Screen Meets Stage
Five 'South Park' Episodes We See in 'Book of Mormon'
A verbal venn diagram of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s TV show and Broadway hit.
When the irreverent animated comedy South Park first became a hit back in the late '90s, few could’ve guessed that the show’s co-creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, would eventually become the toast of old Broadway. Or that their musical The Book of Mormon would go on to win nine Tonys. (Take that, Sondheim.) With 16 seasons of South Park in the bank, it was inevitable that there’d be some comedic crossover between the show and the play (beyond the fact that the South Park movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, was actually a musical).
Spoiler alert: These five episodes are visible in The Book of Mormon’s DNA.
We’ll start with the most obvious source. Not only was “All About Mormons” Parker and Stone’s first dedicated crack at Mormonism, it's also one of South Park’s best episodes. When a Mormon family moves to South Park, Stan hears the story of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith from his new friends. We learn Smith’s story in song—from the digging up of gold plates in his backyard to the visit by the angel Moroni—accompanied by a chorus of “dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb.” It's not subtle. But the skeptical chorus eventually gives way to “smart smart smart smart smart.” The writers mine the true story of Smith for laughs, as does Book of Mormon, but the final message is uplifting—just because a belief system seems factually improbable doesn't make it worthless.
The majority of The Book of Mormon takes place in Africa (Uganda, specifically), so it makes sense to include South Park’s first foray to the plateau continent. When the boys see a commercial about sponsoring a starving African, they decide to make the call and sponsor a kid…because the commercial offers a bonus gift of a Teiko digital sports watch. But instead of the watch, the boys are sent an Ethiopian child—Starvin’ Marvin. The reoccurring joke of the boys being unable to pronounce an African word (in this case “Ethiopian”) is also a running gag in The Book of Mormon.
After overhearing the boys goof off during Mass, South Park’s Father Maxi delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon that puts the fear of Hell in them. The idea of avoiding eternal damnation consumes the boys, much as it does Elder Price in The Book of Mormon. But as the episode’s B story reveals, Hell, fiery damned pit that it is, is also where Satan takes part in big musical numbers. The episode's big luau-based song-and-dance routine is a preview to the musical’s hilarious “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.”
No religion is safe in the hands of the South Park creators. When the Catholic priests' sex abuse scandal hits South Park, Father Maxi seeks to put an end to it. He’s surprised to find that priests on both the local and Vatican level seem to think the abuses are no big deal since it’s not against the “Holy Document of Vatican Law.” In order to amend the document, Maxi has to traverse a Pitfall-esque gauntlet only to find out the “highest power”—which happens to be a massive Queen Spider—refuses to let the document be changed. Father Maxi snaps, accidentally destroys the Vatican, and rails against the needlessly ridiculous practices that were ruining the church. The episode rejects dogma but doesn't discount the value of having religion—a major moral in The Book of Mormon.
In many ways, Butters and The Book of Mormon’s Elder Cunningham are kindred spirits. They’re both bumbling simpletons, wide-eyed dreamers who have trouble making friends. And they both have wild imaginations. “Imaginationland, Episode III” is the part in a story arc where terrorists wage a war on our collective imaginations. Butters becomes the savior of the magical world of Imaginationland when his ability to be creative turns the battle. Elder Cunningham similarly becomes a hero in Uganda when his pop culture-infused embellishments of the Book of Mormon start connecting with the locals.