am going to eat first because that is what is the pack leader does.
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Get - give me the chicken, give me some chicken. What are you doing? I want chicken. Give me some (bleep) chicken.
Unidentified Voice Talent: (As Cesar Millan): I am not going to acknowledge the child's attempt at aggressive dominant behavior. Now you eat the chicken.
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Ma, give me - give me some chicken. I want some chicken, Mom.
Unidentified Voice Talent: (As Cesar Millan): We won't reward him until he's in a calm submissive behavior.
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) (Bleep) damn it, I am not a dog.
ROVNER: Of course in the end the Dog Whisperer leaves and Cartman reverts to his old self. The do-anything, say-anything walking Id that he is. Trey Parker says he really wouldn't have it any other way.
Mr. PARKER: He is basically the dark side of everyone, and I think everyone has got a little Cartman in them. (Laughs) And I think it's, you know, you need a little Cartman in you once in a while.
ROVNER: Or at least once a week.
Julie Rovner, NPR News.
ROVNER: What profession would you not like to do when you grow up?
Mr. PARKER: (As Eric Cartman) Probably be an interviewer actually.
ROVNER: Okay. I'll take that in the way I'm sure it was intended.
STAMBERG: Eric Cartman answers the Proust Questionnaire at our Web site where you can also nominate your own favorite characters for our series, just go to npr.org/incharacter.
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