Sally Struthers implores TV viewers to sponsor a poor African child for $5 a month, and Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny jump at the chance so they can get a free digital sports watch.
Instead, the foul-mouthed cast of the bizarre cartoon South Park is sent a real-life emaciated "Ethernopian," whom they nickname "Starvin' Marvin" and bring to their third-grade class for show-and-tell.
When authorities arrive to return "Starvin' Marvin," they mistakenly take the fat - er, big-boned - Cartman, who discovers that Ms. Struthers has hoarded a warehouse full of snack foods in the African desert.
Sadly, Kenny is killed by a pack of rabid mutant turkeys during a Braveheart-like fight against the fictional Colorado town. But not to worry, he's killed in every episode except "Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo" and returns each week for more.
OK, so this isn't the most highbrow TV show of all time. But maybe that's why the Comedy Central Network cartoon has gained such a cult following since its debut last summer, snowballing in popularity every week.
In February alone the South Park tykes graced the covers of Spin and Rolling Stone. Like Bart Simpson a few years ago, T-shirts with images of the waddling pack appear everywhere. There's even talk of a South Park movie.
The Feb. 18 episode about a Godzillalike Barbra Streisand who trashes the town was seen in 3.2 million homes, the cable network's highest-ever rated show.
"The political correctness that we all operate under is so great that this is like a pressure release," says Deborah Liebling, the show's executive producer. "What's appropriate is thrown out the window. There's a joy in watching all these forbidden things being said."
Seinfeld may be in its stretch run, but South Park (which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) is the show everybody wants to talk about at parties, on the Internet and at theoffice cooler. It's a cartoon with no boundaries when it comes to skewering modern life -- Kathie Lee Gifford, UFO sightings and Hanukkah vs. Christmas debates, to name just a few.
Bob Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, says shock value is the obvious reason these cartoon characters are such a hit.
"You're channel surfing and there's another talk show and another music video and then you hit South Park," says Mr. Thompson. "It's really hard to stop because it looks so different, the language is so unusual."
Like the holiday episode in which Kyle, who's Jewish, compensates for not celebrating Christmas by imagining he has a fecal friend named Mr. Hankey. Tasteless? Of course. But to the fans, it's uncontrollably funny.
"It's plowing territory that's never been plowed before," Mr. Thompson says. "I think it's just good old-fashioned raunchy burlesque kind of jokes. That's always been funny. It's like Fat Albert and the kids gone totally into meltdown phase."
Mr. Thompson has found that, unlike the Beavis and Butt-head, South Park seems to be just as popular with women as men.
The computer generation has undoubtedly fueled the momentum of South Park. There are at least 100 South Park Web sites, which include sounds, games and inside information on the show. Eric J. Egolf wrote an elegiac poem to Kenny, A Tribute to a Fallen American Hero:
By touch of Death or
Or Mir upon his head
Or a vicious attack by Jay
The poor boy turns out dead.
Dave Burchill, whose Web site has attracted 35,000 visitors since October, is such a devoted fan that he and his girlfriend built a snowman in the image of Cartman on the roof of his house in Canada.
"I've never seen so many people so fast take such a liking to a show," says Mr. Burchill, 19. "The first episode I ever saw I laughed so hard. My mom covered her face and eyes with her hands. The real reason I think she didn't want to watch was she didn't want to laugh at that kind of material in front of us."
The story of the show's origin is now legendary among South Park fanatics. Three years ago an executive at 20th Century Fox gave Matt Stone and Trey Parker $2,000 to make a video he could send as a Christmas card. They made the video using construction paper cutouts and spent only $750, pocketing the rest of the money.
The result was the five-minute short The Spirit of Christmas, in which the boys meet Jesus, who fights Mortal Kombat-style with Santa Claus. ("Ho ho ho. We meet again, Jesus.") Figure skater Brian Boitano makes a cameo and Kenny is decapitated, his first of many deaths to come.
Bootlegs of the tape began circulating throughout Hollywood, which led to a deal with Comedy Central to develop an animated series based on the short, albeit without the obscenities that were laced in the language of the original.
"I just saw a sophisticated sense of humor behind the language," Ms. Liebling says. "It was clear to me that there was a world that could be created beyond kids cursing."
Not everyone is laughing at Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker's creation, and some critics are complaining that the newer episodes of South Park have lost some steam. Others say the show is just plain vile.
As for Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker, the co-creators have stopped talking to reporters for the time being. A Comedy Central spokeswoman says the duo is worn out and the show doesn't need any more publicity.
be a Connecticut middle school that reportedly has banned students from wearing T-shirts showing a decapitated Kenny.
It may be a matter of time before mainstream America and conservative organizations realize the show exists. But by then it may no longer matter, says Mr. Thompson, who predicts that South Park won't endure.
"I've got a feeling it's going to be like Twin Peaks -- a brilliant 20 or 30 hours of TV, but that's it," he says. "These kids basically have a 40-word vocabulary. After we've heard those 40 words 40,000 times, enough is enough."