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Funny little bastards

SOUTH PARK. Channel 4. Fridays 11.40pm - 12.10am. From July 10.

Stand by for a full-frontal assault on your moral sensibilities - 'South Park' is heading your way. Chris Johnston laughs all the way to the toilet.

South Park really does exist. The Colorado county boasts the dubious honour of having more UFO sightings than anywhere else in the world, which should provide some insight into why South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker named their cartoon after the place.

The show is the latest animated series to hit the big time in its homeland, following in the footsteps of The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill. Like its counterparts, South Park is aimed at adults but has attracted large numbers of younger viewers.

But that is about where the similarities end. Put it this way: it's the type of show you would expect the Daily Mail to want banned (which is probably what Channel 4 is hoping for). Yes, it's sick. Yes, it can be disgusting, politically incorrect, juvenile and offensive to almost any group in society you can think of. But - and it is an important but - South Park can also be extremely funny.

As with anything that is offbeat, non-conformist and silly, the only way to understand it is to watch. The main characters are four eight-year-olds: Kyle, Jewish and slightly neurotic; Stan, cute, clever and a star quarterback; Cartman, who is fat, obnoxious and offensive; and Kenny, whose hood renders his irregular comments indecipherable, and who gets killed in every episode.

Other figures include their fourth-grade teacher at South Park Elementary, Mr Garrison; his finger-puppet, Mr Hat; and Chef, voiced by Seventies musician Isaac Hayes, who performs a song inappropriately laced with sexual innuendo in each episode.

South Park is not a programme you could show your class and expect to keep your job. But some teachers might find themselves unconsciously agreeing with one character's view that: "Kids are not nice, innocent, flower-loving little rainbow children. Kids are all little bastards."

South Park bears some similarities to The Simpsons. But, while the latter pokes fun at the American way of life, prejudice and other social vices, it is not nearly as subversive or downright offensive as its new rival. South Park has none of that slightly moralistic undertone The Simpsons sometimes displays.

But some storylines make clever points in a subtle way. In one (perhaps even slightly prophetic) episode, the parents get sufficiently upset about their children's favourite TV programme - in which two characters do nothing but make fart jokes - that they picket the network's headquarters and start catapulting themselves against the building until the show is taken off the air.

Meanwhile, back home, Stan notes sagely: "If parents would spend less time worrying about what their kids watch on TV and more time worrying about what's going on in their kids' lives, this world would be a much better place. "

However, the real appeal of South Park lies in the jokes, which range from verbal gags such as Cartman's torrents of abuse, to the ridiculous storylines. In one episode, an aid agency accidentally sends the children an African orphan they name "Starvin' Marvin" instead of a digital watch.

South Park will not be to everyone's taste. Many will be appalled by atrocities such as Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo (yes, Kyle's imaginary friend is a singing stool that lives in the toilet), but the show is probably the most original and refreshing television you will see this year. Just don't watch it with the children.

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