Round Table on Mormon Humor: Round One (updated)

As you may know, at BCC we periodically host round table discussions gathering the illuminati of various fields together.  We’ve done it for the issues of Women in the Church and Historicity and Revelation.  Each round table brings insights from professionals and academics deeply involved in the topic. 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anyone like that for our round on Mormon Humor.  But at least we’re long-winded.

Instead, we’ve assembled:
- Me — cyber-dude Steve Evans, blogger and lawyer in NYC. 
- Bengt Washburn, professional comedian (and master of fine arts);
- Eric Snider, author, satirist, and critic;
- Todd Petersen, editor of The Sugar Beet and Professor of English at SUU;
- Robert Kirby, op-ed author at the Salt Lake Tribune; and
- Ed Snow, humorist author and lawyer.

You know the rules: 3 questions, three emails and hilarity ensues.  On with the show!

From: Steve Evans
To: Bengt, Kirby, Eric, Todd, Ed
Date: August 25, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

Gentlemen, As you may recall, I emailed a few weeks ago with the proposal for a round table on humor and the Church.  If now is an OK time for everyone, I’d like to get the ball rolling.   I also present to you a challenge: each round, present a new joke about mormons!

Let me start by introducing you to each other. So, for my mormon joke I will pirate an old one from myself, which I first posted at Times and Seasons but lifted from somewhere else I can’t recall (probably Google): A Mormon guy in line to get lunch leans over to the guy next to him and says, "Wanna hear a Mormon joke?"

The guy next to him replies, "Well before you tell that joke, you should know something. I’m 6′ tall, 200 lbs., and I am an anti-Mormon. The guy sitting next to me is 6’2 tall, weighs 225, and he’s an anti-Mormon. The fella next to him is 6’5 tall, weighs 250, and he’s an anti-Mormon. Now, you still wanna tell that joke?"

The first guy says, "Nah, not if I’m gonna have to explain it 3 times."

And on to the first question/issue: what are the boundaries in mormon humor?  Obviously as members of the community we can push things a little further than outsiders, but there are still some sacred cows that we dare not talk about.  Obvious taboos are temple details and sacred rites, but there are cultural boundaries as well.  For example, I recall a Calvin Grondahl cartoon from the time when President Benson was incapacitated: it was a scene in General Conference, and the Tabernacle Choir sings, "We Thank Thee O God For A Support System." Now that struck me as going a bit too far, but why?  Because it questioned the integrity of the institution?  I’m not sure.  But it made me squirm.  At the same time, I can’t help but think that exploring these boundaries is a good check and balance on our religion, making sure that we don’t confuse culture with belief.  So where do you draw the line, and why?

Steve


From:
Todd
To: Steve, Bengt, Eric, Kirby, Ed
Date: August 25, 2005

I’m not much of one for a straight joke, but here goes…

So, this elder’s quorum president goes to visit an inactive member. The member meets him at the door, smoking, with a Coors long neck in his hand. In the living room, an episode of the Sopranos has just started. The elder’s quorum president looks at his watch, then the inactive member says, "You want to come in?" The elder’s quorum president says, "Sure, if you’re not busy."

The member invites him in, grabs the remote, and switches off the television.

The elder’s quorum president says, "That’s okay, you can leave that on until my companion gets here." Then he plops down on the couch.

The member says, "Sure, when’s he coming?"

The elder’s quorum president says, "As soon as I call him."

I’m going to start by drawing a distinction between humor and satire (the above joke I’d call satire, but only if people laugh).

Humor, in my estimation, is simply being funny, making an incongruous or ironic observation or just going for a joke, pun, or whatever. The goal of humor, in any case, is simply to make people laugh. Farts can do that. So, missionaries farting could be considered LDS humor. Sister missionaries farting would be even funnier, though. Whoever farts isn’t that relevant. Aferwards, there would be some laughter, and then everyone would just go on with their life, maybe occasionally thinking of the sister missionaries farting while they are, say, waiting for the photocopier to warm up.

Satire, on the other hand, has a more serious side. Satire is the tool of people who want to see changes in people, institutions, or the status quo in general. Satirists use humor in a kind of Mary Poppinsy way: to make the medicine go down. In my experience, satirists generally advocate the health of their target; they aren’t trying to destroy it. They also realize that they have an agenda, and they know that they generally don’t like it when other people have agendas, so they use humor to misdirect people from the fact that they’re actually dealing with a sermon.

For example, a satirist might have sister missionaries farting, but he might then follow the fart with the companion trying to soothe the mortified sister after their ruined appointment. This other person would be offering some Zoloft that her mother told her to pack just in case she "needed some help with her perfection."

The satirist, then, is trying to point out some folly or lapse by casting it in it’s most humorous light, the hope being that the culture’s little demons (in this case LDS women’s documented high use of anti-depressants) will be cast into swine and sent packing.

That said, I think this line in the sand is much closer for Mormon humor than it is for satire’s. If you’re just going for the laugh, then agitating the masses is just agitation. Everyone’s better off if you’re benign. I’m taking up this line because I don’t think Mormon humor (something like THE SINGLES WARD, for example) is trying to make the culture better. It’s just shooting for the joke. Mormon satire is saying, "Hey, you’re being a jerk/ding dong/hypocrite/no account, and I think you should take a look at yourself."

There are problems, though. And I’d be a cad if I didn’t admit them. If a Mormon satirist is pointing out the egg on his brother’s tie, he had probably better check the omelette on his own tie first, and there is always a omelette. Satire is absolutely 100% elitist and dangerous among people sharing a common belief in God, or anything for that matter, because a satirist will inevitably seem pompous, holier than thou, aloof. But then again, so can a bishop. So, there’s that.

Steve really is onto something when he suggests that with church humor or church satire we are ideally helping draw a distinction between that which is Mormon (or cultural) and that which is of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (doctrinal). I think doctrinal things shouldn’t be manhandled. There are enough crazy people in the church to keep a writer busy for a long time. In any case, Mormon people have the gospel and the culture all tangled up. I’m sure that there is someone somewhere who thinks the WORK AND THE GLORY was translated from an ancient Egyptian papyrus.

