I accidentally buzzed a pair of shifty solicitors for a nonreputable energy company into my building this weekend. Dylan was wailing in my arms while I rocked her back and forth back and forth willing her to nap, Arty worked himself into a frenzy barking and jumping up on our front door and Robert hollered from the bathroom, “Can you get that?” and I figured it was UPS so I hit the buzzer and went back to the business of quieting my house.
A few moments later I heard a knock and a few moments after that the thud of the door slamming shut.
“It was those scammy guys from that fake energy company,” Robert informed me. “I told them to leave, but I think they’re knocking on the neighbors’ doors.”
I felt badly about letting them into the building. I’m not quite sure what the scam is, but they misrepresent themselves as being affiliated with ComEd, the big electric company, and ask if they can come inside to look at your most recent bill to see if you’re being overcharged. When they pitched us last year we did a little digging and found out that the company had lots of better business bureau complaints filed against them. Maybe it’s a shady company that uses nefarious devices to gain new customers, or but maybe it’s just two dudes taking notes on who is home and casing the apartments they gain access to for valuables. Either way, I figured I should get them out of the building and fast, or risk the wrath of the condo board.
I found one guy knocking on doors on the floor right below mine. I asked him to leave and he looked like a teenage boy caught in the act. Deer in headlights. “I guess I won’t stay if I’m not wanted.” No sir, more like you won’t stay when your invitation has been revoked because that’s trespassing. He walked down half a flight of stairs and then stopped and stared at the wall and I realized I was going to have to see him out. Baby in arms, I walked six steps behind him until we got to the first floor.
On the first floor, I found another guy talking to a neighbor I haven’t met, asking to see his electric bill. I interrupted. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. We’re not interested in your services here.” My neighbor got defensive. “I didn’t buzz him up.” “I know, I did, by accident. That’s why I’m asking him to leave.” After a bit of confusion and dealing with the second energy guy who actually had the nerve to ask what I didn’t like about their company, my neighbor agreed that they should go and shut his door, and the sketchy sales dudes walked out. Thud. Thud. “I guess they don’t like green energy.”
Almost as soon as the front door swung shut with the sound of the parting insult still hanging in the foyer, my neighbor’s door opened right back up, because of course we were going to compare notes on that weirdness. My neighbor had been joined by his partner.”He said he was from ComEd, but he didn’t have a record of our bills.” “He had a clipboard he kept jotting things down on, but I looked and saw that it was just a single sheet of paper with scribbles on it.” “He tried to get inside my apartment.” I apologized, we laughed, the neighbors called Robert and I out on ordering way too many packages and leaving them in the entryway for too long, and they said hi to Dylan, who was still in my arms.
The first neighbor observed, “You know, the first red flag was that someone was knocking on my door in the first place. Nobody ever knocks unless I buzz them first.”
“I told you not to answer the door,” his partner shot back, as he walked from the doorway back inside the apartment. He glanced over his shoulder, “I’m always afraid it’s the Mormons.”
I laughed, but the neighbor still standing in the doorway could tell I was embarrassed and he hurried to reassure me. “It’s okay, you didn’t know who it was.” Hahaha. I kept laughing. “I’m actually laughing because I’m Mormon.” My neighbors hands flew to his mouth. “Oh we didn’t mean that!” “What’s that?” called the partner. I was all in now. “No big deal,” I said. “I was just explaining that I’m Mormon.” The partner didn’t look quite as mortified as the neighbor, but he did start babbling. “I just thought that if someone was knocking on the door, they might be Mormon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that….” He trailed off.
“Don’t worry, I get it. It could be the Mormons, it could be the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Hahaha. (I still cringe at how my first instinct when my religion comes under scrutiny is to throw a more obscure sect under the bus. Not cool, Sandy. Not even if it’s Scientology.)
The conversation ended quickly. We shook hands, found out each others’ names, talked about the baby again, and I headed upstairs. The whole series of exchanges from the moment I hit the buzzer had been an entertaining break from the lull of my typical Saturday afternoon. I felt funny about how things ended with the neighbors, though. It had been going so well, and then I had to go and open my mouth about being Mormon and ruin things.
Except that’s not how it went. I didn’t do anything wrong. How about, my neighbor had to go and open his mouth and make a thoughtless joke that made me feel like I had to say something. I’m not in the business of proselytizing, but I am also not in the business of being silently shamed for the way I happen to believe. Maybe I should let him bear the burden of causing the awkwardness, instead of taking it upon myself.
