Puppets of the state
The creators of the cult TV series 'South Park' have turned their fire on the bleeding hearts of Hollywood. Watch out Sean Penn, writes Donald Clarke
When, in 1964, Harold Wilson came to power in Britain he and his apparatchiks assumed that the booming satire machine, the most powerful engine of which was then Private Eye, would continue its battering of the Tories and leave Labour alone. Wilson was to be disappointed. "He felt . . . that the satirists had now inexplicably and treacherously betrayed him," Harry Thompson writes in his biography of Peter Cook, Private Eye's founder. "It was nonsense of course." The release of Team America: World Police, a gut-bustingly funny meditation on the war against terror by the men behind the TV show South Park, has unleashed similar gasps of hurt astonishment from the American celebrity left.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker's film uses puppets - they call the technique Supercrappymation, in tribute to Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation work on Thunderbirds - to tell the story of a secretive outfit, based in Mount Rushmore, that fights terror with a bewildering combination of arrogance and incompetence. Before the film was even released, right-wing websites, notably the Drudge Report, were getting themselves all spittle flecked in anticipation. But, as it transpires, Team America spends more time laughing at liberal Hollywood windbags such as Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin then it does criticising US foreign policy.
"Nobody should listen to our views on foreign policy, because we don't know what the hell we are talking about," Stone, a dryly humorous and articulate 33-year-old, says with relish. "But we do know about emotions and what it feels like to be an American for the past two years - and for the past 30 years for that matter. We are in this weird position: are we proud to be American or not? Sometimes it is a bit of both."
Many liberals, having enjoyed the disreputable, anti-establishment humour of South Park, assumed that Stone and Parker were on their side. Did Stone get the impression that such people, like Wilson and his cronies 40 years earlier, felt betrayed? "Oh yeah. You may as well do the interview for me. That is exactly what I was going to say," he laughs. "When the movie came out people assumed that Trey and I were going to devote every frame to bringing down George Bush. We didn't make the film about George Bush and never intended to. It came out just before the election, but that was just to do with our schedule as much as anything."
In the picture Team America recruits a square-jawed actor called Gary Johnston, star of the hit Broadway show Lease, to pose as a Middle Eastern terrorist to help infiltrate a revolutionary cabal. Later Gary discovers that his idol Alec Baldwin - with the support of Sarandon and the rest of that bunch - is prepared to join forces with Kim Jong-il, the North Korean dictator, to help bring down the US. This is hardly fair (though it is very funny). Why are Stone and Parker quite so down on actors? "There are two answers as to why we are so hard on them: there is the intellectual, highfalutin answer and there is the dumb one," Stone says. "We were writing this movie during the Gulf War, and it got to the stage where you were watching TV and trying to work out what was going on, and the voice of the anti-war side would be Sean Penn! These actors were actually on the news. 'Tonight we are going to be debating the war with Sean Penn.' Why? What the f**k? Get off the TV! Get somebody who knows what they are talking about."
Stone and Parker had a run-in with Penn just before the film's US release. When the South Park boys poured scorn on the rapper P Diddy's Vote or Die campaign during a Rolling Stone interview the actor issued a barely literate open letter, deriding them for their ignorance. Like the most irritatingly self-righteous new parent, Penn suggested that, not having children, the boys were unqualified to express an opinion on whether the uninformed should bother voting.
"I know. You don't have children so you can't say anything. It was total crap," Stone says. "The funniest thing on TV in the last three years - I include Little Britain, Brass Eye, all that great British stuff - the funniest thing maybe since Monty Python was Sean Penn talking about his trip to Iraq. It was a f**king mess. Just look at the transcript. It makes absolutely no sense. Hilarious." Stone takes a few deep breaths to calm himself down. "Anyway, the less highfalutin answer as to why we attack actors is that it is just fun to blow these guys up. Isn't it fun to put a firecracker in GI Joe's ass? It was like that a bit. In fact that is mostly what it is."