Todd


From:
Steve Evans
To: Bengt, Kirby, Eric, Todd, Ed
Date: August 25, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

Todd, First let me congratulate you for being the first responder. 

Second, let me just say that few things in the church are funnier than sister missionaries farting — a fact to which I add my firsthand testimony, from a district meeting in France several years ago.  Ooh la la!

Finally, I think Mormons have long been ripe for the disentanglement of culture and religion that you mention.  My concern is that we have gone on for so long as an isolated people, that the two are hopelessly intertwined and the humor is lost.  For example, white shirts and ties — clearly a cultural element — are nonetheless considered religious musts in most parts, and I’m not sure satire or humor can correct that.


From:
Ed Snow
To:
Bengt, Kirby, Eric, Todd, Ed
Date: August 25, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

First, it’s my pleasure to be here. I know all of the guests from meeting them at a variety of forums, either Sunstone, Sugar Beet, or AML-List,some of you better than others.

I don’t really do jokes, unless that’s how you characterize my opinions on LDS cultural boundaries and taboos.  One obvious boundary is sex. You can do Mormon humor about sex, but it requires the gift of discernment.

Here’s a slapdash example for discussion. Imagine a stand up comic, like Bengt, except not as funny, doing this routine [my comments in brackets] in a nightclub:

******

So, how many people here were raised Mormon? [no laughs, no hands–the sound of glasses clinking]

Someone’s lying. Well, [dramatic pause]  I was. [crickets]

It was tough, being raised Mormon. Not supposed to smoke, drink, have sex and not do a thousand other things. They could have summed it up, really, with just one rule–you can’t have fun. [yawns–people are starting to think about how they’re going to have sex after the show]

No sex you say? Yeah right. OK, I have a confession to make–I had sex. Boy … did I have sex. [a couple of people look up and chuckle, more out of surprise than amusement]

Un huh. Yeah, that’s right–I had sex and I’m not ashamed of it. I … HAD … SEX. [two guffaws-pause] Once. [genuine laughs–pause–comic holds his hand up, palm curved out to the audience] With my HAND. [snickers, laughs, someone even snorts, comic has to wait till laughs die down] For THREE seconds. [loud laughter, some guy spits out a mouthful of scotch] In … my IMAGINATION. [laughter bedlam breaks out, someone whistles, another
slaps his knee]

You’ve been a great audience. I say these things in Jes … um … er …  "Thank you.

********

While I don’t expect anyone to use this in his routine, it might illustrate a point or two, or maybe it just reveals a fantasy of mine (the part about being a comic, not the part about the “hand”).

Non-Mormons might find this bit goofy, but tolerable–it’s unexpected
stuff, what the brain likes and reacts to as funny, gives a twist on a Mormon stereotype. You might bore them at first, but they might warm up to it.

But what about Mormons? I can see them squirm at this “routine.” It’s a confession of sorts. Mormons don’t admit to sex, that’s probably more of a taboo than talking about sex or telling “dirty jokes,” which none of this was, actually, but it sounded like it. But what about being so *graphic* (by LDS standards) … using the term “hand” –too much information, a bit too suggestive perhaps? As movie and humor critic Steve Young said about the movie “There’s Something About Mary” when he turned down Bret Favre’s role: “the screenplay was just kind of gross.”

A slight adjustment might work better for Steve Young and other Mormons. Delete the reference to "with my hand" and then add at the end something like "[pause] after I was married." That’s safer, not as edgy, but, in my opinion, not as interesting either.

In this bit it looks early on like the comic would take a Mormon audience and push them over the cliff (read; “boundary”), whereas the Non-Mormon audience pretty much stays in the sleepy valley below. Of course he pulls up fast before going to the Mormon edge, and, in fact, he ends up reinforcing the very Mormon cultural peculiarity he’s making fun of, something that might endear him to a patient Mormon audience who had the nerve to sit it out, and he might give a Non-Mormon audience an odd diversion that’s perhaps amusing to boot.

This is what I think can work for the Mormon humorist vis-a-vis approaching those cultural boundaries, that is, unless you really don’t care about crossing over them, in which case you limit your audience to a few Sunstoners.

Ed

From: Eric Snider
To: Bengt, Kirby, Steve, Todd, Ed
Date: August 26, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

First, let me thank Steve for inviting me to participate in this forum. It’s an honor to be asked, and especially to be in such esteemed company (except Robert Kirby, who I’ve never cared for) (Kidding! See, the jokes have started already!).

If the question is where do I, personally, draw the line for church-related humor, it’s pretty much where Steve put it: temple details and sacred rites. I wouldn’t joke about those things even privately, let alone in something I intended to publish or perform.

Beyond that, for me, it gets split into two categories: doctrine and culture. As far doctrine goes (and that would include church leadership), I think any subject is OK as long as the joking is being done out of affection, and not in the spirit of mockery. You can get away with some pretty outrageous jokes if you say them with a warm smile and if your audience knows you have love underneath it all.

There’s also the fact that making a joke IN REFERENCE to something is not the same thing as making fun of it. Jokes that begin "A man walks into a bar…" are seldom actually about bars, after all.

Church culture? Everything’s fair game. Affection or outright mockery, go for it. That doesn’t mean the audience will like it, of course; it just means I can make the joke with a clear conscience. Making fun of a dreadful-sounding ward choir is no more "sacrilegious" than making fun of a dreadful-sounding community choir — i.e., the fact that it’s Mormons doing it, even doing it for religious reasons, doesn’t make it unavailable as a target.

It eventually comes down to the audience, though. It’s been two years since I’ve written my "Snide Remarks" column for an exclusively LDS audience (that is, The Daily Herald’s readership), but I recall many times when I had a joke that was perfectly acceptable to my conscience that I knew the readers, even the loyal "Snide Remarks" lovers, wouldn’t tolerate. Then you have to weigh it: Are you making an important satirical point about our culture, something that maybe SHOULD make us uncomfortable so we can re-examine ourselves? Or are you just making a funny joke that’s gonna upset people with no redeeming value other than that it’s funny? I think being funny is value enough, but again, we’re talking about what the audience will allow.