I know I sound really uptight, getting up in arms over what was really a quite benign joke. But this happens all the time. Mormons have been a punchline in American popular culture for decades now, and as more we attain more visibility, the jokes become more widespread. In theory, I’m fine with this. I love jokes about Mormons! Often, they make me feel included, like part of this American life, instead of like an invisible freak. Often, they make me laugh hysterically. Often, I make these jokes myself. But the thing is, as Mormons become more integrated into the cultural landscape, as fewer and fewer people can claim the distinction of not knowing a Mormon, well, I expect the jokes to improve.
I know that comedians don’t love it when women, and people of color, and LGBTQ people, and religious minorities push-back on offensive jokes. But it’s just a joke, the say. But you don’t have to listen, they say. But Louis CK! they say (hat tip and language warning: Lindy West via Jezebel.) And they’re right. It’s just jokes, and I don’t have to listen, and lots of comedians handle sensitive issues subjects well, or are so dang hilarious that we tolerate offense. Comedians are free to say whatever they want, short of engaging in hate speech, which is a really high threshold in this country. I’m not telling anyone what jokes they can and can’t make. I’m not even saying that most jokes about Mormons are offensive. I’m just saying, in the words of the Almighty himself, Kanye West, “It’s not funny anymore, try different jokes.”
With that, here is your handy dandy guide to telling a joke about Mormons.
1. Don’t rehash tired material.
Recently, a boy in my congregation spoke about how the number one comment he gets about his religion from his classmates is, “How many moms do you have?” I’ve written before about how the first time I felt ashamed to be a Mormon was when my sixth-grade crush told me to go home and ask my five husbands about the church’s history with polygamy. Juvenile humor is a surefire way to get giggles and definitely has its place, but if you’re telling the same jokes as a grinning, gleeful middle school boy, you can do better.
But I’m not just talking about polygamy. I laughed the first time Homer answered the doorbell to aliens Kang and Kodos and said, “Oh, great, Mormons!” The idea that our Mormon missionaries are so ubiquitous and distinctive that any pair of strangers standing on your doorstep is amusing. But if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. Let’s mix it up a little.
2. Get familiar with your subject matter.
The funniest jokes are the ones where the joke-teller is intimately familiar with her subject matter. Men can tell jokes about being married to women, working with women, dating women, whatever, but almost every time a man starts in on what’s going on inside a woman’s head, the joke falls flat. Because men don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. It’s not that you have to convert to make a joke about Judaism or go to dental school or run the risk of being considered an Anti-Dentite, it’s just that Jews and dentists have better access to the comedic goldmines in their respective religions/occupations.
Most humor about Mormons betrays the fact that the writer, or the comedian, or the run of the mill joke teller, knows very little about Mormonism. Mindy Kaling took a jab at Mormons in her memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? She said,
There have been times when friends have said they hooked up with someone and all it means is that they had a highly anticipated kissing session. Other times it’s a full-on all-night sex-a-thon. Can’t we have a universal understanding of the term, once and for all? From now on, let’s all agree that hooking up = sex. Everything else is “made out.” And if you’re older than twenty-eight, then just kissing someone doesn’t count for crap and is not even worth mentioning. Unless you’re Mormon, in which case you’re going to hell. There, I think we’re all on the same page.
This is totally funny! The term “hooking up” is confusing! But the sentence about Mormonism makes no sense, and suggests that Kaling knows little about Mormons beyond the fact that we’re one of the non-sex-having religions. First, we barely believe in hell. Not to get all technical about the theology, but we believe in a temporary holding state called “spirit prison” and in “outer darkness,” a terrible place for a a few very terrible people. Everybody else goes to one of three levels of heaven. (Full disclosure: those links go to lds.org.) Obviously kissing doesn’t get you to outer darkness, but maybe less obviously, neither does having sex. Second, most of the Mormons I know are actually not that prudish. Mormons like to kiss. So much so that NCMO is practically Mormon teenage jargon. If Kaling had any familiarity with Mormon beliefs and culture, she would have said, “Unless you’re Mormon, in which case it’s time to DTR.”
I’m not saying you have to be a Mormon to make a funny joke about Mormons. All you need to do is get to know one. Just one. It won’t convert you, I promise. The more Mormons you know, the more material you have. My husband makes great jokes about Mormons; you know why? Because he married one and is now privy to all of our quirks and foibles. He knows that Mormons can’t get 30 seconds into a Sunday talk without their voice cracking with emotion. Men included. He knows that a party without a vegetable platter is not a party. Weddings included. He knows that Mormons chug Diet Coke by the gallon while turning their noses up at a 12 oz cup of coffee. For breakfast, even.
You know who else makes great jokes about Mormons? Matt Stone and Trey Parker, of South Park/Book of Mormon (musical) fame. You know why? Because everything they write about the church, as vulgar, blasphemous, and offensive as it can be (I say this lovingly, as a sorta-fan), is dead accurate. In fact, I think us Mormons owe them a big one for making such common Mormon tropes as the goody two-shoes/screw up missionary companionship, the spooky Mormon hell dream, and sickening optimism known to the wider world. Mormon jokes will improve because of it.
