'Peanuts' Gone Wrong

IN DECEMBER OF 1995, BRIAN GRADEN, then a Fox TV exec with a taste for edgy material, wanted to send out a video holiday card. He remembered a demented fable called ""The Spirit of Christmas'' animated with construction paper and sick jokes by two broke twentysomethings in his stable of eccentric talent. He paid them to do an upgraded version of the twisted little 'toon - in which Santa Claus and Jesus kung-fu fight each other while foulmouthed youngsters cheer them on - and sent tapes all over Hollywood. George Clooney got one and made copies for 150 of his close personal friends. Bootlegs spread to New York, Silicon Valley, the Internet. The band Tool showed ""Spirit'' between sets. The absence of credits on the video only added to its underground mystique.

Two and a half years later, ""The Spirit of Christmas'' has made its inexorable way to the mainstream as South Park, an animated series starting next month on Comedy Central. The series' creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are no longer broke. Before accepting Comedy Central's offer, they turned down development deals by almost every major studio: New Line, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks. One producer offered them ""Barney: The Movie,'' a ludicrous assignment for the two guys responsible for the darkest Christmas cartoon ever made. But it's a mark of how fast they've gone from nobodies who couldn't get their phone calls returned to two of the hottest ""creatives'' in Hollywood. As Parker says, ""It's been quite a ride.''

""South Park'' follows the same four third graders from ""Spirit'' around their downscale mountain community of South Park, Colo. Picture the anti-Telluride; the closest thing to a film festival in this frozen backwater would be a Jim Carrey double feature at the mall. It's the kind of place where the locals report alien abductions. Which is probably why, in the first episode of ""South Park,'' one of the kids is ""anally probed'' on a flying saucer by visitors from outer space. ""Aliens stuck stuff up your ass!'' his friends taunt. They may look cute, but these bad boys are so crude they make Beavis and Butt-head look like Charlie Brown. The dis-parity is what makes them funny. The li'l egg-shaped, saucer-eyed ""South Park'' rascals are ""Peanuts'' gone terribly wrong. These kids don't just say the darndest things. They say some of the raunchiest things an adult mind can dream up. On the original ""Spirit,'' they all swore like sailors. On Comedy Central, they still do, but with the worst words bleeped on some of the harsher humor toned down for prime time. (The 10 p.m. time slot is also meant to minimize underage viewership.) ""I can guarantee it's gonna be the raunchiest thing on TV and it's gonna piss a lot of people off,'' says Parker. Comedy Central president Doug Herzog is counting on it: ""People will say we've gone too far.'' He wishes. That's just what people said about ""Beavis and Butt-head.''

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