And a Mormon joke? Hmm. I don’t really like most "jokes," in the sense of "joke" that means a little fictional story that ends with a punchline. Hence, I’ve forgotten all the ones I’ve ever heard.

Shaking hands cordially,
Eric D. Snider

From: Bengt Washburn
To: Eric, Kirby, Steve, Todd, Ed
Date: August 26, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

Hey everybody, glad to participate. I will be on the road this weekend so I won’t be able to respond more until next week.

Question: Are there boundaries in Mormon humor? Where do I draw the lines and why.

I don’t have a joke but I do have an anecdote that relates to the question. Several years ago I did a performance for some community group in utah County, I can’t remember maybe it was the Jaycees. Anyway, the median age of the crowd had to be 65. It was a rough show, I didn’t exactly eat it, but mostly polite titters and vacant smiles. I was offered a few feeble compliments at the door, and then an older woman, who probably didn’t laugh at anything I’d said told me, "I really enjoyed your performance, it was so clean." She didn’t enjoy the comedy show because it was funny, she enjoyed it because it was clean. She didn’t like my show for what it was, she liked it for what it wasn’t. I think that’s sad.

There are boundaries in Mormon Humor of course. I have crossed those boundaries in public performances and at private gatherings, usually on accident. As a comedian I usually don’t intentionally cross those boundaries but I definitely approach them. I often use the boundaries to create tension that can then be releaved with humor. I think its part of my job to approach those boundaries, get as close as possible without crossing them. Its part of the fun, the danger of crossing the line. Its kind of like a tightrope act. I think it is expected of most satirists, comedians and humorist, to skillfully walk that line and in doing so question it a little, maybe take the fear out of it, put us back in control. Again my intention isn’t to cross that line, if I do cross the line then I feel that I failed. Although there are exceptions.

The exceptions:

For most of us, the boundaries change dramatically depending on the setting and company. Some would call this hypocricy, hypocracy? (spelling) I wouldn’t. The fact is there ARE different boundaries for different settings depending on the age of the audiences and the purpose of the gathering. There the locker rooms full of guys, a womens’ scrap booking party, the mixed company barbacue with kids running around and church. All of these settings come with a new set of boundaries. I think its sad to maddening when Momrmons decide to take the boundaries of church with them everywhere they go. Its clueless, creepy, socially inept and usually a product of fear and/or vanity. I swear there are people who are looking to get offended, who jump at the chance to "walk out" so they can tell people about it at church the next day. Its the equivalent of "praying in the open".  That is the exception. When someone comes to a comedy club with church boundaries. I don’t worry about offending Sadducees and Pharisees.

I notice this phenomenon in Utah County among the young people. They are so concerned about peer pressure, (and the parents encourage this fear) so they’ll constantly look around to see if its OK to laugh and if one walks, several will follow.

Personal lines: I’m not worried about offending people with who I am inside, I think we’re ALL offensive on the inside..AND beautiful, its a paradox I guess. Just because its offensive doesn’t mean its not funny and in a world with sex, religion and death, sick humor comes with the territory. I honestly believe that God NEVER gets really upset by ANY of our jokes. He simply isn’t threatened by them. So when I write I try not to have ANY boundaries. I just cut loose and write about anything, and I mean anything. Then when it comes time to go to the stage, I temper it so that it can become more universally funny.

From: Ed Snow
To: Eric, Kirby, Steve, Todd, Bengt
Date: August 26, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

On satire, some believe the Book of Jonah is exactly that–a book of satire in which everything is turned upside down. Let’s see, a Hebrew prophet calling Nineveh to repentance, a fish eating and then yakking Jonah onto the shore, a vomity Jonah preaching repentance, the Ninevehites repenting, even their cattle wearing sackcloth and ashes, and so on. Also, many OT prophets wax very sarcastic, such as Amos and Elijah, often bordering on the satirical.

If Mormons believe the spirit of prophecy is not limited to the prophetic office (as currently constituted in the LDS Church), then Robert Kirby is a prophet with a small "p" isn’t he? The prophetic spirit seems equally susceptible to characterization as "elitist" since it is critical of culture. I haven’t thought much about this, but I wager there may not be a categorical difference between a satirist and a prophet (as opposed to "The Prophet" I guess, but like Todd’s bishop example, I’m not sure).

This roundtable is looking interesting. I’ve got to go home.Tell me if I’m talking too much or committing any other misdemeanors–I’ve never done one of these before.

Ed

From: Steve Evans
To: Eric, Kirby, Ed, Todd, Bengt
Date: August 26, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

Ed, I think you’re doing fine, except for your jokes (Kirby as a small-p prophet?  That’d better be a very small p).

If we look at a prophet as a truth-sayer, then I think we can begin to blur the lines between the gift of prophecy and the gift of satire, as Ed suggests.  Satire’s goal is ultimately to tell the truth.  It then becomes problematic because of methodolgy: satirists and prophets use different means of getting the Truth across: compare "A Modest Proposal" with ETB’s talk on Pride.  No satire with ETB!  Not sure he really told a joke, like, EVER.  But the boundaries are the same — the Truth.  At times the wicked take the truth to be hard, and people can take humor & satire the wrong way, but that doesn’t deny its truthfulness.

And Kirby is officially last to respond, therefore I shall close in mocking him for tardiness.

Steve

p.s. for jokes, let me clarify: anecdotes are jokes too.  Don’t be so literal!


From:
Todd Petersen
To: Eric, Kirby, Ed, Steve, Bengt
Date: August 26, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

On Aug 26, 2005, at 7:27 AM, Steve Evans wrote:

> At times the wicked take the truth to be hard, and people
> can take humor & satire the wrong way, but that doesn’t deny its
> truthfulness.

