Subversive, satirical, and sold out
After 15 years, Comedy Central's hit animated series "South Park" is still dishing up crude jokes and subversive plot lines. Its irreverent creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone haven't found a line they won't cross. Correspondent Steve Kroft profiles the team, following their zany creative process from television to Broadway, where their musical comedy, "The Book of Mormon," is also a huge success.
The following script is from "Parker & Stone" which aired on Sept. 25, 2011. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. Graham Messick, producer.
If you came to New York this summer to see a Broadway play or a musical, chances are the one show you couldn't get tickets for was "The Book of Mormon." And if you want to come and see it next summer, you would be well-advised to book your reservations now.
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The new musical is from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of "South Park," a show that changed the face of cable TV and is currently celebrating its 15th season. Now, they are working their magic on the Great White Way with another outrageous satire. And it is not their first musical - the South Park movie included the Oscar-nominated song, "Blame Canada." Now they are the toast of Broadway.
This has been the scene outside the Eugene O'Neil Theater since March, as people line up for "The Book of Mormon," the hottest ticket on Broadway. It has already grossed $32 million, is sold out for the next five months, and probably will be for years to come. And that is music to the ears of its two creators, Trey Parker, on the left, and Matt Stone, on the right.
Steve Kroft: Were you surprised it's been so successful?
Trey Parker: Yeah. I mean we thought it was good. We thought the songs were really good, but we didn't think it was going to be like this.
Elder Price in "The Book of Mormon" [singing]: Hello. My name is Elder Price.
The musical is not just a satire of clean-cut, earnest Mormons with some unorthodox beliefs. It's a playful send- up of all organized religion.
Elder Young [singing]: Hello, my name is Elder Young. Did you know that Jesus lived here in the U.S.A?
It's the story of two mismatched missionaries played by Andrew Rannels and Josh Gad, who are sent to Africa to proselytize to pagans who have heard similar spiels before with no meaningful results.
Mafala: In this part of Africa, we all have a saying. Whenever something bad happens, we just throw our hands up into the sky and say, "Hasa Diga Eebowai."
Elder Cunningham: Does it mean no worries for the rest of our days?
Mafala: Kind of!
Mafala [singing]: We've had no food for several days. And 80% of us have AIDS.
All [singing]: Hasa Diga Eebowai! Hasa Diga Eebowai.
What the Mormons don't know, but soon will find out is that the locals are flipping the finger at their heavenly father.
Elder Cunningham: F.U. to Heavenly Father?! Holy Moly, I said it like 13 times!!
It is rude, crude, lewd and blasphemous. But it hasn't kept critics from proclaiming "The Book of Mormon" the best Broadway musical in a decade, or stop it from racking up nine Tony Awards. And for theater-going fans of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it's exactly what they expected from the creators of "South Park."
Matt Stone: A lot of the stuff, the subject matter we've tackled, the way we found ourselves there, is simply by trying to do something that no one else has touched. And so it's like, "There's a reason why people haven't touched that." And we're like, "Oh yeah, cause we want to do jokes other people haven't done, you know."
Kroft: Are there lines that you won't cross?
Stone: No. I don't, yeah, we haven't found one yet.
They are barely 40 and have already been collaborating for 20 years. They met in film class at the University of Colorado and were partnered up to work on a project, quickly discovering that they shared a love of Monty Python and a subversive sense of humor.
Kroft: What were you like back then?
Parker: Really cool. Just amazingly cool.
Stone: Most popular guys at CU.
Kroft: Do you remember what the attraction was?
Parker: I just remember our senses of humor were just so similar that we would just really crack each other up and it got to the, it got really annoying for everyone else in film school.
Stone acting in film: Watch out for that bear trap. What? [snap!]
At ages 19 and 20, they raised $100,000 to make a movie about a Colorado prospector named Alfred Packer, who was forced to dine on his colleagues while snowbound in the mountains. "Cannibal! The Musical" was rejected by the Sundance Film Festival, but Parker and Stone went anyway and held guerilla screenings in a hotel conference room.
Kroft: Did the film get released?
Stone: Uh-huh. Sort of.
