Documentarian Arthur Bradford on '6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park'

Sunday night saw the premiere of the one hour documentary on the hectic creation of the first batch of South Park's 15th season, 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park on Comedy Central. The special takes an unprecedented inside look at the creation of the show thanks to the access granted to the documentary's director, Arthur Bradford. Bradford, a longtime friend of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show's creators, was gradually able to take a simple behind-the-scenes EPK video and gradually work his way into the writers' room and the production booth to see the challenges in getting a single episode out the door in the span of--you guessed it--six days.

Before checking out the interview, here's the trailer for the doc, which will be airing again throughout the week and later this fall:

MTV Geek: So how did this project get started? Why did you choose South Park as a subject?

Arthur Bradford: Well, I've known Matt and Trey for, let's see, 17 years now. And they had executive produced this series of documentary films I did called How's Your News? and we ended up doing that as a TV series back in 2009 for MTV, actually. When that ended, I was kind of looking for a subject to take on.

And I had known [with] South Park the way they did the show was so interesting, I just thought it would be really fun to a do a documentary about it. I'd seen a lot of 60-minute and shorter things about South Park but I thought we could treat it like a real documentary subject and get more in-depth, [that] that would be really interesting.

So I had asked Matt about doing that I think a couple of years ago, and his first reaction was just "No," that they just didn't want cameras in [the studio]--a couple of reasons why they didn't want to do it. But then they got in touch with me when Book of Mormon was coming together, and they wanted to do a documentary about [that]. But that ended up not working out and the process of sort of putting it together brought back the idea of doing a South Park documentary and it was the 15th anniversary of [the show] and things kind of aligned at that point.

Geek: You mentioned "fun." But watching the the trailer and clips from the doc, it seemed more harrowing and emotionally exhausting than anything else. Where did the fun come in?

Bradford: I definitely got a sense that making the show them, it's like 20% fun and 80% stress and exhaustion. But I think they really enjoy it once it's done. I think that's the way it is for a lot of creative people. But for me, it was really fun to be watching the whole thing because I'm a South Park fan like a lot of people and even though I've known Matt and Trey for a long time, there's still a lot of questions that I always wanted to ask them about their creative process. So holding that camera, I suddenly had a license to ask a bunch of questions that I probably wouldn't have felt comfortable asking normally.

So that was really fun. I learned an awful lot just watching the way they made the show.

Geek: What do you think the key piece of insight was you got from watching them over those few months of watching Matt and Trey work?

Bradford: There's no shortcuts to making something really great. The fact that they do the show in six days, is that they work their tails off really hard. The reason that they can do the show in six days is they have been making this show for fifteen seasons and they're able to do that. I don't think anyone can just start that and say, "We're going to put together a TV show in six days." They worked really hard. Matt and Trey are really hard workers and, I know is sounds trite but there's nothing like a good, old-fashioned work ethic to get things done.

That was a big insight for me.

One other thing that I thought was interesting that I didn't know about them was that they don't write their stories in any sort of linear way. They just start with a couple of funny scenes, like based on some idea. So, they write their stories where they're painting themselves into a corner each week. They come up with a couple of funny scenes about whatever the story might be, and then they build a story around that. And that seems pretty unconventional to me.

Geek: As a fan, were you at concerned about demystifying the show for yourself or even altering your view of these friends you've had for the past 17 years?

Bradford: Heh. I wasn't too worried about demystifying the show. I think the more you know about Matt and Trey and the way they do South Park, the more interesting the show becomes. I think they put a lot of thought into South Park, [and] it definitely has a lot of crude humor in it, but it also has a real heart and intelligence. I wanted this documentary to show that.

I didn't want to just do a documentary that South Park fans would love--I do think South Park fans will love this documentary--I wanted this to be a documentary that casual viewers of South Park or maybe people who had never even seen South Park would watch and then maybe they would gain an appreciation for what that show is. Because a lot of time, people just hear about South Park and they go, "That's that crude fart humor show," or whatever. But I think if you would watch this documentary, you would understand that it's a lot more than that.

Geek: When you talk to the guys away from the show, away from the documentary, how much time do they typically spend bringing up the social issues, the the things they tackle in the show?

