'South Park' No Longer 'Trapped'

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"South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a lot to discuss Thursday at the Television Critics Association press tour, so they wanted to lay down some ground rules at the outset.

"So first of all," Parker told the roomful of reporters, "there can't be any questions about Tom Cruise or Scientology or 'South Park.'"

As it turned out, every question in the 45-minute session was about "South Park," and a half-dozen or so were about the controversial "Trapped in the Closet" episode, which took some rather big whacks at the Church of Scientology and its most recognizable follower, Cruise.

The odd thing about the episode initially, Stone says, was that it caused "no problem at all" with the network.

"We were actually really surprised," Stone says. "We kind of avoided doing one for a long time because of Scientology's reputation for taking you to court. And when we ran the idea past Comedy Central, the lawyers at least, they said, 'Yeah, that's cool.' So getting it on the air wasn't really a big deal. It was kind of after it aired that the s**t hit the fan."

The episode's initial airing in November generated a fair amount of buzz but apparently didn't ruffle any feathers, at least not publicly. When Comedy Central pulled a repeat of the episode in March, though, a new storm erupted. Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef a Scientologist himself, had quit the show a few days prior, citing what he called the show's "intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others."

When the episode was pulled, there were rumors that Cruise had threatened not to do publicity for "Mission: Impossible III" -- released by Paramount, a unit of Viacom media conglomerate that also owns Comedy Central -- if the show re-aired. Comedy Central at the time said that it wanted to pay tribute to Hayes by airing a Chef-centric episode.

The network hasn't wavered from that explanation: "That's our story, and we're sticking to it," Tony Fox, Comedy Central's head of communications, said Thursday.

The yanking of "Trapped in the Closet" caused some bad feelings between the network and the creators, to the point where Parker and Stone threatened to walk if the episode wasn't put back into the rotation.

"I don't know if we would have totally not worked on 'South Park' ever again, but it's hard," Stone says. "You know, we have a couple of movies with Viacom, and it's tough to go to work for people that you think maybe are holding one of your episodes hostage. But that's kind of water under the bridge now because it's going back on the air."

"Trapped in the Closet" is scheduled to air next week. "We have a lot of 'South Park' episodes, obviously. And we rotate them in and out of the schedule all the time," Fox says. "And that's what's happened here. We're rotating that episode back into the schedule, which we do with all of our episodes."

Stone: "Well done."

Parker: "There you go."

"South Park" is approaching its 10th anniversary, which makes the controversy surrounding "Trapped in the Closet" and other episodes all the more remarkable. Few shows that have lasted a decade are still capable of attracting that much buzz. Parker and Stone attribute that to their fast-turnaround working schedule and the fact that they do what they want, without worrying about how it will affect them down the line.

"Even when we started out, we were the two guys that really did not give a f*** about our careers," Parker says. "We thought we were in L.A. for maybe a year. We'd make some money and then go do whatever else we were going to do. We've always considered this borrowed time. ...

"And with everything we've ever done, we can honestly say -- especially now. Now we're rich too, so now it's like, 'Dude, we'll leave tomorrow.' It's like, 'We're going to do this, or we're going to bail.' It really is an honest thing. We're not thinking about 'Well, will this hurt our careers?' ... And it probably does, but we don't really care."

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