The Book of Mormon, the musical comedy co-written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, went into previews on Broadway the week I turned in my dissertation on images of the Latter-day Saints in American culture from 1890 to the present. Sadly, this meant that while I quoted much of Parker and Stone’s work in my dissertation (South Park, Cannibal! The Musical, Orgazmo), I did NOT include a discussion of their Tony-winning musical in my work. Last week, I finally got to see the show, and because I so enjoyed my conversation with Matthew Bowman about Angels in America, I asked him if he’d join me here to help me think through my first encounter with Parker and Stone’s Book of Mormon.
MB: Why Mormons? What is it particularly about Mormonism that makes it an appealing subject for a show like this—as opposed to, say, foreign service officers or the Peace Corps or Mother Teresa?
CHJ: First and foremost, we’re talking about Trey Parker and Matt Stone here. The creators of South Park have long had a fascination with Mormonism that goes at least as far back as their first film, a student project completed at UC-Boulder, Cannibal! The Musical (1993). Mormons also feature prominently in their first feature film, Orgazmo (1997), and several episodes of South Park.
Why not focus on other missionaries or foreign services? If some sort of foreign missionizing is your context, what’s more iconic and more immediately recognizable in American culture than Mormon missionaries? Peace Corps volunteers don’t all have a recognizable style of dress or accessory, but people recognize Mormon missionaries for traveling in pairs, for dressing conservatively (the young men’s “uniform” is especially identifiable), and for wearing those easy-to-spot black name tags.
And as for Mother Teresa… well, I’m not sure even Parker and Stone would take her on as an object of protracted ridicule (she has been featured briefly on South Park in the past). The audience wouldn’t stand for it. Mormons, on the other hand, are totally acceptable to most Americans as the butt of a good joke. [Read more...]