Fresh Air Interview: Trey Parker and Matt Stone 'Making Fun Of Everyone On 'South Park'' The troublemakers at South Park are in the news again: police have said that there may be a link between the recent car-bombing attempt in Times Square and a South Park episode featuring the prophet Muhammad wearing a bear suit. Fresh Air listens again to a recent interview with creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone -- who explain why they like to live dangerously.

Making Fun Of Everyone On 'South Park'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Fourteen seasons after it began, the Comedy Central animated series "South Park" still hits bull's-eyes and draws the ire of several of its targets for its very pointed satire. Its 200th episode, shown earlier this year, was the latest to make headlines for the outrage it evoked, this time for depicting Muhammad as a character drawn in a bear suit. Our guests today are the creators of the series, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who also do most of the voices for the show.

"South Park" is about four children in a small Colorado town, but the subject matter is usually pretty adult, satirizing the right and the left, religion, identity politics, issues in the news, and along with the satire you get a lot of crude jokes about bodily functions.

When the show won a Peabody Award in 2005, the citation said, quote, "in the process of unapologetically ridiculing individuals and groups, the series pushes viewers to confront broader issues such as racism, war, mob mentality, consumerism and religious fanaticism," unquote.

Here's a scene from this season's opening episode, which was titled "Sexual Healing." The government is trying to grapple with an apparent epidemic of sexual addiction. After being tested at school, Kyle and Butters are diagnosed as sex addicts. They're sent to an institute to be treated, along with a group of famous men whose infidelities have led to scandals, including Tiger Woods, David Letterman and Bill Clinton. An instructor addresses the group.

(Soundbite of television program, "South Park")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) All righty, now we all know the destructive behaviors that got us into this predicament, don't we? What is the main thing we've all learned to avoid. Yes, Tiger?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Tiger Woods) Avoid drugs and alcohol.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) No, no, Tiger, you still aren't getting it. In order to make sure we are no longer destroying our lives with any of these behaviors, we must avoid - anyone? Avoid getting - anyone?

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As Michael Douglas) Caught.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character): Yes, Michael Douglas. Everyone.

Unidentified People (Actors): (As characters) Getting caught.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Very good. You are all here in therapy because you got caught. So how do we avoid getting caught, Ben Roethlisberger?

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As Ben Roethlisberger) Don't (bleep) in the public bathrooms. When they ask you for money, pay them.

Mr. MATT STONE (Creator, "South Park"): (As Kyle) Well, hang on. We shouldn't be learning how not to get caught. We have to take responsibility for our actions?

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) What the (bleep) are you talking about?

BIANCULLI: "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker spoke with Terry Gross in March of this year, before their episode with Muhammad dressed in a bear costume but after they had gotten in trouble for a previous episode about opposition to any depiction of Muhammad. In fact, Matt Stone told Terry that when he and Trey Park first saw newspaper coverage of hostile Muslim reaction to Danish political cartoons portraying Muhammad, they thought the story was referring to "South Park."

Mr. STONE: You picked up the newspaper, it said cartoon wars, right? Didn't it say cartoon wars?

Mr. TREY PARKER (Creator, "South Park"): Yeah, (unintelligible).

Mr. STONE: And it was, like, my first thought was, like, oh God. Oh, we did it. You know what I mean? Like we did it.

Mr. PARKER: Well, then it said Muslims very upset over racist cartoon, and we were, like, oh, they figured us out. Oh no.

Mr. STONE: So most of the time, if it's anything like that, we just instantly assume it's us because there's been many times where - there has been a lot of times where we've opened up the paper, pulled up the Drudge Report or something, and it's, like, "South Park" does this. And you're, like, oh God. What did we do? And you find out from the paper, you know, or the Internet in real time.

Mr. PARKER: Usually when a cartoon makes people angry, it's us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: So we were actually kind of jealous. We were angry that someone else had stolen our thunder.


So you got even by doing a "South Park" Muslim cartoon episode.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, we're like, okay, well, let's do - we took it back from the damn Danish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: We said we're going to do that. If anybody's going to get mad at us...

GROSS: After you did the episode, Comedy Central, which broadcasts your show, which shows "South Park," was pretty upset about it, and you ended up having to pull a scene.

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

Mr. PARKER: It's always - and it's funny, I mean, because of the nature of our show, a lot of people by now kind of know that we really do the show almost like a live show, almost like a "Saturday Night Live" kind of schedule, where we come in on a Thursday and say all right, what are we doing this week? And then that episode airs the next Wednesday.

And so it's funny because in our show, what happens then all the time is basically what's going on that week is what ends up going on in the show. And so with that episode, you know, we were saying, okay, and at the end, we're going to show the image of Muhammad, and Comedy Central was, like, well, no, you're not.

And we're, like, no, no, but you see, we have to because this is the point we're making, is that, you know, and it kept being this fight and this fight, and so then the fight ended up getting put into the show. And then as we're writing, we're, like, okay, let's put the head of the network in there and have - you know, and it's just, like, it's always kind of as we're living it that, you know, the show gets made.

