The 5280 Interview: Trey Parker and Matt Stone

August 9 2012, 12:00 PM

On Tuesday, August 14, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House will begin hosting what might be the most anticipated event in the history of Denver theater—a three-week run of The Book of Mormon, the nine-time-Tony-winning, sold-out-for-months Broadway smash. Bringing the bawdy but heartfelt musical to the city represents a homecoming for two of its co-creators, Colorado legends Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They’ve spent the past two decades or so delighting and scandalizing (depending on your sensitivities) TV watchers everywhere with their seminal animated series South Park, and with their equally hilarious and outrageous films. About eight years ago, they met Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, realized they all shared a common fascination with Mormons, and set to work on one of the more improbable success stories Broadway has ever seen.

This week, with cast and crew deep in rehearsals for the launch of its yearlong nationwide tour, Parker and Stone chatted with 5280 about the show’s evolution, the impact of bringing it to Denver, how the compassion they’ve been lauded for instilling into the play has actually been there all along, and the joys of making your mom laugh.

5280: OK, I’m going to start with this. On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about Peyton Manning?

Trey Parker: I’m super excited, because I love watching football…

Matt Stone [to Parker]: So, 9?

TP: We actually had a moment, during previews of the show on Broadway, when [Peyton’s brother] Eli [Manning] came. There were big celebrities there almost every night, but when Eli was there I lost it.

5280: This is obviously a special moment for you guys, and for the city as well. How did it happen that Denver became the starting point for the tour?

MS: First of all, the idea that we were ever going to do a tour wasn’t ever in our minds. The whole ride has just been so crazy, because the play has been so much more successful than we ever imagined it would be. Then soon after it opened, people started coming to us and asking when we were going to do the road tour, and we were like, “What? There was never any plan for that.”

I don’t remember who said it first, but someone mentioned starting in Denver, and we thought there was the cool homecoming aspect of it. And selfishly for us, we’d have to go spend three or four weeks in another city to launch it—we live in L.A. now—and I’d much rather spend it here with my family and friends than in some random city. So for us, it felt good to finally be able to do something like that, because movies don’t really open the same way.

The second leg of the tour will also open in Denver in October 2013. We book these things so far in advance, and you have no idea how they’ll be received. So you’d rather under-book than overbook, because the last thing you want to do is book too many weeks in Denver, and you have unsold tickets…

TP: Then that becomes the story…

MS: And now you’ve got a turkey on your hands. We were purposely conservative on the first round because we had no idea it would sell out that quickly. That was really a surprise. We and the other producers worked hard to bring it back to Denver. I assume we could go through other cities twice, but Denver is the first one we’ve announced that we’re coming back to.

5280: How are the emotions of the New York opening different now that you’re doing it in your hometown?

TP: This does feel like a homecoming. It’s definitely not quite as terrifying because we know what the show is. When we were in New York at this time we were still frantically rewriting, seeing it at night and watching which lines people weren’t getting, dropping whole parts of songs and everything. By the time of opening night on Broadway, it was like, “What just happened?”

In Denver, I think we’re actually able to be here, to make sure the show they get here is the same one they’d get on Broadway. And all the family and friends are going to be here, so we want it to be great for them.

5280: The rewriting you were doing was part of the workshopping process?

TP: Yes, you do that because you can. You have a few weeks where you’re watching it with an audience for the first time after spending seven years on it. You’re noticing things you couldn’t have seen before. You don’t want to do it based on one reaction one night; you want to wait and try it a few different ways before you rewrite the line. The previews in New York are like a big experiment. Here, the previews are to make sure the machine is running the way it’s supposed to run.

MS: The first preview in New York, our sound screwed up in the first song. There was suddenly this [LOUD CRACKLING NOISE], and we had to stop in front of 1,100 people, and we were like, “Oh my God.”

TP: There was some clapping.

MS: They get to see behind the curtain a little bit, which we kind of like in a weird way. There’s a disclaimer when you buy a preview ticket. You know stuff can go wrong, and it’s a cheaper ticket. But I can see why people like to do it, because you get to be the first to see something. Sometimes it’s best so fresh; the actors are still nervous, and there’s this electricity.

5280: From preview number one to the show we’ll see now, how different is it?

MS: It’s not that different. We’ve heard horror stories about other shows, but we were more ready than most Broadway shows because we’d done extra workshops at our own expense. We ended up cutting verses of songs, putting new endings on them, and made a lot of line changes to tweak them and get them just right. But there are other Broadway shows—Spiderman was probably the most recent one—where they’ll write two whole new songs during previews, or an entire ending that they don’t have yet. I can’t imagine starting to sell tickets while saying, “We don’t have an ending; we’ll figure that out this month.” I think at our first preview, we were 90 percent there.