I can’t tell you how many e-mails we got at the Sugar Beet that basically told us we (a) were destroying the Church, (b) should have our temple recommends burned, (c) were going to hell, or (d) all of the above. Mormon people seem particularly quick to judge and condemn. That’s what I got the most out of working on the Beet. Humor and satire all function as one slice of all the multiple perspectives. I had a
professor once, Robert Grudin, who wrote that if people don’t see the humorous side of a situation, then they are not see all sides.

What many people, including most Sugar Beet detractors didn’t realize, was that we were taking the orthodox church position on almost everything, once you flipped the ironic position. The longer we put out
issues, the more I realized we were ultimately conservative in our position within the church — we were just a little more crass in how we put things.

Todd

P.S. I dispensed with the niceties at the onset because of the 2004 presidential debates. Sorry.

From: Eric Snider
To: Todd, Kirby, Ed, Steve, Bengt
Date: August 26, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

Humor is so subjective anyway, and when it’s dealing with "sensitive" issues, it’s even more volatile. Everyone seems to have different breaking points. At the Daily Universe and later at the Daily Herald, I
would get e-mails all the time that basically said: "I used to think you were really funny until you made fun of Thing X. That was going too far!" And then I’d get an e-mail from someone else saying, "Those jokes you made about Thing X were hilarious! When you talked about Thing Y, however, that was crossing the line." And if you asked the first person, the one who was bothered by the Thing X jokes, they’d probably say they LOVED the jokes about Thing Y.

What’s more, everyone would always state it is though their offense at the joke were the obvious hardline orthodox Mormon position — as if surely ALL good Mormons would agree that making fun of Thing X was
inappropriate. When in fact plenty of their fellow good Mormons thought the Thing X jokes were just fine.

I think since Mormonism deals so much in absolutes — ONE true church, ONE path to heaven, so many ordinances that MUST be performed, and so forth — many Mormons come to think there is only one correct position on EVERYTHING. I guess the reasoning, at least subconsciously, is: "I was offended by this joke, and I am a good Mormon. Therefore, people who were NOT offended by it must NOT be good Mormons." People confuse offending their personal tastes with offending the Spirit — two things that often overlap, but not always. Sometimes you just plain don’t like something, and it has nothing to do with the Spirit telling you not to like it.

Eric

P.S. Are we going to talk about the possibility of being offended by something yet still admitting it’s funny? I hope so, because I love that topic.

From: Ed Snow
To: Todd, Kirby, Eric, Steve, Bengt
Date: August 26, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

I think “funny” implies you like it and aren’t offended.  Recognizing someone was very clever in what they did with their humor bit, even though offensive, is what I think I can do. Are you saying you can actually laugh out loud about something said that really offends you? “Wagner’s music is a lot better than it sounds.” That’s what I hear you saying. Not sure I can buy that.

By the way, Eric, your piece on polygamist sports leagues was one of the funniest things ever.

Ed

From: Eric Snider
To: Todd, Kirby, Ed, Steve, Bengt
Date: August 26, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

Ed: Not quite that, no. More along the lines of what you said first: Recognizing the craft in it even if you found it offensive. For myself, I don’t ever really get "offended" by a joke. I can see how a joke may
be inappropriate or insensitive, but that doesn’t stop me from laughing at it, if it was funny. (The problem with a lot of jokes that RELY on their inappropriateness or their insensitivity is that they’re not actually funny. Whoever wrote them did so because they wanted to address a taboo topic, not because they had a good idea for a joke. It should always be the other way around, of course: You get a good idea for a gag, and then you worry about whether it’s suitable.)

I think I take a more analytical approach to humor than some people do. (I suspect that’s true of all of us in this group, if we’re serious about our comedy.) When something makes me laugh, I often reflect on
what it was, exactly, that made it work for me. Ditto when something that was obviously meant to be funny fails to connect: What went wrong? (This happens a lot when I’m reviewing movies.) And when I’m looking at a joke that failed to amuse me, the reason is NEVER that it’s an inappropriate or offensive topic. It’s something in the way it was structured, or delivered, or whatever.

My dad is famous around our house for saying, "I’m laughing, but I’m not amused." As in: That joke you just made at the dinner table was indeed funny, as you can tell by my reaction. But it was not appropriate.

What made me think of all this was talking about readers being offended by jokes about Thing X but not Thing Y, where other readers had no problem with Thing X jokes but canceled their subscriptions over the
Thing Y bits. Everyone thinks what bothers THEM must be the norm, failing to take into account that different people find different things funny.

Can’t a person read something meant to be funny, not find it funny — even find it offensive — yet still say, "That bothered me, but I suppose there are others who found it highly amusing indeed"? I guess I
don’t see making the leap from "That column jokes about things I consider off-limits for joking!" to writing a letter telling the author not to make such jokes again. That would be logical if I were writing
just for you, Sir or Ma’am, but I’m not. Do you not realize that others in the reading audience quite liked those jokes? And that’s my point, is I guess people DON’T realize that. Or they do, but they figure
anyone who laughed at those jokes is wrong for doing so.

>  By the way, Eric, your piece on polygamist sports leagues was one of
> the funniest things ever.

Hey, thanks! That was from a column meant to be excerpts from a polygamist community newspaper, as I recall. Good times….

Eric

From: Todd Petersen
To: Eric, Kirby, Ed, Steve, Bengt
Date: August 27, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

On Aug 26, 2005, at 4:47 PM, Eric D.Snider wrote:

> I think since Mormonism deals so much in absolutes — ONE true church,
> ONE path to heaven, so many ordinances that MUST be performed, and so
> forth — many Mormons come to think there is only one correct position
> on EVERYTHING. I guess the reasoning, at least subconsciously, is: "I
> was offended by this joke, and I am a good Mormon. Therefore, people
> who were NOT offended by it must NOT be good Mormons." People confuse
> offending their personal tastes with offending the Spirit — two
> things that often overlap, but not always. Sometimes you just plain
> don’t like something, and it has nothing to do with the Spirit telling
> you not to like it.

This is a really amazingly concise way of putting this, and it shows is how Catholics and Mormons more alike than we’d care to admit. Catholics have their papal infallibility while Mormons have personal
infallibility. And in some cases this goes to creepy extremes. I know somebody who won’t read the Old Testament because it’s not uplifting, and it’s much too dark. She feels absolutely justified in this because
we are supposed to avoid the appearance of evil, and the Old Testament describes lots of evil.