Mr. STONE: And we sent them the show. We said, okay, you can pull it out, but we are going to put a thing that says you pulled it out right here.

Mr. PARKER: Right. You can pull it out, but we're not going to.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, we're not going to. And then we worked it into the show somehow.

GROSS: (Unintelligible) describe what the wording was on the...

Mr. PARKER: Well, all it was, I mean, I can't remember exactly what we said, but the whole original idea, too, was that we said, you know, they're so upset that they showed an image of Muhammad, which is so funny because we had actually done it like three years before that on "South Park." We had Muhammad in this episode called "Super Best Friends."

Mr. STONE: There's an image of Muhammad in the head credits of "South Park," which is on every episode of "South Park" that airs in, like, 100 countries.

Mr. STONE: And it airs in syndication all over the country - right now.

Mr. PARKER: And so they said you cannot show an image of Muhammad. And we're like, okay, so we're going to do it again. And then - but then we said, you know, but we could get attacked by terrorists if we do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: So let's make it look like it was "Family Guy" and not us. So then that gave us the whole idea for the show, that we would put "Family Guy" in the show and only have Muhammad appear in the "Family Guy" part. So if they ever saw a still of it on the Internet, or they ever saw anything, they'd know it was "Family Guy" and not us. And then they would get bombed and not us.

Mr. STONE: We're pretty tough, but we're not really that tough.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, no.

GROSS: So I'm sure you know about this, that one of the recent news stories that involved "South Park" has to do with Blackwater, the very controversial, always-in-the-news private security company that is under investigation and had a big presence in Iraq.

And the story is that Blackwater managed to divert hundreds of weapons from a U.S. weapons bunker in Afghanistan to equip Afghan policemen, and on at least one occasion somebody claiming to work for Blackwater signed for a weapons shipment using the name Eric Cartman, who is, of course, a character from "South Park."

So when you read something like this in the news, are you flattered, like, yeah, it's a shout out to one of our characters? Or are you appalled?

Mr. PARKER: I think our first instinct is always - how do we put this in the show?

Mr. STONE: Yeah, we've already been talking about how we can work that into a show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Anytime we read anything remotely interesting, we try to think how we could put it in the show, and so especially if it's about ourselves. But when I read that, I had a small feeling of, just like, oh, I think Cartman actually did that. He seems very real to me, and so I think maybe that really was him.

Mr. STONE: How do we know it wasn't him?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: "South Park" is frequently topical. So I want to play an excerpt from a show that aired in Season 13, which was the previous - the last season. This is an episode that was called "Margaritaville," and this is basically your take on the financial meltdown, and - but of course it has to be seen through a third-grader's eyes.

So Stan goes into the bank, where he has $100, and he meets the banker, and so here's the banker and Stan.

(Soundbite of television program, "South Park")

Mr. PARKER: (As Bank Clerk) How can I help you, young man?

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan Marsh) I got a $100 check from my grandma, and my dad said I need to put it in the bank so it can grow over the years.

Mr. PARKER: (As Clerk) Well, that's fantastic, a really smart decision, young man. We can put that check in a money market mutual fund. Then we'll reinvest the earnings into foreign currency accounts with compounding interest, and it's gone.

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) Uh, what?

Mr. PARKER: (As Clerk) It's gone. It's all gone.

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) What's all gone?

Mr. PARKER: (As Clerk) The money in your account. It didn't do too well. It's gone.

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) What do you mean? I have $100.

Mr. PARKER: (As Clerk) Not anymore, you don't. Poof.

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) Well, what can I do to get back my...

Mr. PARKER: (As Clerk) I'm sorry, sir, but this line is for bank members only.

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) I just opened an account.

Mr. PARKER: (As Clerk) Do you have any money invested with this bank?

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) No, you just lost it all.

Mr. PARKER: (As Clerk) Then please stand aside for people who actually have money with us. Next, please.

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan) Hey.

Mr. PARKER: (As Clerk) Hello, Mrs. Farnickle(ph). How are you today? Making a deposit, are we? Great. We can just put that into your retirement account and make it go to work for you - and it's gone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny. But I love the idea of Stan going to the bank and trying to deposit his $100, and then poof, it's gone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, and that was, you know, that was actually, it's one of things, you know, the way we always kind of do shows is way more like kind of sculpting, because we - we'll start on Thursday or Friday, and we'll sometimes just, I think we started doing sort of more of the God metaphor stuff first, and then as that kept going, it got kind of trippier and trippier. We're, like, all right, we need something to just be a runner through this, that's just more present-day, what's going on and...

Mr. STONE: Something grounding. Something kind of start in a real place, you know.

