Interview with Elna Baker

If you aren’t already familiar with the writing and performing of Elna Baker, prepare yourself for awesomeness. Baker is a comedian and storyteller living in New York. She is the author of a new memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, describing her life as a single adult (a review will be coming later this week). She has written for The Onion and many other publications, and has been featured on This American Life and Upright Citizens Brigade. It is very possible that Baker is the best working comedienne and author in all Mormondom. We asked her some questions in connection with her new book.

BCC: Would you personally be willing to adopt a black baby doll if they ran out of white ones?

Elna Baker: Of course.

BCC: Much of your book seems to be about different Elnas, each doing battle with each other: “semiretarded school girl” Elna, the Blond Evil Elna, the 235 lb. Elna, the Mormon Elna and the penis-grabbing Elna. Who are you?

EB: All of the above.

BCC: Do you ever feel a need to censor yourself in discussing Mormonism? It seems like even in this memoir you are holding back a little about what you really believe (religiously speaking). Where do you express that side of yourself?

EB: For me a person’s faith is a very private and personal matter (which is why I’ve written an entire book about my own). Much of my material originated from solo shows, which I did in small, dimly lit comedy clubs throughout New York City. It was there that I learned how to balance dense religious discussion with the audience’s comfort level. If I spoke briefly and openly about the tenets of Mormonism, the audience appreciated my candor. But if I talked for more than three minutes, I’d catch them eyeing the nearest emergency exit. In my writing I try to maintain this same balance. When I speak about my faith, it’s in an attempt to dispel misperceptions and to explain my point of view, not to convert.

BCC: You spend some time talking about expectations in the singles’ wards, expectations from your patriarchal blessing… what should the realistic expectations be of a single woman in the Church? How is our church doing in terms of taking care of singles? Would things be helped by acknowledging “that we are here to eventually screw a nut on a bolt”?

EB: A Catholic friend of mine recently told me that what he liked about his congregation was that it was full of imperfect people who came together once a week to re-charge before going back out into spiritual battle. I often wish that my singles ward were more like this. Instead of constantly showing how “put together” we all are, I wish we could go to a place where we openly discussed our doubts and spiritual struggles without judgment, or repercussions (i.e. a non-existent dating life as a result of being a potential sinner).

To give you an example of what I’m talking about: I was briefly living in Provo and struggling with my testimony, when one Sunday, my ward announced that they were having a Women’s Appreciation Day. I decided to go in hopes that I’d be inspired by the female speakers. Instead, I walked into a church gym that was decorated with lace and Christmas lights. Disney princess songs were playing on the loudspeaker and all the women were wearing tiaras. As I walked through the door a young man stopped me, “Sister, we appreciate you,” he said, handing me a tiara.

Situations like this bother me because I don’t attend church to escape life, I go because I need help addressing it.

BCC: Every so often you’ll say something like “I’m apologizing for my Mormonism again.” Being Mormon is something inherently weird — what has the social/professional cost been for being a Mormon? Has it been worth it?

EB: Professionally, being a Mormon comedian is kind of a one-trick pony. I don’t want it to be the only thing I’m known for, especially because some of my best stories have nothing to do with my religion. But because my book tackles Mormonism, I’m usually labeled as a “Mormon comedian” instead of a “comedian.” But this is a risk I am willing to take in an effort to explore my own cultural identity.

On a more personal level, sometimes I think that if I weren’t Mormon I’d be a freer artist, more capable of exploring my darker side, more of a risk taker… and way more into hallucinogenic drugs. But that’s not my path. I’ve learned far more from writing about who I am than I would’ve if I tried to become something I’m not.

BCC: You say, “…I love saying yes. When you say yes you can start and end the day in two totally different places. Yes takes that space between unlimited possibilities and reality, and stretches it out so that anything can happen.” But ultimately, your memoir is about sometimes learning to say “no” despite this open horizon in front of you. Where do you stand now on saying yes to some things and no to others?

EB: I still say yes to the unknown. I still follow my curiosity and I’m still spontaneous. But the times that I’ve chosen to say “no” have taught me a lot about myself too. So in that sense saying “no” has become just as important to me as saying “yes.” But I’d much rather say “yes.” When you start the day in a yoga class and end up in a hot air balloon with an entire mariachi band, it just makes for a better story.

