Visiting lecturer Elliott Oring presents the work of BYU emeritus professor William Bert Wilson on Mormon humor.
PROVO, Utah (Jan. 25, 2017)—Is Mormon humor different? William Bert Wilson wrote in his book the Marrow of Human Existence (2006) that Mormon humor was situational, based on context and had no single meaning. According to Wilson, the funniest comedians are “the beleaguered bishop, the relief society president, and occasionally a high councilor or stake president.”
Elliott Oring, professor emeritus of California State University and author of Engaging Humor (2003), recently gave a lecture about Wilson and his role in forming the study of Mormon humor. Wilson was a folklorist and professor of English at BYU before becoming the director of the Folklore Department at Utah State University. “Bert’s approach to folklore was deeply humanistic,” said Oring. “Ordinary individuals had something to say, and what they had to say was often historically, philosophically and culturally edifying.”
Wilson’s study of folklore began after his mission to Finland. “He studied folklore because he felt that folklore was the key to understanding Finnish literature,” Oring explained. Though the Finnish people were resistant to Wilson’s study at first, viewing him as an outsider with no right to speak about the Kalavala – a sacred Finnish text – they began to appreciate his work over time. Wilson was awarded by many organizations for his writings on Finnish texts and was considered one of the foremost scholars of Finnish folklore.
Wilson was also interested in the folklore of his own Latter-day Saint community. One area of study for Wilson was missionary humor, believing that jokes functioned as a means for survival. “‘When a missionary laughs, [they are] likely to be more effective, more likely to survive the battle,’” Oring quoted.
For a joke to be successful, Oring explained, the audience must be familiar with the incongruity of the subject matter. “What were the last words at the Last Supper?” Oring asked. “Everyone who wants to be in the group picture come on this side of the table.”
Oring explained the funniness of this joke comes from the audience’s background knowledge. “No matter what one’s religious affiliation or religious knowledge, one would immediately recognize that ‘everyone who wants to be in the group picture come on this side of the table’ were not words spoken either early or late in the Last Supper.”
“‘From now on I will tell you that I shall not drink wine until I drink the new wine with you in the kingdom of my father (Matthew 26:29)’ might prove a more accurate answer to the question, but that would hardly be funny. In humor, you do not get points for being right,” Oring said.
This sort of incongruity in humor, Oring continued, is what made the stories of J. Golden Kimball so popular. Though he was a member of the seventy, Kimball was known for his colorful language and jokes. Throughout his career Wilson and his students collected the stories of Elder Kimball and analyzed his humor. In one conference, he was recorded saying “I would never have the courage to stand before this great congregation in this historic building without being under the influence…of the Holy Ghost, of course.”
“These anecdotes paint the picture of someone who is faithful, but not rigidly or mindlessly faithful. He strays, perhaps not in fundamentals, but he strays nonetheless,” said Oring. “[Kimball’s stories] show [church members] the possibility of salvation despite their imperfections.”
—Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)
Hannah covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.
Image: Portrait of J. Golden Kimball from Wikicommons