1. The show was about 8 year olds who swore like longshoremen.
2. The show featured a character named Kenny who was brutally killed each episode.
High school kids are often given credit for being hip and cool, but I found more often than not that they had genuinely terrible taste. When they described South Park to me, I thought it sounded awful. But, out of curiosity, I frequently tried to seek out some of the things they were consuming in pop culture (that’s how I would wind up reading 50 pages of Twilight), so I took South Park out for a spin.
The first episode I ever saw was the first season Christmas episode featuring Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo. For those of you who may not be familiar, Mr. Hanky is a singing piece of human feces who wears a Santa Claus hat. I have to admit I found the singing piece of Christmas crap to be kind of amusing. But then, something kind of remarkable happened. The episode turned out to be about a town stripping Christmas of its holiday iconography. There was some surprisingly sharp satire in this show.
I went back to school and told my students, “I think this show is a lot better than you realize.” I’ve been a big fan ever since.
Since Matt and Trey do frequently dabble in the naughty and scatological, a lot of people don’t give their work the time of day. They’ve been producing great TV satire for 15 years. Hell, they even won a Peabody Award. But, it’s their penchant for blue humor that causes many people to underestimate them. In the same way Mel Brooks’ love of bawdy humor blinds some people to the vicious takedown of racist attitudes that lurks in Blazing Saddles, Matt and Trey’s work is often dismissed outright due to its raunchy content.
When it was announced that Matt and Trey along with Avenue Q co-creator Bobby Lopez had written a Broadway musical, people were nonplussed. And, when it turned out to be spectacular, once again people were stunned. Had they not seen the terrific South Park movie with its Oscar nominated songs?
That Broadway musical is, of course, The Book of Mormon, the smash hit, Tony winning show that opened in New York last spring. After having to endure 18 months of anticipation, I finally got to see it on tour at the Pantages Theater here in Los Angeles. It was worth the wait.
Matt and Trey famously make each South Park episode in just six days, usually completing each one literally just a few hours before it airs on television. They took seven years to write The Book of Mormon, and the result is a show with a song score in which everything is a showstopper. It’s simply one great, hilarious song after the next.
The story involves two 19-year-old Mormon kids sent on their two-year mission. Elder Price is the sort of perfect Mormon who dreams of being converting souls in Orlando, Florida. Elder Price is saddled with Elder Cunningham as his mission partner. Elder Cunningham is Price’s opposite: socially awkward and prone to embellishing the Mormon holy texts with geek references to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.
Price and Cunningham are sent to Uganda where they are faced with warlords, famine, AIDS, and a host of other problems their Mormon training has simply not even come close to preparing them for. Much (and I mean much) hilarity ensues. My favorite bit is “Turn It Off,” a big tap dance number in which the Mormons gleefully extol the virtues of suppressing negative feelings or memories. It’s a brilliantly conceived number.
The Book of Mormon doesn’t scrimp on its creators’ love of blue humor. Be warned that show is often pretty filthy. It also doesn’t scrimp on their wit and intelligence and their inherent sweetness. Yes, the show gets a lot of laughs at the expense of what Mormons believe. In fact, one of the highlights is Elder Price’s power ballad “I Believe” in which the jokes come from actual Mormon teachings (“I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!”). Matt and Trey may be naughty, but they are almost always nice as well. The Book of Mormon is ultimately pro faith and argues that if somebody’s oddball belief system makes them a kinder, more generous person and enriches their lives, how can that be a bad thing?
People complain about movies being in a rut of little creativity. Everything is a remake or a sequel. I would argue that the Broadway musical is in equally bad condition. Nearly every musical is now based on a pre-existing movie: Once, Sister Act, Legally Blond, Bring It On, Ghost, and Shrek are a few examples of recent Broadway fare all based on familiar film titles. The Book of Mormon is (gasp!) an original story!
If you live in the Los Angeles area, The Book of Mormon is running at the Pantages Theater through November 25.