In the mid-90s, Trey Parker and Matt Stone created two cutout animation shorts, including one portraying a battle between Jesus and Santa that went viral. Shortly after that they began their irreverent Comedy Central cartoon “South Park,” which is still going strong after 14 years on the air. My children turned me onto the show, and I’ve been a casual fan for many years. And I’m still a fan even though Parker and Stone have created a Broadway musical poking fun at a book I believe to be sacred.
Although Parker and Stone are atheists, they have a fascination for religion in general, and Mormonism in particular. Consequently Mormonism has been featured on the show a number of times.
One episode features a scene in the afterlife where a divine functionary, reading a clipboard, announces to the newly deceased spirits gathered there that the Mormons were in fact the true religion.
In another, Joseph Smith is one of a group of religious leaders called the “Super Best Friends” who use their super powers (Joseph’s is to be able to create ice) to fight the scourge of Blaintology (followers of magician David Blaine).
A third example, titled “All About Mormons,” is completely devoted to the origins of the Mormon Church.
Trey Parker also wrote and directed the live action movie Orgazmo, in which a naive Mormon is recruited to act in porn films.
Parker and Stone have now collaborated with Robin Lopez to produce a Broadway musical called “The Book of Mormon,” which is in previews now and will open on March 24 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in New York City. The show is about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to a dangerous part of Uganda.
In anticipation of the production, the Mormon Church released a concise statement, with tongue somewhat planted in cheek: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
What will the reaction of Mormons be? I have heard from one correspondent who was very concerned about the show, calling it “vile and offensive” based on reviews he had read. Certainly there is plenty to offend all sorts of people of faith, including a song in which the villagers direct a vile epithet toward God himself.
But of my few Mormon friends who have actually had the opportunity to see the production, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. One friend said her ribs still hurt from laughing so hard. They have described the production as being simultaneously both a critique and a celebration of religion.
I haven’t seen the show, but I think we can guess on the vibe of it based on the ending of the All About Mormons episode of South Park. This is a speech by a boy named Gary, whose Mormon family had just moved into the neighborhood:
“Maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. [Expletive deleted!]“
He walks away, leaving the boys in utter shock. The episode ends as Cartman, with a new-found respect for Gary, says “Damn, that kid is cool, huh?”
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