2007, Dir. John Dahl
Context: Ben Kingsley plays Frank Falenczyk, a hitman for the Polish mafia, and an alcoholic. His alcoholism starts to get in the way of murdering people for money, so the Family sends him to dry out in San Francisco. Dave (Bill Pullman), was hired to make sure Frank cleans up his act, and arranges for his apartment, a job in a mortuary, and attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous. One night, Frank comes home to his apartment, but it's not empty...
Exegesis: I don't know about balling up socks or flossing, but not hiding booze is certainly Mormonesque. Again, this is a reference to the Mormon law of health, otherwise known as the Word of Wisdom. There are many parts of this law, but the ones that seem to get the most press are the proscriptions against alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee. These are likely the stand-outs, simply because one or more of these things are probably staples in the lives of most non-Mormons. The Word of Wisdom is particularly interesting, I think, insofar as it was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1833, well before the global scientific community had reached a consensus regarding the injurious effects of some of the substances proscribed by the Word of Wisdom.
Bill Pullman talking about flossing and balling socks isn't exclusively Mormon per se, but coupled with the lack of alcohol, these traits fall in line with the prevailing Mormon stereotype of being neat, tidy, responsible, and generally strait-laced. For the purposes of many films and television shows, Mormons are essentially interchangeable squares and/or rubes. (For another example of this tendency to portray Mormons as honest, friendly and embarrassingly naïve, check out this clip from Frasier.)
1998 - Season 5, Episode 12
"The Zoo Story"
Context: Seattle radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane has fired his unscrupulous agent Bebe in search of someone who can perform their duties while still maintaining the highest ethical standards. He ends up hiring Ben, a man who delivers Meals on Wheels, makes and distributes toys to needy children, leads scout troops on nature hikes, is a recipient of the Seattle Samaritan Award, and more. Frasier has found the only ethical agent in Seattle; a "good and decent man." Ben has arranged for Frasier to have a crane at the zoo named after him, and just before the press conference, in front of Frasier's former agent, Ben possibly sheds some light onto his religious background...
Exegesis: Frasier maintains throughout the episode that it's possible for an agent to be decent and ethical while still being effective at their job. Everyone in Frasier's inner circle is skeptical, and Ben doesn't allay their fears with each kind, selfless or otherwise boy-scouty thing he says or does. (For the critical salary-negotiation meeting at the end of the episode, Ben literally shows up in a boy scout uniform.) Whether an agent must be unethical to perform their duties well is beside the point, but it's interesting that the episode suggests that a Mormon is incapable of being ruthless in business. "When there's a dirty job to be done, you can't go wrong with a Mormon," Bebe says sarcastically, before bursting into laughter.
Mormons have a long, proud history of being known and respected for their honesty and integrity, and those attributes have served Mormons very well, generally, in many positions. Mormons are valued in the corporate and financial world in large part due to these attributes that Mormons tend to share. (There's a whole website dedicated to this phenomenon, and books, too.)
As the links in the preceding paragraph make clear, Mormons are a force to be reckoned with in the business world, but as this episode of Frasier underscores, we're still largely seen as a bunch of idealistic, out-of-touch, do-gooder rubes; too naïve to deal with the harsh realities of the dog-eat-dog corporate world. I suppose this is a stereotype attributed to many deeply religious people, but Mormons seem particularly prone to characterization as bumpkins.
Whatever the reason, the stereotype appears to be that anyone who is truly honest or ethical is too naïve to successfully navigate the corporate/secular world, and those who are less overtly religious will therefore be better equipped to adapt to that world. This conventional thinking simply doesn't bear the weight of much scrutiny, and certainly shrivels in the face of actual real-world examples. But the ingenuous naïf is a popular archetype, and Mormons just seem to embody those particular virtues that are widely regarded as idealistic at best, and unsophisticated, if not downright pathetic, at worst.
View another Frasier clip on this site.
