Comedy Central's vulgar, profane, hilarious animated hit "South Park" begins its 10th season on Oct. 4 in an uncertain place.
In the past year, the show and its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, won their first Emmy and were also honored with a Peabody for best electronic media. But the year was also fraught with moments of censorship that caused the show's creators to wonder if the world had changed so much in the last 10 years that "South Park" could really no longer thrive.
"What we've stood behind for 10 years is: It's got to all be OK or none of it is," Parker told ABC's "Nightline." "Because as soon as you start picking, 'Well, OK, we won't do this,' then all of a sudden the ones you did about that shouldn't be OK either. So we were starting to say, 'I don't know that this is a world that 'South Park' can live in.'"
"South Park" has been vilified as crude, disgusting and nihilistic, and the eagerness of Stone and Parker to impale every sacred cow they can reach is a major reason for its success. After all, in the fictional town of South Park, Colo. -- home to third-graders Kenny, Kyle, Stan and the evil Cartman -- everything is fair game. Even the Prophet Mohammed, who appeared as a superhero in a July 2001 episode called "The Super Best Friends."
"People told us at the time, 'You can't really draw an image of Mohammed,'" Parker says. "And we were like, well, we can. We're not Muslim, so it's OK."
In 2006, however, when Stone and Parker wanted to depict Mohammed in an episode, Comedy Central wouldn't let them. After all, Muslims worldwide had rioted over insulting depictions of Mohammed in a newspaper in Denmark.
It seemed odd to the creators of "South Park," who had been and were still allowed to depict Jesus in any number of profane ways. In fact, the episode in question, "Cartoon Wars," shows a cartoon (supposedly created by al Qaeda) in which Jesus defecates on President Bush.
Open Season on Jesus
"That's where we kind of agree with some of the people who've criticized our show," Stone says. "Because it really is open season on Jesus. We can do whatever we want to Jesus, and we have. We've had him say bad words. We've had him shoot a gun. We've had him kill people. We can do whatever we want. But Mohammed, we couldn't just show a simple image."
During the part of the show where Mohammed was to be depicted -- benignly, Stone and Parker say -- the show ran a black screen that read: "Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network."
Other networks took a similar course, refusing to air images of Mohammed -- even when reporting on the Denmark cartoon riots -- claiming they were refraining because they're religiously tolerant, the South Park creators say.
"No you're not," Stone retorts. "You're afraid of getting blown up. That's what you're afraid of. Comedy Central copped to that, you know: 'We're afraid of getting blown up.'"
"At the same time, just like we always do, we managed to get something on and say something about how we can't say something about Mohammed," Parker says.
"South Park," from its very beginning has been about mocking that which is held most sacred.
It began as a short film, "The Spirit of Christmas," made as a video cartoon for an entertainment executive to send to friends that featured Santa Claus and Jesus fighting.
Its creators have stayed true to the spirit of "Spirit," taking on Tom Cruise (implying that the twice-married father is gay), as well as Cruise's religion (Stan declares that "Scientology is just a big fat global scam"). But when the episode "Trapped in the Closet" (Cruise hides in the closet and refuses to come out) was scheduled to be rebroadcast, Comedy Central pulled the plug.
"We were told that the people involved with 'Mission: Impossible: III' demanded that show be pulled off the air," Stone says. "And it was."
Media behemoth Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, also owns Paramount Studios. At the time Paramount wanted Cruise to promote M:I:III. After weeks of negative publicity, Comedy Central agreed to broadcast the show.
'I Thought This Might Be It'
In addition to the Cruise and Mohammed shows, Comedy Central hesitated before agreeing to rebroadcast an episode featuring some unseemly bleeding by a statue of the Virgin Mary that upset many Catholics.
"Going into the last run was the most sort of scared I've ever been," Parker says. "I went into the run just going, 'Wow, how many times are they going to tell us we can't do something before we bail?' Because we're ready to bail. We're ready. … We wanted to say some things, shake things up a bit. And I think we've done that, and I think we've done it in a bigger way than we ever will in the future. So it'd be nice to make some more shows and some more movies, but it'd also be really nice to go to a farm and raise some goats and have some kids. You know what I mean? I mean, that would be really nice, too.
"As soon as we can't make the show we want to make, we're not going to make it anymore. At the beginning of the last run I thought we were really close. I thought it was like this might be it. But then, you know, we were able to still do a Mohammed show and do it the way we wanted, which was to do it and then say, 'All right, Comedy Central, you're a network, you have a right to do with this what you want, so we're making it this way. And then if you want to take out the image of Mohammed, that's fine, you can do that, but we're also going to make the show about you taking out the image of Mohammed.'"
But the normally über-candid Stone and Parker hold their tongues a tad when explaining what happened behind the scenes that convinced Comedy Central to re-broadcast the episode.
"We've done exactly what we need to do to get out what we wanted to get out and not get sued," Parker says. "And unfortunately, that makes us have to stop short at explaining exactly what happened. The forces of the deal made it so that depending on what we say, they can turn it around and finally turn it all into a lawsuit."
"Now we sound like crazy Scientologists," Stone says.
As for Cruise, Parker acknowledges that "he's got total reason to be offended."
That isn't the issue, Stone says. "The thing is, he's sued people for implying that he's gay before. Which is funny. You know, I mean, people have implied we're gay, and we haven't sued anybody. I don't give a s--- if somebody says I'm gay. That's the difference. That's superfunny."
"We don't wish Tom Cruise any ill will," Parker says. "He's just kind of a freak, you know? He's like Michael Jackson."
"How can you not make fun of him?" Stone asks.
South Park and Atheists?
