South Park, the Book of Mormon, and Gratuitous Vulgarity

The Book of MormonThe original cast recording of the Book of Mormon musical is now kicking around online. It’s rocketed to the top 10 of the iTunes charts (a very rare feat for a Broadway soundtrack). A bit of googling will let you listen to the whole thing. I had been holding out hope that the show wouldn’t be too crude to take Denisa to.

So much for that.

Let me be upfront here: I’m a Southpark fan, and I enjoyed most of the Book of Mormon Musical cast recording. I think Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of both) are genuinely talented individuals with a flair for using media to convey layered criticisms about our society. They’re really funny, and they can make you think–a trait not often found in today’s pop culture.

They also are addicted to being crude. No–not just crude. To pushing the envelope as far as they can, often for no other reason than to push envelopes around. If they can say a thing either cleanly or with x-rated language, they’ll always go for NC-17. And that’s their right as artists (because like their vulgarity or not, I really do believe the two of them are artists, and I’m sure they’re doing it all on purpose).

I just wish they’d be able to hold back on some things. But they can’t. It’s not that the entire soundtrack is laced with every profane word you can imagine (only parts of it). There are some songs on there that avoid it for the most part. (Hello, Turn It Off, All American Prophet, I Believe, and Tomorrow is a Latter Day all seem to be able to do it, as far as I can remember. To avoid the worst offenses, stay away from Hasa Diga Eebowai and Joseph Smith American Moses. What has been heard cannot be unheard.) But even when they manage to avoid dropping casual f bombs, they can’t resist any mud puddle they happen to pass. If there’s some filth to be found, those boys will roll in it.

Every. Single. Time.

Again. That’s their call. And it’s their audience’s call to listen or watch it or not. But my point is that I think they could be even more popular–make even more of an impact–if they could just get over that knee-jerk desire for filth. There have been Southpark episodes that make fantastic points, but the people who need to hear the things the episode had to say will never, ever watch it. It’s too crude. The Book of Mormon has an interesting message–one which I would love to discuss with people. But I won’t be able to. Because many people will hear the filth, and they’ll stay away. (Note for Mormons–you’ve heard this show is crude. You might have read reviews by fellow Mormons that say it’s crude but has a good message at heart. Yes, it does. But it’s not just crude. It’s CRUDE. Okay? It’s worse than Southpark. And there are no “bleeps” over the bad language. (Duh.) I cannot in good faith recommend the musical to anyone. If you’re a pop-culture fiend of a Mormon like myself, you probably won’t be able to stay away, just for out of sheer rubbernecking curiosity. But I’m not sugar coating any of this, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

If Parker and Stone read this, they would no doubt laugh and say that’s part of their point. Being crude is part of the package. But I don’t think it needs to be. The best thing I can compare it to is Bill Cosby and other comedians.

Many comedians can’t resist being crude. They’re foul mouthed funny, but a lot of the time, it’s easier to be foul mouthed funny. When no subject is sacred, you can roll around in whatever you want and get some cheap laughs. Bill Cosby stand up is different. He’s hilarious without the need to get dirty. He gets messages across, makes you think–and he can do it all without all the baggage.

The strange thing with Parker and Stone is that I think their addiction to vulgarity makes their humor more difficult at times. If they’d just lighten up on it, I think it would be easier on them. Maybe they do it for the challenge–I have no idea.

In the end, I think the Book of Mormon musical shows Mormons in a pretty favorable light (especially considering what it could have been). It gets some things wrong (like the way missionaries are assigned where they’ll work and who they’ll work with). It’ll likely cause some people to stop Mormon missionaries on the street and get some conversations started. The more conversations the merrier, in my opinion. It’s been nominated for enough Tonys, there’s a fair chance the musical could eventually be made into a movie. Maybe when that happens, it’ll get censored down enough to make it more watchable by a wider audience. (Or then again, that might make it into a short film, not feature length.)

One last note: if I were from Uganda, I would be as mad about this musical as Kazakhstan was about Borat. It portrays the country as a hellhole, filled with AIDS and violence. I found this the most disappointing part of the musical. Parker and Stone are fairly careful to treat Mormons well, but they set up an entire country as a pinata, and that’s not right. It seemed to me they just picked a country in Africa at random and assigned it all those “African problems” they’ve picked up here and there in their heads. It’s an awfully elitist, racist approach for two white guys from Colorado to be taking. But the Mormon smokescreen hides that. They could have–and should have–done more to avoid that.

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