Season 4, Episode 13
"Bright Lights, Dean City"
Context: Dean Venture, the younger of "Super Scientist" Thaddeus Venture's two sons, has taken a summer internship position in the labs of Professor Incredible (a parody of Marvel's "Mr. Fantastic"). Unbeknownst to the naïve Dean, Professor Incredible has turned evil, partnering with the criminals Phantom Limb and Baron Ünderbheit to form "The Revenge Society." Hoping to increase their numbers, they stage an audition of sorts for would-be super-criminals.
Exegesis: This reference is a little unique, insofar as Mormons are not ever explicitly mentioned. But two things make clear the Mormons are the intended target of the farce: One, the reference to polygamy. It's hard to have a reference to polygamy without Mormons coming up these days. The second is the reference to "Magic Underwear". This is a popular meme, because it sounds so ridiculous, and is repeated occasionally even by otherwise well-meaning people who are unaware of how offensive that characterization is to Mormons.
Obviously Mormons do not wear magic underwear. Using the word "magic" to explain any aspect of religion is likely going to be an offensive association for believing members of that religion. (Except for Wiccans, I suppose.) We believe in miracles, not magic. That may be a distinction that that many non-believers don't recognize, but it's crucial to believers. When something a religion believes to be divine is called "magic" the implication is that the believers are rubes, and that the apparent power is an illusion or a trick. It may well be pointless to argue about the power of God and its effects with someone who denies that power even exists. Atheists (although they are not the only ones who make snide and derisive comments regarding Mormon beliefs) tend to approach religion from a position of great condescension, since they almost by definition consider themselves to be more intelligent or reasonable than virtually all religious persons. Calling Mormon underwear "magic" simply reeks of that kind of supercilious and patronizing attitude. In the context of this clip, the "magic underwear" is likely mentioned because the scene is, after all, a super-villain audition, and magic is very real in the realm of comic books and superheroes/supervillainy.
Also, "underwear" is a funny word. Okay, that's debatable, but most things that are of an intimate or private nature, like most bodily functions, tend to be mined repeatedly for comedy. It's puerile and it's immature, but this kind of low humour is also frequently hilarious in the right hands. The fact that this time it was coupled with a backhanded insult to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is too bad, but is also to be expected when people who are not of our faith encounter aspects of it they do not understand.
This may not be an ideal forum in which to correct this particular misconception, and the people who call our underwear "magic" are not likely to be very anxious to have their misconceptions corrected. Essentially, the garment worn by faithful adult Mormons who have been through the temple is a symbol of our commitment and the covenants we've made - "an outward expression of an inward commitment". I've always liked the way that apostle Boyd K. Packer explained the temple garment - he compared it to the robes of an ordained priest, except that we wear our symbolic "robes" all the time. At any rate, the garments are considered sacred by Mormons, and the cynical denigration of anything that any religion holds sacred is never terribly amusing to me. As the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote, "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."
Season 3, Episode 8
"The Last Time I Saw Maris"
Context: Niles' wife, Maris, has disappeared and has been missing for days. Niles is understandably concerned, although it turns out Maris has simply been on a shopping spree in New York. At his brother Frasier's urging, Niles stands up to Maris, who in turn demands a divorce and kicks Niles out of the house. In the aftermath, Frasier takes his brother into his home, and it is the following morning when Frasier is in his kitchen trying to find some food for his father's dog, Eddie. Luckily, one of his housekeeper's dishes isn't fit for humans...
Exegesis: This may be the only instance when "humans" is used as a sound-alike to "Mormons". We've had "moron" several times, "hormones", too. But humans? It's a stretch, but the end result is amusing.
Of course, Mormons can eat shepherd's pie, but it's interesting to think there's some kind of food that is fine for everyone else but not "fit" for us... It makes us sound kind of important... This reference is basically a variation on a comic staple, where someone says something privately or under one's breath, and is overheard by someone else. When asked to repeat or clarify, the second person repeats instead a (usually implausible) sound-alike version of their original line. It's the dichotomy between what was actually said, and the hastily assembled alternative that produces the comic effect. Sometimes the whole phrase is replaced, sometimes just one word, and typically the word change renders the original phrase nonsensical or otherwise amusing, as was the case in this example.
