Today Parker is 41 and Stone 39—a little old to be immature. Stone is now married (the ceremony was performed by his friend the writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who got himself certified to do it) and has a 1-year-old son. Parker, who’s split from his Japanese wife (though when they were married, Norman Lear performed the ceremony), is now living with a woman with a 10-year-old son who wants to watch South Park. Parker can sometimes find the boy’s credulous reactions to what is clearly, to Parker, meant to be a joke alarming. As we were talking, their collaborator on Mormon, Robert Lopez, who co-wrote Avenue Q, was fretting over getting his 6-year-old in and out of a rehearsal before the number “Fuck You God” (a send up of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata”) came on.
Parker and Stone never thought they’d still be doing South Park at this mature age. “Really, not when we’re 50. That’d just be sad,” says Parker. In 2000, shortly after South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had come out, Parker told Playboy that he was already stressed out about getting older: “I think in a lot of ways you have your best shit to say when you’re in your twenties. Not your most intelligent shit, but you’ve got your edge and you don’t give a fuck about anything, and that’s why it’s cool.” Which is as good an explanation as any as to where a lot of their ideas have always come from. But can it still? “You just get older, you start caring about things,” Parker said back then. “That’s gay, but …”
When you strip away the satire, there’s as much equal-opportunity empathy as ridicule in their work.
The Book of Mormon is being sold partly on the idea that it’ll titillate—the show is, in many ways, just as offensive as your typical episode of South Park. And, if you happen to be a Mormon, certainly blasphemous. But it’s probably their gayest work yet, which means, by Parker’s definition, their most mature. It’s set in northern Uganda, where two missionaries arrive to baptize the plagued locals. Unfortunately, they’re equipped with just their Book of Mormon, the optimistic frontier sequel to the Bible, found by “all-American prophet” (as one of the catchy songs puts it) Joseph Smith in the 1840s buried near his home in upstate New York. In between the profanity, the show wants to ask: What happens when that all-American sequel proves not to be all that immediately relevant to a group of Africans ravaged by AIDS, poverty, and a local warlord who promotes forced clitoridectomies?
It’s also toe-tapping musical entertainment, allowing the audience to get swept up in the emotional power of a show tune, while also letting them smirk a bit. This, in and of itself, isn’t such a departure for the South Park boys. They’ve long played with the musical form in their work, and Stephen Sondheim liked the numbers in Bigger, Longer & Uncut so much that he wrote them a fan letter. But Mormon is their most sincere effort to write a musical. It’s their Broadway debut. And it’s a show that’s, more than anything, about giving a fuck. Sure, Mormon has man-frog sex—and Frodo, Hitler, Johnnie Cochran, and Yoda make appearances. But it’s strikingly life-affirming. Maybe the world needs a gospel according to Parker and Stone after all.
Meeting Parker and Stone can be a bit intimidating—you suspect, with good reason, that if you make any impression on them at all, they’ll make fun of you afterward. “They’re not snotty till you leave the room,” says composer Marc Shaiman, who worked with them on the songs for Bigger, Longer & Uncut. “From the beginning, everything they’ve ever done was to one-up each other and make each other laugh,” says Jennifer Howell, who worked with them for twelve years, starting as Parker’s assistant on Orgazmo. “They have that great guy humor that starts when you’re young: Make your friends laugh.”
They came of age with a punk-rock ethos, in which conformity is the greatest sin, and extremeness the highest virtue. Parker, from the small mountain town of Conifer, Colorado (as the South Park theme goes, “Friendly faces everywhere / humble folks without temptation”), was a musical-theater prodigy. Maniacally creative (he got a video camera in middle school and made little films constantly), he also starred as Danny in Grease during his senior year in high school. Stone came from suburban Littleton—not far from Columbine—played the drums, and was very good at math. After a detour through the Berklee College of Music, Parker ended up back at the University of Colorado, where he fell in with a group of friends who were more interested in Monty Python than Martin Scorsese. One of them was Stone. They acted in student films, riffing off each other and established themselves as the funniest boys in town.