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‘A big heart’ at center of ‘South Park’s’ bad taste

One reason "South Park" is so good is the united front, the shared vision, of co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. The duo begin the 10th season of their often loud and lewd show on Oct. 4.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One reason "South Park" is so good is the united front, the shared vision, of co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

"Me and Matt love to argue," says Trey, "but in general our sense of humor is pretty much alike."

"We never have that problem where I want something one way and he wants it another," says Matt. "It never happens, and, when it does, we usually realize there was a flaw in the idea in the first place."

So it's them against the crazy world when "South Park" begins a 10th season Oct. 4 at 10 p.m. EDT on Comedy Central, fresh on the heels of winning a prestigious Peabody Award. The first of seven new episodes will premiere as Matt and Trey rush in (as they have so many times before) where no one else would think to tread.

As ever, their surrogates in this enterprise are Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, four bratty, perpetually bundled-up youngsters in an unhinged Colorado cartoon town.

But this past year South Park has been a particularly outrageous place, stirring up more mischief than usual.

The scathing two-part "Cartoon Wars" last spring ripped Comedy Central for timidity in not airing an image of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, even as the show displayed Jesus Christ defecating on President Bush and the American flag.

Another headlines-generating episode, "Trapped in the Closet," may or may not have riled mighty Hollywood star and Scientologist Tom Cruise for its mocking treatment of Scientology (and him) — so much so that Cruise may or may not have pressed Comedy Central never to air it again. (Last March, the network denied accusations by Matt and Trey of having yanked the episode. It has since been repeated, most recently this week.)

Nothing was sacred; no apologiesFrom the start of "South Park" in August 1997, the catch-as-catch-can crudeness of the series, where nothing was sacred or apologized for, was celebrated as its signature. But to the surprise of Matt and Trey, "South Park" seemed to have potential to be even more than that.

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"Instead of being crappy," says Trey, "we decided we better figure out how to actually make it good."

Doing so, they seldom had a moment to focus beyond their week-to-week scramble to produce the next episode. The seasons flew by.

"It's only been in the last two years that I'm thinking, ‘We might be here for a while,'" says Matt. Now he and Trey, both in their mid-30s, are signed to produce 30 more episodes through 2008.

"What we're always looking for is weird social issues and weird connections to make," says Trey. Lucky for them, there's no shortage of material.

Just consider how freckles and red hair provided them a way of addressing racial strife as Cartman rallied fellow "Ginger" kids to strike back against their blond and brunet oppressors.

Creatures from the year 4035 flooding into South Park through a time portal served as a pointedly absurd way of looking at the dicey issue of illegal immigration.

Reflecting the series' startling timeliness (each episode is created from scratch and aired within a week), "South Park" last October framed the failure of government agencies to respond to Hurricane Katrina in terms of a beaver dam that broke and flooded a nearby town, amid much finger-pointing but nobody helping.

And then there was the episode in March 2005 that seized upon the highly charged issue of a patient's right to die, even as Terry Schiavo lay comatose, a political and media circus raging around her.

What drives Matt and Trey to mine laughs and truth-telling from places that good sense, and certainly good taste, would declare off-limits?

"We're the guys who, if someone says you really shouldn't do an episode making fun of Scientologists, we say, ‘Whatever,'" Trey explains. "Someone says, ‘They might come try to burn your house down,' we say, ‘We'll just get another one.'"

But their comedic defiance is tempered by another quality that's seldom acknowledged. While "South Park" is often loud and lewd, it has an underlying sweetness.

"We try to never be cynical," Matt says. "I think we're really optimistic, happy people, and we want the show to have an optimistic message."

"It's not like we have a formula," says Trey, "but I think one of the reasons this show has survived is that it has a big heart at its center. Other cartoon shows have people crap on each other and make racist jokes. But I don't think people tune in for that. I just don't think a show lasts for 10 years without a heart."

Heart, and some semblance of balance.

"You can take any issue, no matter what side you're on, and make fun of the far extremes," says Matt. "So much of `South Park' is a group on this side and a group on that side, all screaming at each other. And the boys in the middle are going, `What are you all doing this for?'"

However hilariously scandalous "South Park" may be, the message in the end is (could it really be?) wholesome and uplifting. As Kyle squawked to a network president in "Cartoon Wars": "Do the right thing!"

That's the Gospel of Matt and Trey ... out of the foul mouths of babes.