Frasier was a great show - a fine example of classic farce on a weekly basis. This isn't the only time Mormons came up in the series, either; Frasier hires a Mormon agent (and former MoTab singer) in the Season 5 episode "The Zoo Story".
Season 8, Episode 5
"The One With Rachel's Date"
Context: Rachel is pregnant and Ross is the father, or "Baby Daddy", if you prefer. Those two are in the "off-again" phase of their relationship, and so Rachel is on the prowl for a man. Joey introduces her to one of his Days of Our Lives co-stars, Kash (Johnny Messner), and he asks her out. Rachel, who isn't obviously pregnant yet, is concerned that mentioning her pregnancy might sabotage her relationship with Kash before it has a chance to get off the ground, so she asks Joey for help finding a reasonable alternate to the truth as to why she won't be consuming alcohol on their date.
Exegesis: Hey Mormons don't drink! We don't drink alcohol, coffee or tea. We don't smoke either. It's all part of that wonderful law of health, the Word of Wisdom. Like any behaviour that deviates substantially from otherwise accepted social norms, (like total abstention form alcohol), Mormons' adherence to the Word of Wisdom has given us a reputation for clean living, and it's one of the nicer things to be known for.
There's not a lot to say bout this reference, really – Mormons are admittedly a peculiar people in the eyes of the world, and our healthy living habits are one of the more "tangible" things we are known for. Our understanding of Christ's infinite atonement is less easily grasped and articulated, but "they don't drink" is pretty easy to remember, and tends to stand out in this day and age. When I have declined offers of alcohol in the past, it's not unusual to hear the follow-up question: "Are you Mormon?" About half the time, the person has clearly asked the question as a joke, expecting the answer no, and are a little embarrassed when I answer in the affirmative. It is the joke in that sense that the writers for Friends were going for.
Season 4, Episode 18
"The Father, the Son, and the Holy Fonz"
Context: Peter Griffin, the paterfamilias of Family Guy, secretly has his son Stewie baptized into the Catholic faith at the behest of his devout father. When Stewie becomes ill (due to "tainted" Holy Water), and Lois finds out about the deception, she encourages Peter to stand up to his father, and to exercise his agency in choosing his own belief system. Peter goes through a few religions before deciding to start his own religion that worships the graven image of Arthur Fonzerelli. One of his spiritual way stations happens to be Mormonism.
Exegesis: Family Guy seems to take pleasure in its casual blasphemy and sacrilege, and this particular episode is par for the course. It's frankly surprising that there haven't been more overt references to Mormonism in the series (although one cut-away gag in a later episode did involve the suggestion of incest between Donny and Marie Osmond...). South Park, another show that enjoys ridiculing organized religion and/or the people who belong to a given religion, have mentioned Mormons in a few episodes, basing one entire episode around denigrating the religion and casting fairly unkind, simplistic, and frankly untrue aspersions on our founding Prophet Joseph Smith. But Family Guy has only this one reference so far as I am aware, and they used it for a cheap polygamy gag.
Polygamy (or more specifically, polygyny) is a well to which comedy writers seem to return again and again. It appears to be the one detail that most people know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It must be frustrating to comedy writers that the practice was abolished well over a century ago. But still, the idea of plural marriage is rife with comic potential (and dramatic potential too, apparently, viz.: Big Love). In a society where monogamy in marriage is the ideal (and ostensible norm, divorce rates notwithstanding), the idea of plural marriage seems utterly alien. And anything alien can easily be tweaked for the sake of a laugh. It's glaring "otherness" is likely the reason why it remains the most salient detail people remember about Mormons.
I don't find polygamy jokes inherently unfunny. This one wasn't particularly clever, though Family Guy's fans don't seem to be the most discerning comedy connoisseurs. (Full disclosure: there isn't an episode of Family Guy that I haven't seen.) Polygamy jokes constitute a great deal of the incidental references to Mormons and Mormonism in pop culture, and some are funnier than others. The Church has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the practice of polygamy, but are stymied by the kooks who continue to practice it (who regrettably are referred to as "Mormon Fundamentalists", even if not all of them self-identify as such). One would think it would be easier to distance ourselves from a practice that was hardly defining; it was only practiced by a comparatively small subset of Church members, for a short period if time, over a century ago. (The fact that religious precedent exists for the practice throughout the Old Testament doesn't seem to make the practice any more defensible or less bizarre to most people.)
