>> This is an excerpt from the new issue of Rolling Stone, on newsstands until March 22nd.
Deep in a maze of adobe-colored huts at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort conference center in Indian Wells, California, men in polo shirts are striding to 8:30 a.m. meetings. Most are gathering to debate recent advances in re-wetting drops for contact lenses -- "I have superior lens technology to Bob, I know that," one man jabbers, croissant in hand -- but beyond the golf course, in a hut with a majestic plaque reading villa capri, six Viacom employees huddle over coffee on polka-dotted chairs. This is the secret corporate retreat for Comedy Central's most popular, antinomian and flat-out awesomest show: South Park.
For the past decade, Comedy Central has footed the bill for twice-yearly South Park writers' retreats in Tahoe, Hawaii and Vegas, where episode plotting was trumped by strippers and dark nights of twisted fun. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show's co-creators, were younger then. With South Park's debut a month away, this is Day Three of their four-day spring retreat, and they have played golf and eaten dinner at festive Mexican restaurants while drinking themselves into a stupor. Not one episode has been written, but brains are being whetted for the onslaught of work to commence a week before the season premiere -- each episode of South Park is created nearly from scratch a week before broadcast, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
For three long hours, Stone, 35, and Parker, 37, ponder future episodes about George Bush as a superhero and one centering on "ghost cats," genetically engineered felines from outer space. The complicated, affable and devilish Parker -- possessed of schlubby sex appeal, like a young Bill Murray -- grabs at a plate of sweet-potato fries, taking notes on his scratched-up laptop. Stone, who resembles the high school science teacher with a cool haircut who is always telling you how the world really works in his parched basso voice, drums on his leg. They wear T-shirts in primary colors and baseball caps. When they're deep in thought, Stone bites his nails and Parker bites his lip. They are damn cute, surrounded by a half-dozen equally adorable producers and writers, all wearing serene smiles and chortling at the silliest jokes.
Stone, it seems, is having some problems with the city of Venice, California, over the height of a fence he wants to build around his house, and has been subject to multiple community-board meetings in elementary-school gymnasiums presided over by gray-ponytailed dudes ("Anytime a guy with a ponytail is telling me what to do, I get bummed out," he says). It's not like Venice is such a perfect place -- there are a zillion homeless people there and in Santa Monica, an observation that quickly turns into an hour-long assembly of an episode in which the South Park foursome -- Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny -- confronts the homeless while their parents argue about the best way to save them. "We should give the homeless designer sleeping bags and really nice clothes so they're pleasant to look at," says writer Kyle McCulloch, in Randy Marsh's voice.