Mr. PARKER: Then added on all this stuff with Stan, and that's how shows go a lot. Sometimes we'll right the end first. Sometimes we write the beginning first, and sometimes we write the middle first.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, and that scene is definitely, like, your whole life, you're told if you just put money in the bank, it'll go up in value.

GROSS: Yeah, right. Now, the characters in "South Park," after 15 years, have advanced from third grade to fourth grade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: They're not doing too good.

GROSS: But you, on the other hand, have gotten 15 years older in the interim. So do you see the world differently than you did when you started writing the show, and are you writing the characters from a different point of view?

Mr. PARKER: I would love to say yes, but I don't think we've really grown up at...

GROSS: Haven't matured at all.

Mr. PARKER: We're still basically doing fart jokes.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, thanks for rubbing it in our faces.

Mr. PARKER: No, I mean, I think we've, I mean, it's really funny when we look back, especially even now when we look back at Seasons Three and Four. You know, it used to be when we were looking back at Seasons One and Two, we were just, like, oh, my God, we didn't we had no idea what we were doing. That's not funny. That's not well-written.

Because it was really through the process of doing the movies, you know, especially like "The South Park Movie" and then doing other stuff like that that really, where we learned really how to be writers. We had didn't really know how to do that. We were just kind of faking it.

And we also, through the years, we got really into the writing side of it. Like, we're not - we never sit in our writer's room and crack jokes. It's just not what we're about. We really sit there and really try to think through stuff that is just cool over the whole 20 minutes, that's like more conceptual, and we just get into that stuff way more now than we did when we were, you know, 26.

Mr. STONE: But it's still all in service of fart jokes.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah.

Mr. STONE: So it's, like, elegant fart jokes now. It's, like, finely tuned fart jokes. We're better at writing those.

GROSS: The first episode was kind of geared around fart jokes.

Mr. PARKER: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: Were those jokes, like, really important to you when you were in third grade?

Mr. PARKER: Oh, of course.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, I mean, that was the yeah, that was all you had to joke about because you hadn't had sex yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: You know, all you have is pooh and farts, you know.

Mr. PARKER: That was your sexual life.

Mr. STONE: It's just pooh and farts. So that's, like, the biggest thing you've got going. That's the most subversive thing you can talk about.

GROSS: Why do you want to see the world from the point of view of fourth-graders?

Mr. PARKER: Well, it started off as really just a - you know, way back in '97 when we started this, it really felt like it was still at a time when so much of the entertainment that was coming out was all about, oh, the innocence of a child, and if we could only see the, you know, world through the eyes of children, and you know, if we could just all be children again. And we were kind of going, all right, well, we were children not that long ago, and I don't remember me or anyone else being that cool. Like, we were pretty much little bastards, you know, that needed - and so we're, like, well, no, let's do a show where kids are really the way kids really are.

And that was really one of the big ideas of the show, was let's just have kids talk the way they talk, and you know - and back then, you know, way back in the Dark Ages when we started this, that's sort of what people really responded to, was, like, whoa, whoa, whoa, what's this? You know, and so - and now I think there's also an added element where it's always nice because kids can have an opinion that's always kind of in the middle.

And so many of the shows, you know, it's not, the formula is not that hard to find. I mean, it really is that we take an issue, and we sort of always have two sides about to kill each other over it and the boys in the middle going -doing fart jokes and saying, you know, who cares? This is, you know, you're both crazy. And that's what's nice too.

And in terms of Cartman, it's great because we always thought of him as a little Archie Bunker, and we always loved Archie Bunker as a character. And again, we felt like in the '90s you just were like, man, you could not have a character like that on TV anymore because, you know, that show would get canceled in a week. And we're like, yeah, but maybe not if that character was an eight-year-old because people forgive eight-year-olds. Because they're like, well, what does he know? He's eight. You know, so...

GROSS: Yeah, so, I mean, Cartman's anti-Semitic, he's homophobic, he...

Mr. STONE: All that good stuff. All that good stuff.

Mr. PARKER: AlIt just has a different - it just isn't quite as - I mean, we can make it I mean, we make him pretty venomous, but it just isn't - it's just something you can still laugh at because it's this little fat, funny-looking kid, where if it was an adult doing that, it's just a different kind of humor.

BIANCULLI: "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from March of this year with "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

GROSS: Trey, you do the voices of Stan and Cartman. Can you tell us how you came up with those voices?

Mr. PARKER: Even in film class, Matt and I would talk with just kind of this annoying, high-pitched voice and make our film teachers angry.

Mr. STONE: We thought it was funny, and kind of nobody else did, basically.

Mr. PARKER: And what we did at the time, I remember...

GROSS: What was the voice?

Mr. PARKER: Well, I mean, it was basically all the voices of the kids. But what's funny is that we - see, we do the voices - back then we did the voice, and then it was on analog tape...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: So weird, right? It was on analog tape, and we took this thing and, you know, bent the thing to pitch it up, because the truth is, if I were to do Stan right now or to do Cartman, it wouldn't sound like him because - of course now it's all digital. But we do the voices, and then they take the wave form, and they pitch it up exactly three semitones, which is what we know kind of sounds like a kid.