BCC: Are you really “sentenced to shove a square peg into a round hole for eternity”?

EB: I’ll get back to you when eternity ends.

BCC: Every once in a while you describe a Mormonism that is perhaps more conservative or restrictive than it might actually be. For example, “if I choose not to get married in a Mormon temple, I forfeit the ability to be with my family in the afterlife” or, say, attitudes in Mormonism on things like Prop 8 or conservative politics. Do these portrayals reflect your own beliefs, or are they sketches of the religion you see around you? How has your time in New York affected these religious views? Have you been able to find a Mormonism that is less homogeneous and more able to embrace both your desire to commune with God and your sense of adventure?

EB: Inside and outside of the church, I write about the people and the situations I see around me. And if I ever misrepresent the gospel, which I try hard not to do, it’s only because of my own misunderstanding. And I do believe it’s possible to be a Mormon who communes with God and still lives a life of adventure. My parents, who currently live in Siberia, are an example of this for me. I hope to be able to make it work for me too, it’s just that sometimes I have rather un-Mormon desires and I’m still grappling with these conflicting wants.

BCC: You and your body have had some interesting discussions. It seems like you’ve gone from enemies to friends and back a few times. At one point your body tells you, “…I can do all of these incredible things… but you don’t love me.” Do you love your body now? If so, what created that love — was it your dramatic weight loss, or something else?

EB: Do I love my body? My relationship to the woman I see when I look in the mirror will always be fraught. Some days I think I’m hot, other days I go back to seeing myself as a chubby little girl. But over the years I’ve learned a lot from this body. I’ve learned that it’s my job to believe in myself. No one else is going to tell me I’m worth it but me, and telling myself otherwise will only hurt my own progress. So I draw strength from the mantra I write about in my book: I am what I am. I’ve also learned that I have the strength within me to change my own situation, so whenever I’m unhappy, that’s what I try to do. I also believe that we’re all a lot stronger, smarter, and more beautiful than we give ourselves credit for and I’m happy for the very chance to be alive.

BCC: How has being a comic affected your dating life? how has dressing like a fortune cookie that really looked like a giant vagina affected your dating life?

EB: I would not have survived being single in NYC for nine years without a sense of humor.

Comments

  1. Excellent interview. I look forward to the book review.

  2. Good job BCC!
    As for Elna, I’ve loved her ever since I heard her on This American Life a couple of years ago. I’m glad the book is finally out!

  3. Fantastic, Steve.

    Elna, I find you fascinating and can’t wait to read your memoir. And fyi, hallucinogenic drugs are overrated.

  4. The more I hear from and about Elna Baker, the more impressed I am. Funny and smart are great assets and, whatever she might say, she’s beautiful too. Looking forward to the book.

  5. Is it just me that is a little uncomfortable with her imitation of the lady on the subway? Other than that, I thought she was very funny.

  6. Hey nr, it may not just be you, but I thought her imitation of the woman on the subway was fabulous. If we are going to poke honest fun, why not do so with an eye out for equal opportunity. I really like her.

  7. Molly Bennion says:

    Thank you, Elna and Steve! Just bought 2 books. I will need one to share right away.

  8. yay! my question got in there! (thank you steve)

    I love the This American Life baby doll story. genius.

  9. “Instead of constantly showing how “put together” we all are, I wish we could go to a place where we openly discussed our doubts and spiritual struggles without judgment, or repercussions.”

    Can I just say how much I love you for stating this simply and concretely? You are not the only one who feels this way. The older I get, the more I feel like this is a major failing of the culture of the church.

  10. Wonderful interview. Thank you, Elna and Steve.

  11. Justmeherenow says:

    What a coup!

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t remember who or where, but someone pointed me to a series of clips of Elna, and I fell in love with her immediately. (Too bad I’m not a single guy in New York.) Thanks so much for your appearance here.

  13. Elna, you rock. Great stuff.

    (Nice interview Steve.)

  14. Thomas Parkin says:

    Awesome. I totally love what she says about saying ‘yes’. ~

  15. I really don’t see that much difference between this woman and the man who did the Mormon beefcake calendar: both single, both marketing a look-but-don’t-touch tongue in cheek product.

