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This was on a Wednesday. The rerun was supposed to air that night. So we bitched and moaned and yelled at them on the phone, and they said, “You may be mad about that, but what you’re really going to be mad about is we don’t want you to go to the press and say anything.” That was really tough, because that felt like we were playing along with this, to me, fundamentally immoral organization like Scientology. But then we realized —and luckily it came true—that you can’t just pull an episode off the air anymore. People are going to find out. Sure enough, it was all over the press. The Internet makes those backroom deals a lot harder to do.
Reason: You have a money-making franchise, and you’re built into a large multinational corporation’s distribution channel. Do you feel more worried when you do something that might rock the boat?
Parker: This last year has been a really amazing year. We’ve suddenly found ourselves back in the headlines again because of the shows we were doing. It wasn’t an intentional thing. It was just that we’ve reached that level now where we’re very comfortable saying, “You know what? We’re done. We’ve made all the money we need, and we both have always had dreams of doing other things.” As soon as they say, “We’re not going to let you do a Muhammad episode,” we can say, “All right, well, we’re not going to do any more shows for you this season.”
Stone: They were really bummed out when we called them and said we’re going to do a Muhammad episode. They’re like, “Ahh, fuck. Oh my God, you guys.” Because they can’t tell us no. A smaller show, they would’ve just said, “No, you can’t do it. End of story.” And a bigger show like The Simpsons wouldn’t dare risk their franchise. It’s such a stupid political move, but we’re just stupid enough to do it.
Reason: This is a bizarre time to be alive. You have places like YouTube, where you can create whatever you want and disseminate it. At the same time, you have lawsuits, and you have people literally being killed. So what’s the state of free expression?
Stone: We obviously have a very one-sided view of it. Basically all we’ve ever done is said what we wanted to say, and people have just thrown money at us. We would love to be very Michael Moore and go out there and go, “Yeah, they’re trying to quiet us.” Because that immediately gets people on your side.
People ask, “So how is it working for a big multinational
conglomeration?” I’m like, “It’s pretty good, you know? We can say
whatever we want. It’s not bad. I mean, there are worse things.” It
doesn’t mean that we don’t have battles like we did this year,
where you get really frustrated with the fact that Mission
Impossible:3’s bigger than South Park and they can
shut you down, but at the end of the day you’ve got to look at the
Parker: At the end of the day, they gave us $40 million for a puppet movie.
Reason: You did an episode where the boys encountered the Knights of Standards and Practices, who explained why they shouldn’t say shit on television. At face value, that story seems to say that there are proper limits to what you can put on TV. Are there limits that you won’t cross?
Parker: Totally. But year after year, it’s always a different thing. When we look at the shows we were doing years ago—to think that people were freaking out over these episodes! If you look at our first season now, you could put it on PBS next to Sesame Street.
Stone: They’re like cute little Teletubbies.
Parker: They’re just cute little kids. “Oh, he’s farting fire, that’s cute.”
It’s not that every year we get together and go, “How can we push it more?” But the boundaries are part of the fun, and the fact that it’s on television is part of the fun of what we’re getting away with.
Stone: And then, when we did the South Park movie, we changed what the limits were because they’re different for movies than for TV.
Reason: In the episode “All About Mormons,” a Mormon family moves to South Park, and one of the boys finds out that they’re pretty nice. Then they have a fight, and at the end the Mormon boy teaches him a moral lesson: “Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life and a great family and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice, and helping people, and even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.”
You’re known for lampooning religion. That clip suggests you see a lot of value in it as well. How does that balance for you?
Parker: I’ve been fascinated with the Mormons for a long time. They are the nicest people in the world. If a religion’s going to take over the world, and the one that really believes “just be super nice to everyone” takes over, that’s all right with me. Even if it’s all bullshit, that’s OK.
Reason: How were each of you raised religiously?
Stone: I was raised agnostic. There was no religion in my house.
Parker: I was pretty much the same. My father tried to raise me Buddhist, as in Alan Watts Buddhism, which is Buddhism in a way.
Reason: I have Mormon friends who are convinced you guys were raised Mormon, because of some of the references in the show.
Parker: Well, we grew up in Colorado. Colorado’s right next to Utah—you know, Mormon Central. My first girlfriend was Mormon, and I went to experience family home evening at her house for the first time. “What are you all doing?” “We’re sitting, and we’re singing songs and playing games together.” I was like, “Boy, that’s fucked up. Families are not supposed to be doing that.”
Reason: There are also a lot of Jewish references. There’s a whole episode about going to Jewish camp, where they do silly craft projects. Did you go to a Jewish camp?
Stone: No, no. I didn’t even know I was Jewish until I was 16.
Parker: I had to teach him the dreidel song.