Due in part to depictions of Mormons as polygamous in this and other shows, the misleading Mormon/Polygamy association will likely, unfortunately, continue into the future.
And, of course, when Peter's "Mormon" wives point out (correctly) that Mormons don't drink alcohol, Peter promptly throws them away, literally, in garbage cans. I'm not sure how to begin an exegesis of that...
2003 - Dir. Clark Johnson
Context: Based on the 1970's television series of the same name, this film is about an elite Special Weapons and Tactics team in Los Angeles. Jim Street (Colin Farrell) has just been kicked off the S.W.A.T. team following a hostage situation in which he and his partner disobeyed direct orders. His demotion has him working in the "gun cage" with Gus (James DuMont), who apparently really likes Dr. Pepper and McDonald's, but seems a little confused about the tenets of his religion, and the actual dietary restrictions contained in the Word of Wisdom...
Exegesis: This video contains clips from two scenes in the film. In the first scene, Gus is drinking a Dr. Pepper, and confesses to Jim that he really shouldn't, since he converted to Mormonism when he got married. Fair enough – many Mormons avoid caffeinated drinks, despite their not being specifically proscribed by the Word of Wisdom. (Note: The Word of Wisdom is what the Mormon law of health is called, and is the reason why Mormons don't smoke or drink alcohol, tea, or coffee among other things.) So that's all fine. Getting into a discussion of whether caffeinated soft drinks are against the Word of Wisdom (or the spirit of the Word of Wisdom) is likely to be fruitless, since the Church hasn't ever made an official statement on the subject. Furious debates on this subject can be found elsewhere on the Internet, and a treatment of it here would be beyond the scope of this exegesis. Suffice it to say, many Mormons avoid it, and this scene rings more or less true. (For the record, I am one of those Mormons who doesn't drink caffeinated soft drinks, which is maybe why I let this scene slide.)
The second scene, however, is completely bizarre. I understand that McDonald's food is unhealthy, but to suggest that it is typical of Mormons to avoid it is strange indeed. Avoiding fast food may be a good idea, but it's certainly not a tenet of the Mormon faith. Weird.
It's difficult to understand why these scenes are included, except as some misguided attempt at comic relief. In the first scene, it's so that Colin Ferrell's character can make the remark about treating his body "like an amusement park," and in the second scene, so that Colin Farrell's character can tell Gus he's "cheating on [his] wife with fast food," something that sounds absurd, but in the context of the scene and Gus' bizarro Hollywood version of Mormonism, makes sense. Because he's Mormon, the movie seems to suggest, the worst sin he can commit is cheating on his wife by eating McDonald's. Instead of smelling like another woman's perfume, or even cigarette smoke, he will smell of french fries, a tell-tale sign of "infidelity" that Gus has already found a solution for: mouthwash. The joke appears to be: Look at these clean living Mormons - they're so peculiar, and the Mormon corollary to real-world problems/transgressions are trivial and silly! It is the quintessential "Mormons as 'other'" paradigm. It would help if the example (McDonald's) made any sense at all in the context of Mormonism, but whatever. Incidentally, I'd love to see what would happen if the Church outlawed fast food. Yikes.
There are other characters in other movies who happen to be Mormon for reasons that don't further the narrative, and sometimes don't even prop up weak humour, as in this example. I think there are simply screenwriters out there who either knew a Mormon once, or just have a book called: "The Writer's Bucket O' Quirks for Well-rounded Secondary Characters." Giving a minor or otherwise poorly-sketched character some random religious quirks is a quick way to flesh that character out without doing much heavy-lifting screenwriting-wise.
2005 Dir. Gus Van Sant
The last film of Gus Van Sant's so-called "Death Trilogy", along with the equally austere and inscrutable Gerry and Elephant. Like Elephant, this movie is a kind of film à clef, chronicling the final days/hours in the life of a fictionalized Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's gifted frontman.
