“Matt goes for the jugular on everything; he has no fear,” says Garefino. “And Trey takes that and makes it sweet.” Their roles can reverse as well. Howell, who today is senior vice-president of animation at 20th Century Fox Television, says that “Matt can sometimes be comforting, but not Trey. I remember once we were coming back from Vegas, and they’d rented a jet. I’m afraid of flying. There was this horrible turbulence; everybody was scared, it wasn’t just me. It happened to be Trey’s birthday. And he starts screaming, taunting God to kill us. ‘If you don’t kill us on my birthday, God, you’re a fucking pussy.’ I’m crying and sort of laughing … It’s the little boy in them; that little boy is very much alive in them. The idea of teasing and taunting and doing those little outrageous things.”
As a result, a lot of people don’t take them seriously, dismissing them as the antic purveyors of potty-mouthed surliness. They were parodying themselves when they created Terrance and Phillip, the precision-farting Canadian comic duo who set off the war with Canada in Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
“Kind of my daily existence at South Park was being farted on,” Howell says. “I would leave the room and return and they would have farted all over my lunch. I’d come back and everyone would be laughing.” Once, early on, she sat between them on a plane, talking to Trey, and when she turned toward Matt, he’d positioned himself sideways, half standing up, so his butt was almost pressed against her face. And he let one rip. “It wasn’t like it was abusive, though some people might say it was,” she says. “I was like the little sister. If it wasn’t at my expense, it was at someone else’s. But they also deeply loved me and the people around them.”
“Trey can be the genius boy in the bubble a bit, while Matt connects him to the real world.”
They’re older now and have long since stopped bragging about their drug use and sexual conquests in the press. They became very famous very young and took it as an invitation to say and do pretty much what they pleased. But they’re not flying to Vegas so often these days: Stone’s wife wants him home, for one thing. “I think they have mellowed out,” says Garefino. “I keep telling them I’m proud of the men they’ve become. They were harsher when they were younger.”
The thrill of South Park is that it’ll make you squirm and at the same time often leave you with a sense that yes, that’s what I always felt, but nobody ever actually says that. It’s difficult to imagine much of the non–politically correct popular culture as we know it today, from Judd Apatow films to the nonstop viral parody videos on the Internet, without South Park. The show—and the movies, and this musical—is bratty yet confident in its adolescent wonder at the strangeness of the world and in its determination to keep screwing with people’s expectations and pieties. South Park is also very much in the tradition of Archie Bunker, in that it takes away the power of something horrible that some people believe simply by saying it out loud.
They refuse to give ideological comfort to anybody but a libertarian contrarian like Andrew Sullivan. “It’s the sanest thing on television,” he says. “Because it’s unsparing in its criticism of so much cant and crap that’s right in front of our eyes. And at the same time, there’s a core innocence.” South Park is hardly ever nihilistic, though it certainly pretends to be. “They never do anything to be controversial; they do things to be funny,” says Herzog. “Some people think Matt and Trey are Democrats, and some think they’re Republicans. But if you look at the show, there’s not anybody who remains unscathed.”
Team America: World Police, their 2004 puppet film, was the ultimate example of their ecumenical scorn. It satirized both the heedless American flag-wavers and liberal celebrities trilling against the war on terror (in the form of a group called F.A.G.—the Film Actors Guild), all wrapped up in a musical spoof of a self-serious Jerry Bruckheimer action epic. “The biggest backlash we’ve ever had from anybody, from any religious organization—Mormons, from anybody—is liberals who saw Team America and were pissed off at us,” says Stone. “Our reaction was, ‘Fuck you.’ ” On the other hand, they won an Emmy for an episode inspired by Terri Schiavo, in which the often-killed Kenny is kept alive in a persistent vegetative state, playing into Satan’s hands (Satan’s adviser tells him: “I will do what we always do: use the Republicans.”) “There’s nothing partisan about them. Unless you count the snuke,” says Sullivan. “They’re totally equal-opportunity. And they’re always humane.”