TP: We were so scared that we were pretty prepared for this.

5280: Was it a big adjustment for you to work in this medium?

MS: We went back and forth about whether this should be a movie or not. The first few years writing with [co-creator] Bobby [Lopez] were sort of agnostic in terms of what form it should take. We didn’t really decide for a while. We’ve done a lot of things in our career that people might consider offensive or whatever, but seeing this material onstage 20 feet from you, seemed cooler, more of what it should be. You laugh differently in the theater. There’s a communal aspect to it that’s sort of like the communal aspect of religion. And music is a big part of religion. So having it onstage is cooler than sitting in your house watching it on a screen by yourself. Eventually, maybe we’ll do a movie of it, which would mean a reimagining of it, but doing it onstage just seemed to make the most sense.

TP: Movie or TV watchers [laugh at the screen]; theater people [laugh with each other] because it’s an event. You got dressed up. You paid for this thing. It’s “Aren’t we having fun tonight, honey?” Then it becomes that within the whole group.

MS: Watching my mom laugh on opening night on Broadway made me laugh so hard, because she almost didn’t want to laugh. I could see her grudgingly do it, and it’s like, “Fuck you, Mom. I see you laughing.”

5280: Does the way this has played out change whatever your vision was for your career arc?

TP: We never, ever have had a vision for our career arc. “When are they going to kick us out of here?” has always been our attitude, and it hasn’t changed at all. This was not a plan.

MS: Maybe our last career arc was like this [TRACES A PLUMMETING LINE WITH HIS HAND], and now it’s like this [TRACES IT A LITTLE FLATTER].

TP: People will say we’re daring, we’re dangerous, or we’ll do things people won’t do, and it’s because we truly don’t give a fuck. We would both rather, honestly, be on a beach somewhere.

5280: What struck me about the reviews of the show was how many of them semi-incredulously mentioned that the play has a heart. These are people who obviously don’t know you very well, because South Park has always had a heart.

TP: That’s what it’s all about. If South Park had been cynical the whole time, it would not have lasted this long if that weren’t true. We knew that going into this. We knew it had to have a coming-of-age story and two characters people really liked, and a positive ending. You’re seeing people up there dancing and singing; you don’t want to come out of there on a downer.

MS: That’s why both of us loved Avenue Q so much. When we met Bobby, part of our shared camaraderie was about this. People wrote stories about it saying, “Oh my God, there are puppets, and they’re dirty.” And then you see the show, and that’s like a third of the show. And some funny shit comes from that. But why the show works is because it has a huge heart and these really great moments, and the characters have a really fleshed-out story. That’s the hard part; the really subversive thing is trying to get someone to care about a puppet. At the time, we were trying to do Team America, and when we saw Avenue Q, we said, “This is the kind of thing we want to do. We love this kind of stuff.” To do the most fucked-up kind of story you can, but you feel for these people, too. It starts to pull your brain in all different directions, and that’s what makes it so much fun.

5280: Is the key to “having heart” knowing where to draw the boundaries?

TP: It’s the difference between joke-telling and storytelling. We actually get way more into a story than a joke. The jokes just kind of come and are the way we know how to tell the story. But what we actually bang our heads about every day with South Park is how do we make this a cool thing at the end, and a twist on what we thought it would be. It’s not just about what’s the funniest thing. Because that is easier to do. It’s harder to have a point, but it’s much more rewarding at the end.

MS: In the play, the idea is, in one song, hopefully characters have switched places, from needing hope to having hope, or having hope to losing hope, or whatever the changes are. Those are the moves we really like. The jokes come out of the tension you put these people in. The point of the Book of Mormon is about stories, so it all became a big meta point about being the star of your own show. That’s the stuff we got off on so much. A lot of comedy these days is just, “Let’s put this guy in a ridiculous situation, and he’ll walk around and be funny.” That’s funny, but it’s not funny funny. It’s disposable.

TP: We’ve really learned the value of having a point. You can listen to someone talk and talk and tell a story, and at the end, even if it was really amusing, if he didn’t have a point, you’re like, “God, I’m done listening to that guy talk.”

MS: [Legendary TV producer] Norman Lear taught us that. All in the Family was the funniest fucking show ever, but in 20 minutes they could also make you totally cry. They’re about something. They encapsulate a time in America. Characters move, and within that there are all these great jokes. But he was the one who taught us that, if you want people to really laugh hard, it has to be about stuff they’re sort of uncomfortable with.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock (Trey Parker on right; Matt Stone on left)

Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad