COMEDY CENTRAL The Daily Show 11-11:30 pm WEEKDAYS

Comedy Central, until recently best known as the birthplace of Politically Incorrect plus your cable channel of choice for Penn Gillette voiceovers and hellishly endless reruns of Absolutely Fabulous, is now bustlingly busy coping with controversy — in trying to make a distinction between attracting attention and going too far. At the moment, the big winner in the former category is South Park, the minimally animated cartoon series that scores Comedy Central’s largest ratings with talking-poop jokes and the sight of third graders mooning each other. Big loser in the latter category is Craig Kilborn, chastened host of The Daily Show, recently back from a weeklong suspension for making sexist gibes in Esquire magazine about Lizz Winstead, cocreator of the satirical news show. (She’s in negotiations to leave.) Given that PI’s Bill Maher is another sweetie-baby-honey condescender who found a home on the channel, Comedy Central president and CEO Doug Herzog could chisel a credo over the door to his office: Home of Wisecracks and Butt Cracks.

South Park, the ongoing chronicle of four genially vile, mitten-wearing 8-year-olds, has replaced Beavis and Butt-head as America’s premiere gross national product. The creation of two post-8-year-olds, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Park features animation so intentionally crude it looks as if children had made it, which only heightens the initial shock effect when the show’s kids curse or emit flaming posterior gas.

I think one reason Park has such enthusiastic word of mouth — didn’t an awful lot of your friends jabber to you about the show’s excrement-smeared Christmas episode? — is that, because the show is tucked away on a still relatively obscure channel, each viewer thinks it’s his or her own private discovery, and seeks to share it with the world. But South Park is also the essence of a novelty act: If you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen ’em all. Parker and Stone are onto something in one respect, though. They divide the world into two obsessions: fecal matter and organized religion; their gamble is that if one doesn’t slay ya, the other will. Accordingly, I will say in tones of grave disapproval that I find their turd-‘n’-puke gags a threat to civilized society. I will also say that I find their regular portrayal of Jesus as the Son of God Eternally Peeved — about the gullibility of the faithful; about that fat myth, Santa Claus — wickedly hilarious and perversely moral.

The T-shirt-selling cult status of South Park has apparently boosted ratings for The Daily Show, which follows it a half hour later on Wednesdays and which will never approach Park’s appeal if only because it requires a basic knowledge of the world beyond the bathroom. As a deft reader of often extremely funny satiric news items, Kilborn (a sort of Greg Kinnear corrupted by James Spader) is the latest in the increasingly long line of smarty-pants descended from Saturday Night Live’s ”Weekend Update” segment. But where Dennis Miller and Norm Macdonald are eager to prove they’re above their snarky Paula Jones jokes, Kilby, as he likes to refer to himself, seems really into it; he looks like he gets off on being mean.

Which is where he ran into trouble with his bosses. The Esquire piece emphasized that Kilborn’s swinishness is an act he works embarrassingly hard at and included obscene remarks about what favors Winstead might perform for him. This perturbed the same Central suits who apparently delight in South Park’s coprophiliac cutups. (Memo to Kilby: When it comes to your workplace, oral sex bad, poo-poo good.)

Because men are so rarely called on sexist bad behavior, there was something satisfying about Kilborn’s suspension, which occurred at precisely the time when I would imagine the Daily Show writers were amassing a big store of jokes about the ”Smack My Bitch Up” Prodigy video. Plus, there was the added benefit of seeing the amusing Beth Littleford substitute-anchor the show and introduce a John Wayne Bobbitt story with ”Finally, a guy who doesn’t think with his penis…”

Still, Kilborn must have been a tad perplexed at the disciplinary action, since the entire point of The Daily Show is to be mercilessly rough on everyone, with Winstead herself writing some of the show’s most slashing jokes (that sharpness will be missed). Meanwhile, South Park gets off scot-free. Well, not completely — professionally bitter Ren & Stimpy cartoonist John Kricfalusi has accused Parker and Stone of ripping off his piece-of-talking-poop character, Nutty the Friendly Dump, to create their piece of talking poop, Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo. Hey, remember when everybody thought Absolutely Fabulous was kinda racy? South Park: B- The Daily Show: B+

South Park
  • TV Show
  • 23