‘Oh Hamburgers!’: Meet the Real-Life Inspiration Behind ‘South Park’s Butters
While most of the kids at South Park Elementary don’t act that much like kids, one student in Mr. Garrison’s class truly does possess the innocence of a child: Butters Stotch. Although Butters has been a South Park character since day one, he remained a background character in both the early seasons and the South Park movie. In one episode, he actually was called “Swanson,” and those first few scripts referred to him as “Puff Puff.”
However, midway through Season Three, the boy with the yellow puff of hair was officially dubbed “Butters” in the episode “Two Guys Naked in a Hot Tub,” which saw Stan being forced to hang out with Butters and a couple of other “Melvins” during a grown-up party at Mr. Mackey’s house. Along with the name, Butters became the nervously adorable “Awe gee, fellas” kid that we now know and love. Much like Stan and Kyle are loosely based on Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Butters was based on South Park animation director, now producer, Eric Stough, who has known Parker since childhood and has worked with Parker and Stone since the second Spirit of Christmas short in 1995.
For a time, he eschewed the comparison, but almost a quarter century after Butters’ breakout moment, Stough has learned to love the sweetest kid in South Park and his alter ego, Professor Chaos. In a rare interview, Stough discusses his long friendship with Stone and Parker, what it’s like to voice the unhooded Kenny McCormick and just how much resemblance he bears to Butters.
When did you first meet Trey Parker and Matt Stone?
I met Trey first. I was two years behind him in school. I think I first saw him in junior high at West Jefferson Elementary School. I was in the audience, and they were doing a talent show. Trey had a band, and they did this fake band called “Satan’s Offspring,” making fun of heavy metal. They were playing things like the Andy Griffith song, but heavy rock style, and they smashed their guitars and stuff like that. It caused this big uprising because all the heavy metal-ers were upset that Trey was making fun of them. Later, I remember being on the school bus and watching his parents get him out of school because they wanted him to be safe.
That’s the first time I ever saw Trey entertain a group of people — back when he was in ninth grade and I was in seventh grade.
When did you two become friends?
I first got to know him in choir. In high school, I joined choir because I wanted to meet a girl, but I couldn’t sing at all. Trey, of course, was very musically inclined. In choir, we had three school plays, and he played Danny Zucco in Grease. There was also a choir trip to Washington, D.C. — a school bus ride from Evergreen, Colorado, all the way to Washington, D.C., so you get to know people.
When I was in 12th grade, I played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, and the girl Trey was dating — even though he was in college, she was still in high school — was my Dorothy. After the show, he gave me the Golden Spoon Award for my performance as the Scarecrow.
He went to school in Boston and then transferred to the University of Colorado. By then, I was already at the University of Colorado and wanted to do animation; he was working behind the film desk. We developed more of a friendship in college. That’s where I met Matt, too — in college, totally separate from Trey. Matt starred in my live-action film in school.
What drew you to animation?
I grew up on a lot of Looney Tunes. I also had cousins in Florida, and going to Disney World was a big deal for me as a kid. I didn’t read a lot of Disney comic books or watch too much Disney, but Looney Tunes and Johnny Quest were big for me. I loved Johnny Quest as a kid. I would miss the school bus because I was watching Johnny Quest.
Then there’s The Muppet Show. I loved The Muppet Show. I would record just the audio of The Muppet Show and listen to it on my Walkman. I really wanted to be a part of something like that because I knew The Muppet Show was like this tight family. I even did an internship for the Muppets in 1991 or 1992.
When did you first get involved in South Park?
There were two Spirit of Christmases; I worked on the second one. While they were doing the first one, I was still at the University of Colorado taking art classes, trying to learn how to draw to hopefully, someday, become a character animator for Disney. Trey told me, “You know, Eric, you’re going to waste a lot of time just sitting there in the drawing class. You need to be in the film school and start working on animating films any way that you can.” But I was trying to learn how to draw Thumper frame-by-frame while he was doing these cutout stick animations.
He came to me and said, “I’m doing a short called Frosty vs. Jesus. It’s about these kids who put a hat on Frosty, and Frosty comes to life and kills all these kids.” I remember looking at him and saying, “No, that’s okay, I’m trying to animate Thumper.”
