Puppet masters

"South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk about "Team America," their new foe Sean Penn, and whether it requires much effort to be this offensive.

Published October 12, 2004 9:29PM (EDT)

Forget "Fahrenheit 9/11." "Team America: World Police" is easily the most riveting political satire of the year, if not the most entertaining, the silliest and the dirtiest.

This unhinged parody of '80s action movies focuses on a gung-ho team of American special agents, played by marionettes, who are hell-bent on ridding the world of terrorists, even if it means toppling the Eiffel Tower and mowing down innocent civilians in the process. Featuring terrorists who mumble "Jihad" and "Mohammed" and puppets engaging in sexual positions never before seen at the Cineplex, "Team America" constitutes a generational litmus test like none before it. At the screening I attended, younger viewers laughed hysterically and emerged with huge grins on their faces, older viewers sat in silence and walked slowly from their seats, scowling. But your ultimate reaction to this film will no doubt depend entirely on 1) how many bad formulaic action movies you sat through in the '80s; 2) whether the word "fuck" makes you uncomfortable; and 3) how excited you are to see miniature replicas of self-righteous celebrities get their heads blown to smithereens.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of "South Park," have created a visually stunning, wildly goofy but undeniably incisive critique of American culture and our role as global cops. Wall-to-wall absurdity from the first shot, it doesn't pull any punches, and even its Scooby Doo-like ending will have you laughing louder than you have at any of the limp comic offerings of the last few years.

Unless, of course, you hate it.

I met up with Parker and Stone in Beverly Hills, Calif., where our interview was the first in a two-day whirlwind of movie junkets for "Team America." A day after Sean Penn attacked them publicly in a letter, and shortly after the movie finally received an R rating by the MPAA after making some required cuts (including, reportedly, a "golden shower" scene between marionettes), the two seemed slightly shellshocked, but were extremely easygoing and eager to talk about what's arguably their funniest, most ambitious work to date.

I saw "Team America" last night and, my God, I've never seen anything so obnoxious in my life.

Parker: [Laughs] My family's in town -- my aunts and uncles -- and I really don't even want them to see it.


Parker: Not out of embarrassment, I just know they're gonna be confused.

I've never heard more hysterical laughter at a screening before in my life, but when I was walking out I saw a few older people with extremely grim looks on their faces.

Stone: Right. I don't think it's for older people.

And it's probably hard to translate it for them.

Stone: I did an interview the other day with this college kid who was like, "I think this movie will span generations! What would you say to an 85-year-old about the movie?" I was like, "Don't go see this movie. Because you'll be bummed out. It is not for you."

Are there ever people who say, "Oh, I usually hate humor like this, but you guys do it so well." Or do people who hate this kind of humor just hate your stuff?

Parker: Yeah, they hate our stuff. And they hate us.

Stone: They hate us. But we haven't really had that many reactions to the movie yet. It's only been shown [in screenings] for the first three or four days, so we don't really know.

Parker: We got some hatred yesterday from some of the foreign press people, who were like, "This movie is so hateful!" and "How dare you?" They basically wanted to use all their time to just try to slam us. And then I was thinking about it, and I thought, I guess if I didn't offend an uptight old German woman -- I mean, if we can't offend her, we haven't done anything.

Stone: At least we offended somebody.

Still, do you ever feel like you cover your asses too much by taking on targets on opposing sides?

Parker: I don't think so, because we do take somewhat of a stand at the end. I mean, I believe we do make a point at the end of the movie. Some people consider that point to be fairly right-wing, and some people consider it to be fairly left-wing ...

What do you think that point is?

Parker: [Laughs] The thing is, obviously, we're not setting out to make a movie going, Look, America, this is how you should run things, this is how it should be. Because then we'd be no better than the fucking actors we hate. But the only thing that we assert is that there's a difference between dicks and assholes. That's the biggest thing that we assert.

Stone: That's such a strong political statement.

Parker: And it really kinda is! Because that's the thing that we realized when we were making the movie. It was always the hardest thing. We wanted to deal with this emotion of being hated as an American. That was the thing that was intriguing to us, and having Gary (the main character) deal with that emotion. And so, him becoming ashamed to be a part of Team America and being ashamed of himself, he comes to realize that, just as he got his brother killed by gorillas -- he didn't kill his brother; he was a dick, he wasn't an asshole -- so too does America have this role in the world as a dick. Cops are dicks, you fucking hate cops, but you need 'em.

Thanks to all the assholes -- or criminals. Or in the case of the movie, terrorists.

Parker: Right. Because there are assholes -- terrorists -- you gotta have dicks -- people who hunt down terrorists. And I think that that is a pretty strong thing to assert, actually ... at least the pussies think so.

The pussies being the whiny liberals. But you obviously make fun of dicks -- or ugly Americans -- for the first half of the movie.

