Today’s post is by Matt Workman. I waited backstage with my small troupe of comedians. One more act to go, then it was our turn to perform. Would the act on before us whip the crowd into a frenzy? Take all the steam out of the room? Perhaps overshadow our under-rehearsed sketch? The performance started and it took us a while to figure out what was happening, but soon it was painfully obvious: our lead-in act was a PowerPoint presentation. It may not surprise you to learn that the venue for this particular comedy performance was a church activity organized by our stake.
On its surface it was a pretty unusual activity. Every ward was to assemble a troupe of performers, write a sketch, then perform it on stage. Just before the show, each ward would be given some sort of twist that had to be incorporated into their performance. Apparently, most people didn’t understand the concept, and instead we were treated to a unique display of what Mormons consider comedy. In this case, it was a parody advertisement about Snuggies (those blankets with sleeves) that you can wear to the beach, and a PowerPoint presentation containing Facebook photos with in-jokes you’d only understand if you were a member of the ward. In case you’re wondering, we did “Good Morning Winter Quarters” which set a vapid morning show amongst the death and squalor of Winter Quarters circa 1846. (Sample—Female Anchor: This is scurvy awareness month! Male anchor: I know I’m sure aware of my scurvy!)
Mormons are fond of comparing themselves to the Jews. We point out that we each have a dietary code, an exodus, and are even tagged with similar negative stereotypes. But we part ways when it comes to comedy. Whereas the Jews have a long and proud tradition in the comic arts, we’ve been a little more reluctant to tread there.
Now before we go any further, I should point out that there are funny Mormons out there. I used to perform with a comedy troupe that included several talented and funny Saints, Aron Kader has been blazing a trail with amazing standup detailing his background as a Palestinian-Mormon, and Elna Baker has achieved success in New York doing a mix of sketch and standup comedy, and has a memoir that you should all go out and buy a dozen copies of.
But I’m going to risk incurring the wrath of the internet by saying that Kader and Baker are the outliers here and that, as a people, we’re not terribly funny, or at the very least, we don’t place a high value on humor.
Mormons will tolerate a certain brand of humor that falls within the boundaries of The Donny and Marie Show and the Princess Bride… both shows I love. On one end, there is broad and corny humor. On the other side, the humor is cute and sentimental. In both cases, the comedy is broad, upbeat, and almost never contains a victim. Stray outside those boundaries, and there could be trouble.
For instance, one night I was trying to explain my religion to a decidedly tipsy and un-Mormon crowd at the Comedy Store and I told the following joke: “On the guilt scale, Mormons fall somewhere between the Jews and the Catholics. The problem is, God won’t let us drink to take the edge off it.” It got a big laugh that night, but the joke received a much colder response when told to a predominantly Mormon audience some weeks later.
I’m not exactly sure why we’re not good at telling jokes about ourselves that go much beyond, “how many Mormons does it take to change a light bulb?” (Answer: 5. One to change the light bulb, four to serve refreshments.) It may have to do with our practical nature built out of our pioneer heritage. Maybe comedy, which is often used to deflate the authority of those in power, just isn’t very compatible with a faith that values order and organized authority. Perhaps it simply has to do with the age of our culture. Compared to Jewish culture, we’re still in the awkward adolescent stage. Adolescents aren’t always good at having a laugh at their own expense.
But whatever the reason, about 300 in a cultural hall in Oregon who were promised comedy had to sit through a PowerPoint presentation that had captions like “don’t sue me” over a photo of someone who I assume is a lawyer. I may well spend the rest of my life wondering exactly why.
So what do you think? Are we really an un-funny people? Do you know any outstandingly funny Mormons? (Be nice, or at least funny.)