Once he and Matt did that first one, it was such a huge hit at the student film showcase. When there was a chance to do the second one a couple of years later, I was in Denver working at a place called Celluloid Studios, and he came to me and said, “We want to do this on a nicer film stock.” Because Celluloid had this Oxberry camera stand, and since I worked there, I was able to help them animate the second one, Jesus vs. Santa.
I kept working at Celluloid Studios and got a call from Trey saying, “Hey, we got the okay to do a pilot,” so I worked on the pilot. I was the first person to get hired on South Park.
For The Spirit of Christmas, that was legitimately done frame-by-frame with construction paper, correct?
The first two Spirit of Christmases were construction paper, and so was the pilot — the anal probe pilot we did all with construction paper. That’s what’s so charming about it; it’s actually real paper and real textures. When we started doing South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Trey wanted that to be all paper, too, but realized there was no way we could do that. That pilot took us three months to do, so if we did a feature, it would take us years and years.
How was Episode Two done?
With Episode Two, we realized we had to figure out a better way of doing it. So we went to Lucas, and there was this guy there — I can’t remember his name, but he was a big fan of the Christmas shorts and showed us how to do a virtual camera stand and have the pieces off to the side and click and drag them and shoot your frame and do everything on the computer. I had about a month to learn a program called Alias Wavefront.
Since then, we moved to a program called Maya, but the look of the show, with the textures, has evolved a little, but not that much, particularly with how the animation works. It’s mostly the same.
What are Trey Parker and Matt Stone like to work with?
They’re like big brothers. We’re all still trying to get that group term paper done by Wednesday night. They’re really fun. Early on, before we all had families, we would travel together. We went to Japan, the World Cup and Europe. Now that we have families, we kind of all go off and do our own thing and then come back together to do the show. They’re pretty laid-back, but every show is totally different. They rip it and tear it apart. But because you start on a show and get to see it that week on television, it’s very rewarding.
Obviously, I want to talk about Butters a bit. You had the nickname “Butters” first, correct?
Early on, when doing South Park, Matt had this girlfriend and put “ers” on the end of things just to make it cuter. For me, I was always like their little buddy. When they were making it big here in Hollywood, going to meetings at MTV and other places, I would tag along like their “little buddy,” and because Matt was putting “ers” on the end of everything, “Buddy” became “Butters.”
Butters wasn’t even in the scripts as “Butters” until “Two Guys Naked in a Hot Tub.” That was the first time a script said “Butters,” and I was a little worried because I’d seen what happened with other people put in the show. Like Mr. Mackey, he was based on a vice principal we had in junior high; Mr. Lackey was his name. So, yeah, I was a little concerned. What I also didn’t like was that other people started calling me Butters, and their tone was very degrading. It was cool when Matt and Trey were doing it since we’d been friends for so long, but I didn’t like it when everyone else started doing it.
Matt does the voice of Butters, but that character is kind of based on my friendship with them because, for me, ignorance is bliss. When first coming out to Hollywood, I was a deer in headlights. I was into Disney and the Muppets and just came out here to animate, and they were hanging out in bars and things like that. I also grew up on a hillside in Evergreen, Colorado, and there was this innocence and purity to it. They took that and applied it to Butters, where he doesn’t see the whole world. He’s got this narrower sense of vision.
Given your upbringing, is it strange that Butters’ parents are these awful people?
(Laughs) My parents were actually really, really nice, but that doesn’t make for good storytelling.
I read that before he was called “Butters,” he was named “Puff Puff.” Is that correct?
Yeah. When we set up the computer with all these characters, he had that little yellow puff of hair, so we just called him Puff Puff in Season One and Season Two. Trey didn’t even know the name Puff Puff; it was just in our files.
What was your initial reaction to Butters as a character?
I was very much like, “Guys, I don’t sound like that! I don’t talk like that!” It was a little bothersome, but eventually, I embraced it. Once I saw people getting tattoos of Butters and naming their dogs Butters, I embraced it.
It seems that both the fandom and you guys fell in love with Butters pretty quickly because he became a regular character very soon after that first appearance.
Yeah, he quickly became a very popular character. I think it’s more situational comedy — putting a character that’s very innocent and pure in these horrid situations, like his dad’s going to a gay bathhouse or he’s got an asphyxiated anus, that’s funny to see happen to a poor innocent child. I hate to say that — of course, it’s not funny, really, but it is in a cartoon. That, and the contrast with Cartman, who is so mean and sneaky, is like The Odd Couple kind of comedy.
