The main characters are Eric Cartman, Stan Marsh, Kyle Broslofski and Kenny McCormick. The show's earliest well-known gimmick was that in every episode, Kenny would die in some horrible, unexpected way. After this Stan would say, "Oh my god, they killed Kenny!" and Kyle would add, "You bastards!" Kenny would be back in the next episode, the incident forgotten. For some time, Kenny had actually died "permanently", although his ghost occasionally reappeared. Recently he has come back to life and is now the same regular kid he was before. Kenny was killed in the last episode of season seven, but he survived the first episode of season eight unscathed.
Part of the show's surrealist nature derives from the minor characters who appear in the series. Notable appearances include God (who appears as a small creature resembling a hippo-rodent hybrid), Jesus (a recurring character, who owns a home and hosts a call-in television show in South Park), Satan and his lover Saddam Hussein, Moses who appears as a fiery dreidel demanding macaroni pictures, the alien Marklar race, the jakovasaur, Death, and Mr. Hankey "the Christmas poo", who adds to the holiday festivities in much the same spirit as the 1960s Rankin & Bass cartoons. Celebrities often appear (usually impersonated); examples include Kathie Lee Gifford (who was nearly assassinated), Bill Clinton (who slept with Cartman's mom), O. J. Simpson (part of a support group for relatives of murder victims), the band Korn (who played themselves and solved a Scooby Doo-type mystery), Brian Boitano (who is a superhero), David Blaine (founder of the fictional Blainetology religion), Sally Struthers saving "Starvin' Marvin" in Africa, and Radiohead, whereupon the band tells lead singer Thom Yorke to stop reading fan mail and mocks Scott Tenorman for crying.
South Park got its start in 1991 when Parker and Stone, then film students at the University of Colorado, created an animated short called Jesus vs Frosty (also known as The Spirit of Christmas). The crudely-made film featured prototypical versions of the kids of South Park, including a character resembling Cartman but called "Kenny", bringing a murderous snowman to life with a magic hat. The baby Jesus then saves the day by decapitating the monster with a halo.
Executives at the Fox network came upon the film, and in 1995 executive Brian Graden commissioned Parker and Stone to create a second short film to send to friends as a video Christmas card. Entitled The Spirit of Christmas, it closely resembled the style of the later series, and featured a martial arts duel (and subsequent truce) between Jesus and Santa Claus over the true meaning of Christmas. The video was a hit and was quickly shared, both by underground duplication and over the then-burgeoning Internet. This led to talks to create a series, first with Fox, then with Comedy Central, where the series premiered on August 13, 1997.
One of the many deaths of Kenny
In February 1998, one episode of South Park posed the question of who Eric Cartman's father was. The episode ended with the announcement that it would be revealed in four weeks' time. Four weeks later, the airing of an episode that was all about Terrance and Philip (two Canadian comedians the main characters idolize) prompted outrage, and also prompted Comedy Central to push the true season premiere up earlier than expected. It was apparently a well-planted April Fools Day gag, meant to poke fun at season-ending cliffhangers.
The following year, the full-length animated feature film was released to generally enthusiastic reviews. The film managed to satirize both itself and the anticipated reaction that it engendered from moral conservatives. It also presented a twisted but seemingly sincere tribute to the film musical with a number of songs, including "Uncle Fucker" and "Blame Canada." The latter was nominated for an Oscar and was performed by Robin Williams during the awards show.
On November 11, 1999 shortly after the U.S theatrical release of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, actress Mary Kay Bergman, who had provided all of the female voices on the South Park television series and in the full length movie, committed suicide using a gun in her SuburbanLos Angeles, California home. After her death it was revealed that she suffered from a severe form of clinical depression. Her husband, Dino Andrade, founded the Mary Kay Bergman Memorial Fund at the Suicide Prevention Center of Greater Los Angeles in an effort to help and educate people with the same type of depression that his wife suffered from.
The film Bowling for Columbine includes a brief interview with Matt Stone that suggests South Park was largely inspired by Parker and Stone's childhood experiences in Littleton, Colorado. Stone presents a vision of Littleton as painfully normal, and highly intolerant of non-conformist behavior. This may explain some of the mockery in the series.
A short tribute sketch was shown for the 30th aniversary of Monty Python which parodied the "Dead Parrot Sketch". The parody takes part in a friends store, where Eric Cartman walks in and complains that this friend (Kenny) that he bought is dead. Eventually an ending showing crude cut outs of Terry Gilliam, Venus de Milo, and the Monty Python foot appear.
In 2002 the episode Free Hat was aired. In this episode, prompted by Kyle's comment on Ted Koppel's Nightline that changing E.T would be like changing Raiders of the Lost Ark, the South Park characters of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decide to alter the first Indiana Jones film. Soon after Free Hat aired, the real Lucas and Spielberg announced that they would not be altering Raiders of the Lost Ark for DVD release (contrary to rumors surrounding it). Stone and Parker later claimed that their episode prevented any alterations from happening when they appeared on a VH1 special, Inside South Park.