IN LATE AUGUST Reason hosted a three-day conference in Amsterdam dedicated to exploring the future of free expression and free markets in Europe. The opening evening featured a conversation with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-creators of the highly controversial and massively successful TV show South Park, now in its 10th season on Comedy Central. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion with Parker and Stone, who were interviewed by Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie and Managing Editor Jesse Walker. Responses can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good evening, everyone, I’m Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine. What Jesse Walker and I are going to be doing tonight is talking with Matt Stone and Trey Parker about South Park and their other creative endeavors, including 2004’s wonderful puppet epic Team America, which was not only the first full-length movie performed by wooden actors since Charlton Heston retired from the screen but the most profound discussion of U.S. foreign policy and the War on Terror to come out of Hollywood. Or Washington, for that matter.
As most of you know, South Park, now finishing its first decade at Comedy Central, follows the misadventures of four grade-school boys in the mythical town of South Park, Colorado, a Brigadoon of small-town depravity, degradation, and good old American values. I suspect that South Park will prove every bit as long-lived in the American subconscious as Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri, or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s prairie.
South Park has set many records during its run. For instance, the 2001 episode “It Hits the Fan” broke the swearing record on TV by having characters use the word shit a total of 162 times in a half-hour, thereby beating the previous record holder, Chicago Hope, which had used the word once in an hour-long show. South Park has received innumerable awards and nominations, most recently a George Foster Peabody Award, given annually for excellence in television and radio programming. Yet I suspect that Matt and Trey’s greatest honor was being nominated for an Oscar for Best Song, “Blame Canada,” from their 1999 film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, and then losing to Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart” from Tarzan.
South Park is many things. First and foremost, it is scabrously funny and antinomian, taking laser-guided aim at targets ranging from the ridiculous—one episode mocked George Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s intentions to change the first Raiders of the Lost Ark movie for DVD release—to the sublime: In one particularly memorable episode from the first season, the South Park boys battle a Godzilla-like version of Barbra Streisand with the aid of Sidney Poitier, film critic Leonard Maltin, and rock star Robert Smith of The Cure. (After that episode, by the way, Streisand attacked the show, not for showing her as a monster but for promoting cynicism among children.)
More commonly, though, the show takes on serious topics in a hilarious manner. These include idiotic sex and drug education programs foisted on kids who are smarter, or at least more sensible, than their parents and teachers, and moral panics over everything from video games to gay sex to environmental degradation. A recent episode featured former Vice President Al Gore dragging the town along on a feverish hunt for a mythical “ManBearPig.” Another episode warns of a “smug alert” emanating from Hollywood after George Clooney’s self-congratulatory speech at last year’s Oscars. Simply put, for the last decade, South Park has produced the sharpest satire of American politics and culture.
Tonight we’ll talk to Trey and Matt about what it’s like to take on the politics and attitudes of their peers in Hollywood, what their own politics are, and where those politics came from.
We’ll also talk to them about religion. If lampooning self-important, self-indulgent celebrities—and it’s not clear there is any other kind—is one constant on the show, so is skewering religious hypocrisy and extremism. In various episodes, Trey and Matt have taken on aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and a conspicuously gay Satan is one of the more sympathetic characters in the South Park movie. Perhaps even more dangerously, they have made fun of the Church of Scientology, a group that may not be as thick with suicide bombers as Islam but is certainly better represented by lawyers.
Yet South Park’s treatment of religion, like its treatment of politics, is never simplistic, stupid, or uninformed. Indeed, Matt and Trey’s 1997 movie Orgazmo, which centers around a young Mormon missionary who ends up taking on the role of a superhero porn star, clearly reflects not only a great deal of knowledge of the Latter-day Saints but some real affection for the group.
We’re going to open things up, though, with a discussion of free speech and censorship issues. Never before in human history have we been more free to express ourselves, and never before have the opponents of free speech been more vocal and, in some instances, deadly.
In the United States, we’ve seen continuing and ramped-up attempts to extend government regulation of speech to cable and satellite TV and radio and to increase restrictions on unambiguously political speech via campaign finance “reform.” In Europe, we’ve witnessed the rise not only of laws designed to spare the feelings of certain groups by shutting down “offensive” speech but death threats and actual murders of people who refuse to be silenced. One of the reasons we were interested in having a conference in Amsterdam is that it’s not only the birthplace of tolerance but the site of one of the most brutal crimes related to free speech in recent memory: the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was stabbed to death in the street after making a 10-minute film critical of Islam’s treatment of women.
So let’s start off with a discussion of two recent episodes. In the wake of the violent reaction to the Muhammad cartoons that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, you wrote a story in which the Prophet appeared on the cartoon series Family Guy. Comedy Central refused to air the scene in which Muhammad actually appeared. You also recently produced an episode mocking Tom Cruise and Scientology, which the network refused to rerun earlier this year.
So the first question is, what’s more terrifying, crossing Islam or crossing Scientology?
Trey Parker: They’re really the same people.
This is what happened. I was on my honeymoon in Disney World. I turned on the television, and there were thousands of rioting Muslims, and the caption said, “Muslims enraged over cartoon.” And I said, “Oh, shit. What did we do?”