Two semitones can make you sound kind of like a woman, and four makes you sound like Terrance and Phillip.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: You know, and six makes you sound like a chipmunk.

GROSS: So what's the difference between how you do Stan and how you do Cartman?

Mr. PARKER: It's funny, too, because just - I've noticed with a lot of cartoons, but it's funny to look back at, you know, the first few seasons and how much different it was - because it used to be all through - and just puffing my chest out and really going (makes grunting sound). Like that. You couldn't even understand what he was saying, you know.

So now it's just, you know, through the years he's gotten this little accent, and there's just certain words that he pronounces a certain way for no reason and little nuances that, you know, and there will be plenty of times we catch ourselves, that I'll do Stan's voice, and I'm, like, oh wait, that sounded like Cartman, and - because they're not that different. It's just one's kind of more through my nose and has a few different accents on words, and the other one's just pretty much my voice talking high.

GROSS: And Matt, do you want to say anything about doing the voices that you do?

Mr. STONE: No, just that I'm not very good at voices. So, like, it's lucky that...

GROSS: You do Kyle. You do Kyle, and you do Kenny.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, I do Kyle. Well, Kyle and Stan are basically me and Trey doing the exact same voice, it's just that one is - they're slightly different. Kenny, I speak into my hand. It's a brilliant technique.

Mr. PARKER: It's always the funniest thing because they're, like, if I'm wasted enough, like at a party, and people come, and they're, like, do a voice, do a voice. I was like, okay, who do you want? Who do you want? They always say Kenny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And I'm, like, okay, I don't do Kenny, and why do you want Kenny? Like, all that is is talking into your hand.

GROSS: Matt, do Kenny. This is the perfect setup. Now you've got to do Kenny and talk into your hand.

Mr. STONE: Oh, yeah. Okay, what you do, take your hand, and hold your fingers together, and you put it over your mouth like this and (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: Amazing. Amazing.

Mr. PARKER: Incredible - the way he can just change his voice like that. But I mean, I really love, you know, like, my - the favorite times we have even writing but also in room recording is when it's, when we're being Cartman and Butters, because we just know - those are just times we almost every time, we're going to get in there and we're going to do it in one take because we just know exactly how those two kids are around each other.

Mr. STONE: Those are two characters that are just - and you can almost give them normal lines that aren't funny, and they could become funny. Both those characters are just inherently super-funny. Those are the funnest shows. Those are the most fun shows to do, is Cartman and Butters.

GROSS: You guys were friends before you started working on "South Park." Did you know each other back in grade school?

Mr. STONE: No, no, we met in college. Yeah, we both went to CU. We both grew up in Colorado, and we both went to CU Boulder, because that was the school that, basically, you went to if you grew up in Colorado. That's all I remember. There's only one school I applied to. And we met just, like, in filmmaking class, you know, in the summer.

GROSS: And it was in filmmaking class that you teamed up and did, what, did a couple of shorts that became the prototype.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, we really bonded over Monty Python. That was, like, the first thing that, like, you know, in our film class, it was all people who wanted to be Kurosawa and Martin Scorsese, and they had their, you know, "Taxi Driver" that they were trying to write in, you know, in Colorado, and they were going to produce it for $600 somehow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: But we were just all - we were just constantly doing Monty Python sketches, and so that's kind of how we met. And then we started doing shorts because, you know, again, back in the what were we saying, like, back in the Dark Ages of the early '90s, you know, there wasn't any really digital video, and you had to get film stock and shoot it, and that was expensive.

So you really couldn't afford anything but a short, and there's something kind of great about that because you had to say, okay, well, we've got - we can only do something that's three minutes long. How do you make something really good in three minutes? And that's kind of all we did when we started.

GROSS: If you hadn't been assigned to do animation for your film class, would you have ever thought of animation?

Mr. PARKER: It's funny. We actually weren't assigned it at all.

GROSS: Oh, I thought you were. Okay.

Mr. PARKER: And well, no, actually that's not true. I was in an animation class, and at the end of it you could either write an essay or make an animated film. And that's when - but that's - Matt and I weren't in that class together. And so I made - that was the first time I worked with construction paper, but again, it was just basically doing Terry Gilliam kind of stuff.

And it was so crappy. I mean, it's even way worse-looking than "South Park," and I got nominated for a Student Academy Award for it, which was just ridiculous because if you'd see it, it was so bad.

But then sort of using that same style, and really the only reason was because since the film screenings were always at the end of the semester, it was always right around Christmastime for the fall semester, and so it was, like, it's Christmastime, let's do a little thing for the festival, just for people to get a little - and that we just made this little thing with Frosty the Snowman and these four boys and thought really nothing of it except that we wanted to, you know, just really make people laugh and have these little kids cussing and talking about Christmas. And it was just for - that's all we thought of it.

