PASADENA, Calif. -- "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a lot to discuss Thursday at the Television Critics Association press tour, so they wanted to lay down some ground rules at the outset. The creators of "South Park" lambasted Comedy Central Thursday for removing an episode that lampooned Scientology and Tom Cruise from the network's repeat schedule and for blanking out the image of Muhammad during another episode.
"So there are two things we can't do on Comedy Central: show Muhammad or Tom Cruise," Trey Parker said during the MTV Networks portion of the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour.
South Park and Scientology
As it turned out, every question in the 45-minute session was about "South Park," and a half-dozen or so were about the controversial "Trapped in the Closet" episode, which took some rather big whacks at the Church of Scientology and its most recognizable follower, Cruise.
"First of all, there can't be any questions about Tom Cruise, or Scientology, or 'South Park,'" he said -- right after a barrage of questions about Tom Cruise, Scientology and "South Park."
"How much did you wrestle with the Scientology episode?" was the first question.
"Since that pertains to 'South Park' we can't answer," Stone responded.
As for picking on Tom Cruise and Scientology in last season's infamous "Tom Cruise is in the closet" episode, Stone told reporters yesterday that fans expect them to go after everybody. "Scientology -- it's right there," he said. "It's like a whole field of flowers to run in for comedians, and they don't go."
Parker and Stone said they didn't have any problems getting "Trapped in the Closet" -- in which Cruise and John Travolta both locked themselves in Stan's closet, and which included mockery of Scientologists' penchant for litigation and odd beliefs -- on the air, because of the show's last-minute production process.
"The Wednesday before that show aired was the day we said, 'Let's do a Scientology show,''' said Parker. "The way our show is, by the time it got to be Thursday, Friday, the show was going, and was going to be on the air in four days."
"If the show sat on a shelf for a couple of months, it never would have aired," said Stone.
The odd thing about the episode initially, Stone says, was that it caused "no problem at all" with the network.
"We were actually really surprised," Stone says. "We kind of avoided doing one for a long time because of Scientology's reputation for taking you to court. And when we ran the idea past Comedy Central, the lawyers at least, they said, 'Yeah, that's cool.' So getting it on the air wasn't really a big deal. It was kind of after it aired that the shit hit the fan."
Stone and Parker said they got lots of support from Hollywood, surprisingly, after firing their Cruise missiles
They added that they have not been contacted by Scientology representatives but did sit down the week after the episode aired with a "very upset"
Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist who portrayed the character of Chef.
According to Stone, Isaac came to their office the following week after its November airing to express how upset he was over the episode.
“I had about a two-hour meeting with him, and he was actually really upset,” Stone explained. “He really loves Scientology and he really loves ‘South Park,’ and those two things were at odds. And he asked us to go to the network and have them pull the episode, and don’t ever have it made into DVDs. We said no, we’re not gonna do that. He said okay and he left, and we didn’t hear anything.”
“Then we were at the office and we heard Isaac’s quitting,” says Parker. “[Execs] got a letter from his lawyer. We kinda honestly knew that might happen when we made the episodes, but we didn’t wanna be hypocrites. We always say, ‘It’s all okay to make fun of or none of it is.’ So when we had this good idea for a Scientology episode, we’re like, this could piss Isaac off, but we’re hypocrites if we don’t make it for that reason. To be honest, Chef hasn’t really been a big part of the show for five years, so it wasn’t like a devastating blow or anything. We were bummed out, but he has a right to [quit] and it was sort of gonna be the end of it.
“Then this press release came out where it said ‘Isaac left the show, Trey and Matt are bigots,’ etc. It was so crazy because we got along so well. And that’s why we were like, ‘Wow, you thought the show was fine until we did your religion. Now we’re bigots.’ So then, we’re like, ‘Okay, game on motherfucker,’ and we did that episode [depicting Chef’s violent demise] -- i.e., the "Return of Chef" episode in which Chef was indoctrinated into a Scientology-esque cult of secret pedophiles.
He added that the show has made fun of virtually every organized religion and they were disappointed when a press release from Hayes' camp accused them of religious bigotry.