Mormons spend so much time being offended, you’d think it’s one of the articles of faith: we believe in being offended; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Sister Jorgenson down the street–we are offended by all things, we have endured many offenses, and hope to be able to endure all future offenses. If there is anything humorous, ironic, or written in mildly complex language, we turn away from these things and then complain about them in our meetings on Sunday.

Maybe this issue is centered around the whole "personal revelation" business, as when Eric mentioned people confusing their personal tastes with the spirit. This works in the other direction, too. The things
that engage and delight their personal tastes are seen as welcoming the Spirit.

I, for one, generally detest almost all of the art and music produced by Mormon media conglomerates, but not because of the message, but on aesthetic grounds. This has nothing to do with the gospel, I should think, but with the fact that so much of Mormon culture in America is directly tied to suburban tastes and values, things I have little or no interest in. And personally, I think suburban values have very little to do with the gospel, and probably do a lot to undermine the directions of the scriptures and the Twelve. Staying out of debt is just one of those things.

Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to get across the point that I feel the Spirit a whole lot more while I’m listening to Miles Davis than when I’m listening to Afterglow. So, in a way I AM OFFENDED all the time by things that talk about the Savior and the Plan of Salvation and so forth, not because of the message but because of the medium. This is the reverse of what Eric is talking about when he gets into the whole "can something be funny and offensive at the same time?"

I say absolutely.

Our admonition is against loud laughter, not the good chuckle or the knowing grin. But in any case, if we’re not supposed to crack jokes in and around sacred situations, then I think President Hinckley needs to tone it down in Conference. I get so offended when he he puts the entire Conference Center in stitches. He needs to get a little decorum, like that new Pope. That guy can really suck the Spirit out of a room.

Todd

From: Bengt Washburn
To: Eric, Kirby, Ed, Steve, Todd
Date: August 27, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

Can you imagine God condeming someone to hell for laughing? Isn’t laughter a gut reaction, an instinctive response to some surprising irony?

I thought of this after the fact. One type of humor that I find to be annoying is flippancy. Some people,  bitter people in particular, sometimes me, mistake flippancy for satire. By flippancy I mean that the  jokester simply taps into an accepted point of view, usually attacking an acceptable victim, a popular target. Nothing is really said. Tonight SHow monologues are full of this crap. Jokes that are really just a  cleverly constructed way of saying Bush is stupid or Clinton is fat, or Hillary is a…

I find a lot of anti-Mormon humor is merely flippancy.

Bengt

From: Robert Kirby
To: Eric, Bengt, Ed, Steve, Todd
Date: August 27, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

One of the difficult parts for me is determining who is really responsible for the humor impairment Mormons are alleged to have. When I first got into the business of lampooning us, the general consensus was that Utah Mormons were the touchiest. Prevailing wisdom held that no one took him or herself as seriously as a Utah Mormon. The closest we could come to legitimate humor were the polite
chuckles following droll remarks by apostles in General Conference.   I’d be lucky if I didn’t get lynched trying to be a jester in Zion. Turned out not to be the case.

Oh, I made people in Utah mad. But books sales, speaking requests, and reader feedback clearly indicated–at least to me–that the most humorless Mormons do not live in Provo or Logan. They live in
California, Virginia, and Washington. Those are the places I get the majority of my “angry Mormon” feedback from. True, I still get some from Utah. But it’s nothing like I get from the mission field. Say what you want about Utah Mormons, but it isn’t our more cosmopolitan brethren who are generating (and buying) the majority of our humor.

There are problems associated with LDS life in Utah, but I wonder if living cheek and jowl with other Mormons also gives one a more tolerable view of our shortcomings. I mean, really, everyone in Utah knows Mormons who aren’t exactly Ensign poster kids. Conversely, life surrounded by people who don’t know much about us, people constantly watching to see how Mormons behave, might cause members to be a little thinner skinned regarding any portrayal of us that isn’t properly correlated.

————

I’m not sure it’s completely safe to generalize laughter by saying that God wouldn’t condemn someone just for laughing. For me, it depends on why you’re laughing. Sharing a laugh with someone in a way that makes a situation more tolerable, or something that reveals the humanity in all of us, isn’t quite the  same as a bunch of Klansmen chortling over a lynching. But that’s probably not what you were saying. I’m just thinking out loud here. For me, it’s more about humor. Real humor is a great bonding tool. It’s different than mockery, which is simply divisive. I REALLY agree with you about flippancy.

One of my favorite quotes regarding humor is this one by George Orwell: "The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that he is already degraded."

K

p.s. Satire is by definition humor with a moral point of view.
— P.J. O’Rourke, from “How to Write Funny.”

From: Steve Evans
To: Todd, Kirby, Eric, Kirby, Bengt
Date: August 27, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

Kirby, as a NYC resident I take exception to the "mission field" term.  You Utah Mormons are all alike!  I am offended!

OK, so let me try to wrap up this round one by asking for a summary: what topics won’t you make fun of? The Temple?  What about saying that Mom’s dutch oven cookery is delicious to the taste and very desirable?  Will you make fun of church leaders?  I made fun of Pres. Monson a few months back and caught hell for it: leaders were mocked; readers were angered; tears were shed.

After this, a breather before we move on to Round Two.

Steve

From: Eric Snider
To: Todd, Kirby, Steve, Ed, Bengt
Date: August 27, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

The temple and, I suppose, God himself are probably the only topics I categorically wouldn’t make fun of. Including temple language in other contexts is not "making fun" of it, technically speaking, but I still
prefer not to do it. I don’t feel comfortable invoking the temple in people’s minds for the purpose of amusing them.

General authorities are suitable targets for good-natured ribbing, such as imitating Pres. Monson’s speech patterns, or the way Richard G. Scott looks directly into the camera so as to peer into the souls of those watching and make them feel guilty. I would draw the line at outright "mockery" of church leaders — as in, ridiculing them, sarcastically pointing out their flaws, etc. — but a little joshin’, I have no problem with.

