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'Fresh Air' Favorites: 'Book Of Mormon' Creators Trey Parker And Matt Stone


This is FRESH AIR. Continuing with our staff picks of favorite interviews of the decade is a conversation from 2011 with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of TV's "South Park" and the co-creators with Robert Lopez of "Avenue Q" of the hit musical "The Book Of Mormon," which won nine Tony Awards, including best musical.

If you know anything about "South Park," you would expect that a musical written by Parker and Stone would be irreverent, and you'd be right. But it's also got heart. The story is about two young Mormons who are sent on their first mission to Uganda, where they learn Africa is not like "The Lion King." Let's start with the opening song, set at a mission training center in Salt Lake City where young Mormons are learning door-to-door missionary technique.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elder Price, singing) Hello. My name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Elder Grant, singing) Hello. My name is Elder Grant. It's a book about America a long, long time ago.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elder Price, singing) It has so many awesome parts. You simply won't believe how much this book can change your life.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green, singing) Hello. My name is Elder Green. I would like to share with you this book of Jesus Christ.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Elder Young, singing) Hello. My name is Elder Young. Did you know that Jesus lived here in the U.S.A.?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Elder Grant, singing) You can read all about it now in this nifty book. It's free. No, you don't have to pay.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Elder Young) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Elder Smith, singing) Hello. My name is Elder Smith. And can I leave this book with you to just peruse?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Elder Brown) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Elder Harris) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Elder Smith, singing) I'll just leave it here. It has a lot of information you can really use.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elder Price, singing) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Elder Harris) Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elder Price, singing) My name is...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green, singing) Jesus Christ.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Elder Grant, singing) You have a lovely home.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As Elder Cross) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Elder Young) It's an amazing book.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Elder Smith) Bonjour.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As Elder White, singing) Hola. Me llamo Elder White.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Elder Grant) Are these your kids?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green, singing) This book gives you the secret to eternal life.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Elder Smith) Sound good?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Eternal life...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green) With Jesus Christ.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) ...Is super fun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Elder Brown) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) And if you let us in, we'll show you how it can be done.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Elder Grant) No thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green) You sure?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Elder Grant) Oh, well.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green) That's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Elder Grant) Goodbye.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green) Have fun in hell.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Hey now. You simply won't believe how much this book will change your life. This book will change your life. This book will change your life. This book will change your life.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As Elder Cunningham) Hello. Would you like to change religions? I have a free book written by Jesus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character) No, no, Elder Cunningham. That's not how we do it. You're making things up again. Just stick to the approved dialogue. Elders, show him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As Elder Cunningham) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) My name is...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As Elder Cunningham) Elder Cunningham.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) And we would like to share with you this book of Jesus Christ.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elder Price) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elder Green) Ding dong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As Elder White) Hi-ho (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Elder Smith) Just take this book.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Elder Harris) It's free.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Elder Brown) For you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Elder Harris) For me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You see? You simply won't believe how much this book will change your life - hello. This book will change your life - hello. So you won't burn in...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As Elder White, singing) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You're going to die someday. But if you read this book, you'll see that there's another way. Hello. Hello.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Trey Parker, Matt Stone - welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on "The Book Of Mormon."


TREY PARKER: Cool. Thank you.

GROSS: So did Mormons come to your door, and did your family let them in when you were growing up?

STONE: They never came to my door, I don't think. I don't know if my dad would have let them in, either. (Laughter) But...

PARKER: Yeah, we were - we live in - we grew up in Colorado. So we - actually, we were around a lot of Mormons, and we went to school with Mormons and things like that. But I think that the first time I actually saw them come to the door was in college, actually. I had some Mormons come to where I was staying in college. Since then, we've had a few, and we always try to - I always try to start a kind of a dialogue with them. But you learn pretty quickly that they are trained impeccably to be able to handle anything.

STONE: But then, you know, with "Hello," the idea was that we would - you'd reveal that you're at the missionary training center, which is in Provo, Utah, which is where they get - they learn all their language skills, and they learn their - you know, what to do when you do get invited into a house. And we found out later, in the missionary training center, they actually have, like, prop living rooms, like, fake living rooms with actors that - (laughter) you know, it's, like, one of your tests is to go and, like, go into this fake living room and sit down and do your spiel, and you have to deal with this in a real situation. It's like driving...

PARKER: It's like the Holodeck. It's like the Holodeck on "Star Trek."

STONE: It's like a driving simulator. Yeah.

GROSS: So I don't want people to get the wrong idea about how you present Mormonism in your show because you kind of challenge the credibility of this - the literal credibility of the story of "The Book Of Mormon." But you love your characters, and you think that eventually they do do good in the world (laughter), not in a way that they expected to. But you're not about being, like, really, kind of cynical in this.

