The Danes have their work cut out for them. The series that brought computer animation to construction-paper cutouts kicks off its tenth season on March 22nd, and it's funnier, edgier and more popular than ever. As Comedy Central's highest-rated show, South Park draws 2.6 million viewers an episode -- over a million more than The Daily Show -- and seasons one through six have sold more than 3.5 million units on DVD. While most decade-old shows are ready to be put out to pasture, Stone, 34, and co-creator Trey Parker, 36, are taking bigger risks than ever: In the past year, the show has both parodied the Terry Schiavo right-to-die case (earning an Emmy) and mocked Scientology during an episode that also finds fans begging Tom Cruise to come out of the closet (literally).
Back at their Culver City, California, studio after a two-month break, the guys are gearing up for a ten-week marathon of seven-day weeks, working up to twenty-two hours a day. While an episode of The Simpsons takes nine months to complete, South Park's takes a week, allowing the show to comment on events as they're unfolding. The Schiavo episode -- in which Kenny lapses into a persistent vegetative state -- ran the same week Schiavo passed away.
"One week we might do something totally political," Parker says, "and the next it's someone shitting out of their mouth."
Or bleeding out of their ass. In last season's finale, a statue of the Virgin Mary appears to be hemorrhaging out of her butt. Eventually, Pope Benedict XVI arrives to inspect the "miracle" and determines that the statue is simply menstruating. "A chick bleeding out her vagina is no miracle," the pope announces. "Chicks bleed out their vaginas all the time."
"Bloody Mary" drew the ire of Catholics from around the globe, with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights campaigning to have Comedy Central take the show out of rotation. "I don't mind some fun being poked at the Catholic Church," says Catholic League president William Donohue. "But this was simply vulgar."
When asked to name the last time they hesitated on a topic, Stone and Parker concede that the "Trapped in the Closet" episode "gave us pause" due to Scientology's reputation "for fucking with people." But while Comedy Central received no complaints from the church, the episode was not without consequences. In March, Scientologist Isaac Hayes, the beloved voice of Chef since 1997, asked to be released from his contract. "Religious beliefs are sacred," Hayes said in a statement. "As a civil-rights activist of the past forty years, I cannot support a show that disrespects those beliefs and practices."
"Whatever civil rights has to do with this is completely lost on me," retorts Stone. He and Parker are sad to see Hayes go, but they're also pissed at what they see as hypocrisy. "We've done a lot of religious material on South Park, and Isaac never had a problem with it," says Stone. The skirmish didn't end there. Two days after Hayes' announcement, Comedy Central pulled a repeat of "Trapped," a switch Internet theorists linked to Cruise. Though both Cruise and Comedy Central denied the claim, Parker and Stone fired back: "So, Scientology, you may have won this battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun!" You can expect the show to address the issue in a way that's both head-on and tasteless. "Now we have to answer it in some way," says Stone. "We just haven't figured out how."
The duo recently signed a new three-year deal with Comedy Central, a difficult decision for Parker, who threatens to quit several times a season. "I don't like making South Park," he confesses. "I love having made South Park. While we're doing it, I'm thinking, 'I'm tapped out! I'm going to ruin this thing!'"
It's that kind of self-loathing that drove Dave Chappelle to abandon his hit show -- and a $50 million deal -- last year. "Dave was totally fucking brilliant, but he created a monster with this $50 million number," says Stone. He and Parker won't discuss the financial details of their deal, but according to an industry source, their wealth far surpasses Chappelle's. "Matt and Trey are beyond rich," he says. "The syndication deal brought in over $100 million. And South Park merchandising alone has exceeded half a billion dollars."
The pair will also be writing, directing and producing more films like 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and 2004's satirical puppet flick Team America: World Police, which grossed $52 million and $33 million, respectively.
Like their show, the movies highlight both the pair's willingness to slaughter any and all sacred cows, and their seemingly libertarian politics, skewering both left and right. "People say, 'You rip on both sides and don't take a stand!' But that is our stance!" says Parker. "To me, comedy is a point of view. It's OK to take the middle ground."
And, of course, pissing people off remains the pair's top priority. "We've always been fuck-the-system punks," says Stone. "And the only way to be punk anymore is to go into a party and say, 'George Bush fucking rules!'"