Stone and Parker have shared a delight in low-brow humour since they met, while studying at the University of Colorado. They are bright fellows - Stone has a degree in mathematics - but they had little interest in pursuing the higher arts. Parker said in an earlier interview that "we were the only ones who didn't want to make black-and-white films about lesbians." Stone says: "Not everyone wanted to do that, but that was how it felt. And Trey and I wanted to do funny movies. I mean, frankly, we just did Monty Python voices to one another all day. It seems we were in Boulder, hanging out together, one minute and the next I am here. I don't know what happened in between."
Success actually came pretty quickly. In the mid-1990s they put together a hilarious short animation named The Spirit Of Christmas in which Santa and Jesus fight kung-fu style for possession of the festive season. The picture attracted attention and started a minor bidding war. South Park, the everyday story of four anorak-clad borderline-psychotic Denver kids, débuted on the Comedy Central channel in 1997. Fuelled by the occasional save-our-kids-from-this-filth tabloid story, the crudely animated show, in which Saddam Hussein, the devil and various characters from Dickens's Great Expectations all regularly appear, rapidly became a phenomenon.
"I remember going to a magazine stand during the first series and we were everywhere," Stone says, shaking his head. "I would open Newsweek and think, I wonder what they'll say about us, and there we'd be. This was just organic; people picked up on it immediately. There were people writing about us in Popular Science magazine. Rolling Stone featured us on the cover after only eight episodes."
Perhaps the crowning moment of their bizarre careers came when Parker's song Blame Canada, from the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, was nominated for an Oscar. The boys attended the ceremony dressed as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez. "We had taken some LSD," Stone says with a guilty smirk. "So everything was just, wow, look at that. But that was an anti-establishment gesture I hope. The Oscars are such a revered thing - undeservedly so. To say f**k you to them was great."
Stone still speaks in faintly awe-struck terms about Parker, who is credited as sole director of all their collaborations, so I was surprised to read early last year that Stone had decided he would never work with his old buddy again. "Oh Lord, that was total nonsense," Stone says. "All I said was that doing this movie ruined every important relationship in my life, which it kind of did. I broke up with a girlfriend over it. We were working literally 24 hours a day sometimes. We were keeping ourselves awake by drinking cough mixture. But I just talked to Matt last night. We will, of course, work together."
He will, however, never work with puppets again. Stone and Parker were appalled at how difficult the film was to put together. "We quickly realised you had to actually make every single prop by hand," Stone says. And then, when the film was completed, it quickly became clear to them, as it had to the makers of last year's ghastly Thunderbirds movie, that most Americans were completely unfamiliar with the joys of 1970s Supermarionation. This (and the perception that the film might be unpatriotic) led to disappointing box-office returns.
No matter. The puppet work remains excellent - no more so than during a hilariously acrobatic sex sequence. The scene was initially so explicit that the Motion Picture Association of America wanted to slap a prohibitive and commercially ruinous NC-17 certificate on the film. After cuts Team America was granted an R. So what were they asked to take out? "We now have a 30-second scene and what we originally had was about a minute longer," he laughs. "It just had more positions in it. I was surprised they had a problem. I mean, after all, it's puppets. We had to shorten one scene, and we had to make the dissolves longer. All this crazy stuff." So what sexual positions did they take out? "Oh, you just put two dolls in every position you can and you'll work out what's missing." He is being coy. I had read that, er, bodily discharges were involved in the first cut. "We did do a bit of that. Hey, it was really funny to think we got an NC-17 for a puppet movie."
Though Team America has not sold that many tickets it remains the pair's most successful attempt at breaking away from South Park. The two live-action films with which they have been associated, Orgazmo and BASEketball, both flopped. A Penn-friendly sitcom poking fun at George Bush, titled, naughtily, That's My Bush, received some good notices but, at more than $1 million an episode, proved too expensive for Comedy Central and ran for just one short series.
"Look, because of South Park we have done an album with all these great musicians we like. We have done a sitcom. We have done a puppet movie and a live-action movie. We are happy enough with that. People say, 'You will always be known as the South Park guys.' Well, that's fine by me. There isn't a bad thing about this job."
Team America: World Police is on general release