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 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...
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.
Season 8, Episode 15
"Sofa So Good"
This show ran for eleven seasons – it was the first prime-time sitcom to air on the newly launched Fox network n 1987, and remains the network's longest-running live-action sitcom.
Context: Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill) and his wife Peggy (Katey Sagal) are leaving town for the weekend to attend Peg's family reunion. Their son Bud (David Faustino) and daughter Kelly (Christina Applegate) have each faked illness to avoid joining their parents on the trip. Once their parents leave, Kelly invents an enormously implausible story about volunteering to film a public service announcement to combat child illiteracy in their living room, and therefore needs Bud out of the house. Bud points out that Kelly herself is illiterate, and therefore a poor spokesperson, but ultimately buys her story. Once he leaves, Kelly calls to her boyfriend (Gunther) who has been hiding outside. He enters and declares that he was so bored waiting outside, he decided to "take some pictures," (which turn out to be framed paintings he's stolen from neighbouring houses.) He gives them to Kelly, and after we are suddenly privy to the sarcastic thoughts of the family dog, Kelly explains that Bud bought her story about the public service announcement...
Exegesis: Like the clip from Beavis and Butthead, here is a character that makes the implausible homophonic leap from Mormon to Moron. There are worse associations that could be made, and the reference isn't malicious - at least not towards Mormons. Usually the substitution of "moron" for "Mormon" is a commentary on the speaker, not the religion. This is the case here, where everything Gunther says or does is meant to reinforce the notion that he is astonishingly dim-witted.
As I said about the more plausibly homophonic Family Ties clip, "Mormon" to "moron" isn't the most flattering association, but considering there is actually someone named "Moron" in the Book of Mormon, I suppose we can't complain.
Season 7, Episode 20
"Call Me Irresponsible"
Cheers is one of the all-time classic sitcoms. Of all the clips and references I've tracked down for this website, this one is probably my favourite. The set-up and execution of the gag is flawless, and reminds me of a classic comedy routine; it's the "Who's on First" of Mormon references, which is appropriate for a show that often had the rhythms of a classic farce. (Its spin-off, Frasier, is a master-class in the sitcom-as-farce.) The escalation of the gag in this scene is tremendous, and I still smile when I see it.
Context: It's Carla and Eddie's anniversary. Eddie is out of town and has failed to send Carla an anniversary gift. To keep her co-workers from feeling pity for her, Carla buys herself flowers and has them delivered to the bar as though they were from Eddie. Rebecca sees the flowers, and comments wistfully about the lack of flower deliveries in her life. Sam mishears her remark, leading to a modern-day Abbot and Costello routine:
Exegesis: Good, old-fashioned comedy. Mormons aren't being held up for ridicule or mockery, and our beliefs are actually accurately portrayed, insofar as Mormons can send flowers, and we can also dance. They even bother to correct one of Sam's misunderstandings (it's the Amish who "can't dance").
Norm's correction of Sam's statement about Mormons dancing is interesting. For one thing, it adds to the comic rhythm of the scene: more clarification and correction about Sam's misunderstanding of Rebecca's comment than clarification about the comment itself is highly amusing, especially as Rebecca becomes increasingly exasperated). It's also interesting because most shows don't seem interested in correcting inaccurate statements about Latter-Day Saint beliefs. They would rather let the misinformation stand, particularly when that misinformation is in service of a joke. I can sort-of understand this instinct, since after a joke about plural wives (for example), it kind of grinds things to a halt to point out that polygamy hasn't been practiced by Mormons in over a century, and that the practice in the modern Church is considered adultery, punishable by swift excommunication. But when there is misinformation that is not in the service of a joke, more often than not it's just sloppy/lazy writing. It's someone who knew a Mormon once, and sort of remembers something they think Mormons believe, wrote a scene about it and couldn't care less about its accuracy.
Since the subject has been raised, I'll say one last thing about misrepresentation. When we're egregiously misrepresented in the media, I have to wonder how difficult it is to go to lds.org, or even wikipedia, for a three-second fact-checking trip. Even the infamous South Park episode "All About the Mormons" got so many things wrong, some Mormon dude felt compelled to build an entire website dedicated to a thorough exegesis. I suppose I'll talk about it more when I get to that South Park episode, but in the meantime, why don't you enjoy that Cheers clip one more time?
Season 3, Episode 4
"Love Thy Neighbour"
It seemed appropriate to start with the first reference to Mormons I remember hearing, outside of my home life. My first blog post on this site (which was chopped up and sprinkled in the FAQ) touched on this clip briefly. I was searching the Internet trying to track it down when the idea occurred to me (and the need became apparent to me) to create this site. (The Internet is great for tracking down the sources of those indelible childhood memories and seeing how they look in the light of adulthood.)
Context: Jennifer's friend Scott is back after a five year absence. She is now eleven, and he is seventeen. (Apparently, when she was six and he was twelve, they used to hang out and play sports together...) Anyway, he's in town for a few days for a college interview, and apparently Jennifer's parents have no qualms about a seventeen year-old coming to spend time alone with their eleven year-old daughter. Creaky premise aside, Scott is all set to reminisce with Jennifer about old times (and maybe kick the soccer ball around) until he lays eyes on Mallory, who is also seventeen. (Why was he ever Jennifer's friend again?) Needless to say, he's smitten, and begins to ignore Jennifer in favour of her older, hotter, much more age-appropriate sister. A frustrated Jennifer approaches her brother Alex, who helpfully explains that boys Scott's age have hormones coursing through their veins. Later, Jennifer crashes the date that Scott has taken Mallory on, affecting "grown-up" mannerisms and misremembers Alex's words of wisdom...
Exegesis: This is a pretty inoffensive reference to Mormons. Jennifer misremembering Alex's line and repeating it to her sister incorrectly isn't gold-standard comedy (like, say, the Cheers reference is), but it's not bad, and as I said, pretty innocuous.
The humour in this Family Ties example is not at the expense of Mormons, which is rare when Mormonism is invoked for comedic effect. Typically, Mormons are referenced in TV or film comedies in order to get a cheap laugh out of our centuries-old polygamous history. And occasionally, as you may see on this site, polygamy is also dredged up for dramatic (or more often, melodramatic) effect.
Jennifer's declaration is absurd, and the humour derives from that unexpected homophonic juxtaposition of "Mormons" for "hormones". This gag is repeated elsewhere with different homophonic substitutions of varying plausibility, like "human" in Frasier, or "more men" in the aforementioned Cheers example. Most often, a character misspeaks by saying "Moron" instead of "Mormon" (Beavis & Butt-head) or vice versa (Married... With Children), which isn't the most flattering association, but considering there is actually someone named "Moron" in the Book of Mormon, I suppose we can't complain.