When the episode was pulled, there were rumors that Cruise had threatened not to do publicity for "Mission: Impossible III" -- released by Paramount, a unit of Viacom media conglomerate that also owns Comedy Central -- if the show re-aired. Stone said he remained convinced that the two events were related ("Yeah, I believe it").
Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox, who was also up on stage, told the reporters the episode was pulled so that they could instead air an episode paying tribute to Chef, played by Isaac Hayes. "That's our story and we're sticking with it," Fox said -- a sort of "we all know what's really going on here" wink -- after tossing that mountain of horseradish all over the reporters in the room.
Stone added that the duo chose not to grant any media interviews at the height of the controversy several months ago.
"We didn't do any press because we were just going to get in a pissing war with Tom Cruise, and we didn't want to be in the same article as that guy," he said. "But we picked the wrong guy to parody because we're going to be asked about Tom for the next two years."
The press should move on from the Tom Cruise thing, says Stone, "You start to get this Tom Cruise stink on you," he said.
The yanking of "Trapped in the Closet" caused some bad feelings between the network and the creators, to the point where Parker and Stone threatened to walk if the episode wasn't put back into the rotation.
Fortunately, what with "M:I:III" come and gone, the episode is no longer such a corporate issue.
Would they really have quit? "I don't know if we would have totally not worked on South Park ever again," Stone told TV writers at their semiannual gathering. "But we have a couple of movies with Viacom, and it's tough to go work for people you think may be holding one of your episodes hostage. But that's sort of water under the bridge now because it's going back on the air."
"We have a lot of 'South Park' episodes, obviously. And we rotate them in and out of the schedule all the time," Fox says. "And that's what's happened here. We're rotating that episode back into the schedule, which we do with all of our episodes."
Stone: "Well done."
Parker: "There you go."
Afterward, Comedy Central chief Doug Herzog told The TV Column that the episode was pulled to pay tribute to Chef and that it's running now because "it's its time." He added something about the normal cycle-through of episodes, and that "we reserve the right to air them when and where we see fit." Very scary corporate stuff.
The oddest thing for them about the whole Cruise incident is that it was the most controversial episode in a season where a two-parter was devoted to the Danish Muhammad cartoon riots.
"We did this whole episode about the Muhammad controversy, and no one wants to talk about it, they all want to talk about Tom Cruise," marveled Stone.
When the network asked them to decide which episode they'd like to submit for Emmy consideration this year, they chose that episode only. Stone said, "I don't think it was our best show, just the most controversial."
"We just did it to be dicks, really," Stone said.
As it turns out, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences liked the idea, and the episode is among this year's animated series nominees.
"That was our worst nightmare, winning the Emmy," said Stone about last year's Emmy.
"It's like you're the punk rock kid at school and suddenly you get Student of the Month," agreed Parker.
South Park and Muhammad
In the first case, Parker and his "South Park" partner, Matt Stone, wanted to tackle the furor over the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad that led to protests around the world, some of them violent.
"This is 'South Park,' and we rip on absolutely everything," Parker said of the show, which this season marks its 10th year on the Comedy Central.
"We wanted to make Muhammad's image just standing there, totally harmless," Stone added
Stone said he was "100% sure" Comedy Central would back their approach.
But higher-ups at Viacom, which owns the cable channel, said no, and the episode ran without the potentially sensitive image.
The episode, also featuring cartoon depictions of Jesus and Moses, was shown, and repeated, without incident.
Regarding the decision not to air the image of Muhammad during the "Cartoon Wars" episode, the pair said it was a corporate decision that could become a slippery slope if other groups begin making threats and affecting content. They also noted that Muhammad seems to be off limits, while it is "open season" on Jesus, who happens to be a "South Park" character. (Depictions of Muhammad are strictly prohibited in Islam.)
Stone and Parker also admitted they were stunned when, right around the same time, Comedy Central refused to let them show an image of Muhammad in an episode lampooning the so-called "cartoon wars" -- the violence that broke out in Europe and several Muslim countries over Danish cartoons that protesters said were blasphemous because they depicted the prophet. The Mohammed episode came out shortly after a editorial cartoon in Europe offended Muslims and caused a storm of protest. Comedy Central eventually allowed the episode to be rerun but blacked out the offending image of the prophet. "It's tough to work with a company that is holding one of your episodes hostage," said Parker, who had threatened to shop the duos future movie projects to anybody but Comedy Central parent Viacom. Cooler heads seem to have prevailed.
