It's 9:30 on yet another Wednesday night in Buffalo. Things seem normal. Maybe even dull.
The guys in the band Mudtown Rudy jam in their apartment high above Main Street. Patrons shoot pool at the Tonawanda nightclub Barcade. And across town, several morning radio personalities sleep heavily, their living room VCRs silent.
But at 10 o'clock, there is a flurry of activity.
Mudtown Rudy snaps off its speakers and bolts for the living room. The Barcade's patrons grab chairs and plunk them down in front of the wide-screen TV. And the silent VCRs click into "record" mode.
It's time for "South Park."
Imagine "Peanuts" drawn by Howard Stern, and you have Comedy Central's latest hit: a wildly profane, sharply satiric animated series featuring potty-mouthed third-graders from a snowy, weird little burg in Colorado.
In this town, UFO sightings are normal. The lone African-American is a school chef who sings raunchy R & B ditties. Jesus has his own cable-access show. And one teacher speaks through a hand puppet.
Starring are four obnoxious kids: Stan the vomiter, Kenny who always gets killed, Kyle the lone Jew, and gaseous Cartman, who is best-known for having been the victim of a probe from visiting space aliens.
Out of the mouths of these babes come sly but vicious mock-outs of everyone and everything -- from Kathie Lee Gifford and Sally Struthers to euthanasia and homophobia.
No one is spared. And no one is complaining.
The show's ratings are soaring. Morning-after dissection is a must for college students. WEDG (103.3 The Edge) morning co-hosts Ted Shredd and Tom Ragan watch or tape the show in order to relive it the next day -- moment by disgusting moment.
And weekly "South Park" parties are starting to pop up all over.
" 'South Park' is our reward for rehearsing," says Todd Harrington, 32, guitarist for Mudtown Rudy (formerly Cottonmouth).
On this night, the band has invited two friends over to watch the much-anticipated "South Park" Christmas special. Within minutes, all are in hysterics. The next day over the phone, Harrington loses his composure at the mere mention of the show's antics the night before.
"Oh, my God, that Christmas show was so out there," he says. "I mean, we were on the floor just dyin'."
(Indeed, the episode did seem to reach new heights of depravity when -- among other things -- Kyle got a visit from tiny Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, whose attempt to infuse Kyle with cheer led the child to a mental hospital. Meanwhile, poor Kenny suffers an unfortunate "Crying Game"-like experience.)
Several dozen watched at Barcade, where laughter and screams of "Oh, my God!" often drowned out the dialogue.
"It was insane," said one patron. "When it came on, people just stopped everything. No more darts, no pool; everyone came to the TV to watch. One guy was crying, he laughed so bad."
Solely for idiots? Not so fast.
From the beginning, "South Park" was tailored not to 14-year-old acne cases, but to entertainment industry hipnoscenti.
When a friend at Fox studios asked college pals Trey Parker and Matt Stone to make a video Christmas card, they presented him with a crazed five-minute short called "The Spirit of Christmas," featuring Jesus getting into a wild donnybrook with Santa over the true meaning of the season.
Dubs spread through L.A., and soon the Parker/Stone duo had a deal with Comedy Central, which neatly avoided "Beavis and Butt-head" controversy by airing the resulting show at 10 p.m. and giving it an "MA" (for mature audiences) rating.
Thus, "South Park": the only series about 8-year-olds judged to be unsuitable for children under 17.
And for good reason, say local fans.
"This is more 'Simpsons' than 'Beavis and Butt-head,' in that most of the references are for a much older crowd," says Dan Eichelberger, promotional manager for Barcade.
"It goes fast. You have to pay attention. If you don't know what's going on right now, you won't get half of it."
(Example: the episode in which Kyle's little brother Ike is exhorted by the others to "do your impression of David Caruso's career!" The child takes a dive from a great height and plunges into a snowbank, where he disappears.)
Comix Cafe owner Rob Lederman agrees with Eichelberger.
"This is a comic's show. On one level it's very silly, but mostly it's very inside-track stuff. It's vicious but it's also highly satiric. Not every comic can do that -- and not everyone can understand it."
This was evident when when Comedy Central's "Stand Up for Sanity" Tour came to Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall in November, bringing with it former talk host Jon Stewart and the five-minute "South Park" pilot episode.
When the fisticuffs between Santa and Jesus broke out, some in the audience smiled but looked clearly bewildered; others erupted in screams of laughter.
Promoter Artie Kwitchoff, of Delsener-Slater Productions, stood in the back cracking up but also disbelieving what he was seeing.
"I've seen a lot in 10 years of doing this," he laughs again, a month later, "but nothing prepared me for what they put out. This is beyond sick jokes. This is taking every sacred cow, regardless of the field it's grazing in -- religion, sports, entertainment -- and just tossing it on the grill. You have to know that to get it."
One more thing you need in order to "get it."
Really good cable.
If you live in Buffalo and get cable from TCI, you can see "South Park" every week.
But if you live in Lockport, Williamsville, Amherst, the Tonawandas, Cheektowaga, Lancaster-Depew, Hamburg, West Seneca, Boston or Eden, and you're a customer of Adelphia or Adelphia/International Cable, you have to shrug on your jacket every Wednesday evening and go find a friend or a bar that likes the show, too.
The reason is simple: Few customers have asked Adelphia to add the Comedy Central channel its lineup, says Adelphia General Manager Gus Palmisano.
"The number of requests we've had for Comedy Central is very negligible," he says. "It's the same for (the) Bravo channel. Now, many people did ask for TV Land when it debuted, and we are in the process of adding that now to many systems."
Out of Adelphia's 250,0000 customers, he explains, only some 30,000 (in East Aurora, Aurora, Holland, Colden, Wales, Niagara Falls and Lewiston) get the channel, as part of a test-marketing project.
"It also depends on cost, demand and available space. We have some space, but we'd have to know that customers want this."
Meanwhile, Stan, Kenny, Kyle and Cartman shows no signs of burnout.
Barcade and the three clubs adjoining it plan weekly "South Park" parties through the winter.
Paraphernalia -- from T-shirts and hats to boxer shorts, lamps and Beanie Babies of all four kids -- is starting to show up in malls and gas stations. (The Web site www.comedycentral.com features "South Park" trinkets.)
Thirteen new episodes begin running in June.
And word is that Jay Leno, John Cusack and George Clooney -- who once provided the voice for Sparky the Gay Dog -- have made their availability known whenever "South Park's" producers want them.
"We've heard this, that a lot of celebrities want in," says Naomi Frisch, the show's director of promotional events.
"A lot of famous bands are asking if they can provide music. We say, hey, bring it on! This is amazing."