Laughing at ourselves

December 12, 2004 | 16 comments
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I am particularly fond of an old Jewish folk story called Esperanza’s Bread. It’s a humorous story, and part of the humor involves the religious faith of the people involved. The existence of this and thousands of other Jewish folk stories indicates to me that Jewish people have a great deal of comfort with both their culture and their religion, enough to laugh at it and themselves without being threatened. We’re just starting to laugh at ourselves, and our progress is pretty uneven — one of the most vivid memories I have of BYU is the Varsity Theater editing out the “We’re on a mission from God” line from The Blues Brothers. I guess they thought it was blasphemous.

What is it about different religions and cultures that allow them to laugh at themselves (or not)? Are we as a people becoming more comfortable with our religion and ourselves? Or is my observation just an unwarranted stereotype?

16 Responses to Laughing at ourselves

  1. danithew on December 12, 2004 at 9:48 pm

    What a great story! Thanks for the link.

  2. Bryce I on December 12, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    Here’s a gross generalization that I only partially believe: Perhaps Mormon culture is only just beginning to laugh at itself because for a long time, the majority of those living in areas with Mormon culture didn’t know there was anything different. Utah Mormon culture is certainly rife with possibilities for self-mockery, but only if you recognize that it’s not “normal”.

  3. danithew on December 12, 2004 at 11:16 pm

    Many LDS films are certainly making fun of LDS cultural quirks. They aren’t always succeeding that well and I’m not sure they’re introducing anything new … but maybe they’re taking us past the “green jello with carrots” kind of humor.

  4. Derek on December 13, 2004 at 12:18 am

    > What is it about different religions and cultures that allow them to laugh at themselves (or not)?

    I’m sure many centuries of existence is a factor.

  5. David King Landrith on December 13, 2004 at 1:03 am

    The real problems is that Mormons spend so much time doing really sacred things, and it simply isn’t appropriate to approach sacred things with levity.

  6. Eric on December 13, 2004 at 2:19 am

    Speaking of which, what exactly is the relationship between the sacred and levity?

    I wonder what, first of all, officially counts as “sacred.” The sacrament is certainly sacred, to one degree or another. Would a joke about a deacon doing something wrong while passing it constitute an inappropriate blending of the sacred and levity? Most members would probably be okay with it. An equivalent joke about the temple, however, would not be received the same way.

    What is it about the world of the sacred and the world of humor that there can be no overlap, anyway? I think we assume that humor undermines the sacred. But does it necessarily? It seems to me that one could find humor in the most sacred things as long as respect for the object was held fully intact.

    Maybe I’m equating humor with levity here. If I am, it’s because our culture seems to. That might be the problem.

  7. Charles on December 13, 2004 at 11:04 am

    I think one of the key motivators in acceptance is the divide between doctrine and culture. Many of the movies I find successful at poking fun at ourselves are those that prey on the culture. Singles Ward, Home Teachers, RM and even the bathroom scene from God’s Army. There is no mockery of doctrinal issues, only the way our culture acts on those issues.

    A deacon messing up while passing the sacrament would depend on context. Was it intentional, accidental, did he correct himself when he was done and all had a good laugh? Mockery about the temple less so, because there is not as much culture involved.

  8. Matt Jacobsen on December 13, 2004 at 2:12 pm

    Here’s one that tests the boundaries between sacred and humorous. While on my mission in Germany, I attended a baptism attended by 6 missionaries and maybe as many members. The meeting was intimate and well run, certainly up to par for your average baptismal service. Unfortunately it took quite a few tries before the baptizee was correctly baptized. As I recall, it took a total of 4 attempts. Two missionaries served as the witnesses. After the final attempt, one of them, who was both somewhat of a clown and a jock, raised his arms as if he were a ref signalling a touchdown and (quietly) said, “It’s good!”

    I don’t think any of the members made much notice, and the other missionaries certainly thought it was funny and had big smiles but we didn’t laugh out loud. We were all just glad that things worked out. For some reason it seemed like a great way to release the slight tension that had built up with the repeated failures at getting the baptizee competely under. This missionary expressed his joy in a manner familiar to him. However, when I think of the story now it doesn’t seem nearly as funny. Could this be a case of rules vs principles? In general, one should not use football referee gestures during a priesthood ordinance, unless moved by the Spirit to do otherwise.

  9. gaymormonchef (Rick LaPointe) on December 13, 2004 at 4:27 pm

    I don’t think it’s a stereotype; we have a hard time laughing at (not with) ourselves. We might tell non-threatening funny stories about primary kids quirks, relief society mishaps, and even occasionally tepid priesthood jokes–but we don’t often allow ourselves (or the Church) play the fool. I was just thinking that culturally we need a literary magazine (Mormon Stories, maybe) that does not tackle news, current events, scholarship, or theological debate, rather just include good writing about the life experience we all have that make us human, humorous, full of foible and fallible.

  10. David King Landrith on December 13, 2004 at 10:23 pm

    Eric: What is it about the world of the sacred and the world of humor that there can be no overlap, anyway?

