ENTERTAINMENT

'Book Of Mormon' From 'South Park': How Cult Cartoon Potty Mouths Matt Stone And Trey Parker Reinvented Musical Theatre

18/03/2013 17:10 GMT | Updated 22/03/2013 17:28 GMT

The most eye-catching poster plastered on billboards these past six months has undoubtedly been for 'The Book Of Mormon', the comedy musical that opens in the UK this week.

It’s not so much the amusing image of a leaping Mormon that stands out but the review quotes that run along the top and bottom.

bookofmormon

"Sets a new standard for the 21st century Broadway musical," yells Entertainment Weekly. "The best musical of this century,” nods the New York Times. "So f**king good it makes me angry," adds 'The Daily Show's Jon Stewart - these are no single adjectives plucked from the pages of little-known blogs but gushing praise from some of most respected critics in America.

The musical, which tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries on a recruiting drive in Uganda, has been no less of a hit with audiences. After opening in March 2011, 'The Book Of Mormon' spent a year barely out of the top five best-selling shows on Broadway, setting 22 new weekly sales records as audiences paid an average of $170 (£112) per ticket. It barely feels necessary to quote the nine Tony Awards and the Grammy.

But how did a musical comedy about a fringe religion - however good it is – manage to become the biggest mainstream theatre hit of the past decade?

The answer is that its creators are two of the most divisive and controversial comedy writers in the US who have spent the past twenty years facing accusations of corrupting America’s young, enraging world religions and producing ‘the most dangerous show on television’ – 'South Park'.

Surely, then, despite all the plaudits, someone, somewhere is very upset about 'The Book Of Mormon'?

Jesus vs Frosty (1992)

The story of how Matt Stone and Trey Parker went from a being a pair of bored University of Colorado film students to the most powerful force in American satire began in 1992.

After bonding over a mutual love of Monty Python, the pair set about making an animated short called 'Jesus vs Frosty', a DIY production made using paper, glue and an old 8mm film camera.

Fans of 'South Park' will clearly recognise the film as the genesis of the show. The four main characters – Stan, Kyle Eric and Kenny – are more or less all present, as is the ongoing joke about Kenny’s death and the “I learned something today…” monologue that closes most episodes.

Three years later, the short was picked up by Fox executive Brian Graden who paid Stone and Parker to make another film he could use as a video Christmas card to send to friends. For a cool $2,000, they obliged with 'Jesus vs Santa', not knowing they were about to become one of the first benefactors of a very modern fairytale: the viral hit. Comedy Central found 'Jesus vs Santa' doing the rounds online and immediately offered Stone and Parker a series. 'Cartman Gets an Anal Probe' premiered on 13 August 1997 and American animation – not to mention the lexicon of 14-year-old boys across the world – would never be the same again.

With its mixture of bad language and lewd jokes, 'South Park' delighted younger viewers and horrified their parents in equal measure. Much of the early success was helped by the show’s crude animation style (which remains today). At a glance 'South Park' looked like something made for the pre-teen market, when in reality the content made previous ‘adult cartoons’ like 'Beavis and Butthead' or 'King Of The Hill' feel like the 'Teletubbies'.

Parents and teachers soon cottoned on but, by that time, 'South Park' was well on the way to being a cultural (and merchandising) phenomenon. A flurry of condemnations from conservative groups and outraged media only fanned the flames, as did headline-grabbing attempts to ban 'South Park' t-shirts from schools. By 1999, the cartoon had spread to corrupt children in the UK too - a much publicised poll of eight and nine-year-olds saw Eric Cartman nominated their ‘favourite personality’.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

Parker and Stone were initially stunned by the unprecedented success of 'South Park' and the criticism they faced for it. But rather than quit or just keep milking the formula, they reacted by sharpening their sense of satire. What began as mostly toilet humour evolved quickly into toilet humour with a caustic bite aimed at politicians, celebrity culture and anyone with sanctimonious or hypocritical liberal values. This new approach reached its apex with the release of their first feature film, 'South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut'.

The film attracted the usual complaints about its explicit content but was a critical and commercial hit, gaining positive reviews and grossing $83m worldwide against a modest $21m budget. But the real legacy of 'Bigger, Longer & Uncut' was in showing the wider world what 'South Park’s cult following already knew: Stone and Parker were far more than just potty mouthed heroes for naughty schoolboys. Above all else, it was witty dissection of a subject already close to their heart - the hysteria and hypocrisy that accompanies debates on censorship.

Team America: World Police (2004)

With 'South Park’s reputation as America’s satirical scatter gun complete, the show hit what is widely seen as its richest vein of form across seasons 4-8. Despite this Stone and Parker weren’t content and in 2004, released their first high profile project that had nothing to do with the show.