Parker: Basically, on video.
Stone: Yeah, I guess that's, I guess that's what you could call it, a release.
Kroft: I can like buy it on Amazon.com?
Stone: Yeah. I bet you can.
Parker: You might not want to pay more than a dollar for it, but--
Stone: You may not like the price.
They moved to Hollywood and spent three whole years as starving young artists, until a studio executive gave them $1,200 and asked them to make a video Christmas card that he could send to his friends.
Stone: We went back to Colorado. And we spent three or four weeks cutting out construction paper and we did this little thing called "The Spirit of Christmas."
Jesus: Behold my Glory.
Kyle: Holy sh*t, it's Jesus.
The primitive five-minute cartoon featured an epic battle between Jesus and Santa Claus over control of the holiday, as witnessed by a group of young boys that would eventually become the South Park kids.
Jesus: Help me put an end to him once and for all!
Santa: No boys, help me! Stan, remember the choo choo when you were three?
Jesus: I died for your sins boys. Don't forget that.
The video became an underground sensation. Bootleg copies circulated all over the country, and ended up in the VCR machines of entertainment executives in L.A., New York and London.
Parker: That became so huge. I mean, it really was so viral, before YouTube and all that. All of a sudden, people wanted to meet us more. And we got meetings everywhere all of a sudden and people were like, "Ok, what do you want to do?"
They eventually signed a contract to produce six episodes of a cartoon show based on "The Spirit of Christmas" for a fledgling cable network called Comedy Central. The show was named "South Park" after a real place in a remote part of Colorado, where Trey Parker says strange things always seemed to happen.
Parker: South Park was where everyone growing up, all the stories would come where like, "Oh, did you hear they found another UFO? There's been all these cattle mutilations." It was like, "Where?" "South Park."
Their version of South Park would become a creative petri dish to examine and parody all the truly weird things going on in the adult world of America, as seen through the eyes of four elementary school boys, who try to make sense of it all.
Parker: We used to talk about "All in the Family." And we were big fans of "All in the Family." In the time of the early nineties we were kind of sitting there going, you know, a show like that couldn't be on the air right now. You couldn't do it because things are so PC. You couldn't have an Archie Bunker. And we used to talk about how, you know, if Archie Bunker was eight years old, I bet you could do it.
Mr. Garrison in "South Park": By the way children there's a walkout scheduled today to protest the war in Iraq. So if you're against the war, run along outside. And if you're for the war stay here and we'll do math problems.
Kids in unison: Yaay!!
A common device is to drop the kids in the middle of some explosive situation and surround them with extremes on all sides of an issue.
Mr. Mackey in "South Park": Oh, here you go boys. These'll help you protest.
Reporter: Tom Statsel, HBC News. Can you tell me why you kids marched out of school today?
Stan: Um... War?
Pro-war protestor: Hey all you un-American bastards. If you don't like America why don't you git out?!
The show regularly takes on race and and bigotry.
Pat Sajak in "South Park": OK. The category is "People Who Annoy You."
Randy: I know it but I don't think I should say it.
In this episode one of the boys' father makes an embarrassing appearance on "Wheel of Fortune."
Randy: Oh. Naggers. Of course.
And then there was this, on the financial crisis.
Banker: How can I help you young man?
Stan: I got a $100 check from my grandma and my dad says I have to put it in the bank so it can grow over the years.
Banker: Well that's fantastic, a really smart decision young man. We can put that check in a money market mutual fund, then we'll reinvest the earnings in a foreign currency account with compounding interest aaannd... it's gone.
Stan: Uh. What?
Banker: It's gone. It's all gone.
Stan: What's gone?
Banker: The money in your account. It didn't do too well. It's gone.
Stan: What do you mean? I have $100!
Banker: Not any more you don't. Poof!
It is worth reminding the uninitiated viewer that we are showing you sanitized scenes suitable for network television, not the cable, movie or DVD versions, in which the dialogue can be scatological as well as philosophical, and every bit as profane as it is profound. It is usually pitch-perfect to anyone who has spent any time around 10-year-olds aspiring to be adolescents.
