One thing that rarely gets said about the devoutly religious is “Boy, they sure do have a great sense of humor about themselves.” But thanks to The Book of Mormon — the wildly popular and multiple Tony-nominated musical now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York — we’ve learned that Mormons aren’t nearly as thin-skinned and humorless as just about every other organized religion on the planet.
Not only have Mormons who’ve seen the show not been offended — and there’s a lot in The Book of Mormon to offend, from baby-fucking to AIDS humor to maggot-infested scrotums — but they actually kinda like it. “Sweet” is the adjective most often used by the LDS faithful when describing the show. Much of credit belongs to the writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of Comedy Central’s South Park and Robert Lopez of the Broadway hit Avenue Q, who managed to find the perfect balance between blasphemous and empathetic. But even the best crude joke will fall flat without the right messenger, which is why Josh Gad, the Book of Mormon’s co-star (along with Andrew Rannells), is so richly deserving of his Tony nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Musical. Playing a Mormon missionary sent to Uganda to convert the savages, Gad is slovenly, insecure, uncomfortable in his own skin, and prone to absurd fibs; pretty much every unflattering stereotype that the church-going public already suspects the liberal media sees in them. But Gad doesn’t play it with a wink and a smirk. He’s big and loud, chewing up the scenery like John Belushi in his Lemmings prime, but he’s also genuinely vulnerable and likable. When he belts out lines like “Just like Jesus I’m growing a pair,” it doesn’t matter if you’re a true believer or just somebody who enjoys a good sacrilegious dick joke, only an empty, joyless soul wouldn’t jump to his feet and cheer. I called Gad to talk about the Tonys — which happen this Sunday, June 12th, at 8pm EST on CBS — and though he was recovering from a nasty bacterial infection, he was in good spirits.
Eric Spitznagel: Are you feeling pretty confident that you’ll be taking home a Tony on Sunday?
Josh Gad: Well, I don’t know about that. I feel confident that it’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
The Vegas oddsmakers have a little more faith in you. Have you seen your betting odds to win?
I haven’t. How am I doing?
You’re 5 to 2.
Your Book of Mormon castmate Andrew Rannells is only 11 to 2, so I guess you’re kicking his ass.
Oh no! Wait, is 5 to 2 good? I’m not a big odds player.
I have no idea. I was hoping you’d know.
No clue. So maybe 11 to 2 is better. It’s got more numbers. That has to be good, right? 11 is better than 5. He could have me beat.
The other big contender in your category is Norbert Leo Butz for Catch Me If You Can. He’s the 3 to 1 favorite to win, and I’m almost positive those are good odds.
I don’t know what any of those numbers mean. They all sound very encouraging. I’m just glad anybody cares enough to calculate the odds of me winning anything.
If you had $200 to gamble on the Tonys, would you put it on you or Butz?
[Laughs.] Oh man, I’m not dumb enough to answer that question.
You don’t believe in yourself enough to risk losing $200?
Oh, I believe in myself. But I would never have even bet on myself to get a Tony nomination in the first place, much less win anything. So in a way, I’m already way out of my league here. I’m just happy to be included in the party.
I heard that as a teenager you were something of a debate prodigy. Is that true?
I don’t know if I’d call myself a prodigy, but I was a big forensics competitor in high school, and then during college I spent some time working at speech and debate camps as a coach.
Is that an instinct that never really disappears? Do you ever find yourself getting into arguments with friends or strangers not because you actually care about the topic but just because you want to crush them?
Oh absolutely. All the time. It’s like a recessive gene. It just pops out when you least expect or want it to. One minute I’ll be fine, and then all of a sudden I shift into automated attack mode, arguing with people for no good reason. I was at an Oscar party this year and I got into a huge debate about the movie Titanic, arguing pretty violently that it deserved to win Best Picture. I would not back down.
What’s your technique? Can you give us some tips on successful debating?
I just try to use a person’s flawed logic against them. You have to pay attention and really listen to what the other person is saying and build your case.
Let’s do a sample debate. I’ll start with something like, “I think Paul Revere rode his horse through Boston while ringing a bell to warn the British that the colonials were getting ready to fight.” Tell me why I’m wrong.
I think you’re an idiot.
Okay, interesting point. Wait, that’s it? That’s your whole argument?
That’s it. There’s really nothing more to prove. You say something like that, you’re an idiot.
Well, what if I came back and said, “Wikipedia says it’s true?”
Oh, oh, okay, that’s a different story. If Wikipedia said it’s true than there’s absolutely no loopholes to your argument and I believe you. I would just lay down. There’s no way to combat that because Wikipedia is never wrong.
I assume you and the rest of the Book of Mormon cast are performing at the Tonys. Have you picked a song yet?
Right now, we’re performing a song called “I Believe,” which is an incredibly ballad that Elder Price sings. It’s gonna be awesome and it’ll bring down the house.
I was kinda hoping for “Hasa Diga Eebowai.”
I think if we did that song, it’d be the end of the Tonys for CBS.
And probably the end of the Tonys in general.
