In May 2010, Fox aired the 150th episode of Family Guy. Entitled "Brian & Stewie", the one-hour special episode took place entirely inside a bank vault and exclusively featured the two titular characters. At least I think it featured them exclusively. The episode was unlike any Family Guy episode I'd ever seen. It was meditative, serious in parts, and showed relational development between the show's two most clearly formed characters, Stewie and Brian. It was was also horrible.
I don't remember most aspects of the episode, but I do remember a long, protracted scene where Brian (who is voiced by the show's creator, Seth MacFarlane, without any affectation or accent) talks about suicide, falling short of his artistic aspirations, and being perceived as a hack. Like I said, it was not typical Family Guy.
Between the content and the character speaking, I had the distinct impression MacFarlane was speaking about himself, at least to some extent. Family Guy is now a long-running institution, but it's never been considered particularly artistic or innovative. It's not that Family Guy is bad or derivative like, say, Two and a Half Men, but the show certainly isn't regarded in the same breath as The Simpsons or South Park, or even Futurama. (The show's reputation for digressions and non-sequiturs even inspired a two-part episode of South Park portraying Family Guy's writers as manatees randomly moving subject balls into place to form jokes.) While I didn't enjoy "Stewie & Brian", and I won't watch it again, it was fascinating both for its indulgence and naked honesty.
I thought back to "Stewie & Brian" while watching "You're Getting Old", the first half finale of South Park's 15th season, which aired a week and a half ago. Like "Stewie & Brian", "You're Getting Old" had a somber tone completely at odds with the series as a whole, and like "Stewie & Brian", there was a distinct sense "You're Getting Old" was a reflection of the minds behind the show. Also, both had a lot of poop jokes. But where "Stewie & Brian" left me mildly embarrassed, "You're Getting Old" was sad and poignant and universal.
It felt, in many ways, like the end of South Park. In nearly every interview I've ever heard with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, from Fresh Air to The Hollywood Reporter, it's quite clear how wrenching the creative process is for the two of them. Parker, at least, seems to hate making South Park entirely. Every artist struggles with self-doubt, the question of whether they'll be able to pull it off one more time, and those struggles are inherent in South Park, which can be mediocre one week, and transcendent the next.
Every artist also looks back on old work in disgust. Consider for a moment the first season of South Park. I remember it vividly, because I didn't think it was very good. The show was funny voices, crass humor, and minimalist animation. That's it. That's not to say I didn't laugh. I was 17 at the time, and it's not like I was beyond fart jokes. (I'm still not, really.) But still. Go ahead and watch some of the first few episodes.
Now consider what's happened to Matt and Trey since. Every film they've made has been better than the last. South Park has aired for 15 seasons of increasing quality, reasonably deserves mention as one of the finest comedy series ever made, and is certainly one of the most groundbreaking in terms of societal conventions. Trey and Matt have been a populist, incorruptible voice of reason in an entertainment world fueled by dualistic sensationalism. Oh, and their Broadway play The Book of Mormon took home nine Tony Awards and is being hailed the savior of musical theater.
It's impossible one creative duo could improve so dramatically without a whole lot of conflict. Maybe one day some Gladwellian researcher will examine how Matt and Trey reached a level of such excellence, and how they've managed to cooperate for so long. In the meantime, I hope their prolific output doesn't result in burnout. Think what these guys could do in the worlds of sketch comedy, or opera, or theme parks.