Stone: I’m not a very good Jew.
I think we’ve always had religion in the show because it’s just funny. I mean, there’s just a lot of funny stuff. We’ve done stuff that’s really anti-religion in some ways. But it’s such an easy joke to go, “Look how stupid that is,” and then stop right there. Religion’s just much more fascinating than that to us. So from the very beginning, we always thought it was funny just to flip it on its ear and show how screwed up it is, but also how great it is. People couldn’t tell if we were kidding.
Reason: What was the response to the Mel Gibson episode you did in 2004? In “The Passion of the Jew,” two of the boys feel cheated after paying to see The Passion of the Christ, visit Gibson in his Malibu mansion, and demand a refund. You portray Gibson as generally paranoid, raving, and insane.
Parker: It was way ahead of its time, I’ll tell you that. Years ago we had Mel Gibson drunk, getting arrested by a cop, and smearing shit on stuff. That totally came true.
Reason: A few years ago, Matt, you said, “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.” Who do you hate more these days?
Stone: That’s a tough question. Obviously, South Park has a lot of politics in it, but ultimately we want to make a funny show and a good show. We try not to be, “All right, here’s the point we want to make.” But things like California’s smoking ban and Rob Reiner animate both of us. When we did that Rob Reiner episode [2003’s “Butt Out”], to us it was just common sense. Rob Reiner was just a great target.
That’s when a lot of people started calling us conservative: “How could you possibly rip on Rob Reiner? You must be conservative.”
Parker: A big key to us is that we both grew up in Colorado in the ’80s, and we wanted to be punk rockers. When you were a teenager in Colorado, the way to be a punk rocker was to rip on Reagan and Bush and what they were doing and talk about how everyone in Colorado’s a redneck with a gun and all this stuff. Then we went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and everyone there agreed with us. And we were like, “Well, that’s not cool, everyone agrees with us.” And then you get to Los Angeles. The only way you can be a punk in Los Angeles is go to a big party and go, “You can say what you want about George Bush, but you’ve got to admit, he’s pretty smart.” People are like, “What the fuck did he just say? Get him out of here!”
Reason: So what is it that you hate about liberals? Can you boil it down to a consistent impulse, and then a consistent impulse among conservatives?
Parker: Wow, that’s a good question.
Stone: I’ve never thought about that.
Parker: To some degree, South Park has a simple formula that came from the very first episode [“The Spirit of Christmas,” which featured Jesus and Santa fighting over who owned the holiday]. There was Jesus on this side and there was Santa on this side, there’s Christianity here and there’s Christmas commercialism here, and they’re duking it out. And there are these four boys in the middle going, “Dude, chill out.” It’s really what Team America is as well: taking an extremist on this side and an extremist on that side. Michael Moore being an extremist is just as bad, you know, as Donald Rumsfeld. It’s like they’re the same person. It takes a fourth-grade kid to go, “You both remind me of each other.” The show is saying that there is a middle ground, that most of us actually live in this middle ground, and that all you extremists are the ones who have the microphones because you’re the most interesting to listen to, but actually this group isn’t evil, that group isn’t evil, and there’s something to be worked out here.
Except when it comes to Scientologists. They’re all fucked up.
Reason: Why is Hollywood so overwhelmingly liberal? Or maybe not even liberal. It seems that many entertainment industry people really want to control people on very specific issues.
Parker: It’s so simple to understand. It’s just that that’s what’s cool right now. That’s what’s cool in L.A., so that’s what everyone does.
Stone: Yeah, I think they just think it’s cool. I think a lot of them really believe in what they’re doing. It’s not like it’s some kind of conspiracy. There’s something about people who become actors that they also become liberals. That being said, in Team America, we said exactly what we wanted to say and in South Park, we say exactly what we want to say. No one tells us what to say, so we may have differing political viewpoints, but they just want to make money, you know? And there’s something kind of beautiful about that.
Reason: Each of you at various points have called yourself libertarian. Is that an apt description?
Parker: People started throwing that word around to describe us right around the second or third season. They would sit us down and go, “So are you libertarian?” And I would always say, “I don’t know, am I? You’ve seen my stuff.”
I still don’t really know the answer to that question. I think I am, though.
Stone: I think it is an apt description for me personally, and that has probably seeped into the show. But we never set out to do a libertarian show.
Reason: When you say libertarian, what do you mean?
Stone: I had Birkenstocks in high school. I was that guy. And I was sure that those people on the other side of the political spectrum were trying to control my life. And then I went to Boulder and got rid of my Birkenstocks immediately, because everyone else had them and I realized that these people over here want to control my life too. I guess that defines my political philosophy. If anybody’s telling me what I should do, then you’ve got to really convince me that it’s worth doing.