PARKER: Yeah, I know, and I really - what I grew up loving Broadway for was the fact that it - at least, you know, in all these classics, you know, they weren't cynical. They were very optimistic, and it offered this kind of - they always ended with a big, happy number, and everything was OK.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

PARKER: And as cheesy as that can seem, I loved it, you know. And that's - you know, I don't think anyone would want to go see a two-hour-long Mormon bashing, and that's not - we wouldn't want to see that, either. It's just not - obviously, you have to have characters that you love. And even if you, in certain things, have characters that you love to hate, that's fine. But, you know, everyone wants to see a little piece of themselves up there, and that's what makes a musical - draws people in.

And so, you know, like we were saying about the whole thing about this - even though this is about a devout Mormon getting put with someone and getting shot around the world and trying to be very Mormon. People can relate to just that feeling of being in high school and getting out and thinking, OK, well, now I'm ready to just go tell everyone what's up and make my mark in the world. And it's going to be really awesome. And then you get slapped back down to reality, you know. And I think that everyone can relate to that part of it.

And also, the reason we knew it would work great with Bobby right away was because we all shared this thing where it's like we love the goofiness of Mormon stories. We loved the - you know, some of them were so incredulous. And yet we really liked most - almost all the Mormons we'd ever met.

GROSS: So have Mormons in the audience enjoyed the musical? Do you know? Have you gotten feedback?

PARKER: It's really funny. We can actually - when we were there for previews and we were there that whole month where we go and watch it every single night and try to change it, you could hear the pockets of Mormons. You could hear where they work because there's some certain things in the show that are very specifically Mormon, things you - either are at least ex-Mormons.

You know, like, you could hear these people - this little group of people laugh, and no one else really got the joke. But it - and it would just be some reference to something that's very Mormon. And, you know, obviously it's a select group of Mormons that are - kind of come to this show, have kind of embraced it.

GROSS: And the official church response?

STONE: The official church response was something along the lines of "The Book Of Mormon" the musical might entertain you for a night, but the Book of Mormon - the book, as scripture, will - it could change - will change your life through Jesus or something like that.

PARKER: Yeah, which is a great response.

STONE: Which we actually completely agree with (laughter). It's totally a very big-hearted American response. It's kind of like - the Mormon Church's response to this musical is almost like our QED at the end of it. It's like, see, we told you Mormons are - that's cool - that's a cool American response to, like, a ribbing, you know, a big musical that's done in their name.

So it just - that was like the - we're like, there, see? That's what we were talking about. Because before the church responded, a lot of, you know, people would ask us about, like, oh, are you afraid of what the church is going to say? And Trey and I were like, they're going to be cool. Trust us. They're going to be cool.

And people in New York are like, no, they're not. They're going to be, you know, mad at you guys. There are going to be protests. We're like, nope, they're going to be cool. And, I mean, I don't know if we totally knew, but we weren't that surprised by the church's response.

PARKER: We had faith in them.

STONE: Yes, we had faith.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone from 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Their musical, "The Book Of Mormon," won nine Tony Awards. And their conversation with Terry is one of our staff picks of the decade.


GROSS: OK, time for another song (laughter). So I want to play "Turn It Off," which is this great production number. And, you know, in a lot of musicals, there's that big, inspiring number where you're told to, like, you know, be yourself and think great thoughts whenever you're sad, like, put on a happy face, or if you fall down, pick yourself up and start all over again.

But this is called "Turn It Off" (laughter). And so, like, if you're feeling something unpleasant, just, like, turn it off. It's a song about repressing feelings. Tell us about writing this song and the kinds of songs that inspired this one.

PARKER: This was a little ditty. I wrote a first version of this basically because I just - we knew we had to have a big tap number. We've got a bunch of dudes in, you know, white shirts and ties. It's like, we've got to have a tap number.

But I just - this was a great example of a song that, like, I had just a little ditty for. There was just very repetitive - turn it off like a light switch, just go click, da-da-da- (ph). And I remember Bobby right away saying, yeah, it's cool, kind of runs in place, you know, kind of like was the same thing musically over and over and over. And this song expanded and expanded.

And then we all would sit in the room together and say, well, maybe it shouldn't just be - it was all just this stuff about gay thoughts and all those jokes. And they were great jokes, and it worked. But then we sat there going, well, what else? You know, maybe we should have other Mormons chime in on other things that aren't just gay thoughts but other things.

And we started writing the other verses. And then Bobby actually wrote the verse about the father - the abusive father. And then it grew and grew. And then Casey came in and turned it...

GROSS: Your co-director and choreographer.

PARKER: Yeah, the co-director and choreographer - and turned it from a little tap song into a giant tap song and added all this other stuff. And so it was just this great song that you watched going from this little ditty to this big broadway number, you know, kind of before your eyes.

