Comedy Central Censored out of Fear, not Tolerance.--

South Park Executive Producer Reveals That Comedy Central Censored the Showing of Mohammed out of Fear, not "Religious Tolerance."

Thursday, April 13, 2006.

On Wednesday night, the cable network Comedy Central showed a censored episode of the animated cartoon, South Park, refusing to allow a brief depiction of the prophet Mohammed. The battles between the network and the producers and creators of South Park over the inclusion of Mohammed raged until late Tuesday night, less than 24 hours before the show aired Wednesday at 10pm ET.

Interview With Producer Reveals Reason for Censorship was "Fear"

In an interview Thursday evening, South Park Executive Producer Anne Garefino revealed to me that the show was faced with two options: deliver the episode as written and animated with Mohammed shown and then allow Comedy Central to censor it, or edit out the disputed scene and write their own language explaining why Mohammed was not being shown and whose decision it was. "We wanted everyone to understand how strongly we felt about this," said Garefino. Although the decision to omit Mohammed was not theirs, they wanted the language of the censorship disclosure to be their own.

Along with South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (who are also Executive Producers of the show), Garefino was heavily involved in the negotiations with Comedy Central. She made clear that the reason for Comedy Central's decision was "fear": "We were happy that they didn't try to claim that it was because of religious tolerance." She thought that South Park's arguments and influence might have had something to do with the candor of Comedy Central executives on this point.

On Thursday, to justify its decision not to broadcast a depiction of Mohammed, Comedy Central released a brief public statement that hinted at violence, but gave no explicit reason for its action:

"In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision."

When asked whether Comedy Central was responding to any specific threats of violence if it showed Mohammed, Garefino replied, "Not that I know of."

Censoring a Cartoon

The censored episode was Part II of a story begun the week earlier called "Cartoon Wars." In a complicated "play within a play" scenario, the town of South Park, Colorado, becomes frightened because the Fox Network is supposedly going to show Mohammed in its Family Guy cartoon. To reduce the threat of terrorist violence, the people of South Park decide to truck in sand and bury their heads in it. Two of the boys of South Park, Kyle and Cartman, go to Los Angeles—Cartman to persuade the President of Fox to censor Family Guy and Kyle to stop him.

(Cartmnan and Kyle head for LA in Part I; click to enlarge)

In their trailer for Part II (shown last week along with Part I), South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker warned that they might be censored by Comedy Central:

"As an entire nation buries its head in sand: 'The idea has swept the nation, but where we will find enough sand for everyone?' . . . Will television executives fight for free speech or will Comedy Central puss out?"

In Part II shown on Wednesday, Kyle and Cartman rehearse at least some of the arguments that the principals for both sides actually used in their censorship battle.

Kyle lectures the head of FOX about the importance of free speech:

"You can't do what he wants just because he's the one threatening you with violence. . . .

Yes, people can get hurt. That's how terrorism works. But if you give in to that, Doug, you're allowing terrorism to work. . . .

Do the right thing, Mr. President. . . .

If you don't show Mohammed, then you've made a distinction between what is OK to make fun of and what isn't. Either it's all OK or none of it is. Do the right thing."

(Cartman threatens the President of Fox; click to enlarge)

In the episode, the President of Fox allows the depiction of Mohammed.

But instead of showing Mohammed in the South Park episode, two sets of titles appeared on a black screen. The first read:

"In this shot, Mohammed hands a football helmet to Family Guy."

The second read:

"Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network."

(click to enlarge)

The uncensored depiction of Mohammed is described in the episode by an animated President Bush as not being in itself derogatory: "Hey, that wasn't bad at all. They just showed Mohammed standing there, looking normal."

In the episode, Al Qaeda then retaliates by broadcasting its own cartoon showing Americans, President Bush, and Jesus defecating on each other and the American flag.

Defenders of Comedy Central argue that it regularly allows South Park and other shows to "push the envelope," with far more lax controls than almost any other cable network.

On the other hand, critics of the network have pointed out that showing "Mohammed standing there, looking normal" is not allowed, while showing Jesus defecating on President Bush and the American flag is permitted.

Garefino also confirmed that a short video circulating on the internet, which purports to be the excised South Park scene with Mohammed, is a forgery, though she revealed that a scene with Mohammed was animated and does exist. Garefino reported that she still hopes that the original, uncensored episode of South Park will be shown in the near future.

Although other sources with knowledge of Comedy Central's side of the dispute were interviewed for this story, any comments made were off the record.

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