South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone describe their Broadway Musical, The Book of Mormon, as an “atheist love letter to religion.” The show, which opens March 24, tells the story of two young missionaries who travel to a troubled area of Africa — beset by AIDS, poverty, a warlord who likes to force clitoridectomies, and just, overall, lots of despair — to spread their faith. We spoke with the pair at length about just why they love and are obsessed with Mormons, how Star Wars is a religion, and the future of South Park.
How did this project come about?
Stone: The idea was, let’s do the Joseph Smith story as a musical. We pretty quickly realized that wouldn’t make a very good one; there would be covered wagons, and while it’s all really fascinating, none of those characters were that great of people. And so we decided, let’s do a story that talked about Mormonism and let’s set it in today’s world. And then we realized the vessel that most people hear about this stuff is through missionaries, so we could use missionaries as our way to tell the audience what we know about Mormons.
Which is a lot?
Stone: It is a lot, actually.
Parker: The show is one-tenth what we know about Mormons. Really — there were so many jokes that we were dying to put in but couldn’t.
Did you know missionaries and Mormons growing up?
Stone: I knew Mormons, but I never knew missionaries. We’re from Colorado.
Parker: You don’t need missionaries in Colorado; you got Colorado.
Stone: The underlying part of the story that I hope everyone can relate to is being 19 and going to college or the big city, leaving home, leaving the nest. [In this story], the nest isn’t just their family, but it’s also Salt Lake and this religion and their cocoon. For me, I grew up in Littleton, and when I moved to Boulder, I lost my — well, I didn’t lose my shit, but I lost my “Oh! That was reality!” And these kids go from Salt Lake City to a war zone. That’s supposed to be the more universal coming-of-age story.
Do you go to the theater?
Parker: Yeah, I was a big Broadway fan for a while. I didn’t actually get to Broadway till I was 23, but I had the playhouse growing up [in the small mountain town of Conifer, Colorado]. It’d be like, my teacher, the guy that ran the grocery store, the guy who did the gas station, all doing Oklahoma. I didn’t see the original or even the movie versions till much, much later … I was in every musical in high school; I was usually the lead. I was Danny [Zuko]. That was my crowning glory senior year.
You’ve been working on this since right after Team America came out in 2004?
Parker: Yeah, we always had to kind of put this down and go back to dealing with the show. Then we’d say, “Oh, should we call Bobby [Lopez, their collaborator on Mormon and co-writer of Avenue Q] and work on the musical?” We’d always get together and kind of forget what we’d worked on. But we’d done studio recordings of the songs, just demos, and we’d go, “This is really good.”
You’ve been really on message to not try to stir up trouble with this show — almost painstakingly trying to not give the impression that this is a show about “We Hate Stupid Mormons, let’s laugh at them!”
Stone: We do something like this and we know we’re stepping near a hornetS’ nest or something, and the press is just engineered to go “Oh look!! A fight!!” And that’s what the whole fucking thing is — and we’ve been through this a bunch. It’s like, “There’s no fight here.”
Parker: Didn’t the Mormon Church just issue a thing that’s like, “This show might actually be designed to try to entertain people for an evening, but the Book of Mormon will change your life and bring you closer to Christ”? [Laughs.] Which is funny because that’s actually what we say in the show, too.
Stone: It’s so funny, that’s our statement!
Parker: We should put it out!
Stone: “We agree … ”
Parker: “ … that book might change your life, but this show will entertain you for an evening.”
Stone: We obviously all have fun at the expense of religion and — the Book of Mormon, it’s just silly; it’s silly and there’s a lot of good comedy there. And the story of Joseph Smith, the way it’s told, is silly too. But we were looking at this thing and realized we all kind of like Mormons as people, painting with a broad brush. Every Mormon we’ve met is a nice person. And even when they know who Trey and I are from our work — work that some Mormons don’t really like — they’re totally nice to us. So we’d sit there and go, “How do we do a show where we both have fun at the expense of religion, almost to a New York crowd, and at the end of the day ask, ‘Is there truth to these stories?’ Can we come up with a pro-faith show, that’s pro-faith broadly, and in the details have fun with all the silliness of all these particular arguments about who dug up the golden plates?
That idea of holiness, that something could be hidden here, or everyone wants the end of the world to happen during their lifetime, is fascinating.
Stone: That’s a great way to put it, “Everyone wants the end of the world to happen during their lifetime.” Because it makes you feel really fucking important because you’re a central character in a huge narrative. And that’s what Joseph Smith did … if he’s a conman it’s completely brilliant, and if he’s somewhere in between — that’s a really powerful idea. And as storytellers, we’re always trying to come up with new stories, and we kind of know how hard that is — [so] to watch Joseph Smith take these old stories and make America a central character and inspire people, that’s just great. I don’t know why, or how else to explain it, other than that it makes me feel good. And then the idea that they all went to Salt Lake City and then two hundred years later they send off 50 or 60 thousand people to Cambodia, Paris, and Russia, and do the same thing, and people fucking believe it.