And then a producer at Fox ended up seeing that and saying, hey, I want to send this out as my Christmas card. Okay. And like a year later, it was, like, hey, go make another one of those. And we're, like, okay. And again, just, we were not thinking anything - didn't even put our names on it because we didn't think anything of it, and then that just ended up being the thing. It was crazy.

GROSS: How did it get from there to Comedy Central?

Mr. PARKER: Because it - the guy, the producer at Fox, who was Brian Graydon(ph), he - he copied it - and it's so funny to talk about this stuff because this is back in the day...

Mr. STONE: He dubbed it on VCR.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, he had to dub it on VCR. There was no (unintelligible). There was no - so he just dubbed, you know, 100 copies onto VCR tapes, and the next thing we knew, the tapes were getting copied and copied and copied, and we were hearing about people that were seeing this, like, 20th generation of this thing on VCR. And it just took off in L.A.

And I think partly, too, because we didn't put our names on it, everyone was, like, who did this? Who did this? And then all of a sudden we were in meetings talking to people who wanted to see it as a show.

BIANCULLI: "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of her interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of the animated satirical series, "South Park." The show, which recently televised its 200th episode, is about a group of fourth-graders but the humor is adult, satirizing politics, religion, celebrities, you name it. Stone and Parker also do most of the voices for the show.

GROSS: I especially love the musical episodes of the show and the music, the songs that have been in your movies. So I thought I'd play a scene from a recent musical episode, and this was a parody of "High School Musical," and your episode was called "Elementary School the Musical."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: "Elementary School Musical," yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: "Elementary School Musical." Yeah, and all the kids sing in groups, but one kid, Bridon, decides he doesn't want to sing. He really wants to play basketball, but he's afraid it will make him unpopular to play basketball, which is, of course, really funny.

So he goes home, and he confesses to his parents that he'd rather play basketball than sing. And so here's that scene. He's at the dinner table with his parents.

(Soundbite of television program, "South Park")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (as character) Sit up properly, Bridon. You know how strict your father is about posture. All right, dear, dinner's ready.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Okay, let's eat.

Mr. PARKER: (as Bridon) Dad, I need to talk to you about something.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) Ooh, that sounds emotional.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) (Singing) What is it, son? What's on your mind? Whatever it is, you know your dad has the time.

Mr. PARKER: (as Bridon) No, dad, can we just talk?

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) (Singing) If you can talk it, you can sing. You can lay down the rhythm and bring it. Just put a melody to the words that you're saying, and soon you'll be...

Mr. PARKER: (as Bridon) Dad, I want to join the basketball team.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) What did you say?

Mr. PARKER: (as Bridon) This kid at school today told me I should do what I want to do. That's what I really want to do.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) Basketball? No son of mine is going to be a sweaty little jock.

Mr. PARKER: (as Bridon) But dad, it's what I really want.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) There is no singing and dancing in basketball.

Mr. PARKER: (as Bridon) I know. That's kind of why I like it.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) Don't you even think about it. If I had a jock for a son, I'd be the laughingstock of the men's choir club.

Mr. PARKER: (as Bridon) It's my life, dad.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) Don't make me slap you. I will slap your face so super-hard.

GROSS: It's a topsy-turvy world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That is so funny. I love the father kind of singing instead of talking. Trey, I get the impression you really love musicals.

Mr. PARKER: Oh, yeah, definitely, and I didn't even, you know, growing up sort of in the foothills of Colorado, I definitely didn't have much of a theater experience to be able to have, but it was because we had this little playhouse. It was called The Evergreen Players, and it was this little, you know, 40-seat theater, and it was always one of your teachers and the guy that worked at the gas station and the librarian that were always, you know, cast in whatever musical and doing it, and that was my exposure to all the great musicals were seeing it that way.

And that's why I fell in love with them so much, you know, because it was just, like, I knew all these people, and they were always putting on a different show every couple months, and that's how I learned what all the great musicals were. I mean, it wasn't until I was about 20 that I actually came to New York and saw a real musical.

GROSS: One of the more controversial episodes you did was the Scientology episode, that was called what was it called, "In the Closet"?

Mr. PARKER: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STONE: "Trapped in the Closet."

GROSS: "Trapped in the Closet," yeah, and it was actually a very funny episode where Stan is because Stan goes to a Scientology personality test, and he scores so well on it, he's seen as the second coming of L. Ron Hubbard. And because Tom Cruise is a scientologist, Tom Cruise pays a visit to Stan's home and is so disappointed to hear that Stan doesn't think that Tom Cruise is as good an actor as Leonardo DiCaprio or the dude who plays Napoleon Dynamite. So crestfallen, Tom Cruise walks into Stan's bedroom closet, and here's what happens.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of television program, "South Park")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as Tom Cruise) I'm nothing. I'm a failure in the eyes of the prophet.

(Soundbite of scream)

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan Marsh) Hey, dude, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it.