In addition to garnering the show tons of media attention, the episode caused a disturbance within the "South Park" family. Musician and actor Isaac Hayes, who played the character Chef and is a Scientologist, quit.
"We knew that that was a possibility and we were sad that he decided to quit," Parker says. "We held off on doing a Scientology show for years because of Isaac's personal religious belief. And after a while, we were like, you know, we've made fun of everything else. There's just too much funny stuff there. We have to do it. And if he quits, that's his right, and then he did so."
Stone, who was raised Jewish, says he's not religious. Parker says he considers himself religious, but it would take him a long time to explain it. Both say they believe in God.
"I believe there's something going on that we don't know," Parker says. "That's as far as I can go."
"Recently, atheists and people who hate religion have, like, really glommed on to our show because we make fun of a lot of religions," Stone notes. "But neither one of us is anti-religious at all. I mean, I'm fascinated by religion."
"All the religions are superfunny to me," Parker adds. "The story of Jesus makes no sense to me. God sent his only son. Why could God only have one son and why would he have to die? It's just bad writing, really. And it's really terrible in about the second act."
But Parker says atheism is more ludicrous to him than anything else.
"Out of all the ridiculous religion stories -- which are greatly, wonderfully ridiculous -- the silliest one I've ever heard is, 'Yeah, there's this big, giant universe and it's expanding and it's all going to collapse on itself and we're all just here, just 'cuz. Just 'cuz. That to me, is the most ridiculous explanation ever," he says. "So I think we have a big atheism show coming."
The two offer mock-apologies to anyone offended by their show.
"Part of living in the world today is you're going to have to be offended," Stone says. "The right to be offended and the right to offend is why we have a First Amendment. If no speech was offensive to anybody, then you wouldn't need to guarantee it."
Parker says "South Park" mocks that which is dearest to him all the time -- though few people know it.
"A lot of people don't realize this, but probably the one person that gets made fun of in "South Park" more than anybody is my dad," he says. "Stan's father, Randy -- my dad's name is Randy -- that's my drawing of my dad; that's me doing my dad's voice. That is just my dad. Even Stan's last name, Marsh, was my dad's stepfather's name. So my dad grew up Randy Marsh. And he is, by far, the biggest dingbat in the entire show. And we've had him, you know, with his pants down, drunk, throwing up, you know. And my dad was a great dad. He's a great dad. And my dad is constantly like: 'Why did you do that to me?' And I'm like, 'Dad, I'm just having fun.' I hold my father very dear. But it doesn't mean I'm not going to rip on him."
South Park Conservatives
Atheists aren't the only ones to have "glommed on" to the show and claimed it as one of their own. Conservatives have as well, starting with commentator/blogger Andrew Sullivan, who first coined the term "South Park Conservatives" to describe an independent, somewhat libertarian mind-set.
Libertarian New York Times columnist John Tierney recently wrote that he had "bad news for the GOP regarding that promising new bloc of voters, the "South Park Republicans." It turns out they're not Republicans, at least not anymore."
"We would love to think that we could control a group of people and take over the country in a new political party," Stone says. But they have their doubts. And in truth, they say they're not necessarily all that conservative, it's just that they enjoying poking fun at liberal orthodoxies and celebrities, and it's far more rebellious to lean right in Hollywood than to lean left.
"We're probably more conservative than most Hollywood liberals, but that doesn't mean a whole lot," Stone says.
"At the end of the day, we know our job is to entertain and make people laugh," says Parker. "We never get to a writers' meeting and sit down and go, 'What statement can we make about this?' That never happens. We always start with the show. What is Stan feeling? What's his emotion? What can he go through with the kid? And a lot of times, it will come to me Tuesday, the day before the show airs, and we're getting done with the show. And we're like, 'Oh, we've kind of said that.'"
So who did they vote for? John Kerry or George W. Bush?
Parker says anyone interested can look at their show that ran just before the 2004 election called "Douche and Turd." In it the South Park Elementary School students are forced to choose between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich as a new school mascot. The character Stan protests, saying he doesn't find either option attractive, and is decried by the school, his parents and P. Diddy for not voting.
"When people ask how did you vote, it's like: 'Watch that episode. You'll know exactly who we voted for,'" Parker says.
One of the reasons "South Park" can stay more topical than other satiric animated shows like "The Simpsons" or "Family Guy" is because Parker, Stone and their team turn the show around in a week. Thursday morning they begin sketching out the show, and it airs the following Wednesday night.
"Thursday morning, we show up with a big cup of coffee and go, what should next week's show be about?" Parker says. "And then it's basically a race. It's six days and we're working about 90-95 hours. And we're talking about a 90-hour production process."
It's grueling -- and not at all like the pizza-and-bong-fueled image of the creative process fans envision, they say -- but it allows the creative team to respond to what is going on in the news that moment, as in their Emmy Award-winning episode "Best Friends Forever." In that episode, the character Kenny goes into a persistent vegetative state, arousing all sorts of right-to-die issues, like those that were being debated at that moment in the United States because of the Terri Schiavo controversy.
Despite the attention for the hot-button episodes about Cruise, Mohammed or Terri Schiavo, Stone and Parker say their favorite episodes deal with the kids of South Park acting like kids.
"When the show first came out, there were a lot of people calling it 'Peanuts on Acid,'" Parker says. "I was a big Charlie Brown fan as a kid."
"And I was a big acid fan," says Stone.
The beginnings of the show focused mainly on "this is how kids talk," Parker says. "This is what four little boys do when left alone. These are the things they say. Here's how kids really are."
"They're selfish," Stone says. "They're little bastards. And society makes them better. It's not 'Society corrupts them.'"
"See," Parker says, "that's probably the most conservative viewpoint we have."