3:00 PM CST, November 30, 2012
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.
"We do have a standards-and-practices team" Garefino says, as if suddenly remembering its existence. "Which is laughable given what we get away with." About the only thing Garefino, Parker and Stone say they don't touch any more is Islam. That whole situation was not funny, even to them. Mormons, experience has shown, are safer.
As Garefino talks, the cute kid keeps mangling the "Republican" line, as his horrified mother (horrified because her chirpy but defiant kid refuses to say it right and thus score a gig on "South Park") cringes in the corner. As different creative versions of the line are spoken into the microphone ("I want to say the line this way," says the precocious kid, "I don't want to say it that way"), a pressured staffer, who has a matter of minutes to find a kid who will say the line as written and get him on tape, tries to be nice to the munchkin while stopping the smoke from rising from his ears.
Garefino, unfazed, moves on into the animation studio, where artists are coloring in Kyle and Kenny on huge computer monitors, and then to an editing studio, where Stone has moved to give notes ("faster" is a big one). Because this is the last episode of the season, there is an end-of-term feeling around the joint, but most of these staffers have year-round jobs. There is a project to take all the early "South Park" episodes and redo them for HDTV; there is a Web operation; and there is a "South Park" video game in the works, which will receive Parker and Stone's full attention, like all their enterprises.
Once they can get "The Book of Mormon" off their backs. If they ever can.
Begotting an offspring with a major attitude
Unlike a "South Park" episode, a Broadway hit of this heft is not done in a week. It is workshopped, premiered, toured, toured again, toured yet again, internationalized, diminished, franchised revived and so on and so on.
"We first started talking about this," Parker says, "in 2004. It feels like we gave birth to a child." And now the child is off on a new mission, with his parents not quite knowing how and when to let him go.
"The Book of Mormon" was a huge success on Broadway to no small extent because Garefino and Rudin, the savviest of Broadway producers, managed to replicate the "South Park" way of working. Parker and Stone were paired with experienced Broadway hands in Lopez and choreographer and co-director Casey Nicholaw. But they were given the same level of creative control and freedom. "The Book of Mormon" did not go through out-of-town tryouts, as is customary with new musicals, but went right into Broadway, with Rudin intentionally amping up the pressure to work fast.
On press night in New York, a press agent declined to give out the show script or lyrics, as is customary. Clearly, Rudin had deduced that it would be good for business if "South Park" fans had to seek lines out for themselves on YouTube or gossip boards, devouring their discovery in exactly the way they devour new episodes of the TV show. It worked.
In many ways, this secondary life of "The Book of Mormon" actually is far more challenging for Garefino, Parker and Stone, who are perfectionists and genial control freaks, than its initial creation. They are caught between their own determination to maintain quality — there are no associates in charge of the Chicago production, and that means these touring productions have had to be rolled out slowly, between "South Park" seasons — and their own love of moving on to the next fun thing. At one point, Garefino says, she had a monitor in her Culver City office, allowing her to watch the New York production of "Book of Mormon" live, each and every night. At first, she did nothing else. Now, she doesn't watch so much. She has realized she couldn't get anything else done.
For their part, Parker and Stone are just not accustomed to revisiting their creative works. "I can't even imagine what it would be like if we had the chance to go back and change those early 'South Park' episodes,'" Parker says, shuddering at the very notion. "We had no idea what we were doing back then. They are unbearable. They should be buried. But with the show, it's like you have this kid that's out there in the world, and it's out there whether you pay attention to it or not. So you try to be a good parent and guide it the right way. But if you try to guide it too much, you're being an overbearing parent, and you f--- it up even more."
"I suppose this will sound conceited," Stone goes on. "But there are only about 800,000 people who have seen this show so far. That does not seem very many to us. We get more than that tuning in to a Sunday night rerun of 'South Park,' which is now available in, like, 16 kinds of media all over the world. Yet the show is this thing you have to go and see, and only a relatively small number of people have. This is very strange for us."
That's true, of course. But those "South Park" viewers aren't paying Broadway prices or investing so intensely in the experience. And Parker and Stone say they understand that increased commitment on the part of their fans, which is why they will be present at the Bank of America Theatre as "Book of Mormon" goes through its final rehearsals and previews. They have figured out "points of insertion" where they can be the most help. They also say they've been fascinated to work with humans instead of animated kids who only move or talk when so empowered by their masters.
"We're just so used to quick turnarounds," Parker says, "that there definitely is this feeling that this is the child that won't go away. But luckily there's a whole new cast each time that breathes new life into it, so it feels fresh."
That said, the production processes of these tours don't contain any meaningful changes from the Broadway original. Why mess up a hit? "We did it perfect the first time," says Parker, dryly.
Go ahead and offend all the way
As "The Book of Mormon," winner of the 2011 Tony Award for best musical, gets rolled out beyond the island of Manhattan (the Chicago production is the third, following the Broadway original and the first national tour, with London to follow early in 2013), there is much interest in the question as to whether audiences outside New York will embrace the show's outrageous mockery of young Mormon missionaries and their doctrine — and the humor that involves references to such sacred cows as, say, genital mutilation in Africa.
The plot, as now is well known, involves a pair of missionary buddies who are sent to Uganda (rather than their desired location, Orlando, Fla.), which Stone describes as a "stand-in for the worst place on Earth." (Uganda, not Orlando.) Already, there has been speculation in The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times about where "The Book of Mormon" can or can't tour (Utah, anyone?). There are those who say that the Brits won't understand it; there are those who say it won't ever play in the South; there are even some who think it will run out of juice in Chicago more quickly than some think.
