Imagines collide with reality at South Park High School

Article by Wendy Rector Herrin

Media – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

STRANGE THINGS are happening in a small mountain town of Colorado, and the national media are starting to swarm. Local residents are being interviewed, students are being questioned about the death of a young child, rural high school students are becoming celebrities, and the Central Colorado town of Fairplay and its citizenry are losing all credibility.

A murder mystery?

A fictional television movie of the week?

Not quite, but it seems there is a growing confusion, and the line between reality and fiction is starting to blur.

What is all the commotion about?

South Park…the cartoon.

The animated cartoon has been compared to MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, and stars a bunch of foul-mouthed third-graders. The show deals with such bizarre topics as gay pets, a talking/singing/dancing poo, a character who dies in every episode (Kenny), and aliens who abduct kids to perform anal probes. Adult characters include disturbed teachers, gun nuts, Jesus Christ (he’s a local cable-access show host), and the womanizing black school chef. Even the show’s disclaimer claims, “The following program contains coarse language and due to its content, should not be viewed by anyone.”

The show has moved beyond cult status and is basic cable’s highest rated entertainment show. Recently the show was featured on the covers of Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and TV Guide. Recent articles about the show have appeared in USA Today, Variety, The New York Times, and many other publications since it debuted on the cable network Comedy Central on August 13, 1997.

What does all this media attention have to do with Fairplay? Is the cartoon named after the “real” South Park, Colorado?

According to the cable show’s disclaimer, “All characters and events in this show (even those based on real people) are entirely fictional.”

But look at the similarities:

The show is described by Comedy Central as a “seemingly quiet town nestled in the Colorado Rockies.” (Fairplay is nestled in the center of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and was once called South Park City from 1869-1974. The town sits in the South Park Valley in Park County. It is home to South Park Auto, South Park City Museum, South Park Community Church, South Park Medical Center, South Park Pottery, South Park Texaco, and so on.)

The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are from Conifer and Evergreen, respectively. (Parker grew up only an hour’s drive from South Park and is rumored to have played recreational baseball against South Park teams.) The main characters of the show are third-graders from South Park Elementary. The school’s colors are green and gold and their mascot is a cow. The main character, Stan, is the football team’s quarterback.

(South Park High School’s colors are also green and gold and last year their quarterback’s name was Stan. South Park’s mascot, however, is a burro.)

The show is supposedly set “in the Colorado county that is the supposed alien-abduction capital of the world,” according to Rolling Stone.

(Before the South Park cartoon craze, alien T-shirts were the fashion statement of choice at South Park High School. While alien abductions are hard to substantiate, the school’s Drama Department recently put on Little Shop of Horrors — a play about an alien invasion.)

Are you convinced yet?

The local media seem to be, and local ABC and CBS affiliate stations, as well as The Colorado Springs Gazette, have also covered the Fairplay connection. The Denver Post seemed to think that South Park was located in Jefferson County.) Even Rolling Stone and Newsweek admitted the existence of a “real South Park, Colorado,” (erroneously labeling it a county, however, instead of a valley).

And how are the locals handling it?

“The weirdest thing I’ve seen was a man who pulled up in a car as the middle school students were walking to lunch and started yelling at the kids,” said Silverheels Middle School Principal Jan Toyne. “He was yelling, `Where’s Kenny? Did you kill Kenny? Has anybody seen Kenny?…’ We’re starting to be a tourist attraction and not a school anymore.”

The media and press attention has also been a distraction, said Toyne.

“They show up during school hours and expect to be able to talk with the kids. The kids love the attention, however, and are glad to have a chance to talk with the media.”

South Park High School students have had the most fun with the South Park craze. At school, South Park T-shirts are the rage. Students discuss the latest South Park episodes between classes and have been interviewed and photographed by Colorado media.

“It’s a great conversation starter when you travel to other places,” said South Park student Brian Holzer. “My cousins like to tell everyone that they have relatives who live in South Park.”

Teachers from South Park also have interesting tales.

“Some coaches at a football camp at CU wanted to buy our coaches’ jackets for big money,” said Troy Nofzinger, a middle school teacher and assistant South Park football coach. “They offered to be the `Boulder Connection’ for South Park High School merchandise.”

Other teachers, and students, relate typical telephone conversations like the following:

“…Yes, I’m calling from South Park High School.”

“I’m sorry, you’re calling from where?”

“South Park High School.”

“The cartoon?”

“No, the real place.”

“Really? Is this a joke?”

Even Comedy Central had a hard time believing it last fall when South Park High School student newspaper reporter Mike Holzer called the cable network regarding a story.

Apparently that has changed, however. Comedy Central recently visited Fairplay and filmed the town and many of its residents for a future episode of South Park. The episode should air sometime during the new season which kicks off on May 20.

Wendy Rector Herrin teaches journalism, English, and history at South Park High School, and has seen only one episode of the television show.