Unidentified Man #2: (as Tom Cruise) Go away.

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) Dude, this is my room

Unidentified Man #3: (as Tom Cruise) Go away, I said.

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) Dad, Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet.

Mr. PARKER: (as Randy Marsh) What?

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) Tom Cruise locked himself in my closet, and he won't come out.

(Soundbite of doorknob rattling)

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. PARKER: (as Randy) Mr. Cruise, Mr. Cruise, come out of the closet.

Unidentified Man #2: (as Tom Cruise) No.

Mr. PARKER: (as Randy) Come on, Mr. Cruise. This is ridiculous.

Unidentified Man #2: (as Tom Cruise) I'm never coming out.

Mr. PARKER: (as Randy) What did you say to him?

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) I just told him I thought the Napoleon Dynamite guy was a better actor than he is.

Mr. PARKER: (as Randy) Oh, boy.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. PARKER: (as Randy) Mr. Cruise, you can't just stay in the closet, all right? You need to come out.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (as character) What's going on?

Mr. PARKER: (as Randy) Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet.

Unidentified Woman #2: (as character) What?

Mr. PARKER: (as Tom Cruise) Just leave me alone.

Mr. PARKER: (as Randy) Well, we can't leave you alone because you won't come out of the closet.

GROSS: So that's a scene from the "Trapped in the Closet" episode of "South Park." My guests are the creators of the show, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. So you ran into real trouble with this episode. You were afraid you'd get sued, I think, by the Scientologists, but it was actually I think Tom Cruise's people that asked for the show to be pulled?

Mr. PARKER: We're pretty sure.

Mr. STONE: We're pretty sure.

Mr. PARKER: In fact, yeah, I think it was.

Mr. STONE: Yeah. We can't legally say that, but yeah, we think it was.

Mr. PARKER: But yes, we think it was. That's about what we can say legally, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: But yeah, no, I mean, it was a show that obviously it pushed a lot of buttons.

Mr. STONE: It was a show that also, I think the only reason we got it on the air was because we do this show so close to the deadline that we actually stay up our show airs Wednesday night at 10, and we usually are up all night, us and our entire crew, up all night the night before, finishing.

So we'll, literally, like, finish a show at noon on Wednesday, you know, and then it airs just a few hours later so that we basically Comedy Central legal looks at our show and Comedy Central standards and practices look at our show, but there's a lot of people that, literally, like, it just doesn't have time for somebody to watch it, you know, from beginning to end because it just gets there and then goes on the air, and legal and standards have given it their okay.

And legal worked with us on that show, and they said this is fine. This is satire. It's protected, and we feel safe about this. And then it went on the air, and it was kind of like all hell broke loose, you know, because "Mission Impossible 3" was coming out that summer, and the Scientologists started calling, I think, Viacom, and then, but what really happened was a few months later, it kind of died down. That episode was supposed to be rerun just in its normal rerun time, and all of the sudden, they called me and Trey and they said we're going to pull that out of rotation, that episode.

And we were, like, why? And they were, like, well, because certain producers on "Mission Impossible 3" would rather not have it on the air.

And you know, our - and then they told us that we had to be quiet, and that was a little tough. But we kind of you, know, again talking about our history on our this show, this is not something that would have been able to have happen in the first season in this show, but whenever "Trapped in the Closet" came on, we were, like, this isn't going to work. People are going to find out.

And, you know, with the Internet, as soon as that was pulled out of rotation, you know, Internet boards started going crazy, and people figured it out, and it became a news story. So we didn't have to do anything. So it's really interesting that the Internet really kind of was the thing that broke that story.

GROSS: So it has been back on the air.

Mr. PARKER: Oh yeah.

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

Mr. PARKER: It's been back on the air for...

Mr. STONE: And of course, it made it the most, like you said, like notorious. You're asking us about it. It's like the DVD sold crazy. People watch it online all the time. You know, making the story of it backfired, you know, so...

GROSS: Well, I think the last line of that episode is something like we'll sue you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So were you...

Mr. PARKER: And Stan's saying go ahead, sue me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you sued by Scientologists after that episode?

Mr. STONE: No.

Mr. PARKER: No, and that's the thing. You know, we sort of it was pretty cool because it was one of those episodes where we actually worked pretty closely with the lawyers at Viacom, and the lawyers were kind of into it. It was, like, let's do this challenge of doing this and make it unsueable(ph). And they got into that. They're, like, no, this kind of sounds fun like, and we got in very, you know, there was a few things where it's, like, okay, you cannot say this word. You can't pyramid scheme.

Mr. STONE: Right. Like, for instance, they wouldn't let us say pyramid scheme. They wouldn't let us say that Scientology is a pyramid scheme. Now, we're not saying that.

Mr. PARKER: Right.

Mr. STONE: Right now on the radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: They wouldn't let us. So we worked with lawyers, and because it was also a big the show also worked on a meta-level of if you know that Scientology has a litigious personality, then you know that we were playing with that very personality of Scientology. It was really fun.