Janice Kapp Perry can be mocked without fear of damnation (though her fans tend to get upset).

Eric D. Snider

From: Robert Kirby
To: Todd, Ed, Eric, Steve, Bengt
Date: August 27, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

What subjects won’t I make fun of? I’ll have to answer this based on what I think I can get away with in the newspaper column, which differs from what’s permissible in a more intimate setting.

GOD. Jokes that God figures in are different than jokes about God. But the mere mention of God can draw some heat.  I had a stake president when we lived in Springville who was a bit of a control freak. He called me in two or three times based on columns he thought were offensive. In fact, he actually had the stake pay for a subscription to the Tribune so that he could monitor my column. When I talked later with his successor, I was told the subscription had been cancelled. Anyway, one of the things that the first stake president objected to was my regular use of the word "God" rather than "Heavenly Father" in my column. He felt such a casual and repetitive reference was akin to "taking the Lord’s name in vain." He wasn’t satisfied with my explanation that "God" was more universally accepted, and seemed to feel that as a Mormon I should be using correlated LDS grammar when writing. We never did resolve this issue. He pulled D&C 64:63 on me once. “Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred and must be spoken with care, and by the constraint of the Spirit…”  I pointed out that literally everything on earth came from above so exactly what was there that could safely be used for humor? We never resolved this either. Something else we never resolved is why he was bothered when I wrote my 13 Particles of Faith? He said it came close to sacrilege. When I asked why it wasn’t sacrilege when I rewrote the Ten Commandments the month before, he said, “That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about it.”

TEMPLE. There’s no acceptable percentage here for me. I can think of a dozen garment references that are truly funny, but I can’t sell them in the column. I stay away from what goes on inside the temple because the margin for error is so huge. I try to have the same consideration when it comes to the more sacred rituals of other faiths.  Does a lot of strange stuff go on in the temple? Sure. I once bumped into a guy in the celestial room who I had arrested the month before. Although there is much about religion that I feel is overblown and even injurious to human beings, there is still an element of solace that can be found in its places of deeper reverence. It’s not my job to take that away from them. So, I’ll go right up to the door and stop there. Weird handshakes? No. Temple recommends? Oh, yeah.

LEADERS. I’m a bit more cautious here than some of you. Not because the stuff I’m seeing isn’t funny, but rather because I’m more under the gun. What I write about church leaders quite literally lands on their doorsteps a few hours later. I’ve found that I can say things about them in general and feel comfortable about it, but it’s a good idea to avoid singling any one out in particular.  The one exception is President Hinckley, who has well documented self-deprecating sense of humor.

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. Depends. Having a little fun with someone who publicly claims that they said a little prayer and Heavenly Father helped them find their missing cell phone is different than hee-hawing over some aspect of the First Vision. I’m deeply suspicious of most faith promoting stories because of their patently grandstanding nature, but it’s tougher to lampoon them the higher up the chain of command you go.

ED SNOW. I think it’s safe to mock Ed in every case. The way he looks, dresses, talks, walks and even worships God, it’s all there for the mocking. Not only does it make the rest of us feel better, he has it coming.

SUMMATION. Over all, I stay away from the temple, individual church leaders, and the more widely respected religious experiences.

Kirby

From: Bengt Washburn
To: Todd, Kirby, Eric, Steve, Ed
Date: August 27, 2005

Re: Mormon Humor, Round one

My Dearest Robert

I agree, after a comedy club performances people out of state will often look at me a little wide eyed and say, "Boy I bet you can’t do that in Utah!" and they surprised when I tell them that most of the Mormons can take a joke quite well. Ther are those few vocal dorks, but mostly the crowds cut me too MUCH slack probably.

The thing about living cheek to jowl… I think when we live cheek to jowl with people its easier to HATE them. People are MUCH nicer in theory.

Bengt

p.s. summary:

Mormon things I don’t joke about.
The temple rituals and the atonement. Thats about it. I don’t ridicule God or Jesus either, but I DO make fun of peoples ideas about God and Jesus -I guess that would be religion. 

My shows will range from G (at corporate shows done in Baptist church gymnasiums in IOWA) to R at comedy clubs across the country. I’ve had disappointed Mormons approach me after shows. I apologize about the dirty language and assure them that I know I’m going to HELL and that I’m OK with it. How  naive is THAT!  "Oh come on! Its just HELL, how bad could it be?"

Maybe I’m jumping to some conclusions here but unlike you guys I haven’t been to church for about ten years, in fact some people would say I’m inactive. But the temple and the atonement strike me as sacred so I wouldn’t choose those as targets for ridicule, although now that you mention it the architecture of the Ogden and Provo temples ARE pretty whacky. Like a giant spinner from the game of LIFE.

Anyway, I don’t approach my show as an insider anymore, I’d say in the last few years my humor has  evolved into the confused Mormon, whos on the outside and feels guilty about it. In any case my stuff has to have quite a broad appeal so general authority adn temple jokes wouldn’t be used anyway.

Bengt

From: Robert Kirby
To: Todd, Ed, Eric, Steve, Bengt
Date: August 28, 2005

Re: Favorite quotes on humor

The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.
— Mark Twain

When a person can no longer laugh at himself, it is time for others to laugh at him.
— Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin, 1973

Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.
— Victor Borge

Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.
— George Bernard Shaw

Anyone without a sense of humor is at the mercy of everyone else.
—William Rotsler. Five time winner of Hugo Award).

The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that he is already degraded.
— George Orwell

The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive and eventually releases him again for another chance.
— Peter de Vries

You can pretend to be serious; you can’t pretend to be witty.
— Sacha Guitry

One doesn’t have a sense of humor. It has you.
— Larry Gelbart.

No matter what happens, somebody will find a way to take it too seriously.
— Dave Barry?

Humor is a reminder that no matter how high the throne one sits on, one sits on one’s bottom.
—Taki

Humor is like sex: Everyone knows exactly what it is, but no two people ever agree.
— David Bouchier, “How to Write Funny.”