  16. I think I just heard the segment mmiles refers to last night, entitled something like “My Grandmother’s Sacred Dress.” When I got home I stayed in the driveway to hear the entire segment. It was delightful and beautifully crafted.

    Great work, BCC. Fantastic work, Elna!

  17. “I really don’t see that much difference between this woman and the man who did the Mormon beefcake calendar: both single, both marketing a look-but-don’t-touch tongue in cheek product.”

    ???

  18. Ben, That isn’t the one I was referring to. Did you do another one? I was referring to this:

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1278

    Act 3

  19. I love Elna Baker! The way we change the culture of the church is by having the courage to tell the truth ourselves, even at the risk of being judged. It’s so great how Elna has done that.

    Sometimes at church some real feelings come out, some honesty that shows what church should be. I love church for those moments. We have to struggle toward them. They aren’t so easy. But when they come it’s such a breakthrough. I feel so very lucky to be Mormon then. Elna reminds me that I need to keep working for those times.

  20. This book made my week. Thanks Elna!

  21. i’ve had the biggest girl crush on elna baker since i found the fortune cookie story last year. i have been DYING while waiting for payday tomorrow so i can buy the book! stinking pathetic financial life of a grad student. thanks for the interview, bcc.

  22. Justmeherenow says:

    @MCQ’s comment #18:

    Wow, I don’t know. Do you think that commenter could have been referencing, in some kinda way, Baker’s “YouTubed” décolletage?

  23. I tried to explain myself—and no, it wasn’t the decolletage–but I guess my post isn’t going to make it on this board, for some reason. I just find it interesting that standards are relaxed for those who make fun at the church’s expense. As long as one is “active,” one is lauded. If someone’s “inactive” the joke suddenly turns unfunny. I find her comments in Glamour more offensive than shirtless ex-missionaries, for example.

  24. Interesting interview.

    Elna–

    What keeps you in the church and seeing yourself as a “Mormon”?

  25. mmiles (19), this is what I heard the other night:

    http://www.studio360.org/episodes/2008/04/11/segments/96586

  26. Jared. that’s a strange and possibly very rude question. Shouldn’t you just be glad she is in the church?

  27. Angela–what standards are you talking about being relaxed?

  28. >27.

    Kristine,

    I read Jared’s question as “You clearly have a lot of struggles with Mormon culture and traditional Mormon values. What are your motivations for continuing to stay in the Church?”

  29. Which is a really horrible question–she has a testimony, duh! It’s a question that only gets asked of a particular kind of Mormon, and I find it really offensive.

  30. Sorry. The question itself is not that offensive–what is offensive isthe assumption that are sometimes behind that question, that anyone who struggles with aspects of Mormon culture, or whose belief has different contours than that of the “average” or “mainstream” Mormon, should not be in the church. That one must love it entirely, even in its ridiculous cultural particulars, or leave it.

  31. Elna’s TAL segment is still one of my absolute favorites, I can’t wait to read the book.

  32. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 24, 25
    Dang, no wonder so many of you go inactive. Would she have to put up with stuff like that in real life, or does the anonymity of the Bloggernacle unleash blunt questions? Would it depend on the location? (I really am serious in asking those questions)

  33. John Mansfield says:

    It is interesting our appetite for artists’ lives as part of their creation that we consume. We don’t just want their books or performances. We want them. That seems particularly worrisome with comedians, who have to present the world in exaggerated and absurd forms. It’s as if we’re requiring Harpo Marx to keep wearing his wig and overcoat and being mute when he’s off the stage.

  34. Angela, I don’t think you’re right. It’s not relaxed standards that makes someone like Baker a good author or makes her book an enjoyable read — it’s a talent for storytelling. I believe someone like her could be 100% in line with Church standards and still be interesting. The mormon beefcake guy, on the other hand, was (and is) a one-trick pony who was quite explicitly mocking the church (something Baker does not do).

    In other words, I see your argument, but you’re wrong.

  35. She is a trip. I like the comment where she states that the purpose of the dance is to meet, get married and make more Mormons. Funny.

