A Laugh Riot 

Comedy Central's maverick talents are forcing the network to make tough decisions.

Parker and Stone wanted to comment on the controversy surrounding a Danish newspaper's decision to publish caricatures of Muhammad. Visual representation of the Islamic prophet is considered by his followers blasphemous, and the resulting protests were violent and in some cases fatal. Sensibly, Comedy Central told Parker and Stone they wouldn't add fuel to the fire by broadcasting an image of Muhammad.

Parker and Stone's creative response was a two-part episode titled "Cartoon Wars," which directly challenged Comedy Central to broadcast the image with a plot that had exactly the same situation occurring on FOX's "Family Guy." The character of Kyle Marsh — usually the show's voice of reason — is seen persuading a FOX executive to air the controversial "Family Guy" episode. "If you don't show Muhammad, then you've made a distinction between what is OK to make fun of and what isn't," argues Kyle. "Either it's all OK, or none of it is. Do the right thing."

In the episode, Comedy Central took the latter part of Kyle's advice and did the right thing. It aired the episode, but Muhammad's appearance on screen (in the context of a spoof "Family Guy" episode) was replaced with a title card reading "Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Muhammad on their network," which led to inevitable allegations of hypocrisy. Why censor what could offend Muslims but not other religions? The answer was public safety, which the network backed up with the fact it had already shown Muhammad way back in 2001, when it was offensive but not dangerous to do so.

Ultimately, everyone at Comedy Central came out ahead. The censorship ensures Parker and Stone maintain their rebellious image, while "South Park" gets some welcome publicity and the network looks like a responsible entity. The only loser is "Family Guy," which took a savage satirical beating for its reliance on gags unrelated to the plot.

Comedy Central has been less savvy in its handling of Dave Chappelle. After astronomical DVD sales for the first two seasons of "Chappelle's Show" (a mix of stand-up and recorded sketches), Comedy Central signed the comedian to a wallet-busting $50 million deal for two more seasons. It all went wrong when Chappelle disappeared midway through filming season three. The scheduled return of "Chappelle's Show" was "suspended indefinitely."

Chappelle turned up in South Africa and has since returned to his native Ohio, but hasn't decided whether to return to Comedy Central. In an interview with Esquire magazine this month Chappelle says, "I felt like I was really pressured to settle for something that I didn't necessarily feel like I wanted," which suggests Comedy Central refused to give Chappelle free rein and demanded a repeat of the formula that sold so many shiny discs.

Comedy Central's ties with Chappelle could be severed forever after the network gave up waiting for him to return to work and announced it will cobble together four new episodes using what was recorded before his impromptu vacation. Will any of Chappelle's fans be satisfied with "Chappelle's Show" sans Chappelle? Will they laugh at recorded sketches knowing they're being broadcast without the comedian's consent? Seems it's more difficult to do the right thing when dollar signs are involved. S

"South Park" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central. The third-season episodes of "Chappelle Show" are scheduled to air sometime in the second quarter of 2006, with no specific dates given.


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