In the wake of Sony's cancellation of The Interview, several art house theaters announced that they would—patriotically, of course—use their emptied screens to play the 2004 puppet-driven political comedy Team America: World Police. This afternoon, several of those theaters announced that they'd been told by Paramount Pictures that the movie could not be screened.
In what has already proven a surreal story, this might have been the most dada twist yet. It's also one guaranteed to line up more conservatives and more advocates of free speech against the studios (and the hackers, of course), because Team America's creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have more experience than almost any popular artist in being hurriedly censored, then mocking the censorship.
First things first: As soon as The Interview news broke, movie fans asked why Team America had never sparked such a backlash. Sure, The Interview ended with Kim Jong Un being assassinated, but Team America was just as rough on his father Kim Jong Il. It told the story of a super-team of government agents, whose property-smashing recklessness had created a backlash that the elder Kim could exploit. And exploit it he did, allying with Hollywood stars to create a "peace summit" where he'd (obviously) take over the world. Kim was portrayed as a buffoon, even in the context of a movie made entirely with puppets; upon defeat, he was revealed to be an alien cockroach sent to earth to carry out a ruse.
It was somewhat less than respectful to the Kim family, but it wasn't a patch on what Stone and Parker had done to Saddam Hussein. In the universe of their South Park series and movie, Hussein died (before the second Iraq War), went to hell, and entered a same-sex relationship with a surprisingly sensitive Satan.
Both dictators fared worse than the prophet Mohammed, who in a 2001 episode was portrayed as a superhero (with "the power of fire") who teamed up with other religious icons to fight evil. There were, as with the Kim and Hussein parodies, no complaints. Not until 2006, when South Park brought back Muhammed for a two-part episode about a free speech protest in Denmark. Editors had put out a call for cartoonists to draw Mohammed, to defy and deride extremists who wanted the press to abide by Islamic aniconism.
There were attacks on Danish embassies; cartoonists, understandably, felt some solidarity. So South Park tried to portray the prophet, as it had before, and it was throttled by censors. What had been totally uncontroversial became taboo, once violent people declared it to be such.
And South Park was the perfect test case. In the mid-2000s, conservatives embraced the show's ethos, praising it for attacking "liberal media bias" with parody. At the end of 2006, Matt Stone and Trey Parker sat for an interview with Reason magazine (where I worked from 2006 to 2008) where they explained how they'd dared the network to censor them.
"Comedy Central kept saying, 'We're not going to broadcast a Muhammad episode,'" said Parker. "And we said, 'You totally have the right, it's your network, but we're going to make one, and it's going to be one of the seven you pay for.'"
"And then we made it two episodes out of seven," said Stone. "It was life imitating art, because the whole week after the first one aired there was a teaser, 'Will television executives take a stand for free speech? Or will Comedy Central **** out?' That whole week we were trying to get Comedy Central to show Muhammad. And they ****ed out."
Through their representation, Stone and Parker declined to comment about The Interview or the Team America cancellations. It hardly matters for their fans, including plenty of conservative writers and editors who found solidarity with them and the show during the Mohammed debacle. They're generally Team America fans, too.
Still, that final twist -- a movie theater named after the Alamo being prevented from screening a movie due to corporate panic -- is as dark and strange as anything Stone and Parker could cook up.