Context: Blake, the thinly veiled Cobain surrogate in Last Days, spends most of the running time of the film avoiding everyone, including the people living in his own house. So when Mormon missionaries arrive at the door, Blake slips out, but his housemates invite the young men in for a bizarrely long and eerily accurate chat.
Exegesis: This is simultaneously one of the most accurate depictions of LDS missionaries on film, and the most bizarre. Perhaps it is bizarre precisely because it is so accurate. That's not to say that these Elders are especially good - their delivery could use some serious work, but they even quote from Joseph Smith's history, just like many real missionaries do! In other words, the doctrine seems to be more or less sound. They even point out the scripture references they have written in the front cover of the Book of Mormon that they leave behind, encouraging the people to read it, and inviting them to church on Sunday. That's Missionary 101.
It's a little weird that the two missionaries are both named Elder Friberg. (The twin actors who play them are actually named Andy and Adam Friberg.) The Internet Movie Database points out a few minor inconsistencies in its "Goofs" section, viz.: "One of the LDS missionaries that visits the house is wearing a light blue shirt. LDS missionaries are only permitted to wear non-decorative white shirts with dark pants/suits, and a conservative tie. The missionaries also carried no pamphlets, visual aids, appointment books, or their own complete sets of scriptures, which is highly unlikely for door-to-door proselytizing." But really, those are fairly trivial complaints considering the gross liberties that most films take when depicting Mormon missionaries.
It's hard to pinpoint the reason why this rather lengthy scene was included in the film. Van Sant is regarded as somewhat of an auteur, but as I pointed out in the intro to this piece, I find some of his, shall we say, "less commercial" work a little difficult to parse. Much is made of the Elders' ability to talk to God. At the end of the film when (spoiler alert!) Cobain kills himself, his naked soul emerges from his corpse and begins to climb a ghostly ladder, so Van Sant may have been trying to lay the groundwork for some kind of spiritual or redemptive message. Or it could be that Van Sant was visited by missionaries once and thought the idea of young men who dedicate themselves to spreading the message of the restored gospel was an interesting counterpoint to the life of the protagonist. The Elders are played by twins, identical in every way except shirt color, which could be an illustration of their conformity and a suggestion that their "sameness" extends back to all those who follow an organized religion rather than one's own mysterious spiritual path, like Blake. The Elders also talk about Christ's purity and sacrifice, perhaps as a means whereby Blake's sacrifice (by suicide) can be seen as a redemptive act.
Is it significant that contemporaneously to this scene (and intercut with it during the film), we learn that Blake/Cobain is upstairs, strung out, listening to terrible 90s R&B, wearing a strappy black cocktail dress and army boots? I don't know. Van Sant's inclusion of these missionaries in the film could be totally random, which is a cop out explanation I know, but the IMDB also maintains that the Yellow Pages salesman in the film was actually a Yellow Pages salesman who simply wandered onto the set.
To be perfectly honest, I haven't seen the film in its entirety, so there could be themes I'm missing that would shed some light on why this particular scene was included. I love Nirvana, but frankly, I'm not sure I have the patience to actually watch this movie all the way through. After watching both Gerry and Elephant, I think I get the idea, Van Sant. Fool me twice...
In the absence of insight into this passage in the film, I will humbly offer a few points on the Elders' technique. Asking to come into the house in order to "tell you a little about our Church, give you information on our religion," is not going to open many doors. And to begin the discussion by pointing out that "alcohol is bad for our bodies" while the host pours himself a glass of wine is poor form, (and a few discussions early). Explaining the atonement and prayer simultaneously by (briefly) referencing Old Testament laws of sacrifice is perhaps not the best tack either. They also don't seem very engaged or enthusiastic about the message. Then again, I remember having companions like this, and for all I know, this is exactly how I sounded when I delivered the discussions in French.
