LOS ANGELES – Sometimes Trey Parker (search) and Matt Stone (search) are trying to make you laugh, and sometimes they're trying to make you squirm. The "South Park" (search) creators do all of the above with their new film, "Team America: World Police," (search) which narrowly avoided an NC-17 rating by trimming a hardcore sex scene — between puppets.
"Team America" is inspired by the old "Thunderbirds" puppet sci-fi adventure TV show. Parker and Stone, who delight in pushing the limits of both comedy and taste, borrow the format to mock the Iraq war and Hollywood blow-up epics like "Con Air" and "Armageddon."
The movie follows a squad of marionette heroes who fight terrorists (never mind that they reduce Paris and Cairo to ruins in the process). They recruit a Broadway actor, Gary, as an undercover operative. But Gary isn't always on board with their aggressive ways — yet he's tired of Hollywood liberal whining and, hey, somebody's got to stop North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il from destroying the world, right?
Parker and Stone had puppets made of President Bush and John Kerry, but ultimately cut both characters from the movie, saying they didn't want it to be blatantly political.
"For us, it's a way to think about all the emotions behind the politics," Stone said. "It's not so much, 'Here's what we should do. ...' Gary is supposed to (represent) all the emotions that we've felt over the past couple years (about America's role in the world.) Are you proud? Are you ashamed? It's probably a combination of both."
Parker and Stone don't feel they have much to add to political discourse in general.
"I think the only thing we do assert is that it's fine and good for everyone to hate us (Americans) and think we're (jerks), but there is a big difference between (jerks) and (psychos)" like Osama Bin Laden, Parker said — substituting profane body-part slang for his descriptions.
Body parts were conspicuously absent from the puppet sex scene — the marionettes have only a network of joints and hinges awkwardly bumping and grinding. After the scene was cut, the movie ratings board gave "Team America" an R.
"It's still funny," Stone said if the scene, "but nowhere near what it was. The scene itself is so funny and innocuous. It's not mean-spirited. It's not edgy. It's just what kids do. We all did that with dolls growing up."
Old college friends Parker and Stone are mostly tickled by what they see as the silliness of the ratings board decision. Parker points out that the pervasive gruesome violence — such as the gory, bullet-riddled bodies of puppet celebrities — didn't raise any eyebrows.
The old phrase "equal opportunity offender" applies generously to this movie, which attempts to place the world's population in three groups: sissies represented by Hollywood peaceniks like Tim Robbins and Michael Moore; jerks played by hard-charging "My country, right or wrong" nationalists on the "world police" team; and psychos — terrorists, dictators and global criminals.
In "Team America," jerks need the sissies to keep them in line, and sissies need the jerks to protect them from psychos.
Overall, the movie is just meant to provoke people, regardless of their politics.
"That's much more interesting than, 'Here's what we think!'" Stone said. "We don't know anything about foreign policy or anything. We don't know anything about anything."
"We make cartoons," Parker added, with mock feebleness.
So far only one celebrity they lampoon has lashed back: Sean Penn, who entered their comedic cross-hairs when he made a trip to Iraq and then published ads denouncing the then-impending American attack.
In the letter, the Oscar-winning "Mystic River" star said he didn't "mind being of service, in satire and silliness" as a character who becomes a pawn of North Korea's super-villain, but took issue with Stone on another matter.
In a recent Rolling Stone magazine article, Stone mocked hip-hop mogul P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" registration campaign, saying he didn't think "uninformed" people should be encouraged to go to the polls.
"It's all well to joke about me or whomever you choose," Penn wrote. "Not so well, to encourage irresponsibility that will ultimately lead to the disembowelment, mutilation, exploitation, and death of innocent people throughout the world."
Stone claimed Penn misunderstood him.
"My whole thing is I just wish uninformed people would just stay home," Stone told The Associated Press. "If you don't know who you're going to vote for, there's no shame in not voting."
Parker said he was just grateful for the free press Penn gave them by sending his letter to the Los Angeles Times: "It's really funny because in the letter he's really unhappy with us, and yet he couldn't have done anything better for the movie. Now we're on the front page again!"
They reserve their harshest treatment, however, for "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker Michael Moore — but their disdain is as much personal as political.
Stone, who is from Littleton, Colo., agreed to talk about his hometown and the infamous high-school shooting there for Moore's anti-gun documentary "Bowling for Columbine."
"We have a very specific beef with Michael Moore," Stone said. "I did an interview, and he didn't mischaracterize me or anything I said in the movie. But what he did do was put this cartoon right after me that made it look like we did that cartoon."
Parker and Stone still harbor hard feelings about that sassy, anti-gun cartoon because they feel it was done in "South Park" style. They believe the proximity to Stone's interview misled some fans into thinking they had done the cartoon, even though Moore never said they did.
For this slight, Moore's punishment in "Team America" is extreme: he's depicted as a gibbering, overweight, hot-dog eating buffoon who straps explosives to his body to blow up the American do-gooders. The puppet was reportedly stuffed with ham when it blew.
Cruel? Certainly. Unfair? Yes.
But the "South Park" guys like to make you squirm.