Parker: They’re living out this literature that changed the world. It really is amazing to think that came from a person — one person just like us — sitting down, coming up with ideas. He not only wrote something that affected people, but he made them uproot their families …
Stone: We’re not going to do anything more than hopefully make people laugh for a night, but the Mormons, based on their stories, moved. They never went back to their home, you know?
Did either of you grow up with religion?
Parker: My dad was just a big Joseph Campbell nut. I was young enough when that Power of Myth series came out that I really didn’t believe I was making the big connection. But I was like, “Oh, Star Wars is a religion; that counts.” Now I have actually come around to believe that.
That Star Wars is a religion?
Parker: Yeah, totally. That’s what I love about it. You see these people who get up every morning and put on their uniform and adhere to the rules of the federation, and to me that’s just sort of what a Mormon is and I love that.
Stone: That decision to do that is something remarkable.
Do you read Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens — the big popular atheist thinkers?
Stone: I’ve read all the books, yeah — and I get frustrated reading them ‘cause I’m going, “Why am I reading something by someone who’s so fucking brilliant, and they’re spending time going, ‘Uh-huh!’ The guy really rose from the dead?’” It’s like, what the fuck, man? That’s the least interesting part of the argument, whether things actually happened or not. It’s like, I was 15, too. I got pissed off at religion, too, and I was into Iron Maiden and fucking Black Sabbath, too, and —
Parker: Richard Dawkins probably just started listening to Iron Maiden —
Stone: We’re essentially atheists — I mean, I am; Trey I don’t want to speak for. But coming from that point of view, we’re atheists who don’t hate religion, who are kind of fascinated by it and kind of admire it. [We thought], What would that look like? What would an atheist love letter to religion look like? And I think that’s what this musical is. Now, I don’t think that every Mormon will necessarily like what this love letter says, but it’s our version of, “Hey, we think religion is really cool, here’s what we think about it.” And it’s a musical, so it’s gotta have a feel-good end, and it’s gotta have a big heart, a big story. And that’s the only way to really tackle talking about religion in narratives, is treat the people in them like really good people who are trying to do the right thing. Instead of like, “Look what they do at the tip of a gun, fucking religion.” That’s like, you’re obviously not interested in having a real discussion about it. And that wouldn’t be a very fun musical to watch.
Do you guys have another project coming up?
Parker: No, we’ve been doing South Park —
How much longer are you going to do South Park?
Stone: I don’t know. When we were in our twenties, we said there’d be no way we were doing it in our forties. Now we’re 40.
Parker: Really not when we’re 50. That’d be just sad. We’ll quit before then.
Is it easier now?
Stone: In some ways it’s easier, and in some ways it’s harder.
Parker: We write and direct every show as we go. It’s like every week you’re learning how to write a show; it’s crazy.
Stone: And then you look back at that show and the next day you say, “That was so dumb, we knew you can’t do that.” We always have to learn that lesson over and over.
How many writers do you have?
Stone: The writers’ room is me and Trey, and like two or three other people. Because the schedule is so fast, the way we do the show is, we come in the morning, get our coffee, talk about blah blah, what we’ve seen — say, “Okay, that’s a great scene.” Come up with maybe two of those scenes, then Trey writes them, and then we have to get them into production as quick as we can.
Parker: One of the things that’s kind of freeing is that if we need to change the end of a scene, we can.
Stone: But you’ve got to start — there’s no writer’s block because you don’t have time for it. But on Tuesday at midnight, literally eighteen hours before the show is going to be on the air, we can say, “This scene shouldn’t happen at Kyle’s house, let’s make it the grocery store.” We’ve rewritten entire scenes and had them animated twelve hours before the show goes on the air. It’s not fun. Actually, it totally fucking sucks and is bullshit.
How do you figure out what you’re going to go after?
Stone: A lot of times it’s backwards. One person will have seen one thing and then another, and it’s like, “Oh, it’s finally time to do a Scientology thing.” And then we dive headfirst into the subject — we study it. ‘Cause neither one of us are that big TV watchers.
Parker: I’m not at all. But we’ll sit there and think, “Okay, High School Musical is really big,” so we sit down with a bunch of DVDs and be like, “Oh.”
So is that how the Inception incident happened? [Earlier this year, they made fun of Inception using as source material something from the Internet that turned out to be a parody of the movie.]