Ex-Mormons also tell good Mormon jokes because they have the knowledge of an insider and the discerning eye of an outsider. If you can’t bring yourself to befriend a Mormon, track down an ex.
3. Know your audience.
My neighbors were mortified to find out I was Mormon after making an “Oh no, the Mormons are coming!” joke. They were probably more embarrassed than they need to be, given that most Mormons can take a harmless joke. I don’t think they’re bad people, although I am nervous that they now think I am a bad person who hates them because they’re gay (for the record, I don’t). But when you think of Mormons as Romney robots and Utah hicks, it can catch you by surprise to find one standing right in front of you in your urban Chicago condominium. For people in the media, when you think of Mormons as fundamentalist freakshows, it can catch you by surprise to find them in your fanbase.
Look, make whatever jokes you want. But if you wouldn’t want a Mormon to hear your joke, consider not making it. Not because offensive jokes are inherently wrong, just because we’re here. All those jokes you are making? We are listening. Not in a creepy big brother way, just in a “we like to watch TV, too” way. In a “we are your neighbors” way. And we’d prefer not to get things started off on an awkward foot. Don’t worry, though. With all these Mormons invading your world, you’re sure to pick up a Mormon friend or two, which as I previously mentioned, will lead to jokes galore.
4. Offer substantive critique.
Comedy is an invaluable tool for calling attention to injustice and other harmful behaviors, and the Mormon church is not off-limits. Last year, one of the church’s commercial arms opened City Creek Center, a fancy new mall in Salt Lake City. Although the church represented that it did not use members’ tithes in this development project, it faced a lot of well-founded criticism for opting to spend upwards of a billion dollars on such a worldly endeavor. God’s Mall is now the butt of some clever jokes by irritated Mormons and ex-Mormons and non-Mormon Utahns alike: “And can I use the new LDS charge card…You know, the one where the 10% is added to each purchase?” (hat tip and critical apostate warning: the Salamander Society).
If these issues really matter to you, however, don’t let your haste to condemn injustice prevent you from taking care to offer a thoughtful, substantive critique. Let’s consider the issue of race. It is well documented that, for much of its history until 1978, the Mormon church did not allow black women and men from participating in certain temple ordinances (including the ordinances required to enter the highest kingdom of heaven) and did not ordain black men to the priesthood. Although the church formally condemns racism today, there are still many wounds to be healed, apologies to be issued, and false doctrines to correct. There are many good people working hard on these issues, and a joke that ends in “The Mormon church didn’t even let black people in until 1978!” does little to move this good work forward.
Critiques of the parts of Mormon culture that reflect these now-repudiated policies are, of course, still fair game. Observe that the cameras during General Conference always focus on the handful of women and men of color in the Mormon Tabernacle choir, as though the camera person is saying “Hey look, we’re not all white!” even though 99% of the choir is white. Or, you could point to the fact that the I’m a Mormon PR campaign features more diversity than the church hierarchy likely ever will, at least in our lifetimes. Or consider the line from the Book of Mormon musical that “God changed his mind about black people in 1978.” This is funny and useful because it critiques the long-held Mormon belief that the church’s racist polices reflected will of God, rather than, well racism. Attention to the absurdity of this claim may well be part of the reason why recent church statements about the temple and priesthood bans no longer suggest that they came from God and imply (without stating outright, c’mon guys, you can do it) that they were a product of the time. The church still has a long way to go, but if you want to be part of these conversations, you can’t maintain or feign ignorance to progress that is being made.
5. Don’t be a jerk.
I think that references to “magic/funny underwear” and “secret temples” fall into the first category because man are they played out, but I’m putting them here because overuse is not the reason they make Mormons bristle. Jokes about garments and temples hurt the worst because these subjects are sacred to us and it is deeply upsetting to hear or watch something you revere be profaned. That’s not why you shouldn’t make these jokes, though. You should refrain from making these jokes for the same reason you wouldn’t mock a Jewish man’s kippah or a Muslim woman’s hijab. If you feel okay about mocking Mormons, but not other religious groups, please heed the alternate phrasing for this guideline: don’t be a bigot.
By all means, go ahead and pigeonhole us with polygamy, marginalize our weird, virginal piousness, shame us with the c word, carry on your merry way making tired, unfunny, surface-level jabs at our rich, expansive, and, I swear to you, hilarious culture. Do what you want. But when you deny another person her humanity, you’re no better than the religion you seek to distance yourself from.
I am a person, not a punchline. And if you’re going to make me a punchline, at least try to make it a good one.