Stone and Parker were particularly surprised since, a few years earlier, the network had run an episode in which Muhammad was portrayed as a superhero who could turn himself into a beaver. It's out on DVD and runs in syndication, Stone says, "and no one even notices. ... We watched a new taboo being created out of nothing, and we all sat by."
"We did Muhammad two or three years ago, and nothing happened," said Parker. "So when we saw all that was happening, we turned to each other and said, 'So we're doing that,' no question (about it)."
In the newer episode, instead of Muhammad's image, viewers saw a black screen with the words "Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Muhammad on their network."
At the time the network said, "In light of recent world events we feel we made the right decision."
During the Q&A, Comedy Central president Doug Herzog admitted, "It's tough, but I think I would say we did overreact. ... Matt and Trey enjoy a fair amount of creative freedom. History might show that we overreacted, and we will live with that." Then he noted that the image of Muhammad was there -- "it's underneath the black screen."
He added that the image probably will not be shown on the DVD version either, but "I look forward to the day when we can uncover it."
Stone noted that last month Harper's magazine ran the Danish cartoons and nothing bad happened.
After the Q&A, Herzog insisted there was "a difference between a journalistic endeavor" and the satire of "South Park."
But, the "South Park" creators noted, Harper's had asked for the censored frame of Muhammad from "South Park" to include in its "journalistic endeavor."
Comedy Central wouldn't let the magazine have it, they said.
South Park and Family Guy
The Muhammad episodes also featured a major swipe at "Family Guy," which they (through Cartman) accused of random hack joke writing. Stone and Parker said they got lots of support from Hollywood, surprisingly, after firing their Cruise missiles - and even got shows of support from other animators after poking fun at another cartoon series, "Family Guy." The spoof showed "Family Guy" as being written by manatees that use floating balls to make random combinations of jokes and topics. Parker said they may not be the only ones who have disdain for "Family Guy." "The day after that episode aired," Parker says, "we got flowers from The Simpsons. We got calls from King of the Hill saying we were doing God's work. It's not just our opinion."
South Park's 10th Anniversary DVD
Viacom suits want to promote the upcoming DVD of the creators' favorite 10 episodes to coincide with the 10th anniversary of "South Park." Viacom wants to make sure it sells like gangbusters.
So Viacom's Comedy Central cable network schedules "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker to plug the 10th anniversary and DVD before a couple hundred TV critics and reporters at Summer TV Press Tour 2006 here on Thursday.
"South Park" is approaching its 10th anniversary, which makes the controversy surrounding "Trapped in the Closet" and other episodes all the more remarkable. Few shows that have lasted a decade are still capable of attracting that much buzz. Parker and Stone attribute that to their fast-turnaround working schedule and the fact that they do what they want, without worrying about how it will affect them down the line.
"Even when we started out, we were the two guys that really did not give a fuck about our careers," Parker says. "We thought we were in L.A. for maybe a year. We'd make some money and then go do whatever else we were going to do. We've always considered this borrowed time. ..."
"And with everything we've ever done, we can honestly say -- especially now. Now we're rich too, so now it's like, 'Dude, we'll leave tomorrow.' It's like, 'We're going to do this, or we're going to bail.' It really is an honest thing. We're not thinking about 'Well, will this hurt our careers?' ... And it probably does, but we don't really care."
Those foulmouthed kids from South Park — no, not Cartman, Stan and Kyle but the show's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker — promise they'll continue to be as subversive as ever as they approach Season 10, despite recent challenges from the network.
"We want to do things we've never seen before," said Stone. "We're more concerned about whether fans are going to like the show than (we are) about the random psycho."
As the 10th season approaches, the pair have no plans to make another "South Park" movie, mostly because they prefer working in TV where they can make an episode in five days and put it on the air on the sixth.
"TV is so much better than movies," Parker said. "By the time you're editing a movie, you've lived with a joke for two years.
"We live one week and we're already bored with them. And the people in TV are nicer."