Mormon Fray
The Archive of Incidental Mormon References in Pop Culture...

Family Guy (2005)

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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.

Family Guy

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...
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Last Days (2005)

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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.

Last Days

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.
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Hustle & Flow (2005)

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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.

Hustle & Flow

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".
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