A.J. Jacobs
January 23, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

Here’s a tasty sign of the apocalypse: South Park fans may soon be able to sink their teeth into an officially licensed Mr. Hankey chocolate bar. Mmmm-mmm.

If that doesn’t make your stomach do a back flip, then you haven’t been watching Comedy Central’s rude little cartoon juggernaut. Or at least you didn’t catch last month’s already infamous Christmas special, the one featuring a mascot named Mr. Hankey — who happened to be a singing, dancing, ”Heigh-di-ho”-spouting piece of poo.

”On my desk right now is a sketch of a Mr. Hankey choco-bar,” chuckles Comedy Central president Doug Herzog. ”It’s the nuttiest bar around!… Whether or not we have the guts to go ahead with it remains to be seen.”

The scary part is, this Tootsie Roll for the toilet crowd would probably fly off the shelves. Indeed, everything South Park touches seems to turn to Shinola. After just nine episodes, the crass TV-MA-rated show — created by Matt Stone, 26, and Trey Parker, 28 — has built up a young fan base that might just be the most rabid, worshipful, merchandise-happy gang on the pop-culture landscape.

Each Wednesday at 10 p.m., they dutifully watch their nasty little heroes: four third graders from the snowy town of South Park who suffer flatulence, get anally probed by aliens, and wax offensive about Jews, Jesus, and Kathie Lee Gifford (see sidebar). And each week fans scream the show’s catchphrase ”Oh, my God, they killed Kenny!” as the quartet’s silent member meets yet another blood-splattered end. Granted, by network standards, they’re an eensy cult — about 2.2 million strong. But for Comedy Central — which averages 400,000 viewers for its other shows — South Park is like Seinfeld and The Cosby Show combined. ”Compared to last year [when the channel’s big hit was Politically Incorrect], our profile is like night and day,” says Herzog.

It helps that Park’s people are one heck of a vocal minority. Morning radio shows heavily rotate dirty little snippets (the song ”Kyle’s Mom Is a Big Fat Bitch” is a fave). The Internet is cluttered with over 70 obsessive Web pages. Chat rooms brim with debates about South Park’s political subtext (does the continually murdered Kenny represent the underclass?). A-list celebs from Tom Cruise to Steven Spielberg phone Comedy Central to request South Park cassettes. Bars across the country hold viewing parties and trivia contests. ”It’s way more than just a cartoon,” gushes Chris Baker, organizer of a weekly gathering for 300 fart-joke lovers at Omaha’s Brickyard bar. ”It’s an event, dude.”

And, increasingly, a marketing machine. Devotees have already shelled out $26 million for South Park T-shirts, making it the nation’s best-seller last year. That’s not to mention South Park magnets, greeting cards, bumper stickers, posters, and calendars. But wait, there’s more. Coming soon to a shelf near you: dolls, videogames, CDs — and, Lord help us, that chocolate Yule log. ”Beavis and Butt-head was the other huge licensing phenomenon three years ago,” says Betsy McLaughlin, an exec at Hot Topic, a national chain of novelty stores. ”This is much bigger than that.”

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