Racial humor, fart jokes, attacks on organized religion, these and many other varieties of offensive humor have made cable TV’s Emmy Award-winning animation South Park one of the top animated shows (after top-ranked The Simpsons).
Now, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the twisted comedic geniuses and long-time friends behind South Park, have taken their no-sacred-cows style to Broadway with their brand new musical, “The Book of Mormon.”
What’s it like? Don’t expect your friends in Salt Lake City to be too happy.
Want blasphemy? How about a choir of Ugandans uniting their voices to sing lines like this one: “F*** you, God.” Apparently the evangelism efforts of the two naïve Mormon missionaries at the center of the musical didn’t work out as planned.
Want character assassination? Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith makes a brief appearance, as does Adolf Hitler.
“The Book of Mormon’s” website says, “This hilarious Broadway musical about a pair of mismatched Mormon boys sent on a mission to a place that’s about as far from Salt Lake City as you can get.”
For two guys who say they don’t even believe in God, Parker and Stone have devoted significant time and energy lampooning religion in all its forms. Christianity and Christian culture have come in for regular attacks on South Park, as have aspects of Christian culture, such as off-key Christian music, conservative political activists and over-the-top evangelists.
But Parker and Stone are equal opportunity offenders. Their show has offered lacerating critiques of Scientology. They also made fun of Muhammad in an episode that was pulled from the broadcast schedule following threats from angry Muslims.
Religion certainly makes a good target for humor. But why an entire musical focused on Mormonism? Parker and Stone say there’s no particular animosity against the rapidly growing American-born faith. Instead, they simply find it an irresistible punch line.
“The truth is, we just have this fascination with Mormons,” Parker told Entertainment Weekly magazine. “They’re so fun to make fun of, but at the same time they’re so nice!”
Following a successful South Park episode on Joseph Smith, Parker and Stone planned to do a musical about Smith. But when they visited Salt Lake City to do research, they encountered Mormons that made them think it would be more fun to do a show about Mormonism, which requires its members to perform two years of missionary service.
To help them create the musical, they turned to Robert Lopez, who helped create the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q,” which covers equally risqué territory. The show’s web site says the show “may not be appropriate for young children because AVENUE Q addresses issues like sex, drinking, and surfing the web for porn.”
Evangelical Christians have struggled in recent years to figure out how they want to treat Mormons and Mormonism.
Most Christian apologists see Mormonism as a Christian heresy that takes core aspects of Christian doctrine but twists them beyond recognition by adding in new teachings that Smith claimed to have learned when he found Mormon scriptures buried in western New York. The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830.
Mormons portray themselves as Christians whose distinctive teachings should not be interpreted as heresy. But evangelical voters remain uncomfortable with Mormon candidates like Mitt Romney, who had failed to ignite support for his presidential bid.
And while some Christians may feel relief that Parker and Stone’s new musical is making fun of Mormons rather than attacking Christians, one Bible scholar cautions against Christians who might be tempted to join in ridiculing Mormon believers.
“We should follow the Golden Rule and treat them as we would want to be treated,” said Craig Blomberg, a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. “This, after all, was a central principle of the ethics of Jesus in Matthew 7:12."
Blomberg has engaged in interfaith dialogue with Mormon theologians. He co-authored a book with one Mormon thinker: “How Wide the Divide?” The book was published by InterVarsity Press in 1997.
Like other evangelical theologians, Blomberg believes that Mormons embrace theological distinctives about God, salvation and the afterlife that put them at odds with orthodox Christian teaching. But that doesn’t justify ridiculing their beliefs and practices.
“It's a shame when anyone feels they must make fun of someone's religion,” he said. “It makes you wonder if they're rather insecure in their own worldview."
Previews of the show started in late February, with its official premiere scheduled for March 24. And even though theater reviewers typically wait until the official opening to publish reviews, early reviews are already appearing online.
In one review, Valerie Frankel gave a thumbs-up evaluation.
“Is it as subversive as South Park?” she wrote. “Unequivocally, ‘The Book of Mormon’ is pee-in-pants funny, outrageous, shocking, which you'd expect. What you might not have seen coming are energetic and elaborate dancing, catchy tunes, insight into the nature of faith and the American hubris of spreading our brand of magic and lies all over the globe.”
And people who have attended previews of the musical have offered their opinions on Facebook and Twitter.
“‘The Book of Mormon’ was a hilarious, crude, and heartwarming Broadway play,” wrote one Tweeter. “Emphasis on the hilarious and crude.”
Another said: “‘The Book of Mormon’ musical is OUTRAGEOUSLY hilarious, terribly offensive & completely brilliant. Not for everyone but a total must see!!”
Parker and Stone have been promoting their musical on TV shows like “The Daily Show” with John Stewart.
Meanwhile, Mormon officials have released their own statement about the musical.
“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.”
So, will “The Book of Mormon” be the beginning of new careers for Parker and Stone, allowing them to create entertainment for Broadway? It’s too early to tell.
But even if the musical bombs, we can plan on the comedians exposing more religious groups and people to ridicule on TV, in movies, and in other cultural forms they find to their liking.
“I really do see Jesus and Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus in the same category,” Parker told Entertainment Weekly. “And I believe in all three of them.”