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.