Butters really gets to shine when Kenny “permanently” dies at the end of Season Five. Was the plan to have Kenny stay dead after that?
We were going to kill him indefinitely, but we were definitely going to bring him back because the fans love Kenny and now love it when he dies every once in a while. For those first five seasons, though, when Kenny still died every episode, we’d be close to finishing an episode and go, “Oh right, we’ve got to kill Kenny! Where are we going to kill Kenny?”
They’d have to go back into the writers’ room and figure out where Kenny could die, and for us as the animators, we’d have to go in and delete Kenny from scenes and recompose shots and things like that. Finally, Trey got to the point where he was like, “Let’s not do this for a while. We’re going to do a good, big death scene of Kenny. Then next season, we won’t bring him back and see what the fans think.”
The show has to evolve. Of course, at the beginning of Season Two, they did the Terrance and Phillip episode, which was an April Fools joke on the fans. Since then, Trey’s tried to figure out what he can pull off without making the fans that angry. So after Kenny died, we began the episodes where Stan, Kyle and Cartman began trying out new friends. Back then, I think The Bachelor was getting really popular, so Butters was the first one to try out in that spot and try to keep up with them.
Even after Kenny came back, Butters never really went away.
It’s easier to do stories with Butters instead of Kenny. Kenny is hard to do things with because he doesn’t really talk. Every once in a while, we’ll do Kenny episodes, like that heaven and hell one where he became the best fighter, but it’s hard because he’s not a large, dimensional character. That’s why, when we did “The Coon” episodes, we emphasized him as Mysterion because he could really shine. We learned more about who Kenny was, why he could die and why he can come back to life.
You’ve also voiced Kenny a few times.
I did, yeah. Any time Kenny took off his hood, except for the feature film. Mike Judge was supposed to do Kenny’s voice for that, but I think it was Trey. But, yeah, Trey grabbed me one day and was like, “You’re going to do the voice of Kenny,” just to offset Matt’s mumbling. It’s only a few episodes, but it’s cool.
Anything you’d like to say about Professor Chaos?
Those are really fun episodes. My favorite episode is when Butters gets the star in the eye. It’s cool to see Professor Chaos keep coming back as the villain, too. The kids do their different things; if we’re doing a comic book show or a ninja show, Butters is always Professor Chaos. I have a Professor Chaos stuffed animal right next to me.
How did Butters become the crazed NFT guy in the future episodes?
Butters originally had a different storyline that we animated. The boys, being older, had to go to Butters for something, went to his house and opened the door. It’s all dusty, and they go up the steps and break open the door, and Butters turns around and has a big long beard — the thing was that he’d been grounded for 30 years. His dad never ungrounded him. He looked like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and his gerbil ball had the face painted on it like Wilson. But that month, NFTs became big, so Trey took Butters in a totally different direction.
What are some of your favorite Butters episodes?
“Imaginationland” became a Butters story. “Awesom-O” is a great episode. Any time he’s Professor Chaos is fun. I also love the one where Butters and Cartman are handcuffed together. Oh, and because I grew up in Colorado, the Casa Bonita episode was very fun. I couldn’t wait to read what was happening to Butters and having Cartman stick Butters into a bomb shelter just because Cartman wanted to go to Casa Bonita.
Besides Butters, do you have another favorite character to work with?
I love Cartman. Everything Cartman does is so funny. I miss Chef. He was a great character. I don’t know if the writers feel that way, but I miss him. We did use him less and less, so maybe he did his full character arc. He was cool to animate, too, because he was a different body type. The characters as superheroes were fun as well. I’m glad we didn’t do just one episode of The Coon; we did the whole Cthulhu three-parter, then the video game. I enjoy doing those things because they’re challenging.
Are there any characters particularly difficult to animate?
The animators don’t like animating Jimmy. The walking with the crutches makes him like a little crab; it’s a little difficult to make it look like the character has the weight he needs.
Is there anything upcoming that you can reveal about Butters?
We just finished a special for Paramount+, which I can’t talk too much about. It’s got the four boys as diverse women and touches on what the film industry is doing with rereleasing things like The Little Mermaid. Does Butters have a big part in it? He does. It does have Butters as a diverse woman.
I have two very Butters-specific questions for you — the man who inspired him. First, can you tap dance?
I cannot tap dance, no. I like to dance, but I can’t tap dance. I don’t have an asphyxiated rectum either.
Finally, how do you like your hamburgers?
I like them medium-well.