    Generally speaking, sacredness is righteous and humor is wicked. It is indeed telling that in the nearly 2,000 pages that make up the holy writ we call “scripture,” there is not a single joke—no, not one. Those who laugh, laugh out of scorn and out of pride, like Sarah laughing at God or the jolly folks of the great and spacious building. Humor has no place in the Kingdom of God.

    Eric: I think we assume that humor undermines the sacred. But does it necessarily?

    Of course does, Eric. Laughter is the habit of fornicators.

    Humor is evil. One of the reasons we come to earth is to overcome our urge to snigger and giggle; when I became a man, I put away childish things. The road to Hell is paved with laughter. Laugh and be damned!

  11. Jack on December 13, 2004 at 10:52 pm

    DKL,

    What will be the condemnation of those who make others laugh?

  12. David King Landrith on December 13, 2004 at 11:39 pm

    Jack: What will be the condemnation of those who make others laugh?

    I wouldn’t know, Jack. Nobody in their right would laugh at me.

    And whenever I feel the urge to laugh coming on, I exercise, read the scriptures, and sing my favorite hymn, “The Kingdom of God Like a Fire Is Burning.” When I do this, my desire to laugh quickly subsides, and it is replaced by more wholesome desires.

  13. Rob Briggs on December 14, 2004 at 3:43 am

    DKL, I’m on to your shtick. Some had to read # 5, 10, & 12 to get a clue that all the while you were making us, as the thread title says, “laugh at ourselves.” I got to the end of “Mormons spend so much time doing really sacred things,” and knew that DKL subversion was afoot.

    Well, I have this English-Scots-Irish blood which, I fear, will someday drive me crazy (you know, mad dogs & Englishmen, that sorta thing). If, however, I survive the English-Scots-Irish connection it will be because of my Swiss blood. Ahh, my Swiss ancestors, those little rolly-poly people, (both men & women), who loved to gather and tell funny stories. They heard the Mormon gospel & emigrated from the mountains of Switzerland to America, to the Mormon Zion, and Brigham sent them to — where?? To the mountains? To some high, cool, green and shady glen? Nooooo!

    Brigham sent them to southern Utah, to the red rock country, to Santa Clara where two deserts, the Great Basin & the Mojave, converge. Somehow they sucked it up and stayed and transplanted, with partial success, Swiss gardens and fruit orchard & milk cows to southern Utah’s desert. And they kept telling their funny stories. Over dinner (the noon meal) and supper (the evening meal) after which they’d retire to the parlor and tell more stories. After church they’d linger, telling stories and laughing. They gathered as extended families on Sundays & other occasions and the story-telling continued. Story-telling was a generations-old art. The best storytellers in the family were held in high esteem. It still survives today. They are a crazy, lovable collection of “characters.”

    Much of this story telling, I’m sure, came from living in a “country culture” where if you wanted entertainment, you had to produce it yourself. But I’m happy to say that the appreciation for humor and funny stories has (so far) survived the transition to city living. My daughter is a perfect mimic. She can do English, Scotch, Irish & other accents. And whole scenes from Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (“My dad’s got this ultimate set of tools . . . .”)

    So the Mormonism I know is full of humor. Usually (not always, but usually) the best Sacrament talk has humor in it. Ditto for Sunday School lessons. When I was teaching Gospel Doctrine, I knew the lesson had gone pretty well if we all laughed out loud at least several times. Somehow humor makes the serious points more memorable. President Hinckley uses his self-deprecating sense of humor well.

    There are so many times in life where we either gotta laugh or cry. It’s better to laugh.

  14. Jack on December 14, 2004 at 3:56 am

    If one…ha ha ha!… isn’t in their right mind… ha ha!… then surely…ha ha ha ha!… they will not be held accountable… aaaaaaah ha ha ha ha ha!… for their actions.

    guffaaaaaaaaw ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!…

  15. David King Landrith on December 14, 2004 at 9:13 am

    Rob Briggs: So the Mormonism I know is full of humor.

    And, regretfully, so is the one that I know. There’s just no other accounting for the type of opinion expressed in my comments # 5, 10, & 12.

    Rob Briggs: Usually (not always, but usually) the best Sacrament talk has humor in it. Ditto for Sunday School lessons. When I was teaching Gospel Doctrine, I knew the lesson had gone pretty well if we all laughed out loud at least several times. Somehow humor makes the serious points more memorable. President Hinckley uses his self-deprecating sense of humor well.

    Very true. Personally, I think that Dallen H. Oaks is the funniest apostle out there. I remember a few conferences ago, he sang (loosely speaking) the refrain from “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof” as part of his talk. That’s not just funny, but it takes a lot of guts. Moreover, I just love the very concept of having an apostle that looks like Yule Brenner—It makes me think of the Apostles as the Magnificent Twelve.

    Jack: If one…ha ha ha!… isn’t in their right mind… ha ha!… then surely…ha ha ha ha!… they will not be held accountable… aaaaaaah ha ha ha ha ha!… for their actions.

    Unaccountable indeed. What better excuse not to pay tithing?

  16. Jack on December 14, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    ok ok ok… whew!

    I think I got myself together now. (sigh) You’re right…

    Guffaaaaaaaw ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!… Sorry, I just can’t stop laaaaaaaah ha ha ha ha ha ha!…

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