    We really need to be able to laugh at ourselves sometimes.

  36. Antonio Parr says:

    I plan to read Baker’s book. Is it something that my teen-age children can/should read, as well, or should I hide my copy in the pages of an Ensign?

  37. Ben Pratt,
    That was great.

  38. #27 Kristine–

    The questions was asked as #29 Kayta saw it.

    I think Elna will see it that way too.

    If she answers the question I’ll bet many others will be interested in her response.

    I guess I’m of the school of thought there are no dumb questions if asked sincerely.

  39. Steve Evans says:

    Antonio, I don’t know the answers to your question. It contains some language here and there, I suppose, plus the memoir involves some behavior that falls quite outside Church guidelines.

  40. John Mansfield says:

    This interview was really just preparation to ask Miss Baker to sit in for a Police Beat Review, wasn’t it? Funny Mormons, be warned.

  41. 37 – I probably wouldn’t recommend it for my teenage sister.

  42. John (41), I suspect that if BCC ever published a PBR featuring Steve, gst, Ken Jennings, DKL, and Elna Baker then monitors across the world would burst into flames.

  43. I love nubbin!

    Elna’s segment on working at FAO Schwartz is one of my favorite “This American Life” segments ever. I’ve heard it twice and it left me with tears in my eyes both times. I had no idea she’s LDS.

    Thanks for the interview.

  44. Thanks Steve and Elna.

    I remember the TAL segment; I started it on the subway headed home from work and finished it while sitting in my daughter’s room trying to get her to fall asleep. I’m sure I’ll be reading the book in the not-so-distant future.

  45. I think Elna will see it that way too.

    Jared, that’s a shocker.

  46. Elna Baker just took the #1 spot on my CK Sister-Wife Dream Team. I want to marry her immediately, she’s so stinking funny.

  47. Thanks for this, I had never heard of Elna until today. Looking forward to the book and checking out her stuff. I second #43. Get Elna on PBR, I wanna see flaming monitors everywhere!

  48. I’m a little ambivalent, given this article that’s making the rounds: http://lifestyle.msn.com/relationships/articleglamourmatch.aspx?cp-documentid=22247668

  49. queuno, I think you’re focusing on the wrong parts of that article. Let’s cheer her on for making the right decision, not be critical about how she got there.

  50. I think what queno is saying is that we don’t like Mormon women to talk frankly about their sexuality. It disturbs the notion we have that their superior spirituality allows them to remain virgins while birthing large numbers of babies.

  51. Methinks Mark is smitten.

    (you’re not alone, MCQ)

  52. I readily admit that I love her, but more than that I really think she’s the type of Mormon that we should celebrate, not censure. If we act like we’re ashamed of her because she dares to speak intelligently, humorously and honestly about our church and culture and her own life in it, we’re really missing the boat.

  53. Kristine, are you saying you’re NOT a virgin???

  54. Shhhhhh!! My kids don’t know ;)

  55. Please don’t answer that, Kristine. There are certain illusions I would like to maintain.

    (gawd I hope you are the Kristine I think you are!)

  56. There’s only one Kristine, cwc. Kristine N doesn’t count.

  57. Kristine N most certainly counts, but she’s not the one cwc thinks I am (which is to say, cwc, yes–I’m the one you’re thinking of :))

  58. I’ve been looking forward to reading this memoir for a while now: a memoir written by a Mormon for a national audience where the world “Mormon” is displayed boldly on the front cover but isn’t an anti-Mormon screed is a big deal. Thanks for the interview. (And no, I’m not the other Angela.)

  59. S.P. Bailey says:

    Congratulations, Elna, on the book! I am looking forward to reading it. All you BCC people really should check out the Motley Vision posts (links in comment 11). Also exciting: I learned a new vocabulary word from this post: décolletage. Now I just need to use it three times in ordinary conversations, and it will be mine forever!

  60. …along with a fat lip, if you’re not careful about which conversations you use it in ;)

  61. Can you give some examples on that, Kristine?

  62. “Sister Jones, I promise that if you’ll pray about this, you’ll receive a burning in your decolletage…”

  63. Mommie Dearest says:

    HAHAHAHAHA!!!
    another belly laugh.
    Oh yeah and Elna’s funny too. Any chance she’ll be onstage in NYC during the month of Nov? How would I conduct that research?