Bradford: I would say Matt is the real sort of political guy. He loves--certain things in the media just really fascinate him. He loves to talk about the Wikileaks situation, that's been sort of his current obsession for the past year. He's that kind of guy--he reads and stays up on the news.

Whereas Trey, is a lot less political, but a lot more philosophical. For Trey, a lot of it is just about--for him, censorship is a really big issue. He wants to say what he wants to say and not get censored.

And they kind of form a perfect creative team in that way.

Geek: Could you tell us a little about the inside of their writers' room?

Bradford: Yeah, I would really recommend that people watch this documentary if you're curious about the way a writing room works for a TV show. That was one of my big goals for this: to get cameras into the writers' room because Matt and Trey had never allowed that before. I was personally curious about how they come up with their ideas for South Park, how did that work.

And I think that was one of our biggest accomplishments with this documentary: we talked about it first and Trey didn't want to have cameras in the writers' room. And then we came up with this idea where we would put surveillance cameras just on the tables and on the walls, and then we had audio recording. That way, we could monitor what they were doing but they wouldn't feel self-conscious about cameras moving and boom mics and stuff like that. So that was really important.

I think it's just really fascinating the way they do it. They come in on a Thursday morning with no idea what the show is going to be about and they just start talking. And Trey kind of runs the writers' meeting. He takes us around the table and he's always walking--I think that's a really interesting thing about Trey. He's always walking and everyone's usually sitting down and he does that to keep his blood circulating, like that keeps him awake. And they just start throwing ideas out. Usually when someone throws out an idea, Trey says, "Okay, how about if Cartman does this?"

You know, Trey's the kind of guy where, when he tells a joke he looks around the room at everybody to see how it's landing, to see if other people are laughing. Even if I was in the writers' room trying to remain anonymous, taking notes, he would look at me to see if I was laughing at the joke. And I think that's really important, that he's always kind of being observant in that way.

Geek: Now this happens in every room, but did you get a chance to actually document the South Park writers hitting a wall and how they dealt with that?

Bradford: Oh yeah, I think that happens about every episode. And that's what's so amazing about South Park, that they'll hit on wall on Tuesday, and the show goes on the air the next day. And they've got a big problem. And you can feel the tension in the room and it's a tough place to be. And I think you can see in this documentary, you'll see them hit walls and try and work through it.

Sometimes what will happens is Trey will--they start their writers' meeting at 10 AM, and they'll work for a while. But at some point in the afternoon, Trey needs to get out of that writers' room and start writing. Trey's the guy who puts the words on the paper, and he needs to do that so the animators can start animating. And as soon as he's written something, they go into the sound booth to start recording. And as they're recording it, the storyboard people are making the storyboards, and it's all happening super fast.

The thing that's kind of amazing is that they don't have that luxury to just kind of hit a wall and moan about it. They have to get something done. I've seen Matt and Trey--they'll go back into the writers' room at three in the morning on Tuesday and hash something out until they figure out a solution. They get into the office at nine in the morning on Tuesday, and they don't leave that office until, at the earliest, nine in the morning the next morning. Usually, it's 10, 11. And then the show gets finished and uploaded.

Like, you'll see in this documentary that they upload it to the satellite, I believe, it's just about three hours before air. And that's not a lot of time for them to prep the show. Each time you see South Park on the air, it's a miracle that it's making it there on time [laughs].

Geek: What about you? Now that the documentary is done, what are you working on?

Bradford: Well, actually, we had so much fun shooting this, and the material was so compelling that I approached Comedy Central about doing a feature-length version. What you're going to see on Sunday is an hour, which is 42 minutes with commercials, and it's all about making one episode, basically. So we have material from that whole run, and I've been taping some their stuff surrounding Book of Mormon. So I'm working on a feature-length [documentary] about Matt and Trey and the way they do their stuff.

So I'm kind of still in that world of Matt and Trey. That's kind of my thing right now.

Geek: And before we go, tell us, as a South Park fan, what's your favorite episode?

Bradford: "Awesome-o." I think it's like season eight, maybe? I'm not sure about that. But that episode. Well, that or "World of Warcraft" ["Make Love, not Warcraft" from season 10], which I think is the all-time fan-favorite. But those two episodes are amazing.

You can catch repeat showings of 6 Days to Air Monday, October 10 at midnight, Tuesday at 2AM, and Wednesday 11/23 at 9 EST on Comedy Central.

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