Wednesday, December 09, 2009

On Mormon Humor

The Salt Lake Tribune recently did an article on Mormon humor, in which I was quoted several times. Here's the complete e-mail Q&A I originally did with the journalist:

Do you think there's any unique Mormon humor or is it just general religious humor, with specific Mormon settings and language?

I think real adult Mormon humor has a fair amount of passive-aggressivity to it. The culture and the belief system are so rigid and so resistant to any kind of disruption of the smooth, conformist functioning of the hive. But sometimes a worker bee has just got to assert his individuality and signal that some aspects of Mormon culture seem fairly absurd to him, and humor can be a veiled, indirect way of doing that. I don't think most other religions create as much of a cultural pressure cooker as Mormonism does.

Why do you think Mormons favor the kids-say-the-darndest-things approach, rather than a more witty or ironic wit?

Mormon what-kids-say humor is much safer and more innocent than adult-level humor, with less chance of being impure or offending the Holy Spirit. Also, Mormons often tend to live vicariously through their children. And after all, Jesus said, "Become as a little child."

Is this generation of Mormons, raised on Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, more inclined to be edgy in their humor?

Yes, to a degree. But even in the younger generation, I don't think active Mormons with a worldly humor sensibility outnumber Mormons who maintain a more sweet, earnest, safe sense of humor. Mormons who cotton to edgy humor are probably the same kinds of "gray sheep" who drink decaf and watch R-rated movies.

How do Mormon humorists know where the line is between sweetly irreverent ala J. Golden Kimball and disrespectful?

That line is different for everyone. Working on the Sugar Beet, I thought we reined in stuff enough to keep it from being too irreverent, but lots of people didn't think we reined it in enough. Whew, good thing they didn't see the raw stuff we didn't publish! I don't know that many Mormon humorists are even pushing this line, tell you the truth. Mormons are just too efficient at freezing out things that challenge the culture too much, so why bother.

What has happened to the Sugar Beet? How did your Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer do?

The Sugar Beet lives on as a regular feature in Sunstone magazine. I don't think the Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer sold as many copies as our non-Mormon publisher hoped it would, but I suspected all along that that kind of satire was too edgy to go mainstream among Mormons. I had people tell me they didn't mind surreptitiously enjoying our brand of boundary-pushing humor for free online, but to actually support it by paying for it and keeping a physical copy in their home seemed to cross a line of conscience for them. It's a similar rationalization dynamic that probably happens with porn.

On Amazon, the top pairing for Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer is No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by Fawn M. Brodie, if that tells you anything. Still, Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer sold over 2,000 copies regionally, so we're currently working on volume two for release later in 2010, probably with alternative Mormon publisher Zarahemla Books this time.

Do you think there's a market for Mormon humor? If so, how do you reach it? If not, does that make you depressed?

I don't really think there's much of a market for Mormon humor, just like there's nearly no market for realistic or edgy Mormon literature in general. Mormons who like a risker adult sense of humor don't trust mainstream Mormon outlets to provide it, and Mormons who like safe humor--or don't see much of a need for humor at all--certainly don't seek out the edgy stuff that's available. And yes, that does make me personally depressed, because humor is an important outlet for me, and I think it helps certain kinds of personalities stay more connected with the culture, if we can gently mock it a little. I'd love to see the culture loosen up a little and not be so safe and conformist.

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