When you're making an R-rated puppet movie with controversial marionette-on-marionette sex scenes, you'd think you'd have all the controversy you could stomach. Then again, the creators of "South Park" might have the strongest stomachs on earth.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone's new movie "Team America: World Police" hits theaters today with something to offend everyone. Their squad of puppet commandos fights terrorists wherever they hide, and if they indiscriminately blow up the Eiffel Tower and the Great Pyramids along the way, who's going to be offended, other than some whining Hollywood liberals?
The "South Park" guys mock blow-'em-up action movies, the war in Iraq, and a puppet-ized version of Michael Moore, who's depicted as a ham-filled anti-American suicide bomber.
Sean Penn is hardly among the most savagely attacked, yet he holds the distinction of being the first to lash back, writing an open letter that criticizes Stone for comments he made in "Rolling Stone."
"It was funny because he seemed angry in the letter and yet there's not one thing he could've done to help us any more," says Stone.
"He sends a letter to the papers and gets us on the front page everywhere. It was on the Drudge Report for two full days."
Parker adds, "It easily made us an extra $10 (million) or $12 million."
In Penn's letter, he describes Parker and Stone as guys who once passed themselves off as his friend to gain credibility. The Oscar-winning actor then takes Stone to task for criticizing the "Vote or Die" registration campaign. Stone told "Rolling Stone" that if you're uninformed, maybe you're better off not voting.
"It's all well to joke about me or whomever you choose," Penn wrote. "Not so well, to encourage irresponsibility that will ultimately lead to the disembowelment, mutilation, exploitation, and death of innocent people throughout the world."
Parker and Stone say the letter was so over the top, their lawyer assumed they had planted it for free publicity. "They said 'If you did, you can't do that,'" says Stone. "And we're like, 'No we didn't. He really wrote that.'"
"At first we were going to write him a letter back and thank him," says Parker. "We should send him flowers, really."
In "Team America," the 2-foot-tall puppet depicting Penn acts as a self-appointed U.S. ambassador who keeps bragging "I went to Iraq!" as if that means he has all the answers.
"It's like, Dude, I went to the Grand Canyon once, it doesn't make me an expert, you know," Parker says.
Parker, 35, and Stone, 33, provide the voices for most of the characters, just as they do on "South Park." They met at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where together they produced animated movies that evolved into their hit TV show.
Despite Penn's claims that he's only chiding Stone for his comments on voter registration, the "South Park" creators don't believe it.
"We had heard from people who know him that he was pissed off as soon as he saw he was in the movie," Stone says. "He was like 'How dare someone make fun of me!'"
It'll be interesting to see how other celebrities and newsmakers react to their depiction as puppets. Alec Baldwin is shown as leader of a Hollywood group known as F.A.G. (the Film Actor's Guild.) The Matt Damon character is mentally challenged and does little more than repeatedly mumble his name and shake his fist at the evil-doers.
"We actually like Matt Damon, and we like his movies," says Parker. "When the puppet of him was made, it was like, 'This looks nothing like Matt Damon.' So we turned it into that."
Perhaps the hardest-hit Hollywood figure is producer Jerry Bruckheimer, as "Team America" mocks his bombastic epics like "Armageddon." One musical number is entirely devoted to how bad Bruckheimer's film "Pearl Harbor" is. The romantic lead sings, "I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school."
Since every action movie needs at least a little gratuitous sex, Stone and Parker piled it on. "Team America" narrowly avoided an NC-17 rating -- a decision that would have killed the film at the box office -- after editing down the notorious puppet love scene, which is sure to be a selling point for the movie's DVD.
"We set out to make a Bruckheimer movie with puppets. We just thought it'd be funny to have puppets talk about WMDs," says Parker, and they gleefully savage anyone or anything in their way.
One exception -- President Bush and Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry are conspicuously absent. "We made puppets of them," says Parker. "We didn't use them in the end . . . It would've been too distracting."
Rather than feel obliged to rip on both candidates evenhandedly, they left them both out altogether.
Other than that, however, to Parker and Stone, comedy is best left without boundaries.
"If one of us found we had cancer," says Parker, "We'd be making jokes about it the next day."