'Team America' was – and remains – the most overtly political work the pair have produced. Arriving three years into the George Bush administration and one year after the president first uttered the words ‘war on terror’, the film took aim at America’s unilateral tendencies to take military action around the world (in this case against North Korean leader Kim Jong-il).

Parker and Stone's attempt to ‘mock the war on terror’ caused outrage as soon as the plot details were known. One conservative group, Move America Forward, claimed Team America was akin to spoofing the Nazis during World War II, and statement from an ambiguous source within the Bush administration joined in the condemnation.

Despite this, 'Team America' was no out-and-out attack on right wing ideology. The posturing of left-wing celebrities was equally savaged. The film – another commercial success earning $51m worldwide – was evidence, like 'South Park', that no one was to be spared Parker and Stone’s scorn.

South Park vs Religion (2005 – 2006)

From the very beginning religion was a regular target in 'South Park', with Christian piety and the figure of Jesus Christ himself regularly used in episodes. But it wasn’t until the period after 'Team America' when the show began to really push those boundaries.

First the episode 'Bloody Mary' from season 9, in which the Virgin Mary suffers from overt menstruation and sprays Pope Benedict with blood, was targeted by American Catholic groups who lobbied Comedy Central to remove the show from rotation and keep it off DVDs. Religious groups in New Zealand had a similar reaction to the episode the following year. Both were unsuccessful.

Then, in March 2006, 'South Park' suffered from an internal dispute when Isaac Hayes, the voice of recurring character Chef, quit the show. Hayes had taken objection to the portrayal of Scientology (of which he was a member) in the episode 'Trapped In Closet'.

In what was perhaps a sign of the shifting power balance in world religions, Scientology appeared to succeed where Christianity failed. The episode was replaced on Comedy Central by a rerun of an old episode without Parker or Stone being notified. Rumours soon surfaced that Viacom, Comedy Central’s parent comedy, had been spooked by a threat by Tom Cruise to boycott a publicity tour for their forthcoming release 'Mission: Impossible III' unless the episode was pulled.

“So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun!” began Parker and Stone’s mocking response to the controversy. The episode was finally aired later in the year, and was nominated for an Emmy.

Mohammed (2010)

If Parker and Stone’s experiences with religious groups had felt controversial up until that point, four years later, another 'South Park' episode would make ‘Closetgate’ look no worse than a mildly critical review.

In 2010, police in New York were investigating whether a car bomb in Times Square was targeted at Parker and Stone, after 'South Park' mocked the Islamic faith and depicted the Prophet Mohammed.

The pair had already been stopped from portraying Mohammed by Comedy Central in 2006 following the worldwide protests over a caricature by a Danish cartoonist, but four years later, Stone and Parker got their way. The fact the Prophet was dressed in a bear suit was relatively tame by 'South Park’s standards, but it didn’t stop uproar in the Islamic world and The Telegraph in Britain asking whether 'South Park' was the ‘most dangerous show on television’.

Matt Stone later defended the episode as a bastion in the battle for free speech, saying: "Cartoonists, people who do satire - we're not in the army, we're never going to be f---ing drafted and this is our time to do the right thing."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (2011 - 2013)

If 'The Book Of Mormon' has confounded expectations, it’s not been with the awards or accolades. Despite numerous controversies, Stone and Parker’s record for producing hits has been grudgingly accepted even by their worst critics.

Instead, the biggest surprise of the show is how it has been received by the religious community that is ostensibly seeks to mock.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has 14.4m members across a America – just 2% of the population – many of whom hoped, during Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign last year, that their religion was on the cusp of a positive reinvention in the eyes of the rest of the country.

Instead, they’ve found themselves benefiting from perhaps the most unlikely source they could have thought of.

"The official church response was something along the lines of 'The Book of Mormon the musical might entertain you for a night, but the Book of Mormon,'—the book as scripture—'will change your life through Jesus.’ Which we actually completely agree with,” Stone said recently.

“That's a cool, American response to a ribbing… we weren't that surprised. We had faith in them."

That 'cool response' even led to the church taking out adverts in the programs at several venues to encourage people learn more about the The Book Of Mormon, using the delightful line ‘the book is always better’. Some Mormon commentators have spoken out against the play, but many others have echoed the church's official line and welcomed the publicity it has brought them.

And so, after two decades winding up as many politicians, celebrities and religious groups as they can, Stone and Parker have scored arguably the biggest hit of their careers while managing not to upset, well, anyone.

There is a positivity and sweetness in 'The Book Of Mormon' and its characters which hints that Parker and Stone's satire is becoming more nuanced, rather than losing its teeth - the accumulation, perhaps, of all their experiences since making a paper Jesus in 1992.

Does this mean we’ll start seeing subtlety and restraint in 'South Park'? It seems unlikely, but with the show still under contract up to 2016, we’ll know soon enough.