Ready or not Chicago, 'The Book of Mormon'

The unruly child from 'South Park' creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker arrives at the Bank of America Theatre this month. Are audiences prepared?

CULVER CITY, Calif. — It's 4:30 p.m. on a warm November Monday in a nondescript building in Culver City. Trey Parker is pacing around the writers room at the so-called South Park Studios — which, once you're inside, feels like a cross between a frenetic, high-tech work space and a deluxe rec room with toys, couches and candy — as his best friend and creative partner, Matt Stone, leans back in his chair, ever the relaxed, ruminative, inquisitive counterweight to Parker's perpetually coiled spring.

Parker and Stone are working on the finale of Season 16 of their outrageously successful and long-lived animated "South Park" series, which is all about the exploits of a bunch of big-headed little boys (Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Eric Cartman and Kenny McCormick) who attend elementary school in central Colorado, where Parker and Stone grew up, to some extent. Along with Robert Lopez, they are also the creators of a little Broadway musical about to open in Chicago called "The Book of Mormon," the secret to the success of which is surely to be found in this room.

On a whiteboard in the rear of the room are scrawled a bunch of bizarre non sequiturs and the name of the week's episode: "Obama Wins!"

There are a couple of unusual things about this moment.

The episode is slated to air on Comedy Central the following Wednesday. There is an outline of a beginning, middle and end, but "Obama Wins!" is not even close to finished. Yet this is already Monday afternoon. More incredibly, none of the executives at Comedy Central, the cable network whose name "South Park" made, has seen even a word of the script of "Obama Wins!" even though "South Park" has courted controversy with a constancy that would turn most network suits into the kinds of nervous Nellies who would be prowling these very halls.

And there's a wild card: Obama has not yet won anything. The presidential election is still one day away. Indeed, at this juncture, it feels quite likely that the election will be hung up in recounts, producing no winner by the time the roughly 2.5 million viewers who tune in to a new "South Park" episode will be craving their weekly fix.

"We're not worried," says Parker, sounding not the slightest bit worried. "We're not worried," says Stone, sounding quite worried.

Stone starts to mumble about how the part of the episode that has been finished could be reanimated in the middle of the night Tuesday to reflect the election of America's first Mormon president, thus putting a former Mormon missionary in the White House and imbuing Parker and Stone, who have made a bucket load of cash from Mormons and their book and their missionary zeal, with a delicious new four-year trove of material.

When that prospect is brought up, Parker and Stone briefly salivate (their actual politics have long been the subject of international speculation), but Parker waves off the very notion of a Mitt Romney victory. He is more interested in figuring out how to fuse Disney's recently announced purchase of the George Lucas empire into the season finale. And he likes his main idea for the episode, which is that Cartman, the show's pint-sized Archie Bunker, has hijacked the entire election, anyway.

"Obama Wins!" not yet written, already is bulletproof in Parker's head. It won't matter which presidential candidate is victorious the following day or whether the contest will drag on for weeks. "South Park" will win either way.

"We never actually finish or feel like we're done," Stone says. "Finally, we just run up against a deadline."

This is the way Parker and Stone work, the way they have worked for 16 years, the way they have made their fortunes. It hasn't mattered whether it has been their TV show, their 1999 movie ("South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut") or their colossally successful "Book of Mormon," a massive, money-spinning hit on Broadway despite initial worries about the outrageousness of its content.

As of Dec. 11, the musical is poised to have a massive economic impact on Chicago. A dedicated company (which will become the second national tour) is poised to take up residence at the Bank of America Theatre for a year or maybe longer, likely raking in close to $2 million per week at the box office (sales records are likely to fall) and testing the tolerance of Midwesterners for the deeply, profoundly profane.

One crucial test, though, Midwesterners already have passed. "The Book of Mormon" is sold out in Chicago for the first three months of its run, despite some eye-popping ticket prices ($115 and higher).

Weekly all-nighters in Culver City

There is a dinner menu at the South Park Studios reception desk. There is headache medicine on a counter. Nobody is leaving the building as the sun sets. Everyone knows a pair of all-nighters likely await, just as they do every week when South Park is in production here. Many on the staff of roughly 70 have been with the show almost since its beginnings. This the way the whole darn place likes to work.

No show in the history of television has been more notoriously obscene (in one famous 2001 episode, "It Hits the Fan," a popular epithet was referenced, sans beeps, 200 times, or about once every eight seconds). No show has lambasted Christianity (and Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary) with more frequency or satirical severity. There were the Season 14 episodes that satirized the controversy over the depiction of Muhammad, which resulted in death threats being made against Parker and Stone. In the very early days, there was Mr. Hankey, a talking piece of poop. There was the horror of British schoolteachers when their charges voted that boorish youth Cartman their favorite personality in 1999, an event the British tabloids saw as roughly akin to the fall of Western civilization.

"We used to get story notes from our executive," laughs Anne Garefino, the warm and friendly longtime co-executive producer of "South Park" and (along with the New York producer Scott Rudin) a lead producer of "The Book of Mormon," as she stands with a guest watching the audition of sweet, blond-haired little kid who has to say the incongruous line "I don't want to be a Republican" while wearing headphones about six sizes too large. Garefino, the coach, cop, administrator and den mother of the entire "South Park" empire, is talking like a pro baseball star recalling Little League days. "Script notes would be unheard of now," she says. "We've been doing this for 16 years. I think they can trust us."

Even as her guest is distracted by his amazement that "South Park" is, at this eleventh-hour moment, still auditioning talent, child talent at that (Broadway types would be in a panic by now), Garefino chats wistfully about the very early years of "South Park," when there were battles to be fought and barriers to be broken. Now, all she does each week is have a quick chat with a friendly lawyer, mostly to make sure that the episode passes the parody test when it comes to the intellectual property of others (this particular week, the use of the "Star Wars" brand was an issue), and then she uploads the episode directly to Comedy Central, via the satellite dish on the other side of the front studio door.

The network receives the episode in its complete packaged form right before the show airs. Heck, some weeks the script is only finished, let alone animated, a matter of hours before the show airs. Comedy Central gets what it pays handsomely for right when there will be no time whatsoever for the network to do anything about anything. Like the Mormons, it just has to operate on faith. And it does.