Matt Stone has little time to talk. It's Tuesday, July 17, 1 p.m. in Los Angeles, yet Stone and Trey Parker have yet to finish a television show that will debut some 30 hours from now--an episode of South Park titled "Terrance and Garfunkel," in which the farting, fighting Canadian twosome Terrance and Phillip break up and reunite for an Earth Day benefit. For five years, this is how Parker and Stone have always worked: putting off till today that which airs tomorrow. "It's stupid is what it is," Stone says during a brief break from putting the final touches on tomorrow night's show. "It's retarded. We're procrastinators." Earlier, when I asked the Comedy Central publicist if she could send a tape of forthcoming shows, she couldn't stop laughing. "It's a reasonable request," she said, "for any other show."
It's only appropriate: South Park is a most unreasonable show, a weekly serving of subversive brilliance still masquerading as the world's longest ongoing dirty joke. Five episodes into its fifth season, it's easily the funniest half-hour on television and among the best shows around--assuming, of course, one has taste enough to find the humor in a prolonged fight between two "handicapable" children and temerity enough to sit through an episode in which "shit" is uttered uncensored 162 times.
Five years ago, South Park felt like a show with a built-in expiration date--the day after tomorrow. It seemed as though it would last only as long as it took to buy, then dispose of, Eric Cartman refrigerator magnets and "Ohmigod! They killed Kenny!" T-shirts and a bag of Cheesy Poofs. It was birthed as a joke (the short "Spirit of Christmas" videotape that floated around Los Angeles studio execs' offices like a virus in 1996) and existed as a lark, something shocking that would bring the fledgling netlet some much-needed publicity and kill time between Saturday Night Live reruns and Craig Kilborn smirks. It was almost less a television show initially than a cultural fad, a Spin cover story that wrote itself (using a healthy dose of curse words). And, for a while, it did its job capably: South Park garnered extraordinary ratings, attracting some 6.2 million viewers each Wednesdy night during the spring of 1998--the highest rating achieved, to that point, by a comedy series on basic cable, according to the Los Angeles Times last spring.
"But I've said it before: You have to make it past that fad period to have a show," Stone says. "All that shit--being on the cover of Rolling Stone and Spin, getting these monumental ratings--that's part of being a fad, and you're never going to stay at that level. You've got to come down at some point, and we came down a little, and now we're at this great plateau where we get these awesome ratings and all that stuff, but the show's always been exactly what we wanted it to be. Our process of doing it has changed very little. It's always been, "Here's a funny idea. That makes me laugh. How can we make a story about that?' That's the whole deal. You just want a reaction. Then, you can hold your head up high at the end of the day."
The show's ratings are now nowhere near that 1998 high-water mark: It now brings in about 2.6 million each Wednesday, most of which belong to the coveted 18-to-34 demographic with plenty of loose coin to throw advertisers' way. The furor over the show's content has long since faded, despite recent Federal Trade Commission media-violence reports that still single it out. And even though Comedy Central still uses South Park's follow-up time slot as a springboard for its newest shows, among them Prime Time Glick (featuring Martin Short as the world's most unctuous, self-absorbed celebrity chatterer) and That's My Bush!, the first-family sitcom parody created by Parker and Stone, its status as Comedy Central's premier show has been supplanted by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which recently won TV's much-coveted Peabody Award and is up for two Emmys.
Yet despite all that, something extraordinary happened somewhere between infancy and infamy: The show got better, a monumental achievement in a medium where quality has the life span of a few seasons and is about as valued as a nun at a whorehouse. And, perhaps more remarkably, the show is more outrageous than ever: Two weeks ago, Cartman took revenge on an eighth-grader named Scott Tenorman by plotting his parents' deaths and feeding Scott a bowl of chili made from their ground remains. The second episode of the season, "Cripple Fight," featured an excruciatingly long and bloody fight between the wheelchair-bound Timmy and another disabled kid, Jimmy, who shouted, "You dirty motherfucker!" as he bashed Timmy with his crutches.
But there has been nary a peep from the same people who once vilified South Park as the very thing that would lead our children down the path of damnation, one bleeped-out four-letter word at a time. A search of the Lexis-Nexis newspaper database reveals only a handful of stories were written about this season's debut, titled "It Hits the Fan," which contained so many uses of the word "shit" you never wanted to hear it again--and even then, most of the stories were about how South Park's finally unbleeping "shit" wasn't a story at all.
"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 sure people 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 so fucked-up and fantastical, who's gonna complain? I dunno."
Likely, those who once targeted South Park have 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 Jackass Johnny Knoxville. And the landscape of TV is dramatically different than it was in 1997, when South Park premiered. It's now de rigueur for teen-agers on such shows as That '70s Show and even Dawson's Creek to 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."
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Toward the end of the conversation, Stone begins talking about how South Park is at its core a rather moral show; it's not shocking without a point, weird for no reason. It's somewhere between Ren & Stimpy and 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 Park resides 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 not because of the shocking and offensive stuff. It's because that stuff is within a sweet and morally centered show. I think that South Park has 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."