On August 13 Colorado Gov. Jared Polis sat down with two middle-aged dads in an 11-minute livestream to celebrate the 24th season of the primetime cartoon South Park, which Polis characterized as covering “the good, the bad, and the ugly about Colorado, about America, really, about ourselves.” Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, doing their best in khakis and flip-flops and a backward baseball cap, respectively, were raised in Colorado, and their show is set in Park County, theoretically about 100 miles from Denver. During the conversation, Parker and Stone confirmed to the governor reports that they were buying Casa Bonita, a 50-year Denver mainstay described on their show as “the Disneyland of Mexican restaurants.”
So, why are our nation’s foremost anti-establishmentarian establishment media-baron cartoonists buying a restaurant? Stone and Parker aren’t in the hospitality industry, there is nothing to suggest they know how to run a restaurant, and it’s unclear who their business partners might be. True, that hasn’t stopped a lot of celebrities from buying or backing restaurants, and building food and beverage brands. (It’s usually safe to assume a less hands-on role from celebrity investors, but Parker and Stone are known for being incredibly singular in their approach.) And the South Park creators aren’t new to novelty marketing tie-ins: 10 years ago Walmart was selling Cheesy Poofs, an in-universe Cheetos rip-off, produced by Frito-Lay, and the show popped up at Replay in Chicago in 2018 with an exhausting-sounding South Parky cocktail menu, part of a cycle of unauthorized pop-up bars so intense in the city that not even COVID-19 could end it. So it’s not, in some sense, that shocking a move.
Moreover, Stone and Parker are likely the reason that most people know what Casa Bonita even is. In a 2003 South Park episode named after the restaurant, hedonist fourth-grader Eric Cartman, all id and desperation, gaslit his way into frenemy Kyle’s birthday trip to the restaurant by tricking party guest Butters into going missing. Once there, Cartman enters an ecstatic-yet-panicked frenzy, eating off fellow diners’ plates, cutting lines and racing through the many attractions, and — realizing the jig is up on his Butters rouse — finally leaping off the restaurant’s iconic waterfall into the diving pool. Unlike most episodes of the show, this seventh-season installment had no talking poop, no musical farting, no grotesque celebrity caricatures, no close-call current events references, no insouciant both-sidey libertarian politics, and no overtly racist characters voiced by Parker. (There are, however, scenes with a disabled boy beaten up and non-speaking Mexican caricatures, an antigay slur screamed, and a lampshading of Cartman’s rampant anti-Semitism; even at its least-egregious, there are plenty of reasons not to want to engage with South Park, and as the title card suggests, maybe you shouldn’t.)
Instead, “Casa Bonita” is memorable because the plot is timeless and durable: Everyone wants something, but what will the worst person ever do to get it? Make an ass of himself is what, and it’s mesmerizing. The episode is ranked among the show’s best, a “classic.” Considering that Parker and Stone are multimillionaires, it almost seems like they have a responsibility to buy Casa Bonita, since they spun the place from a local kids’ favorite into a national interest. The governor said the deal was their conversation’s “elephant in the room.”
The purchase, and the sit-down with Polis, is part of a recent media blitz from Parker and Stone around their nearly $1 billion deal to extend South Park into Season 30 in 2027 and produce 14 South Park movies for Paramount+, along with other non-South Park projects: deepfakes and cannabis, I guess? In an interview with Bloomberg, Stone said the business plan was to grow the South Park brand to a point where they could sell it. Given that, some of their recent collaborations and creative decisions — including two (and counting) RPGs; escape rooms; a phone game; continuity and season-long arcs introduced to the show in its 18th year; and the 2015 canonization of the slash pairing Craig/Tweek, now the fandom’s most popular — can suddenly be read as attempts at worldbuilding to grow the franchise’s value in a time when total acquisition by Disney or parent company Viacom seems almost inevitable, actually.
What would adding a restaurant do for the brand at this point? As pop-up bars and product tie-ins suggest, fandom, especially affirmational fandom, is an integrated market that spreads across platforms. A diversified portfolio is a strong portfolio, and Parker and Stone have understood the shift toward convergence culture earlier and perhaps better than anyone. But it’s not really convergence until it spills out into experiential entertainment, and along with the escape rooms, theming Casa Bonita to South Park and adding it to the collection creates a new repeat in-person revenue stream for fans who are otherwise spending money on digital South Park media only once.
Or, like “Casa Bonita” suggests, and as they told Polis, Parker and Stone really just love the restaurant and want to possess it (and maybe an amusement park); Parker said that, like Cartman, he’s always longed to jump off the waterfall. But it’s also fortuitous timing, given that Casa Bonita has been closed since March 2020, and was in bankruptcy, leading to a purchase as they are trying to juice the South Park brand. For everywhere struggling to stay afloat amid COVID-19 in an already near-impossible ecosystem, the lesson is seemingly that saving a restaurant is simply a matter of getting your place spotlighted on a decades-old cultural institution and letting its millionaire creators step in, 18 years later. Wow, easy.
When Polis said South Park was a vision of America, he meant the content of the show — but his comment was righter than he probably intended.