What Does Louis CK Have to Teach the Mormon Humorist?

I’ve been writing Mormon humor off and on for more than ten years now. In 2002, some friends and I started The Sugar Beet, a Mormon humor website, and my first article was titled “Provo Temple Liftoff Successful.” (The Sugar Beet has recently been resurrected as The Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer.)

When I began writing humor, my main purpose was to find some kind of comfortable distance from the Church. It had been an overwhelming part of my life until then, and I deeply felt the need of some kind of moratorium. This was one of my ways to get that, because humor necessarily requires distance. You have to defamiliarize the familiar; see it in different contexts.

Some people didn’t like The Sugar Beet, arguing that it was making light of sacred things, though we explicitly focused only on cultural aspects of Mormonism. But I admit that this accusation secretly thrilled me. I needed to feel like I was on the periphery at the time as it was the only place I could breathe. I see this time as a kind of psycho-social moratorium. The psychologist Erik Erickson argued that in order to be a whole person who can interact healthily with Western culture, one needs to take a year or so off from life during early adulthood and shed the responsibilities and demands from our culture. During that free-floating time, people are often able to construct unique core traits that will give them a solid foundation to work from during the rest of their lives.

I’m not really sure Mormons get psycho-social moratoriums. It’s true that we often go on missions around the time Erickson thinks the moratorium should occur, but my own experience was that even though I was in a different culture, I was also plunged into an all encompassing structure. It dictated what I wore, how I acted, what I read, where and how I spent my time—and there was this other guy constantly around: the only time I ever had alone was in the bathroom. However, some people have told me that their mission served them well as a moratorium.

Anyway, spending all this time in humor seemed to give me the space I needed, and I emerged a few years later feeling that I had something of my own at my center.

Recently, I’ve been exposed to what feels to me like a different form of humor in the FX show Louis, written, directed, edited, and starred in by Louie CK, a standup comedian. The show is divided into two parts: one showing him doing a routine in a basement comedy club, the other showing little vignettes from his life outside the club.

The two parts often have contrasting humor styles. During the routines, other people and institutions are usually the butt of Louis’s jokes, but in the vignettes, Louis himself has that role. You get to see him in prosaic situations: eating dinner with his daughters, having a play date, going on a school field trip. And though these situations are funny, they’re also humanizing and sometimes touching. These segments seem to be functioning as a humor of commitment, where the humor arises because of Louis’s commitment to particular aspects of life—his lack of distance from certain situations.

This has been quite a revelation to me because I had always considered the humor-of-commitment genre to consist mostly of toothless jokes that reinforce boundaries rather than break them—for example, the joke-ish things that sometimes pop up in General Conference talks.

I was curious if anyone out there in AML land has encountered  good quality “humor of commitment” scenarios and how you see them functioning. Could this be imported to Mormonism? Has anyone done it successfully?

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9 Responses to What Does Louis CK Have to Teach the Mormon Humorist?

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I’m not entirely sure I understand what you mean by “humor of commitment.” Could you sketch out what it is about the situations you’ve described from Louis that make them funny?

    • Wm says:

      Generally (and I’ve only watched a couple of episodes so this is more based on discussion of his work), Louis CK finds humor in showing how commitment leads us to humiliate ourselves and get ourselves in awkward situations that we normally wouldn’t. But there’s a core sweetness to it because he also shows that to not be willing to risk commitment is even worse.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    Well gee whiz, Stephen. Thanks for the opportunity to plug my novel! Byuck! Although it’s not out yet. I must say your timing’s off by a couple months. Everyone come back later.

    (That said, the prologue‘s up on AMV.)

    Other examples? Curtis Taylor’s The Invisible Saint is good. Jodi Hilton and Kathryn H. Kidd’s set-in-the-ward novels come to mind.

    • Stephen Carter says:

      Good point, Theric. I remember reading those, and you’re right.

      I also read at least part of BYUK many years ago. And you say that now it’s even better?

  3. Mahonri Stewart says:

    What is that Amish practice called, where they allow their young men and women to go live in the world for a couple of years to see if the Amish way of life is what they really want?

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