GROSS: Now, you know, the Tom Cruise part, where Tom Cruise is in the closet, you know, you're playing on a rumor that was circulating that Tom Cruise was really gay. So did you have any reservations about playing with that rumor, knowing that, you know, it might be hurtful to Tom Cruise?

Mr. PARKER: No. Because, you know, since "South Park" is satire, and it's parody, we like putting true rumors in all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: Trumors(ph), we call them.

Mr. PARKER: We call them Trumors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: I mean, that joke was more, like, here's a bad, bad joke because you can just it's like, okay, but you're saying he's gay. It's, like, no, we're just saying he's in the closet. You know, and you're playing upon that rumor, but you're really just playing a bad joke over and over and getting mileage out of it.

BIANCULLI: Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of "South Park" speaking to Terry Gross in March of this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from March of this year with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the Comedy Central animated series "South Park."

GROSS: Okay, so I want to ask you now about political satire that you've done. You did let's go back to season nine for this, another famous episode. This is from "Best Friends Forever." This was your take, basically, on the Terri Schiavo story about her - a big controversy about whether she should be taken off life support or not. And in this episode, heaven needs Kenny's help. Because Kenny did so well on a video game, defeating a dark empire in a Keanu Reaves video, the angels think he can be their Keanu Reaves and bring down Satan's army.

So Kenny dies, but he's brought back to life. And he's on a feeding tube, and doctors say that he's in a persistent vegetative state, and they can keep Kenny in the state of a tomato...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Indefinitely with the help of the feeding tube. So heaven is really upset because now they can't have Kenny on their side but, you know, then there's this movement to get the feeding tube taken out, and then Satan gets really upset because that means that heaven might defeat Satan.

So heaven wants him dead, Satan wants him alive, and here's Satan talking with his assistant.

(Soundbite of television program, "South Park")

Mr. PARKER: (as Satan) What mockery is this?

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor) (as character) My lord.

Mr. PARKER: (as Satan) The feeding tube has been pulled. If the child dies, and his soul returns to heaven, God will have his Keanu Reaves.

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) Perhaps the child won't die in time.

Mr. PARKER: (as Satan) Forget it. I'm calling the attack off.

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) No, keep your army marching, my lord. I will get that feeding tube put back in.

Mr. PARKER: (as Satan) How?

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) I will do what we always do: use the Republicans.

GROSS: What happens next in the scene is that Satan's assistant goes to a press conference being held by a Republican congressman and whispers in the Republican congressman's ear the things that the congressman should say.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as character) We Republicans are deeply saddened by the tragic events in Colorado.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) Removing a feeding tube is murder.

Unidentified Man #4: (as character) Removing the feeding tube is murder.

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) Who are we to decide that Kenny should live or die?

Unidentified Man #4: (as character) Who are we to decide that Kenny should live or die?

Unidentified Man #3: It is God's will that he live.

Unidentified Man #4: It is God's will that he live.

Unidentified Man #3: Ha ha ha ha ha.

Unidentified Man #4: Ha ha ha ha ha.

Unidentified Man #3: No, no, you don't say that part.

Unidentified Man #4: No, no, you don't say that part ha ha ha ha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a scene from "South Park." My guests are the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. That's a really, really funny scene. Now, people are always confused about whether you're liberal or conservative, since you mock all political sides.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, we're confused, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: We're working out our confusion on the air.

Mr. PARKER: We're really jealous of all these people that have it really - seem to have figured it out because we're pretty confused.

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

GROSS: Seriously, are you political?

Mr. PARKER: Well, we talk about it. I mean, it's interesting, and it becomes we're, you know, adults that live in the world. But I don't think we're not very overtly - we're not really overtly political.

Mr. STONE: Like, I guess our political attitude is "South Park" is bigger than both the Republicans and the Democrats. And, of course, that's a ridiculous statement to everyone in the world but me and Trey, it's just, it's more like our show is more important than and we would hate the show to feel like, oh, this is where we put our politics in because we want this side to win.

You know, we like working out our stuff on you know, in the show, and we like talking about those issues and talking about the emotions behind the issues, especially, because that's where a lot of the fodder comes from, but we would never want people to think that this show is a Democrat show or a Republican show and vote this way because of this. That's just, like, it feels dishonest to the show, you know.

Mr. PARKER: And it's just like where so many episodes are, like, this side of an issue and that side of an issue, and they're all yelling at each other and calling each other evil and stupid, and the boys are in the middle, going god, just both of you shut up. There's a reason the show is like because that's basically who we are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: I mean the end of that show Kenny, who's playing Terri Schiavo, is just like whatever you do is fine. Just don't put me on TV, you know, and there was a whole - I mean that entire episode of Terri Schiavo you're just looking at this poor woman who's on at the very least, it's like a really complex issue. But like, quit showing her face on TV in the worst possible way, you know, over and over and it just felt like that was an emotional - like we like to find the thing at the end that we can like a third kind of way that and sometimes its ridicules and sometimes it's kind of fun. But it's never like prescriptive. It's never like hey, we think the world should do this because we don't know. And it's a cartoon, by the way so. And I also think there's - I don't really think we're conservative. I mean look at that clip you just played from the Terri Schiavo show. But liberals just, I think that compared to most of Hollywood, maybe we are a little conservative.

