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No joke — Comedy Central is sanitizing 'South Park' | (KRT) New Comedy Central boss Doug Herzog can't tell a joke.

"I can't remember them, even if they're really short," says Herzog, named president Tuesday. "It's a giant handicap. I've never been the joke-telling guy. I'm the wisecracking, sarcastic guy."

For Herzog, it's deja vu at Comedy Central. He ran the cable network from 1995 to '98 before joining Fox as entertainment chief for a minute and a half.

All joking aside, when Herzog officially starts in May, his top priority will be resigning "Daily Show"'s Jon Stewart. His contract expires at the end of the year.

Since succeeding Craig Kilborn in January 1999, the lightning-quick Stewart has become "the face and heartbeat of the network," says Herzog, 44.

Though the faux anchorman is expected to get offers from bigger fish, "I'd be pretty surprised if Jon were not on the air here a year from now," says Herzog, formerly USA Network czar.

"I think Jon feels it's a great venue, even though the platform isn't quite as big as the broadcast networks. Having gone over to the dark side, I know it's not always what it's cracked up to be."

With sitcoms "on life support" at the broadcast networks, Herzog says Comedy Central is well-positioned to develop "the next great comedy."

Not that its current lineup is hurting. The once-fledgling network, which now reaches 85 million homes, has cult hits in "Daily Show," "South Park," Dave Chappelle's "Chappelle Show," and "Reno 911."

Network sitcoms "are a dying form," adds Herzog. "There are a couple of great ones, with a huge gap after that. The stuff at the bottom of the barrel is unwatchable."

The problem, in his view, is that sitcoms continue to be produced using the template conceived by Desi Arnaz 50 years ago.

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"It's setup, joke, setup, joke. Everything wraps up neatly in the end. It makes your eyes glaze over, especially younger viewers."

Speaking of younger viewers, "South Park"'s potty-mouthed brats launched their eighth season last night and are set for broadcast syndication in fall '05.

Most of the 150-plus episodes will have to be bleeped several times, Herzog says, and at least 10 are too obscenity-laden to air.

Tops on that list has to be "South Park"'s fifth-season premiere in June 2001, which included 162 uses of a scatalogical four-letter word.

Sanitizing "South Park" "is going to be tough, and it just got tougher," says Herzog, referring to the FCC's new clampdown on indecency, following Janet Jackson's breast-baring incident on the Super Bowl Feb. 1.

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© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services