Stone: Well, it's just Gary coming to terms with the fact that it's an imperfect world, basically. And this is Gary going, "This is as much sense as I can make of it."

Parker: Dicks are bad, and it sucks to be a dick, but it's way worse to be an asshole, and because there are assholes, we need dicks. So shut the fuck up, all you pussies!

Stone: That does seem like a funny way to put it.

What question are you dreading the most?

Parker: Why marionettes?

Stone: Why puppets? That's what everyone always says first thing. "Why puppets, guys?"

Better cross that one off the list ...

Parker: Well, you always have the one question that you answer in every interview, to the point where we know that one of us is going to start the answer, and we know exactly what the other one is going to say ...

So it ends up feeling rehearsed.

Parker: It's the only thing that does, because we try to stay really conversational. Because there is a fascinating story behind it, which we won't tell you now.

Stone: Since you're not going to ask that.

Parker: But because there is a specific story behind it, it gets told and retold.

OK, I shot myself in the foot. I'll just have to link to the story. I'm wondering, do you ever take a break and eat some lunch and come back and say, "Man, I'm not so sure about that part that goes 'Lick my butt and suck my balls'"?

Stone: No. Those are always the parts we're most sure about.

Although I did notice that, when you do the touching ballad-reprise of [the movie's theme song] "America! Fuck, Yeah!" you didn't include the lyric "lick my butt."

Parker: [Laughs] Oh yeah! That's true.

Do you feel that you seek to offend people, or do you find that insinuation offensive?

Parker: No, in fact, it's funny, I was talking to my parents about this ...

Stone: No, we're just offensive.

Parker: Yeah. I was all nervous last night because the movie was playing ... Like, we've never seen the whole movie.

Stone: No one had ever seen it until last night.

Because you were cutting it to get the R rating?

Stone: Because of the schedule we were on, no one had ever sat down and actually watched the entire movie on film, with the sound mix, start to finish, until it played in however many theaters.

Parker: I was really nervous, and my dad said, "I don't understand why you're all nervous," and I said, "I'm just really scared that people are getting really pissed off right now." Not scared, but just bummed out. And I realize that I really do -- and I think Matt's the same way -- if someone does really get offended by our movie, we don't feel good about it. We want people to love the movie, you know what I mean? Even psycho German lady the other day kinda bummed us out, you know? Because it was like, Come on, you didn't like it? Deep down, we want everyone to laugh and have a good time. We don't go, Oh, let's piss these people off.

Stone: We just are offensive people. I mean, I offend people all the time in everyday life and I wish I didn't; I just fucking say the wrong thing.

What do you think creates a person who naturally offends by accident?

Stone: When that person is just really charismatic and cool!

Parker: No, I think we just deal with everything with humor. Everything. We say all the time, "I know that if one of us got cancer tomorrow, we would be joking about it." It's just the way we deal with stuff. A lot of people with no sense of humor think that that means that you just basically don't care about anyone or anything, and it's not true.

Ultimately, I think we're both pretty optimistic people, too. A lot of this movie came out of, you're laughing at people because you're sort of saying, "Dude, relax." You have the Michael Moores of the world and all these people telling you, "These people are evil and America's going to be destroyed in a matter of five years!" And it's just, to us, not that dire. It's like, you know what? Our lives are pretty fucking great. And a lot of the lives we see around us are pretty fucking great, and everything's gonna be OK. That's just our basic philosophy.

What about the people who'd say, Well, you've got to get out of your bubble and check out the world and see how fucked up things are for everyone else.

Stone: It's about optimism, though. That's the big thing about the movie; that end message is about American optimism. And that's the difference between America and the rest of the world, because if you go to Europe, people are not optimistic about the future there. And Americans do have a naive optimism about that -- it's not just us, and the fact that we live in this L.A. bubble -- I think all Americans have this naive optimism and have for a long time. And a lot of times it's naive, and it's unfounded, and it's even wrong, but it's somehow that optimism that keeps America looking forward and trying to make the world better. And I really do think that's something that's unique to America that doesn't exist in a lot of the world.

And it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stone: Exactly. A lot of times it fuels the good things. Sure, it's stupid, and a lot of times it's a big smile while eating a big shit sandwich, but you just keep going, you know?

Parker: But another thing that goes along with the optimism part of it is basically the idea of, well, if I'm not going to have a fucking great time and I'm not going to really appreciate and enjoy and say life is great, then there really is no hope. Because all of the hope for the world is that there can be a great life, and to me, I'm proof of that, that there can be a great life. And yes, it's all about trying to dole that out to as many people as possible, but it's also about, when you have a great country, and it all works, and your life is awesome, then be able to say so! But for some reason, it's almost taboo to say, My fucking life is awesome, and I have a great time, and I have a sweet house and a nice car. People are like [using a scolding voice], "Hey, hey, hey, hey!"