Mr. PARKER: Because we will rip on liberals. And most people really have an agenda to, you know, push their...

Mr. STONE: It's just not that funny when you rip on...

Mr. PARKER: ...push their liberal agenda on their show.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, and it's just really not - they don't really think it's that funny when the jokes on them. "Team America" is a good example. We always thought the movie would be funny to start the movie like Charlton Heston is directing it and then, you know, the other way around. Started like, Michael Moore's directing then end it like Charlton Heston's directing it and kind of rip on everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: And people, you know, I never saw it in the screenings that I went, but people told me about screenings where in Berkeley or in New York City where the crowd is just going crazy for the first half and then the laughs just kind of like dwindle.

Mr. PARKER: And people start walking out.

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: And it was because it does take a turn. And it all of a sudden we start ripping on liberals.

Mr. STONE: That makes me laugh the most.

Mr. PARKER: And it was, you know, because it came out around election time, that's when we got, you know, the letter from Sean Penn saying how dare you -how dare you make this movie in support of George Bush. And we're like what are you talking about?

Mr. STONE: Did you see the movie? Did you see it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: He was just pissed off that we put him in the movie and made fun of him. That's all he's pissed of.

GROSS: There have been several, I think, academic books written about "South Park." What's the most what you consider to be tortured intellectual comment about "South Park" that you've ever read?

Mr. STONE: I remember one time we were, I think, there was an early review that was we were just like after the first show came out, like we're reviewed in the Washington Post or something. And oh we looked at the review and it was like well, there's some funny bits but it doesn't deal with the nihilism of suburban life the way "Beavis and Butthead" does or the complexities of the American family like "The Simpsons" does. And we were like wow, that's what you see in "Beavis and Butthead?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: You know, so like I didn't really get all of that. There's some really egghead stuff that people have written about "South Park," but I guess for us it's always every season it's kind of like we're a band and we're going in and we're doing a new album.

GROSS: Well, were you surprised, in 2005, that after many years of poo jokes and obscenities, that you were honored with perhaps the highest honor in broadcasting, The Peabody Award?

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, we were surprised. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: We were a little surprised yeah, that we would that.

Mr. PARKER: Although it did come after a particularly - it was a crazy season and it was all, it was around the time of the Scientology episode and like the imagination line episode where - I mean we do take pride in our - where we do work very, very hard and we do love the craft of writing and we do talk about it constantly, and we do our homework, we really do. And so, you know, its still, no matter how long we've been doing it, a lot people think that we -they've always thought that basically we just get high and do stuff and it becomes a show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: I wish.

Mr. PARKER: It's just the opposite, you know.

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

Mr. PARKER: You know, it's like when we're in a season, it's this insane grind and our brains are hurting and we're working really hard because we want the shows to be really good and we don't accept, you know, mediocrity. We get mad at ourselves when we feel like we've done something poorly and we try it again.

Mr. STONE: I mean the thing with the Peabody and the Emmy - the first time we were nominated for an Emmy, we had to get over that feeling of like no, no, no, no, that's like we're the punk rock band. We're the people that flip our finger at the establishment kind of thing and then we - so the first time you get an Emmy you're kind of like well, that doesn't really fit us and...

Mr. PARKER: It's like you're student of the month.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, like student of the month. You're like I don't want to be student of the month. And then eventually it is pretty cool. But we don't care that much.

GROSS: What did you say at the ceremony?

Mr. PARKER: We actually talked about how sweet "Battlestar Galactica" was because they got one too.

Mr. STONE: "Battlestar Galactica" got one and that was the first season of that show, which was phenomenal, so we dedicated our award to "Battlestar Galactica" and talked about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Because remember, when we learned that we got a Peabody we're like we got a Peabody? And we're like what else got a Peabody? And we're like "Battlestar Galactica?" And we're like is there - we didn't even know there was a new out. We're like what? And then we got the DVDs and like watched them all back-to-back and we're like whoa, this is really good.

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

Mr. PARKER: So then we just talked about how good that show was.

Mr. STONE: Yup. That's what we did.

GROSS: Well, I want to congratulate you on your 200th episode. So, and I want to thank you very much for coming here and talking with us.

Mr. STONE: Cool. Thank you very much.

Mr. PARKER: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: "South Park" creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, speaking to Terry Gross in March of this year. You can find links to every "South Park" episode mentioned during our interview on our website

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on the newest TV to movie sequel "Sex And The City 2." This is FRESH AIR.

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