Trey Parker and Matt Stone joined the ranks of America’s most pointed comedic commentators with their long-running animated series South Park. They’ve also become adept filmmakers with the likes of Orgazmo, Team America and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and branched out into musical theater two years ago with The Book of Mormon. It proved a massive success, earning the duo a slew of Tony awards and a mainstream respect that they never enjoyed before. The Book of Mormon just opened in Los Angeles, giving the pair a chance to sit down and talk about where it’s all led them.
Question: The Mormons have been a recurring muse for you with Orgazmo and the South Park episode, and now this. Do you see yourselves coming back to the Latter Day Saints for another project, or is this really it?
Trey Parker: Oh we’re done.
Matt Stone: Yeah, we should be done by now.
TP: The Mormons were sort of this shared thing for us in college when we met, and we both sort of had this shared fascination with it. Just because we both knew Mormons growing up and my very first girlfriend was a Mormon. We had exposure to that, and thought it was fascinating and goofy and wonderful all at the same time. It seemed to kind of eke its way in to our work all the time, which is part of why it made sense to do our big blow-out all Mormon thing.
Q: There’s a chance we’re going to have our first Mormon president this time next year. If Mitt Romney saw the show, what do you think his reaction would be?
MS: He’s been invited to the show. He says he’s going to come when he has time.
TP: If he wins, it’s because of us. [Laughter.]
Q: And if he loses?
Both: It’s because of us. [Laughter.]
Q: Are you surprised at all at how warmly the Mormon community has reacted to this?
MS: We’re the only ones who aren’t surprised. We’ve been telling people that since the very first interview we did for this thing, before it was on Broadway. We said, “they’re going to be totally cool with it, you watch, that’s just the way Mormons are.”
TP: No matter what we do, they will out-nice us. Guaranteed.
Q: Besides the Mormons, this show has been embraced by mainstream audiences with real enthusiasm. I mean, it’s winning Tonys. Does that ever hit you at all, that you continue to do what you’ve always done and the mainstream has accepted it, that the Upper West Side old ladies are into it?
TP: Yes, but part of it is that we’re in our 40s ourselves. We’re not so far from being Upper West Side old ladies ourselves.
MS: We’re pre-seniors.
TP: I remember watching people in the Broadway show and seeing this little old lady with gray hair and thinking, “oh, how’s she going to react?” Then I realized that she’s only like twenty years older than me!
Q: At what point in the writing process did the line “I’ve got maggots in my scrotum” show up?
TP: Before we even knew it would be a show about Mormons, we said, “let’s write a musical with maggots in the scrotum.” [Laughter.]
Actually, the song used to be called “The Bible is a Trilogy,” the one that’s now “American Prophet.” And it made movie references; that was part of the thing. It was also a joke about how the third part of a trilogy is always the “best” movie, and how the third Matrix was actually the best. Great joke. Then the African guy kind of stepped in and said “I actually thought the third Matrix was the worst one!” We had it for the longest time, but we eventually decided that it didn’t work for the story. But we still had this great musical intonation in the line. So we said, “What else could he come forth and say?”
Q: Was there any topic that was out of bounds for the musical?
TP: Not really. The only thing we really wanted to stay away from was the polygamy thing. We wanted to do your everyday Salt Lake City Mormon. And even then, we’re catering to stereotype. But polygamy is this misconception among a lot of people. “Oh Mormons, they’re polygamists.” No they’re not, even though they have that in their history and then there’s some fundamentalists that are. Because of Big Love and all these things… joke-wise, it was pretty well mined.
MS: I think that’s one of the reasons that Mormons like the show is because they’re so sick of that lazy joke. It just doesn’t apply to mainstream Mormons anymore. I think they were just so appreciative that we did it, that we stayed away from it.
TP: And we wanted Mormons to buy tickets and take out ads in Playbill. [Laughter.]
Q: They really did take out ads in Playbill. What’s your reaction to that?
TP: It’s awesome! We seriously, honestly talked about doing that ourselves: putting in an ad that said, “If you want to know more about the Mormon Church, contact your local temple.” Then we decided not to… and they did it!
Q: What’s the process of getting all these copyrighted characters involved? You have a version of Darth Vader here, and Star Trek, and a lot of Disney references…
TP: It’s very similar to the process we go through in South Park. It’s all about being able to justify it as parody.
MS: It’s parody because it’s obvious if you watch it that Lucas and Disney weren’t involved. That’s very important. We deal with that weekly on South Park.
Q: Any plans to turn this into a movie?
TP: We don’t have any. When we first started working on it seven years ago, we toyed with the idea of it being a Broadway show or being a movie. Obviously, since Matt and I know how to make a movie, we said “we’ll just do that!” But we stuck with it, and after we saw the first few workshops with an audience, we saw that it could work on stage. Of course, I was always visualizing scenes cinematically, because that’s what I do, but to do it as a movie now… it wouldn’t be a really difficult thing, but it would be a pretty different animal when we were done with it. We don’t talk about it or think about it right now, but it’s certainly possible. Right now, we’re still focused on the play. Plays are really hard!
Matt Stone: And as we’ve learned, and as this L.A. production shows, they’re never really done. We’re used to – especially with South Park – you finish the show, you send it off, and the next morning I honestly couldn’t tell you what that show’s about. We’re so good at wiping the hard disk and being done. Movies are the same thing, but theater… it’s just never done.
Q: Do you like that process, the theatrical process?
MS: Some parts of it yes, other parts no. It’s just new, it’s a different thing. And with a new company… it’s a whole different show. It’s a great show but a different show. You have to find the strengths of the actors and so on. That part of it is surprising us.
TP: And it did take us seven years. And we wouldn’t want to just say “well that worked well,” and then just crap another one out in two years. Do a Miss Saigon all over again.
Q: Has this success brought any renewed energy and enthusiasm for South Park?
TP: Sure, but with South Park, we still write and direct it ourselves. We haven’t handed it off. And as we grow older, it’s fun because it changes with us. We’re like one of those bands who can look back on their old albums and see where we were at that point in our lives.
MS: Luckily we’ve created a town, and we can do more stories with the adults instead of just the kids.
TP: Yeah, I was all about being Stan. But now I’m way into being Stan’s dad. I’m doing way more with him now.
Q: Do you feel confident going forward with other plays and musical now?
TP: Definitely, but only because we had the best people around us for this one. We got schooled quick and any success we enjoyed came about because of them. We always said that if we could get this thing to run for a year on Broadway, we could say it was a success. So we’re fine, we’re happy