Are Mormons Funny?
Daryn Tufts and Jed Knudsen, American Mormon: A Documentary, DVD
David Burnett, And It Came to Laughs (Covenant, 2005, 109pp)
Are Mormons funny? I guess that depends on what you mean by the question.
Do you mean to ask if Mormons can be amusing to innocent bystanders?
I have evidence. For instance, that huge graffiti inscription on the overpass over the DC Beltway, positioned so that it served as a caption under the vision of the Washington Temple, as it floated in its ethereal whiteness over the intense greenery of the surrounding parks and woods: "Surrender Dorothy!"
Let me explain it to those Mormons who aren't laughing. See, the temple kind of looks like the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, and "Surrender Dorothy" is what the Wicked Witch of the West wrote in the sky with smoke coming out of her broom.
OK, let me make it even clearer: This is funny because clearly the Mormons didn't intend their temple to remind anybody of a classic fantasy movie, but once somebody put up the graffiti, it made everybody think of it and laugh.
Except you. Sorry. You're so right. Not funny. Temples are never funny. My mistake.
But it wasn't the temple they were laughing at. It was the juxaposition of the overblown architecture and the greenery and the cleverness of the graffitista. So they weren't making fun of sacred things. They were making fun of Disney-style architecture and ...
No, I didn't mean that our temples are somehow like Disneyland, I was talking about architecture, not sacred ... sorry ... yes, I'll go talk to my bishop.
Which, I suppose, answers the other meaning of that question "Are Mormons funny?": Do Mormons have a sense of humor?
Oh, yeah, right. When we're joking among ourselves. But let some outsider joke about us, and it's Not Funny. We can have jokes like: "The Church must be true, or the missionaries would have wrecked it years ago." But let somebody else mock those young men on bicycles, and we grit our teeth, definitely unamused.
There's a third meaning to that question, though: Are Mormons who are trying to be funny successful in their attempts at humor?
Sure! All the time!
Well, often, anyway.
I remember erstwhile Provo Herald columnist Eric Snider's very funny review of the movie Singles Ward (or at least I think it was that review), in which he told us of the less-than-hilarious gags and explained, "It's funny because it's true." (For those who didn't get it at the time, he was being ironic. He meant that it wasn't funny, but people thought it was because ... why am I still explaining this? Don't I ever learn?)
Many years ago, when I was an extremely junior editor at BYU Press, a young artist came by to show us his collection of cartoons about Joseph Smith. They were really funny -- like the drawing of Joseph's mother, shouting up the stairs, "Joseph, turn that light out and go to sleep!"
See, that was funny because she didn't realize the Angel Moroni was up there filling the room with ... no. You're so right. Can't be funny. No Mormon could ever laugh at such a cartoon and feel good about it. Never mind that the entire proofreading staff nearly wet their pants reading his cartoons. We all knew -- even the cartoonist knew -- that there was zero chance whatsoever that BYU Press could publish cartoons that some would interpret as mockery of sacred things.
But 32 years later, I still remember. And the cartoonist did OK, even though that collection of cartoons was never published. His name? Calvin Grondahl.
The trouble is that in order to show -- even to ourselves -- how funny we Mormons can be, a Mormon humorist will invariably offend somebody. Keep at it long enough, and you offend everybody. In fact, much Mormon humor is funny precisely because it feels daring, even, potentially, offensive to somebody.
That's how irony works. Half the fun is knowing that some people just aren't going to get it.
So here I am, looking at two comic efforts: One is a genuine documentary in which non-Mormons around the country are asked what they know about Mormons -- you know, the first of the Golden Questions. The caption on the cover, "People say the darndest things about Mormons," tells you pretty much what to expect.
The other is a book of Mormon-centered cartoons, ostensibly in the tradition of Calvin Grondahl. The cartoon on the cover is of an old grandma with a magnifying glass, reading an "extra-large print Book of Mormon." The first page of the Book of Mormon contains the word "I"; the second page, the word "Nephi." That's how large the print is.
American Mormon: funny.
And It Came to Laughs: not funny.
To be more specific: American Mormon is pretty funny, though they repeat some footage and people didn't really say that many funny things about us -- mostly just the normal errors. What makes it funny is the deadpan (usually) of the interviewers, and the occasional zinger.
But maybe I'm one of those humorless Mormons, right? I mean, maybe the reason I wasn't rolling in the aisles (well, I saw it at home, and how many aisles can one guy roll in at once? But you know what I mean) was because after all these years of trying to explain things, it's kind of sad that so many people still have no idea who or what we are, or have an idea but it's outdated or flat wrong.
Still -- whatever humorless reservations I might have had now and then, these guys won me over and at the end, as they talked to a couple of Mormon guys in Las Vegas who were actually planning to go on missions, I decided that watching it was worth the time and money. I liked it. It was funny. And if you think it wasn't, tough. Humor is personal, and I'm personally right about this.
And now I'll be more specific about And It Came to Laughs. It is consistently and extremely not funny. But not because it touches on sacred things. Indeed, the only gags that come close to success are the ones that actually take some risks, like the one about Elijah in his fiery chariot being forced to land at Roswell, New Mexico.
And it isn't because of the drawing. Burnett's style is just like that of several cartoonists who are funny. In fact, his clever drawings are the reason I kept turning the pages, hoping that somewhere in the book he'd make me crack a smile.
Noah talks to his sons on the ark, telling Shem to feed the animals, Japheth to give them water, and Ham to ... "well shoot! You know what you need to do."
So it's a poop joke. OK, we were all once third graders, we get poop jokes. But why is this funny? Because it's Ham? Are we supposed to flash back to all the fake "doctrines" we once heard about Ham being the ancestor of African blacks? Oh, yeah, a laff riot. Or was it because Noah can't say poop or any word related to it, so the inability to say it is funny?
To me, it was just sad. Trying so hard, and getting nowhere.
The failure of this book begins with the title. How long did it take you to get the pun? You know, the rhyme? Well, not rhyme, but ... when you hear "And it came to laughs" you're supposed to think of "And it came to pass." Get it? See?
Yeah, I know that "laughs" doesn't sound like "pass," doesn't even rhyme with it. But when you finally do get the connection, it's ... at least amusing, isn't it?
Me neither. Everybody knows that to put "laughs" in the title is a horribly anti-comic thing to do on a book of alleged humor -- it makes the reader practically dare the author to be funny.
As I said, humor is personal. There are doubtless people -- like the editors at Covenant -- who thought this book was side-splittingly funny.
But I'm betting that those of us who once laughed at Grondahl or Benson are not going to take this as a substitute. Indeed, we're far more likely just to say, Man, I miss those old guys who were funny.
I could be wrong. Maybe The Returned Missionary, for instance, is really a good comedy, even if it is hopelessly badly written -- after all, it does have the genuinely funny Kirby Heyborne in the lead. But in my judgment, Heyborne is the only reason this film works at all -- he brings the only touch of reality to the movie, and so, because of him, the film repeatedly manages to survive hideous over-acting by others that makes you want to turn your head away in embarrassment.
But it was a hit! People loved it! People didn't notice or, if they did, care that most of the acting and all of the writing was just ... sad.
Or maybe they just liked Kirby Heyborne -- I know I did, which is why I kept watching this train wreck all the way to the end -- because he really was funny.
So don't get mad at me because I didn't think And It Came to Laughs was amusing -- pity me, because I'm just another of those humorless Mormons who never quite gets the joke.
Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card
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