It Happens

Ohmigod! Five seasons in, South Park's the funniest show on TV.

"Oh, yeah, there has been much less reaction" to the show this season, Stone says with a slight laugh. "I mean, it's weird, because on one hand, we never thought that we've ever done the show to push the envelope. We do the show to tell stories, and that just happens to be our sense of humor, which pushes the envelope. It's only interesting doing stuff you know no one else has done before. You feel it's at least somewhat original. Whether other people like it or not, you go, "Hey, I'm doing this for a reason. I'm not doing the eight-millionth stupid, sitcom date-gone-bad story.' But for the firestorm the show got in its first couple of seasons, I mean, if you look at the story lines and the subject matter we've taken on even in the last couple of years, it amazes me there's no backlash ever."

Stone insists he and Parker never sit around trying to figure out how to shock and infuriate; they're more concerned with telling a good story, he says again and again, than with coming up with something outrageous. But, in the next breath, he will say there have been a few things he was surepeople would find offensive, only to discover they couldn't have cared less. He mentions an episode from last season, "The Brown Noise," in which the boys' teacher, Mr. Garrison, tries to convince his father to molest him because he never did when Mr. Garrison was a kid. He also points to an episode from the same season in which Cartman joins the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Those, he and Parker figured, were bound to get them in deep with groups that exist solely to protest shows they don't actually watch.

"Those I thought were pretty weird that no one got pissed off about, because we really made light of child molestation," he says. "And the fact Mr. Garrison's begging for it, I thought, was fucked-up. But on the other hand, it's sofucked-up and fantastical, who's gonna complain? I dunno."

Likely, those who once targeted South Parkhave merely moved on to other targets; the angry mobs blindly follow the kids, who led them first to Marilyn Manson, then Eminem, then Tom Green and JackassJohnny Knoxville. And the landscape of TV is dramatically different than it was in 1997, when South Parkpremiered. It's now de rigueur for teen-agers on such shows as That '70s Showand even Dawson's Creekto blaze up, drink up and get down, and we're no longer aghast when "reality TV" offers us mate-swappers and rat-eaters. We've been so numbed by the garbage--watching TV these days is its own Fear Factor--that there's no one left to be outraged when crude cartoons utter uncensored four-letter words or start "jackin' it" before commercial break.

"It shows one of two things," Stone says. "Either people go, "Oh, that's South Park, I don't care anymore,' or maybe television really has changed. I think it's a combination of both. I think that television has changed, not just because of us but because of a long process starting most recently with Beavis & Butt-head and then maybe us and Jackass. It's a step- by-step process, and there will be somebody else coming down the pike here pretty soon that takes it to another level. We feel like every week we still tackle some pretty fucked-up ideas and fucked-up shows, and there's just not even a peep from anybody. And this year being the culmination of that with the "shit' show, where we just went off the deep end kinda just to make a point and kinda just to see what happened.

"As we started making that show, we said, "Yeah, we should say "shit." Why can't we say "shit"?' It is kinda ridiculous. They already are on Court TV and a few of the cable networks. In two years, shit's gonna be everywhere. It's not gonna be a taboo word. It barely is anymore anyway. Then we really didn't have a point in doing it, so we decided to do this weird anti-moral where the kids decide in the end it's really not cool and there should be some words that are taboo, because without some taboo words the whole thing kinda just falls apart. It's good to have limits in places for words, and I think that makes sense."

Toward the end of the conversation, Stone begins talking about how South Parkis at its core a rather moral show; it's not shocking without a point, weird for no reason. It's somewhere between Ren & Stimpyand The Simpsons: The former was too much of nothing, odd and disturbing for no reason; the latter has become almost too preachy, as though its scripts were written by Ned Flanders. South Parkresides in the middle ground: It runs amok but lets no one slide by without retribution, whether it's the schoolyard bully, the phony celebrity or leftie do-gooders who shout down anyone who dares argue against the cause. The fact is, the show would be a failure if it existed solely to shock.

"When people ask us why we think the show's been successful, you don't know why, but I think there are a couple of reasons," Stone says. "I think people identify with the characters on some subconscious level, like any TV show. And I think it's directly notbecause of the shocking and offensive stuff. It's because that stuff is within a sweet and morally centered show. I think that South Parkhas maybe not a morality that agrees with everybody, but I think it actually has a pretty distinct and acute moral point of view that we pretty much stick to. People do right, people do wrong, don't be hypocritical, treat people right. It actually comes around to that."

So how, then, to explain the episode where Cartman kills Scott Tenorman's parents and feeds them to the kid?

Stone laughs. "I don't know why we did that." He takes a short pause. "Except for it felt like a really fucked-up, funny thing to do."

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