P.S. I’d like to point out that I don’t entirely agree with the last one by Bouchier. I worked vice as a cop one summer. I saw sex stuff in Utah County bathrooms that even Dr. Ruth can’t figure out.

Kirby

p.s. (from Eric):
Comedy isn’t pretty.
— Steve Martin

Tragedy is when *I* cut my finger. Comedy is when *you* fall into an open manhole and die.
— Mel Brooks

UPDATE: I forgot one of Kirby’s emails, possibly his best.  Ed’s I forgot on purpose, however:

Ugh. I got up this morning and found you bums lurking in my e-mail. It’s particularly disturbing since I chose this morning to switch to decaf. Also, I thought Eric was dead.

First, here’s my favorite Mormon joke. Understand that I got it years ago from a black, LDS highway patrol trooper. Question: “Why are crows black?” Answer: “Because they wouldn’t eat the crickets.”

In my experience it’s impossible to tell exactly where the line is in LDS humor because it’s such a relative thing. No two people, even people who share the same sacred cow, have the same sense of humor about it. This is particularly true of religion, a place where human beings frequently confuse God with their own ego. So, it’s always been a guessing game for me. After nearly 20 years, it still is.

When I started lampooning the Utah culture, it wasn’t exactly a well-trod path. I had to make up a lot of the the rules as I went along. Some of them were obvious: no jokes about temple stuff, ordinances, God, etc. Others were a bit more difficult to figure out. The humor in a column can literally depend on a single word. For example, “testimony” can be more uncomfortable to people around here than “witness," as in, “It’s tough to hang onto the Spirit when bearing your testimony in drag.” Replacing “testimony” with “witness” cuts less deep for some Mormons because they can lay it off on Baptists or JWs.

Having fun as close to the throne as I do allows me an occasional glimpse into how humor varies even among church leaders. I’ve spoken with many of them in social situations. Some like it. Some don’t have an opinion. A few have expressed solemn concern.

In the end I think seeing the line has more to do with instinct than anything else. To possess that instinct requires putting in your in your time. It comes from years of pressing your hams on a pew, working up a sweat in ward ball games, and sitting in the temple wondering, “Man, I hope the kids didn’t eat all the Twinkies.”

Sorry for the grammar mistakes. I’m trying to get out of here. Got a speech in Park City where I’ll see if I can once again make someone mad enough to slam out of the room. More later

Kirby

Resident Fool

Salt Lake Tribune

Comments

  1. Steve,

    This is fantastic. Great topic, great group, great responses. Just a few comments:

    A lot of people mentioned a line between mocking and satire/warm humor or, simply, laughing at and laughing with. I agree that that’s an important distinction. But I think that even more important and significant is the intention of the speaker. There’s a difference between a joke made in contempt and a joke made in broken-hearted joviality. This sounds like the same dichotomy as the former, but it’s slightly different. Though not common, I think it’s possible to mock soft-heartedly and “laugh with” contemptuously. It’s the spirit in which the joke is told that counts more than anything else.

    The question of specific issues, like the temple, presents an interesting situation because I think it is an exception to my own rule. But the problem, I think, doesn’t have anything to do with humor. It stems from the fact that there’s a great deal of confusion and difference of opinion as to what is appropriate to say about the temple outside it, even in solemnity. If we don’t know what we can say seriously, the problem of what we can say in jest becomes tenfold.

    Since Steve offered his dutch oven joke, I feel I can repeat what I heard said, by both professors and students, on multiple occasions, that the mission of the BYU philosophy department was to teach the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture. I loved it, but some find it inappropriate. I never figured out how to argue that it was or wasn’t inappropriate; I think we really don’t know.

    Finally, I hope there is more of the discussion that Eric Snider mentioned of simultaneously finding both humor and offense. Example: Team America. I was offended, sometimes very offended. And yet I laughed. I laughed hard. At times, the more offended I was the harder I was laughing. It’s a paradox to me that I still can’t seem to settle.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Eric, Team America is a great example. Extremely offensive, but hilarious. That puke scene? The best. “Gary has proven his loyalty to me”? The best. But I am deeply uncomfortable about it. The same goes with the South Park movie. It is a gift, I think, to amuse and offend at the same time. Not sure why that gift is given, but still…

  3. Because I’m both petty and anal retentive, I note Steve forgot one of my posts to this round one. Here it is:

    Off limits (I’m not breaking this down, but you could between making fun of any of the following–that’s bad–or just placing them in the zone of
    humor danger but not allowing them to take a hit–may be okay depending on your audience):

    1. God, Jesus & Holy Ghost. Actually, the Holy Ghost is untested–never heard a joke involving him (Carolyn Pearson says he’s a girl–that’s about the best I can do). People are probably more touchy about Jesus than the Big Guy (that probably offended someone). In southern Utah you might need to add Adam to this list.

    2. GAs, unless (i) it’s Brigham Young who can generally take several swipes without anyone getting offended, (ii) you’re merely mimicing them (some prof at BYU does a great job at this and no one seems to care), (iii) general concensus is that they can be obnoxious sometimes (McConkie and some other unamed GAs come to mind–it’s better if they are deceased
    by more than 50 years though) and (iv) J. Golden.

    3. Temple rituals. This is really unfair because you probably could get away with discussing anything except for certain limited parts, but no one has ever declared what the bright lines are, so everyone is running scared here. Big mess. But things that are completely incidental to the temple are fair game. I’ve heard numerous people make fun of the unbelieveably straight part in the hair of Spencer Palmer when he was the minister, or Gordon Jump wearing a watch that was visible under his robe sleeve when he
    raised his hand, or the dark hair on the nape of one Satan’s neck that no doubt extended all the way down and covered his back that was so long it
    could have been braided, or some temple worker who once got confused and kept using the name “Bozo” instead of “Boaz” all day long–perhaps he needed glasses (true story). I’ll stop there–Steve, am I crossing the line here for this forum? (wink … or maybe not, I don’t know).