2005, Dir. Craig Brewer
Context: Aspiring rapper DJay (Terrance Howard) is setting up a make-shift home studio with friend Key (Anthony Anderson), when there's a knock at his door. One of his prostitutes (Shug, played by Taraji P. Henson) – DJay is a pimp, you see – answers the door, and then comes to fetch DJay, who is displeased at being interrupted. He goes to the door, and mistakes Key's musician friend Shelby (DJ Qualls) for someone else, after seeing his white dress shirt and neck tie.
Exegesis: It's hard out here for a pimp, and apparently hard in DJay's neighborhood for a Mormon. Despite a missing name tag and no companion, DJay mistakes Shelby for a missionary. Shelby opens with the decidedly un-missionary-like "Hey Man," and DJay remarks that Mormons are "brave motherf***ers" presumably for showing venturing into a tough neighbourhood like DJay's.
DJay doesn't seem antagonistic towards Mormons exactly, but it's unclear how receptive he would have been to the message had Shelby actually been a missionary. This is clearly a light interlude in the film, played for humour. DJ Qualls, the actor playing Shelby, certainly looks out of place in that neighbourhood, and with a little shorter haircut might even pass as a skinny young missionary. Is the movie suggesting that Mormon missionaries are inherently funny, or that they would necessarily be harassed or abused in certain neighbourhoods? I don't think so - I think this is just another humorous juxtaposition; the ol' mistaken identity gag. And I think it works, for what it's worth. Besides, DJay's declarative observation is kind of a compliment.
Censor's Note: I know we're (probably) all adults, and I wondered about what to do when I inevitably got to those clips that contained foul or questionable language. Should I post an uncensored version and a bowdlerized version and let people choose according to their own personal comfort level? In the end, I decided I'd just mute the offending word. I kind of want everyone to feel comfy coming to this site and watching these clips. The missing words are probably obvious, and maybe I made the wrong decision, but when you start your archive of incidental references to Mormons and Mormonism, you can make it as filthy as you want. It's not like Hustle & Flow is hard to find, if anyone wants to watch this clip in its original glory – it won a bunch of Oscars, for crying out loud.
To clarify, I'm talking about expurgating the big ones, the F-bombs et al. If you can't even stomach the occasional "hell" and "damn", then you should probably use your own discretion, because I'm leaving those in. My favourite clip on this site (from Cheers) has Kirstie Alley saying "damn".
Season 4, Episode 12
"Late Night with Butt-head"
Mike Judge's seminal creation: Beavis and Butt-head; a show embraced by the very demographic Judge was mocking, the show was inescapable in the 90s, as were irritating impressions of the title characters (both voiced by Judge). Judge would go on to create the TV series King of the Hill, and the movies Idiocracy, and Extract, as well as his masterpiece (so-far) Office Space.
Context: Beavis and Butt-head, the two adolescent slackers, are enjoying their favourite activity, criticizing music videos, when Donny Osmond's Sacred Emotion comes on. Beavis and Butt-head are apparently aware of the Osmonds' religious affiliation... sort-of.
Exegesis: This clip is so juvenile (as was intended), it would be even more reductive than usual to pursue anything more than a cursory exegesis.
It's that old canard again: "Mormon" kind of sounds like "Moron", if you're an idiot. This joke is more or less identical to the one used in the "Married With Children" clip. Butt-head does correct his friend's malapropism (although he has just suggested that Donny's dad, "Lee Harvey Osmond", killed JFK), and points out that Beavis means "Mormon". How to describe Mormons to someone as simple as Beavis? Butt-head: "Those are those dudes who come up to your house on bicycles." Unphased, Beavis asks if the music he's hearing is the Moron Tabernacle Choir...
So we've got "Moron" for "Mormon", missionaries on bikes, the Tabernacle Choir... the only easy Mormon reference not mined for laughs in this clip is polygyny, and I'm not sure how that oversight was made.
With all that said, Donny Osmond (and his family) were real ambassadors for this Church in the 70s. There wasn't anyone as famous at that time who was a faithful member of the Church, let alone someone who was idolized by a lot of young people. (Not all young people, obviously.) To this day, their Mormonism tends to be mentioned whenever any of them are interviewed. In fact it may be the one salient detail most people know about them, along with the fact that Donny has a sister named Marie.