Stone: That is part of it. That was just us being stupid and we put it up so quickly. We left in what was supposed to be a rough sketch. Me and Trey weren’t even talking. I had seen Inception and he hadn’t, so with that disconnect we left in something that — we didn’t get their joke, which was completely embarrassing. We thought it was a different joke, an actual line from the movie.
Parker: It was pretty embarrassing to not get their joke.
Stone: I saw Inception, I told Trey, “Yeah, that’s what the movie is.” I know it sounds stupid, but I really did think those lines were from the movie. And when you’re doing what we do, which is rip on things, and you don’t have your shit together, it’s like, “Okay, we suck.” It’s a big, embarrassing, you know what I mean — to rip on a movie and then get that wrong is really douchey. That was one of our douche moments.
Change of subject. I read someplace that you guys have, like, seven houses?
Parker: I have several. Even from the very beginning, I didn’t put any money in the stock market. I bought a house for my mom, I bought a house for my dad, I bought a house for my sister.
And, Matt, you’re married. Is it different doing the show now that you’re married?
Stone: Yeah, when I was 25 it was like, “Oh, sweet, so I’ll stay up all night and get some coffee, get a pack of smokes, do it. That sounds fun!” And now that’s totally different. It’s like trying to pace yourself and having to deal with your family.
Like you’re supposed to be home at night?
Stone: Yeah, people get pissed if you’re not.
Parker: My girlfriend who I’ve been living with for two years has a 10-year-old. So I actually have a kid who really wants to see South Park and wants to see this show. And I catch him watching South Park and I’m like, Hey! Jesus. This is what I do. But it’s fine. There are some times when I sit and watch an episode with him and I’m like, Oh my God. It’s all about the Holocaust and it’s not what I believe. With him, it’s like, let him pick up the burning stick. He’ll figure out it’s on fire and try not to do it again. You just gotta let them do what they’re going to do and watch what they’re going to watch and hopefully they have a relationship with you where they’ll ask you if they don’t understand something. Hopefully you see that Cartman is not the good guy here. You’re not supposed to be like him.
Stone: In our show, there’s usually a comeuppance. Or, if not, it’s an anti-ending. And you’re supposed to get that. He’s an unhappy fat person.
People always say Mitt Romney will never be elected president because he’s a Mormon.
Parker: That makes me more likely to vote for him, not less. I mean I probably wouldn’t vote for him anyway, but if I find out that a candidate is Mormon, I’m more likely to vote for them. Obviously, at the end of the day, you’re stereotyping because you don’t know this person. There are fucked-up, shitty Mormons and there are really nice Mormons, just like anybody else in the world, but for me — I’m down with Mormons.
You’re down with Mormons?
Stone: I would vote for a Mormon.
Parker: I think that’s the biggest thing with this show: People think they’re going to come see a two-hour Mormon-bashing and it’s just never what we set out to do. We all actually like Mormons, so it’s not. And, you know, a two-hour bashing of anything as a musical just wouldn’t be that much fun. So it’s really not what the show is.
There’s one song in the show, “Fuck You, God.” That’ll be a challenging notion to some people.
Parker: If you want to end up with a show where people look to the sky and say, “Thank you, God,” you have start at a place where they say, “Fuck You, God.” Does that make sense? You can’t tell a story where they already like God — and then they like God. We wanted to tell a story where people come around to a mature version of “Thank you, God” — or our version of it.
Do you describe yourselves as libertarian?
Stone: From the very beginning, South Park was constantly being co-opted — like, [people saying], “Oh, can I take it to Bush, or you gotta fucking take it to whoever!” I remember this one guy being like, “You gotta get after Clinton and take out Al Sharpton.” So I think that was when we said, “Well, we’re libertarian, leave us the fuck out of that domain-argument.” I may have my personal political thing, but we never wanted it to stain the show. South Park’s most effective when it comes from no place, you know?
I remember going to see Team America and expecting it to have a particular anti-war on terror lesson … and it didn’t.
Stone: The biggest backlash we’ve ever had from anybody, from any religious organization, Mormons, from anybody, is liberals who saw Team America and were pissed off at us. Our reaction was, “Fuck you.”
How did you end up working with Scott Rudin [who produced the South Park movie, Team America, and now this musical]?
Stone: He called me in and gave me a blind script deal and that just escalated. He really showed up at a perfect time in our existence, which was the South Park movie, which was our second season of the show. We were like the new, fucking best-looking girls in town, the hot shit. And we were doing a movie and I think we were generally like — we weren’t total slackers or anything — but at this point we could go into anybody’s office in Hollywood and be like, “We have this funny idea.” And we could say fucking anything and they’d say, “Oh, that’s so funny!” And Rudin is just that guy who’s like, “That’s not funny.” And we’re like, “Wait, what?”
Related: Latter-Day Saints [NYM]