    4. Vulgar items. PG or PG-13 are the most people can take. You can swear if you quote J. Golden. You can have some nudity in your jokes. No sex,
    unless it’s a generalized joke about the bishop and relief society president having an affair. Of course you can breach this rule with impunity by merely reading any random page out of the Old Testament *in a modern translation* and instantly you’ve got R-rated material that lends
    itself to at least some mild observational humor.

    5. Doctrines. Never heard a joke about the atonement and I don’t really want to. But what about polygamy? Yes. Hell yes. Adam-God.? Un huh. Blood atonement? I guess that’s the exception to my first rule in this paragraph
    5. Elaborate doctrines promulgated by Mark E. Peterson that admonished against using too much mustard or other spicy foods in your diet, promoted sleeping on your hands, or suggested that you place a Book of Mormon in your pants when going to sleep? Been there, done that (made fun of it, that is). Generally, anything that’s no longer a doctrine, but used to be, is fair game.

    Ed Snow

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Ed, one of the benefits of being a permanent blogger here is that I can edit my posts, deleting irrelevant passages as I see fit, prior to posting.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Also, neglecting Ed’s email reminded me that I missed one of Kirby’s too, which is now at the end. It’s his best work, ever. Take that as you will.

  6. Yeah Ed,

    That part was definitely worth including. Good stuff. I laughed out loud at least twice…

  7. Best. Blog discussion. Ever. Nicely done Steve.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    I take issue with Ed’s comment (no. 3) that no jokes have been done about the Holy Ghost:

    Patrick Roy once took his dad, Michel, out to the nearby Sizzler. His son, Jonathan, also came along. People don’t believe it, so I got a picture. Right there, next to the salad bar, was the father, the son, and the goalie host.

  9. I am DYING here! This round table is fantastic! The truth about crows had me on the floor!

    I always meant to submit at article to the Sugar Beet about the all the blessings of the Priesthood finally being extended to all worthy male Democrats but I never got around to it.

    Anyway, this is just what I needed after the week I’ve had (not to mention the weekend/week I’m going to have).

  10. Eric–I was hoping you might hit us with a Mormon version of the aristocrats. If anyone could pull that off it would be you!

  11. Good stuff gents. I look forward to the next two.

  12. Like Steve, I live in Zion (NYC) and disagree with Kirby’s suggestion that its those in the mission field that are the problem.

    I have an explanation for what Kirby saw. Its simply that the Mormons outside of the Intermountain West who read the Utah newspapers and look to Utah for their culture are the humorless ones.

    One of the difficulties in Mormon culture today is its focus on Utah, and the fact that so many of the elements of our culture have become defined by a syrupy-sweet ‘Molly Mormon’ humorless attitude. Those outside of Utah who do not have this view, generally ignore Mormon culture — don’t visit LDS bookstores, read books published by LDS publishers and listen to LDS music.

    These people would and do find Kirby, and all of you, worth a read or a listen. But with our culture dominated by ‘Molly Mormonism,’ they’ve mostly stopped looking for the good stuff.

  13. Steve and all those who participated in the roundtable, this is great great stuff. Thank you for putting this together and participating.

  14. The “goalie host” joke had me laughing out loud.

    Costanza, by definition the aristocrats joke has to be the most-extreme-over-the-top-offensive. A Mormon version would then have to include the worst kind of religious blasphemy and sacrilege and would be even more unprintable than a plain aristocrats joke. Though I respect and enjoy Steve’s humor capabilties, I don’t think he or any other conscientious LDS blogger could “pull it off.” I found it interesting that 99% of the movie reviews of the Aristocrats, in the NY Times or other mainstream periodicals could not print a version of the joke. They had the rough job of explaining what the joke was without providing an example.

    In fact, I can think of an analogy. The Aristocrats joke is sort of like salt. If you’ve tasted salt, then you know what it is like. But just try to explain the taste of salt to someone who has never tasted it before …

    I don’t think that jokes about GA’s are by definition inappropriate, though it would be easy to cross the line. I was recently reading one of those “how a GA eats a peanut-butter-cup” emails out loud to my wife and we were both laughing at a number of the characterizations. My wife converted in her teens, so I have to forgive her asking “who is J. Golden Kimball?”

  15. This is a great thread. I love the idea that God laughs with us.

    My sister told me a really funny joke one time about the crucifixion. I couldn’t help but chuckle, but I would never repeat it. I still feel guilty about it.

    Someone sent me, I think it was about eating cookies, and how each member of the twelve would describe it and it was very funny. A bit irreverent, but I didn’t think it crossed a line.

    This isn’t a joke, it’s a true story. My husband is sort of challenged in the realm of names and he picked up the wrong name at the temple one day and did all the work for someone named Martha. It didn’t even occur to him until the very end and then he asked about it and they actually had to discuss it and figure out if Martha was a man or a woman.

    In our neighborhood, there are two people whose last name is Taylor running for city council. One is named Phyllis and one is named Brent. Phyllis put a sign in our yard and my husband thought Phyllis was Brent’s real name, but he just called himself Brent.

    Give me a good joke any day.

  16. Could somebody send me the link to Sugar Beets home page? I saved it, but it just goes back to an old April issue and I can’t get on current.

    gardnera@netutah.com

    I won’t answer back.

  17. annegb, I don’t think the Sugar Beet is still published.

  18. I’ll be damned.

  19. a random John says:

    Is it possible that one reason that temple jokes are off limits is that they are just too easy?

    Last week I handed my wife a plum and she busted up laughing and so did I. We were both laughing because the fruit looked rather familiar, however the whole situation was unintentional. It would have been simple to have added some words of advice to the offer, but somehow it wouldn’t have been as funny.

    I’m sure that I’m not communicating much with the above example, it was a had-to-be-there moment. But I could make ten temple jokes a day and for whatever reason they’re funnier left unsaid.

  20. Count on a Canuck to come up with a Goalie Host. Ugh!

    Not a joke, but a nice play on the words was Richard Mitchell’s (anybody recognize that name?) reference to the age of the Father having been succeeded by the age of the Son, which is not being followed by the age of the wholly gauche.

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