Stone: Especially the richest people in the world, which we know some of in this town, you know? [Angry voice] "The world is fucked up!"

Parker: Look, we were below middle class growing up, and I had a dream that someday things were gonna be better, and I assume that's the way it is in Third World countries. So, if you're not going to enjoy the dream, then there's no hope for anything.

Stone: I think that when Trey wrote "America! Fuck, Yeah!" -- that song? That, to me, encapsulates it. We could talk for hours about America's overzealous stance overseas, but there's also, you know, "America! Fuck, Yeah!" too. And somehow that song encapsulates an hourlong conversation. When people ask me, "What's your attitude about America?" I think of Trey's song. That's the perfect way to put it. It's awesome, and you have to admit it's also a little cheesily testosterone-driven at the same time ...

A little cheesily testosterone-driven?

Stone: Yeah. But. It's awesome.

After the movie's first scene, I really wondered if you could keep up that level of really sharp satire. Did you ever think, "Ah, maybe we shouldn't put in the dick and asshole stuff, because we could make a piece of art that anyone could see and appreciate"?

Stone: [Laughs.] Nope. I wish that would've occurred to us earlier.

Parker: Although the tone of the movie did change completely after shooting that scene, because we shot that scene first. The script was written ... a bit more like "South Park," but even a little more jokey than "South Park," and I think it's good that we wrote it that way, because Paramount had to say, "OK, comedy? Oh, this is a funny script." Whereas, this movie, as a script, there are so many times where, if you were reading the script, you'd say, "Where's the joke?" Because so much of the joke is coming off of [the marionettes] trying to do drama. So we had way more jokey-jokes in the script, more like fucking Adam Sandler jokes -- I mean, not that bad, but ...

Stone: But joke jokes.

Parker: And after shooting that first scene, we were like, Dude, we've gotta take all the jokes out of this movie.

Stone: Then we did a pass where there was not a single joke or laugh in the whole movie, it was kind of just a fucked-up, serious, weird satire. But that was no fun to watch, and we're no good at doing that kind of thing.

Parker: So then we started putting all the pussy and dick stuff in.

Stone: But then it became, saying that kind of stuff, but with the serious music, and the collision of the music and the tone? That became what the movie was about. I think that most people will get that, but there will be people that don't get that. And if you don't get that central conceit of the movie, you'll just hate the movie more and more and more.

Yeah, but screw those people, right?

Stone: Well, I agree, but that's what people have to get, or they're gonna be like, "What the fuck is this crap?" And that's generational.

Not spelling it all out clearly, though, makes it so much better than it would be if you connected all the dots.

Parker: Oh, yeah. For sure.

Stone: But I also think that's generational, because 85-year-olds didn't grow up watching "Top Gun" and all the other movies that have that kind of stupid structure seared into them.

I have to ask you quickly about the letter from Sean Penn (who, along with other Hollywood political activists like Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, is satirized in the film), which was posted on Matt Drudge ...

Parker: We got it the day before, actually. He was nice enough to send it to us before he sent it to the world.

Stone: I remember when I got it, thinking that it read like a fucking open letter. It doesn't really read like it's really to us. That was my first thing; I was like, This doesn't read like a private letter.

And then the next day it was an open letter.

Stone: Yeah! The next day it was open.

Parker: I mean, I just don't understand. If he really is pissed, why would he do us that huge of a favor? I mean, seriously, there is nothing he could've done to help this movie more.

Stone: He just proved that we nailed him so perfectly in the movie. Because if you read the letter what he says in the movie is exactly like what he would say in the movie.

It was actually the marionette that wrote you that letter! I like how he sets you two up in the letter as such losers. I remember seeing you at a party. I remember how you dropped my name to appear witty ...

Parker: By the way, we've never met him. You do meet a lot of people. We've met a lot, and maybe we've even forgotten some, but I would remember Sean Penn. We never met Sean Penn, either one of us.

Stone: But when you read it, the letter comes from such a high place of arrogance, you know, [deep, serious voice] "You guys are young guys! If you don't have children, you can't say anything about anything!" And the whole voting thing. All we ever said was that we thought that uninformed people should not vote -- on either side of the political spectrum. It doesn't matter who you're gonna vote for. If you really don't know who you're gonna vote for, or are uninformed, or haven't really thought about it? Just stay home. Don't let people fucking shame you into going to the polls.

Parker: If you have absolutely no idea, fuck it.

Stone: If you really don't know or you're just going to vote for George Bush because he's already in office, or you're gonna vote for John Kerry because he's on the cover of Rolling Stone, don't do that. That's lame. Just stay home. That's all we ever said.

Publicist: We really have to wrap up now.

Well, in parting, do you have a special message for all those undecided voters out there?

Stone: Stay home.

Parker: Don't vote!

Stone: And it's no big deal. If you don't want to vote, you don't have to. Fuck that vote or die shit. I hate that.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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