When you strip away the satire, there’s as much equal-opportunity empathy as ridicule in their work: “You watch Team America, and you see these gung ho types blow up half of Paris, and you still sort of like them,” says Sullivan. That film also has North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il acting like a lisping sociopathic Bond villain and singing a touchingly mawkish solo called “I’m So Ronery.” And Satan, in Bigger, Longer & Uncut, is not just the terrifying lord of the underworld but a mopey co-dependent gay man abused by his inattentive lover, Saddam Hussein, who only wants to have sex with him from behind.
Satan’s not alone there in their troubled same-sex oeuvre: homosexuality is often used dramatically, to show a character’s troubled journey of self-discovery, from Stan’s learning to accept his gay dog Sparky to nightmarish Mr. Garrison, the closeted teacher, slowly coming to terms with himself and changing genders. One of the biggest laughs in Mormon is a tap-dancing number about self-repression—“Turn it off / like a light switch”—which centers on a closeted character trying to do just that.
But gayness is also used fetishistically, as a way to be as disgusting as possible. Sullivan, who is gay, says, “They’re no more homophobic than they have to be,” and he relishes the way the show revels in truly bizarre gay filth, like the cross-dressing undercover vice cop who is gangbanged in a frat house and then shown gleefully expelling the evidence.
“There is a strong through-line going through all of their work—I don’t know how to say it, homophobia, I guess,” says Toddy Walters. “Not that they’re homophobic. Either they think it’s really funny or [Parker] is really trying to process something.”
After all these years, Stan and Kyle have only advanced to the fourth grade; Parker and Stone are famous, successful adults faced in some ways with the usual conundrums of answered prayers. They have the talent and the pull to accomplish a long-standing dream—a musical on Broadway—and by teaming up with Lopez and Rudin, they did it. “We wouldn’t have been working on it for six years if we weren’t trying to get the emotional payoff there,” says Stone. “It’s not an episode of South Park.”
It’s not really about Mormonism, either. In the play, the religion, as it’s depicted, seems to be mostly a symbol for them of other people’s drive for orderly niceness, their way of avoiding the incoherence of reality. Neither Parker nor Stone was raised religious, though they knew lots of Mormons growing up. “We all actually like Mormons,” says Parker. He and Stone are convinced, for example, that no Mormon who sees Mormon would be mad about it. This might be naïve (and, from a marketing perspective, counterproductive).
For Parker, who loves to talk about Joseph Campbell’s theories of the hero-journey, there’s no real difference between being a Mormon and being a Trekkie. “These people who get up every morning and put on their uniform and adhere to the rules of the Federation, to me that’s just sort of what a Mormon is, and I love that,” he says.
“In that decision to do that is something remarkable,” says Stone.
“To be a really good person,” says Parker.
“That decision to commit your life to certain principles and a certain narrative,” says Stone. “If I wrote a paper on that, I know I’d find inconsistencies.” But for a musical, they can draw whatever lessons they want.
The Book of Mormon is about wanting to find a story that works for you, one that makes you happy and, it is hoped, nice to other people. Maybe it’s a banal transcendence, but a transcendence nonetheless. “It’s about regaining your faith once you realize that all religious stories might not be the truth,” says Lopez. Parker and Stone appear to operate from a sort of good-natured godlessness.
“My favorite episodes” of South Park, says Stone, are “when you’re like, ‘Is that my fucking lesson? Was that the lesson? I don’t know?’ We don’t know, that’s what’s crazy, we sometimes don’t even know.”
And the lesson of The Book of Mormon is pretty simple: What’s really gay about it is that you walk away caring what happens to everybody onstage and you can’t get the songs out of your head.