NEW YORK CITY -- The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan caught the decline of the culture two decades ago, observing that we're "defining deviancy down" -- lowering the bar for what was once considered deviant behavior, giving a pass to things society once scorned.
Not much has changed over 20 years. The senator was talking mostly about criminal behavior, but it applies now to just about everything. Raunchy, obscene and scatological subjects, once taboo, are the stuff of prime time.
Adolescents are leading adults, and by the nose. Poop jokes, butt humor, middle-finger salutes are not only the stuff of Broadway, they're getting awards for wit and cleverness. "The Book of Mormon," a musical by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the celebrated authors of television's "South Park," leads the numbers for the Tony nominations, the most prestigious prize in the theater.
This is the triumph of potty-mouth, passing-gas, "I have maggots in my scrotum" kind of humor that will leave you rolling in the aisles if you're on the eve of puberty. Or in an expensive seat on Broadway.
What could be funnier than satirical ditties sung by "primitive" Africans blaming the Christian God for everything from AIDS to female genital mutilation? These "heathens" are only slightly more naive than the chorus of Mormon missionaries out to convert them, made up of repressed queens who are trying to learn how to swish-off, rather than switch-off, their libidos. Stuff-shirted missionaries sing a catchy tune, "Shut it Off," with flicking wrists and girlish blushes about restraining homosexual desire. The audience loves it.
"Could Broadway field an all-male chorus that didn't seem gay?" asks Kevin Williamson wryly in the New Criterion, suggesting this isn't quite groundbreaking satire. "That would be a far, far greater technical challenge."
Indeed. But it's politically indiscreet, if not politically incorrect, to say so. "The Book of Mormon" is currently hailed as the greatest musical since "The Producers," which ridiculed theatrical taste with a chorus of showgirls in thigh-high black leather boots, dancing Busby Berkeley style, singing "Springtime for Hitler." But no one's protesting here, not even Mitt Romney, the most prominent Mormon; this "safe satire" doesn't mention polygamy, the television soap opera "Big Love" or even Romneycare.
The oh-so-au courant cultural critics, fawning with admiration, demonstrate just how far they've come in appreciating the adolescent sensibility that has co-opted the culture of the elites.
While "South Park" can be imaginatively edgy with shock value, the writers pull their punches in "The Book of Mormon," setting repetitive four letter words to trite melodies. Aiming at a Broadway audience, they've limited themselves to toothless attacks on such easy targets as white Protestants, Disneyland, Jesus Christ and African warlords, one named Gen. Butt-F Naked.
If this musical had been called "The Quran," ridiculing violent Muslims, it might have had bite, but why take a chance ridiculing something that might invite beheading when you know a white Protestant will at worst only grit his teeth?
The authors are still feeling the sting of rejection when episodes of their "South Park" were withdrawn from their animated television series for mocking the prophet Muhammad. But here, the Jesus character parades in a gold robe, halo fixed overhead. The audience roars as one of the missionaries sings about how Christ, facing the crucifixion, learned to "man up."
Tickets run up to $175, so not many adolescents can afford them on a weekly allowance, even on Manhattan's East Side. Too bad, since Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal, a rare dissenter from the ranks of the besotted media, suggests that "12-year-old boys who have yet to graduate from fart jokes to 'Glee''' are the theatergoers who would appreciate the musical most.
Certain other critics seem swept away by the theology of the words and music. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times praises the musical for its message "that whatever our different myths, metaphors and rituals, the real purpose of religion is to give us a higher purpose and a sense of compassion in the universe."
David Brooks, her colleague at The New York Times, observes that the musical plays very well to an educated American audience because of its warm themes of "humanity" and "compassion" embedded in a message preaching "love and service underneath their superficial particulars." No matter that the sticky particulars here apply to Ugandan gunmen who perform sodomy, rape and female mutilation to music.
He adds a warning for the less-learned among us: "It's worth remembering that the religions that thrive in real-life Africa are not as nice and naive as the religion in the play. "The religions that thrive have exactly what 'The Book of Mormon' ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth." But that doesn't play on Broadway.