Yes, exactly. This would be the last year for the awards. No more Tonys because we sang that song. It’s that powerful.
There are a lot of people in Middle America who already assume Broadway is run by a Jewish homosexual cabal. It isn’t going to help matters if they tune in for the Tonys and see a Lion King-style sing-a-long with lyrics like, “Fuck you, God, in the ass, mouth and cunt.”
It certainly wouldn’t help the cause. But now that you mention it, I do have to agree that “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is kind of the perfect representation of what our show is all about. It shows a people who’s faith is very much at odds with their reality. It’s so brilliantly done because of the juxtaposition of Disney sweetness mixed with jaw-dropping vulgarity.
Are you religious at all? I think you were raised Jewish, but are you still practicing?
No. I consider myself a traditionalist. I really love the traditional aspects of Judaism. My wife is born and raised a Catholic and I enjoy celebrating those rituals as well. I am very spiritual but not in any way religious, no.
When you’re doing a show that’s so aggressively and giddily blasphemous, does it ever make you nervous?
How do you mean?
Well, my grandmother wasn’t religious, but she’d pray every night anyway “just to be on the safe side.” So you’re in a show that basically tells God to go fuck Himself. When you’re in bed at night, do you sneak in a quick prayer and apology, just to stay on His good side, in the off-chance that He exists?
Oh yeah, all the time. I feel like he’s smiting me right now with this bacterial infection.
That’s your plague of locusts.
A plague of locusts in my throat. So I pray and I tell Him, “Listen, Sir, I was hoping this was obvious, but it’s just a joke, and we don’t mean any of it.” No, in all seriousness, the show kind of does that for us. It actually does have a pro-faith message. While it raises some blasphemous questions, it presents a side of religion that is very sympathetic and sweet.
And also kinda silly and moronic. But you’re right, it reaches the conclusion that as long as religion makes people nicer and kinder to each other, where’s the harm? Do you agree with that philosophy? Are those your personal feelings about religion?
I do think that’s a large part of it. Religion is interesting because it brings out the best and the worst in humanity. It can be a source of good deeds, whether it’s people from different spiritual backgrounds coming together to help other people in need after a crisis. But it’s also a cause for war and bloodshed. There are 5000-plus faiths saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong, and God is on my side so I can do whatever I want.”
That’s spiritual hubris that’ll inspire someone to make death threats to a pair of Comedy Central cartoonists because they drew a picture of your prophet in a bear costume.
Yes it is! I can’t tell you how grateful I am that Trey and Matt decided to go after Mormons this time and not, you know….
It’s probably best if we don’t mention any names.
Thank you. I wasn’t going to be the first to say it. I prefer to talk about Mormons. Mormons are a far more accepting religion. You’re not going to get a death threat from a Mormon.
You will never see a Mormon beheading anybody on the Internet.
Would never happen. They are truly the nicest, happiest people I’ve ever met. I have a few Mormon friends, and they were probably more excited about the show than anybody else. And that is the brilliance of the Mormon faith. In a way, this show is a celebration of that kind-hearted essence.
So let’s say you get the Tony on Sunday, and you’re a superstar and everybody knows your name. Do you stay in New York and keep doing theater, or are you heading back to Hollywood?
With or without the Tony, if Broadway wanted me to stay, that would be amazing. Being in this show has been one of the most rewarding creative experiences I’ve ever had in my life. But that said, my bank account wants to go back to Hollywood.
I was actually referring to your home town of Hollywood, Florida.
[Laughs.] No, I don’t think I’ll be doing that. Hollywood has already gotten enough attention over the years, with the 2000 election and Elián González and the corrupt police and all the other mishaps that seem to fall on that particular spot on the map. I think my hometown has had enough unwanted attention.
You studied acting at Carnegie Mellon but were never enrolled in their music program, right?
That is correct. I was trained as a straight dramatist.
So when you win the Tony for best actor in a musical this Sunday, will you point out that irony in your acceptance speech?
If I win Tony. If.
Come on, Josh. Just say it with me. “I’m going to win a Tony.”
Not going to happen.
Okay, fine. If you win the Tony… do you feel like you’re setting a good example for kids with show business dreams? A Tony win by you basically says “If you want to make it on Broadway, avoid formal training.”
Absolutely. I think that’s the one thing I would want people to take away from The Book of Mormon. Forget the Tony, just the fact that I got cast in this show at all. I want to think there’s some engineer watching the Tonys at home and thinking to himself, “So it’s that easy? Mama Mia, here I come!”
There’s a song in the second act of Book of Mormon called “I Am Africa,” where you do a fantastic impression of Bono. Has he seen it yet?
Bono? No, not yet. But the Edge was at a matinee.
What did he think?
I think he enjoyed it. I’m not really sure.
Because he’s the Edge and he has no recognizable facial expressions?
I think that’s part of it. I saw him in the audience and I almost had a heart attack. I was bracing for him to come back and tell me exactly what he thought of my Bono and how much he hated it, but he just left after the show. Which may’ve been the best thing that ever happened to me.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)