  64. Mephibosheth says:

    I think what queno is saying is that we don’t like Mormon women to talk frankly about their sexuality

    Yeesh. I like to think I would be just as uncomfortable reading an article about a mid-20’s Mormon man testing out the no-sex-before-marriage thing by hopping nakedly into the sack with multiple women.

  65. That’s just exactly wrong, Mephy. Go back and read it again.

  66. Earlyschmearly says:

    Hopefully one of these days my posTs will show up! Like Mephy says, this iis not just a one-time trying. I don’t get how skeeping with nude men qualifies as being chaste just because penetration didn’t happen.

  67. Earlyschmearly says:

    As for the parallel to the calendar maker mentioned in an earlier poat, I would agree that both Elna’s book-articles/standup and Chad Hardy’s bare-chested RM calendar were produced for laughs and to make money.

  68. And because that is all they have in common, Earlyschmearly, that is exactly why there is no further comparison to be making.

  69. Steve, great stuff. This interview is one of the great things about blogs. Elna sounds like a wonderful person.

  70. Earlyschmearly says:

    Actually, there are several more parallels.
    Hardy used other models, not himself, and for good reason. Elna’s humor is at her own expense. But they both claim they want to dispel the notion that the church is prudish, and they do this by selling half-nudes, or stories of half-nudes imbed with full nudes.

  71. I’m rather conservative, but I don’t find Elna offensive. In the Glamour article, she’s very clear about what the church’s standards are and that sometimes she finds herself outside those standards (don’t we all?). She’s clear that it sometimes makes her a bit ridiculous (sex is not that much different from what she was doing)-but she is clear on what she wants and working out how to get there.

    She doesn’t describe her situations in a provocative way..the goal is humor and understanding not arousal.

  72. Well said, britt. The difference between Elna’s story and the beefcake calendar (er…”story”) is one provides insight into how someone grapples with making decisions in a complex situation, while the other povides one-dimensional cut outs.

    You don’t have to agree with or even be comfortable with the context of something to be able to see its humor (or tragedy, or whatever) and possibly even learn something from it.

  73. I love that Glamour article. It describes situations in which a socially active Mormon finds him or herself in all the time. I await the book coming to my less-than-teeming shores.

  74. queuno:

    Thanks for linking that article. It made me cry. I know exactly how she feels.

  75. Mephibosheth says:

    No, I got the message (and her book at B&N last night, incidentally). I just took exception to the idea that the issue had anything to do with Mormon patriarchy.

  76. Steve Evans says:

    Earlyschmearly (and all you other fake names), please shut up already.

  77. Great interview! I look forward to reading Elna’s book.

  78. Mommie Dearest says:

    Thanks Th. That site was the first hit on Google too.

    Don’t delete too many of the snarky comments on here. I find reading them instructive. It reminds me that the church has enough members who think that because Christ is our judge, they should be too. It also discourages me from ever speaking up in any but an anonymous forum to admit that I have been in situations like she describes in the Glamour article. (Long time ago. Repentance over and done. Sh. Don’t tell my kids. Don’t tell my Relief Society pals either. Even though they lots of them did the same things.)

    I admire her for speaking so freely and honestly about things nobody will touch, and I admire her for handling her challenges better than me. And I admire her gifted sense of humour which is the reason she can pull it off.

    Someday maybe we’ll mature enough to actually accept that we are all (every one of us, including the fake-name snarks) a bunch of half-reformed sinners who depend entirely on the grace of the atonement.

  79. .

    Mommie Dearest—-

    Spoken like a true sinner.

    :)

  80. .

    Ugh.

    I hate automatic smileys….

  81. Justmeherenow says:

    Prof. Moss, the Director of Women’s Studies at Widener University, gets bloggy about Baker’s October 2009 Glamour piece here: http://twobodysolution.wordpress.com/2009/09/26/not-like-a-virgin/ .

  82. Mommie Dearest says:

    Th—

    Better to be a true repenter.

    :-/

  83. It is nice to see LDS humorists. We need more.

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