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Saunders: At 10, 'South Park' still bites
Ann Johansson © AP

South Park creators Trey Parker, left, and Matt Stone may be on the verge of winning their second Emmy Award, for an episode about Tom Cruise and Scientology. The animated satire, which starts its 10th season on Comedy Central Oct. 4, also won a Peabody Award for its "fearless lampooning of all that is self-important and hypocritical in American life."
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Dusty Saunders
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HOLLYWOOD - Trey Parker set the tone for the rowdy press conference.

"First of all, there can't be any questions about Tom Cruise or Scientology - or South Park."

Laughter.

The room was crowded with TV critics who wanted to know everything about Tom Cruise, Scientology and particularly South Park, which, after nine years, reigns as the most biting social satire series on television.

As Comedy Central prepares to premiere South Park's 10th season on Oct. 4, Parker and partner Matt Stone, former University of Colorado students, remain a bit overwhelmed by their success.

Beneath their cocky attitude and smart-aleck comments lies a "we-were-fortunate" attitude.

"We were surprised when we got on the air in the very beginning," Parker recalled.

Added Stone: "We had six episodes in that first season. That, for us, was a big deal."

The arrival of South Park was also a big deal for many viewers - some of whom believed the animated series about the four foulmouthed third-graders from the fictional Colorado mountain town was a precursor to the downfall of Western civilization.

How dare a TV series - even on cable - feature cartoonish kids who dressed up like Hitler on Halloween and made fun of Jesus?

And those were tame topics, compared with what was to follow.

The show has done more than just survive.

A year ago South Park won an Emmy Award as outstanding animated program.

In April, in an announcement that rattled some broadcasting intellectuals, the series was honored with a prestigious Peabody Award for its "undeniably fearless lampooning of all that is self-important and hypocritical in American life."

And next month, South Park could win a second Emmy for the controversial Trapped in the Closet episode that mocks Cruise and Scientology.

Until last week, Comedy Central had declined to put the Scientology episode into the summer-rerun package.

The reason?

While the network said the half- hour "just didn't make it into the repeat rotation," Parker and Stone contended that Viacom, which operates Comedy Central, pulled the episode because of pressure from Cruise, the star of the company's Mission: Impossible movie franchise.

"We couldn't think of any other reason," Parker said, noting that he and Stone had considered severing their ties with Viacom and Comedy Central over the issue.

Cruise has denied applying any pressure.

The boiling controversy was cooled the day before the press conference when Comedy Central announced that the half-hour will be repeated Wednesday night.

As Parker and Stone prepare for a 10th season, signs of their success are everywhere.

A DVD of their favorite 10 episodes will be released this summer amid a batch of promotional gimmicks, including plush toys and travel sweepstakes.

Is the duo becoming too respectable?

Stone, a grin on his face, said, "Winning the Emmy - that was like our worst nightmare."

Parker, also feigning disappointment, added, "You're kind of the punk-rock kid at school and suddenly you get student-of-the-month award."

Both occasionally worry about losing their edge.

"It's hard to be the old guy at the club after a while," Stone said. "Still, we've had some good shows in the last year."

Added Parker: "While we don't want to lose our edge, we also want to grow old gracefully.

"It's fun for us to watch the nine previous years, because we can see how we've changed, . . . how some of our attitudes have changed. But the irreverence is still there. That's the important thing about South Park."

They say that picking their 10 favorite episodes for the upcoming DVD was relatively easy.

"Our 10 favorites come from the last four seasons," said Parker. "Now we look back at what we did in the first three seasons and we're like, 'Oh man, we thought that was funny?'

"We've definitely learned how to write as the show has gone along."

Parker noted that one of his favorite episodes has a wacky Lord of the Rings theme in which the kids, after accidentally getting their hands on a porn tape, dress up like Lord of the Rings characters on a quest to return the tape to the video store.

"There are times for us when South Park really hits hard on what it's like to be in third grade in America. And those are some of our favorite episodes," he said. "When you look at a total season, rarely are there more than a couple of episodes that deal in political satire. Our favorite shows deal with kids just being kids."

About Dusty Saunders
Dusty Saunders is the television critic for the News.

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