Over the years, "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have tried to be equal-opportunity offenders on their gleefully trash-talking cartoon, taking on everything from the Catholic church to Scientology, the mentally challenged and just about every other interest group in between with a wildly irreverent, bleep-tastic bent.
But when their comic depiction of the Muslim prophet Muhammad drew strong threats for the pair this week, they said their network, Comedy Central, stepped in and took evasive action. The episode in question showed Muhammad — whose depiction in print many Muslims consider forbidden — dressed as a bear. A radical Muslim Web site posted a threat against the two if the material aired, which included a reference to the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was brutally murdered in 2004 by Muslim extremists over his documentary about violence against Islamic women.
"We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show," read the post. "This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them." The post was accompanied by a graphic picture of Van Gogh as well as the addresses of the Comedy Central offices in New York and the "South Park" production company in Los Angeles. An accompanying montage featuring photos of Parker and Stone and Van Gogh over audio from a radical Islamic preacher ends with the words "the dust will never settle down."
In the end, all references to Muhammad, including long stretches of dialogue and the offending image — which was covered up by a large black "censored" bar — were bleeped from the show by Comedy Central in the second of a two-part episode.
On Thursday night, the duo posted a statement about the controversy on their Web site, writing, "In the 14 years we've been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn't stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We'll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we'll see what happens to it." A spokesperson for Comedy Central (which is owned by MTV Networks) had no comment.
The offending episode was set up last week in a show in which some of the hundreds of celebrities who've been skewered by "South Park" over the years threaten to file a class-action lawsuit against the titular Colorado town if South Park didn't fly in the prophet, who they believe has the power to save them from ridicule.
In the second part, which aired this week, Muhammad does arrive, dressed in a bear costume. The "South Park" site notes that the pair do not have the approval to stream their original version of the episode online, so it's unclear which bleeps were theirs and which were inserted by Comedy Central.
This is not the first time Parker and Stone have walked this fine line. In a two-part 2006 episode about censorship, they tried to depict Muhammad but were censored by the network, though the prophet did make an appearance in a 2001 episode as part of the Super Best Friends, a superhero-like gathering of religious icons.
The network's decision was likely inspired not just by the Van Gogh murder and threat, but by the international uproar in 2005 over cartoons in a Danish newspaper that showed various images of Muhammad, including one in which the prophet wore a bomb as a turban.