Viewers didn’t see the humor

Times Staff Writer

Call it a sign of our times. Comedy Central this week refused to air an image of the Islamic prophet Muhammad on “South Park.” However, the network did consent to showing, in the same episode, President Bush and Jesus flinging poop at each other.

It’s the sort of paradox that “South Park” co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always delighted in skewering. But lately the topic of religious sensitivity has given the series a special edge -- and given its network patrons more than a few headaches.

First, series regular Isaac Hayes, who voiced the character of Chef since 1997 and is a Scientologist, abruptly left the series last month, citing its “disrespect” for religion. Next, Comedy Central yanked a repeat that ridiculed Tom Cruise and Scientology, reportedly after Cruise complained (his rep and Paramount denied that pressure from the star had anything to do with the decision; Cruise was due to be queried about the matter by ABC News’ Diane Sawyer on “Primetime” Friday night).


On Wednesday, the network debuted the second part of “Cartoon Wars,” in which Cartman races to L.A. to try to prevent the Fox network from airing a “Family Guy” episode that risks unleashing world violence because it shows an image of Muhammad. In the episode, Fox execs finally consent to showing the image. In real life, Comedy Central executives did not; at the appropriate moment in the episode, a title card appeared that read: “Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Muhammad on their network.”

Moments later, the episode featured a cartoon, supposedly from Al Qaeda operatives, that featured Jesus, President Bush and others battling one another with excrement.

When watching the episode Wednesday, I assumed that the title card was part of an ongoing joke poking fun at the Scientology dust-up. But it turns out that Parker and Stone did butt heads with the network over showing Muhammad (indeed, one source close to the show told me, some of the dialogue put in the mouths of the Fox-exec characters was taken nearly verbatim from phone conversations with Comedy Central executives). Comedy Central executives on Thursday alluded to the violence that stemmed from the publication of Muhammad cartoons in Europe and issued a statement saying, “In light of recent world events we feel we made the right decision.”

Some commentators accused the network of hypocrisy. Lisa De Moraes of the Washington Post wrote in Friday’s edition that “Comedy Central has gone all cautious and timid again.” New York Post columnist Michelle Malkin ridiculed the network as “Cowardly Central” and noted that “a 2001 episode titled ‘Super Best Friends’ featured the Muslims’ prophet as a superhero with flame powers.”

Yet in many respects, “South Park” responds best to adversity. The show’s message never seems more relevant -- or more newsworthy -- than when someone is trying to suppress it. And that’s something that Cruise, Hayes and even Comedy Central executives may want to reflect on.