The Story Behind South Park Killing Kenny Off, And Why The Show Doesn’t Do It As Much Anymore (2024)

The Story Behind South Park Killing Kenny Off, And Why The Show Doesn’t Do It As Much Anymore (1)

The first thing that likely comes to mind for people with casual interest in South Park is probably a moment with Kenny dying, or a one-liner that’s something along the lines of, “oh my god, they killed Kenny!” Though the Comedy Central series has been killing the popular South Park character in the orange parka off far less in recent years, the complex way the show went from axing him in numerous over-the-top ways to resurrecting the character later in its run is a wild one, and it’s a story that’s rife with network heads who hated the idea and even Trey Parker and Matt Stone getting tired of the gag… eventually.

The Story Behind South Park Killing Kenny Off, And Why The Show Doesn’t Do It As Much Anymore (2)

How Matt Stone And Trey Parker Decided To Kill Off Kenny

Back in 1995, Matt Stone and Trey Parker put together one of the earliest examples of a “viral video.” The short was called “The Spirit of Christmas” and would lay the foundation for the majority of the two then-college students' careers. It also led them to landing a successful contract with fledgling cabler Comedy Central for a whole series based around a slew of foul-mouthed kids. It was a first for the duo, but also a first for the network, which hadn’t really been known for original scripted animated fare.

Early on, the idea was just to challenge expectations. As Trey Parker noted in an EW oral history, the popularity of the show hinged on the fact the concept was totally a new one, and spoke to the college audience (though they didn't drop an f-bomb on air until 2016).

It was just the fact that there were little-kid voices and cute animation and that they were screaming, ‘f*ck!’ People hadn’t really seen anything like that before.

In “The Spirit Of Christmas” one of the plotlines was that Kenny is killed by a snowman the boys initially created who came to life, spawning the iconic “he killed Kenny” quote. When they got picked up by Comedy Central, it was a dream come true for the two co-creators, who later said the network was where they’d most hoped to be set up. They also revealed in the Basic podcast, “that’s where it belonged; we really felt that way,” though they candidly admitted “it seemed like they get away with more” at the network, as well.

Which is why it’s surprising to hear the “he killed Kenny” gag was rejected by the network early on.

The Story Behind South Park Killing Kenny Off, And Why The Show Doesn’t Do It As Much Anymore (3)

Not Everyone Thought Killing Kenny Off Was A Great Idea

After Comedy Central ultimately greenlighted South Park, the real pain began. First, creating the actual episodes was no joke. The two creators told Basic the process was incredibly “tedious” and done by hand at first, with Parker explaining in vivid detail how the creation of the animated series went early on.

It was awful. The pilot episode, I don’t know how many months we spent on it, but it was just Matt and I in a dark room with a camera above us, click click, move a hand a little bit, click click, move a hand a little bit.

“Being able to crack that nut” and figure out how to animate the series and work in relevant, current events jokes at the last minute is what led South Park to be so timely as a comedy once they figured out how to animate at pace. The show could come up with a joke about something that was happening in real time and get it on the air later that week or day, with the gents noting “no one had ever dreamed [that was] possible.” It also meant more episodes could be produced, and more gags could be repeated.

Meanwhile, they’d already come up with the idea that Kenny would be killed every week, and they were getting pushback from executives over the choice. The president of the network at the time, Doug Herzog, admitted he thought audiences were not going to get it, years later calling it “the first stupid thing” he said to them.

I do remember the first stupid thing I said to them. They said we’re going to kill Kenny every week. And I remember going, ‘Wait, is that funny? Like, won’t people hate that? Isn’t that sad?’ And I just shut up and let them continue. The brilliance of South Park is there’s nothing conventional about it.

This might seem like a bad omen, but Stone and Parker said everyone had their “line” they didn’t think was funny, citing “Mr. Hanky the Christmas poo” as a prime example that producer Brian Graden hated. He straight up told the guys, “I’m not going to be involved in a show about talking sh*t.” The same sort of thing happened with the Kenny gag, with Herzog also saying in the basic interview:

I can just see the looks on their faces, their faces are just dropping, they’re looking at me like I have three heads. I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure.’

In both cases, the men caved and the concepts made it onto the show by the time it hit the TV schedule.

Thank goodness Herzog didn’t double down, as Kenny’s deaths went on to have an incredibly successful run on South Park. For the first five seasons of the sitcom, the show found new and inventive ways to kill off the character during each new episode. Theories were spawned about why Kenny died so often on the show, and the comedy actually addressed this years and years later, saying the character has a great power and a great curse. It's because his parents were part of Cthulhu cult and ended up making a deal that affects his ability to stay alive, and to stay dead each time he dies.

So, thank Mr. and Mrs. McCormick.

The Story Behind South Park Killing Kenny Off, And Why The Show Doesn’t Do It As Much Anymore (4)

Kenny Officially Died Back In 2001, But Has The Show Killed Him Off In Recent Years?

The creators ultimately chose to kill Kenny off for good in one of the best South Park episodes to date, aptly titled “Kenny Dies.” That 2001 episode featured Stan getting upset as his pal dealt with muscular dystrophy in a sendoff worthy of the popular character.

In the past, Matt Stone has called Kenny “such a prop,” noting in a Maclean’s article that “he can’t really talk,” and at the time the gag was coming to an end, the duo was even more vociferous about ending the long-running bit. Stone hypothesized fans hadn’t even paid attention to the change, though I think it’s safe to say they had noticed, telling Knoxville News (via Page Six) at the time:

I think a lot of people probably haven’t noticed. I couldn’t care less. I am so sick of that character.

He also said that once the episode was written, and Kenny was given a drawn out and sometimes emotional sendoff, it was an “easy” “decision” to wash their hands of this viral idea they'd created.

After that [episode], we said, ‘Why doesn’t he just stay dead?’ And it was like, ‘OK, let’s just do that.’ It was that easy of a decision.

No love lost there.

Still, the character eventually came back on the series and has died a few handfuls of times since “Kenny Dies” officially marked a wrap on that weekly storyline. Probably the best example of this is the well-reviewed “South Park: The Pandemic” special. During that multi-episode arc, Kenny had been researching COVID-19 and had left instructions for his pals in the event of his death, which obviously happened, this time due to a new COVID-19 variant. Kenny had also been researching time travel and the follow-up to this episode “Post Covid-The Return of Covid” explored the younger pals forgiving each other and returning to the past where Kenny was still alive.

Kenny also died in the 2023 special “Joining the Panderverse.” So it’s not a gag that has died off completely as South Park has continued to make controversial episodes. In sum total, Kenny has reportedly died more than 120 times. Between there being 13 episodes in Season 1, 18 episodes in Season 2, 17 episodes in Season 3, 17 episodes in Season 4, and “Kenny Dies” being the 13th episodes in Season 5, there's a sum total of 78 episodes for Kenny to die in during the first five seasons alone.

It's been a long road for one joke, but even if it's old hat at this point, and even if it drives its creators nuts, it's also one of South Park's most enduring legacies.

The Story Behind South Park Killing Kenny Off, And Why The Show Doesn’t Do It As Much Anymore (5)

Jessica Rawden

Managing Editor

Jessica Rawden is Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. She’s been kicking out news stories since 2007 and joined the full-time staff in 2014. She oversees news content, hiring and training for the site, and her areas of expertise include theme parks, rom-coms, Hallmark (particularly Christmas movie season), reality TV, celebrity interviews and primetime. She loves a good animated movie. Jessica has a Masters in Library Science degree from Indiana University, and used to be found behind a reference desk most definitely not shushing people. She now uses those skills in researching and tracking down information in very different ways.

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