Kroft: I bet if you eavesdropped on a bunch of fourth graders today, the language would be pretty close to what you hear on "South Park."
Stone: I think we talked like this when I was in fourth and fifth grade. You know, you learned those bad words, you just know how to shut it off when the adults were around.
Parker: And it was like let's do a show where kids talk the way kids talk, 'cause at the time, we were, you know, just out of college, like we remember.
Stone: Maybe that's it. We were young enough to remember. Now we're remembering remembering.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Parker and Stone is that over the past 15 years, they have written directed and voiced the major characters in every scene of more than 200 episodes of "South Park."
Stone [in character]: Then why did you lie about not seeing Clyde Frog the night he died.
Parker [in character]: I know that I'm awesome and cool Polly Prissypants.
Their typical week begins on Thursday in this L.A. conference room with a blank story board and a brainstorming session that includes executive producer Anne Garefino and two staff writers.
Stone: And you have like a typical like Cartman comes in...
They have six days to deliver a completed episode to Comedy Central, that will air the following Wednesday. That usually means five ten-to-twelve hour days and one all-nighter. As soon as they have an idea for a scene, Parker will sit down and bang it out and then hand it off to the animators, and if necessary to their lawyers.
Parker: We probably have more freedom than anyone in television and we have for a long time, but we do still at the end of the day.
Stone: We have legal.
Parker: We have lawyers. We have legal.
One of their touchiest episodes was about Scientology, a notoriously litigious group. Parker and Stone wanted to include a scene dealing with tabloid rumors that Tom Cruise, its most famous member, was secretly gay.
Parker: And actually the joke was just, "Ok, we're gonna have Tom Cruise show up and he's flamboyantly gay and whatever," and, like, "Yeah, but you can't say he's gay." And it's like, "Ok, but we can say he's, like, closeted gay. And, they're like, "No, you really can't say that either." Like, and it just became this thing of, like, "What if he's literally in a closet?" And they're, like, "Yeah, you can do that."
Stan: Hey! Dad! Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet.
Randy: Mr. Cruise. Mr. Cruise. Come out of the closet.
Nicole Kidman: Tom, its Nicole. You don't need to be in that closet anymore Tom.
John Travolta: Tom, its John Travolta. Tom, ya gotta come out of the closet. Omigod!
Their politics are indecipherable, but tending toward libertarian. They don't carry water for anyone. They don't do market research. And their only target audience is each other. If something makes them both laugh, it goes in the show.
Kroft: So how do you describe this relationship?
Stone: At this point, it's kinda like a marriage, you know. And, you know, in the way that we're just like-- we've just been together so long. We spend so much time together, that you can almost finish each other's sentences.
Parker: And it's funny, 'cause we're just at that level now where it just doesn't happen anymore that one of us can say to the other, "You know, one time, I was doing this." Because, "Yeah, I know. I was there."
Ann Garefino: The foundation of their relationship is one of the strongest partnerships I've ever seen in any business.
Ann Garefino and Scott Rudin know them as well as anyone and have been with them since the very beginning. Garefino is the executive producer of "South Park," and Rudin is the entertainment mogul who launched their film careers. Both produced the Broadway musical.
Rudin: You see people try to get between them, they shut it down so fast. They have each other's backs in the absolute best possible way. And it doesn't mean they don't disagree, because they frequently disagree, but they are genuinely a partnership.
Garefino thinks that Matt Stone is the more ruthless of the two when it comes to satire... and that Trey is softer with a sweet sense of humor that provides the charm. We wanted to know what they thought of that analysis.
Stone: That Anne's pretty smart.
Parker: Anne's a bitch.
Stone: See? See? That was the opposite, right?
Parker: We're just proving the opposite.
Stone: Boy, that Trey's ruthless.
Parker: F**k Anne, she's fired.
Elder Price in "The Book of Mormon" [singing]: I believe, that the Lord God created the universe. I believe, that he sent...
There is not doubt that sharp teeth with a big heart are the foundation of their success. And both qualities are evident in "The Book of Mormon," which manages to ridicule the silliness of religious dogma, while still be uplifting and pro-faith.
Elder Price [singing]: And a Mormon just believes!
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