The musical’s namesake is the holy book of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Its story focuses on two young Mormon missionaries who travel to Africa. But beyond these details, the Books of Mormon have little in common.
Show co-author Trey Parker – half of the creative team that launched the raunchy cartoon “South Park” - says this creation is pure satire, meant to poke affectionate fun at people he’s lived among since childhood.
“I’m sure that Mormons will embrace this—absolutely, 100 percent," Parker says. "They’re going to give us things; they’re going to send us letters of love. I can’t wait—it’s going to be awesome.”
Critics and mainstream ticket buyers have found it awesome. Many Mormons have not, in part because of passages that mock God and LDS traditions.
Mormons are willing to poke fun about themselves and their faith, but they prefer their jokes clean -Donny and Marie Osmond clean.
“I think I have a lot of fans right now, a lot of Mormon fans, and I’ve sort of built this reputation as a clean comedian,” says Jenna Kim Jones, an LA-based stand-up comedian who’s also a Mormon.
Jones says her routines deal with a lot of common stereotypes about Utah, Mormonism, and its practices. There’s a difference, she adds, between clean humor about Mormonism and offensive humor.
She should know: Before she moved to LA she worked for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in New York, where she was in charge of bleeping out the bad stuff. Jones says she has no interest in seeing “The Book of Mormon” on stage.
“When it came out in New York, my co-workers at The Daily Show just loved it," she remembers. "And everybody raved about how funny it was and how great it was, and how they thought it actually was really good for Mormons. Honestly, I never really had a big desire to go see it—I think that the content is somewhat offensive.”
In a recent article, Mark Paredes of the Mormons’ Southern California Public Affairs Council calls the musical's X-rated lyrics “religious pornography.”
Patrick Mason, who teaches Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, hasn’t seen the musical and doesn’t plan to. But he says the show – like the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney - does prompt non-Mormons to talk about the faith. And it encourages practicing Mormons to explain what they believe to the wider world.
“I think most Mormons take offense at “The Book of Mormon” musical less at its treatment of religious subjects, and more at what they perceive as vulgarity and debauchery," he explains. "I think Mormons are learning, really in the past few years, for the first time, how to interact with non-Mormons in a way that isn’t either apologetics on one side or anti-Mormon critiques on the other.”
Mormons’ humor doesn’t translate well to the non-Mormons they call Gentiles. Mason says “it can be kind of corny.”
Here’s an example: “Why do Mormon women stop having babies at thirty-five? Because thirty-six is just too many...”
He says Latter-day Saints may joke to each other about family life and missionary service, but not about what they hold sacred. That said, the church has purchased a full-color Playbill ad for the LA run of “The Book of Mormon” – just in case theatergoers want to start reading after they stop laughing.