Parker and Stone have a stock answer for all this: There are "South Park" fans everywhere; the more apparently conservative the community, the more frenetic the freethinkers; and "South Park" has always been a long way from an elitist, bicoastal aesthetic. And the "South Park" aesthetic is identical to the "Book of Mormon" aesthetic.
"When we opened in Denver," Stone says of the home-turf debut of the first national tour, "the audience reaction was almost identical to how it was in New York."
So how exactly does "South Park" get away with this? How can it be so outrageous and so simultaneously popular, when conventional theatrical wisdom says otherwise?
It wouldn't be accurate to discount the huge contributions of co-writer and co-composer Lopez ("The Book of Mormon" has much in common with "Avenue Q" as well) and Nicholaw, who knew more than Parker about moving actual people through time and space. Still, the answer to a question that is preoccupying a slew of would-be "Book of Mormon" imitators probably can most readily be found at the South Park Studios. One especially intriguing antecedent is Season 9, Episode 12, titled "Trapped in the Closet," wherein Stan is revealed to be the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
"That episode was a benchmark for us," Garefino says. "Our attorney kept saying, 'I want you to do everything you want to do, but I want you to get right to the edge of where you are almost getting sued. I want you to go as far as you can and get as close to that edge as you possibly can.'"
So what is the edge? "Well, we couldn't say that Tom Cruise was gay," Garefino says. "But we could say that Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet, but then we literally had to put Tom Cruise in a closet to make that work. Our attorney, who was great, kept saying, 'The more people you can put in that closest, the better it will be for me.' So we put more and more people in the closet. It was a fascinating, really amazing week. We learned how far we can go."
In other words, Garefino and her boys figured out that the further you go, the more protected (legally, aesthetically, with your audience) you become. At one point the show had every intention of just killing off its main character. ("Elder Price," says Stone, "was just going to die, just because nobody ever does that.") Clearly, the protective powers of going to the edge informed "The Book of Mormon," which had chins on the floor by going so very much further than any Broadway show ever had gone before. The raping of African babies as the content of a gag had, hitherto, been off limits on the Great White Way.
"The show really did come from the discoveries on 'South Park,'" Garefino says. "If you know Matt and Trey's work on 'South Park' and how it developed, and then you see 'The Book of Mormon,' it all makes sense."
Of course, mere outrageousness does not a Broadway musical make. There is the little matter of storytelling. And that, along with a good dose of heart, is the "South Park" secret weapon No. 2.
In the first act of "Mormon," most of the jokes come at the expense of the naive missionaries, whose assumptions are continually challenged and beliefs undermined. But just when that is starting to feel like shooting fish in a barrel, the show makes a crucial shift. Elder Cunningham, one of the central missionaries, decides to take the Mormon doctrine and fit it to the needs of the people of Uganda. That allows for a hilarious "Uncle Tom's Cabin"-style pageant in Act 2, when the Mormon elders are confronted with compromising their doctrinal beliefs. But it also makes you love the missionary, because you see he is just doing his best in the kind of tough situation we've all experienced. In other words, the show does a clever, 180-degree turn, switching the initial objects of ridicule into kind-hearted (if naive) protagonists with whom you cannot help but empathize.
That is a classic "South Park" trick. If those boys were not lovable, nobody would still be watching.
Don't go out there looking for laughs
By the Wednesday of that week, Obama has indeed won his election (Romney and Cartman notwithstanding), "Obama Wins!" has been finished on time, and, on the opposite coast of America, the latest, made-for-Chicago version of Parker and Stone's "Mormon" is in a 42nd Street rehearsal room, filled with fresh-faced lads bubbling with the kind of morning enthusiasm your typical Mormon missionary would struggle to muster.
The Chicago cast is rehearsing "Hello," the show's hugely popular opening number that involves Mormons ringing doorbells. The actors look as if they were in preschool when "South Park" started its run.
After they sing the number, Nicholaw gives notes. "You have to believe you are really going to get an answer," he tells the actors. "You have to have faith." It's a way of translating a truism that Parker and Stone say they found out long ago: When anyone doing their material really tries to be funny, he fails to be funny.
"Our sense of humor really is a brand, a take," Parker says. "Part of the joke of everything we do is how seriously everyone takes it. It's that way with 'South Park,' and it's that way with 'Book of Mormon.' The moment anyone feels like they have to be funny, you're screwed."
"This show requires actors that have restraint," Stone says. "They have to know there will be a bigger laugh to come."
Here in New York, the actors listen politely (not unlike missionaries) as Nicholaw reminds them of that gospel. On that morning, the Chicago cast had yet to meet Parker and Stone. But Parker and Stone are coming, and they're eagerly awaited.
Will Parker and Stone be coming back to Broadway? Hard to say. First, they say probably not, then both say various shades of maybe, if they could come up with the right idea, being as they enjoyed it so much, with the caveat that the pressure of a follow-up would be something with which to wrestle. They insist they still don't know what they are doing.
"I wish," Parker says, "that there was an easy way to do what we do. But even after 16 years, every episode of 'South Park' is a f---ing nightmare."
But then Stone tells a funny little story about Parker running away from the theater in a tense moment during Broadway "Mormon" previews and disappearing down 8th Avenue. And Parker smiles. "When 'South Park' airs, I'm usually having dinner or not thinking about it," Stone says. "There might be 2 million people watching, but I'm not in the room with them."
Broadway, it becomes clear, mattered to Parker and Stone a great deal. And, it seems clear, so will Chicago. "I think there is a hunger to get back to a movie," says Parker, when pushed for future plans. "It is nice when something stays done."