GROSS: So let's hear it. This is "Turn It Off" from the new cast recording of "The Book Of Mormon," which was co-written by my guests Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-creators of South Park.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley) Turn it off like a light switch. Just go click. It's a cool little Mormon trick. We do it all the time. When you're feeling certain feelings that just don't seem right, treat those pesky feelings like a reading light - and turn them off like a lightswitch. Just go back. Really, what's so hard about that? Turn it off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders) Turn it off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley) When I was young, my dad would treat my mom real bad. Every time the Utah Jazz would lose, he started drinking and I started thinking, how am I going to keep my mom from getting abused? I'd see her all scared, and my soul was dying. My dad would say to me, now, don't you dare start crying. Turn it off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders) Like a light switch. Just go flick. It's our nifty little Mormon trick.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley) Turn it off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders) Turn - it - off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley) My sister was a dancer, but she got cancer. The doctor said she still had two months more. I thought she had time, so I got in line for the new iPhone at the Apple store. She laid there dying with my father and mother. Her very last words were, where is my brother?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders, singing) Turn it off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: (As Elder Thomas) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders, singing) Bid those sad feelings adieu.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: (As Elder Thomas, singing) The fear that I might get cancer too.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley) When I was in fifth grade, I had a friend, Steve Blade.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders, singing) Steve Blade.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley, singing) He and I were close as two friends could be.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders, singing) We could be close.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley, singing) One thing led to another, and soon I would discover...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders, singing) Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley, singing) I was having really strange feelings for Steve. I thought about us on a deserted island.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Elders, singing) We're all alone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley, singing) We'd swim naked in the sea, and then he'd try and - whoa. Turn it off like a light switch. There; it's gone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character) Good for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As Elder McKinley, singing) My hetero side just won. I'm all better now. Boys should be with girls. That's heavenly father's plan. So if you ever feel you'd rather be with a man, turn it off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elder Price) Well, Elder McKinley, I think it's OK that you're having gay thoughts.

GROSS: That's "Turn It Off" from the new cast recording of "The Book Of Mormon," and the show was co-written by my guests Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who also created "South Park." So every time I hear that song, I laugh because it's ironic, but it's also - it's so upbeat and so catchy and so - I don't know. The orchestra...

PARKER: Yeah. That song for me...

GROSS: Yeah.

PARKER: That song for me is funny because it's so happy, but it's about something that, like, we all...

GROSS: Exactly. It's about all these...

PARKER: We all know, and it's kind of...

GROSS: ...Tragic things.

PARKER: It's kind of the most tragic thing, yeah. And, I mean, not just for - you know, like, the character that sings it is played by Rory O'Malley, who just kills it in that song. He's amazing. It's about a missionary, you know, who's overseas and obviously gay, and, like, the church has just said, yeah, you're not. Just don't think about that - you know, which is, like, no solution at all.

And - but it's not even - even if you're just - they send these 19-year-old kids around the world even if, you know, they're just - they're sexual beings, you know? They're sexual animals. And they just say, yeah. Just turn that off. And there's just nothing in that, you know? At that point in the story when Price - they - now they've landed in Africa. They've seen some horrors. They're really questioning what the hell is going on. They go back to the mission. He says, wow. I'm having some confusing thoughts. And then this is the song that's given to them. So the song is not supposed to really help you, you know? He realizes it doesn't really get much - he doesn't get much out of it.

GROSS: Just one more thing - I think that "The Book Of Mormon" has something of the quality of "South Park" in the sense that "South Park" is just kind of stripped-down animation. It's down to the basics, and there's something so basic about the show. It's, like, great music, great performers, great orchestrations, really original concepts, but there's nothing fancy about the sets. It's just...

STONE: Yeah.

GROSS: Like, it's...

STONE: It was a very conscious decision. The reason that we did that is because we did so many workshops in New York in the sort of three years leading up to it, and we would do these workshops which were no costumes, no lights - just in a big room with fluorescent lights and a - you know, 40 people sitting there. And it would kill. And we're just like, OK, all we can do now is ruin this, so let's add just enough to make it a beautiful Broadway show but not step on any toes.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you again. Congratulations on all the success you've been having with "The Book Of Mormon," and thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

STONE: Cool.

PARKER: Thank you.

STONE: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

BIANCULLI: Trey Parker and Matt Stone speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. Their interview with Terry was one of our staff picks for interviews of the decade.

On Monday's show, FRESH AIR is ending the decade with a holiday week series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade. On our next edition, we'll hear from two beloved journalists whom we lost this decade, Anthony Bourdain and David Carr. Bourdain was a food writer, a chef and the host of several food TV shows. Carr was a respected and very readable media columnist for The New York Times. I hope you can join us.

One final note - since today's show was devoted to Broadway musicals, we'd like to acknowledge that Jerry Herman, the composer of "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame," died yesterday at age 88. Here's a song from the original Broadway cast recording of "Mame" with Angela Lansbury singing one of Herman's many famous songs, "If He Walked Into My Life."


ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Mame, singing) Did he need a stronger hand? Did he need a lighter touch? Was I soft, or was I tough? Did I give enough? Did I give too much? At the moment when he needed me, did I ever turn away? Would I be there when he called if he walked into my life today? Were his days a little dull? Were his nights a little wild? Did I overstate my plan? Did I stress the man and forget the child? And there must have been a million things that my heart forgot to say. Would I think of one or two if he walked into my life today? Should I blame the times I pampered him or blame the times I bossed him? What a shame. I never really found the boy before I lost him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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