20 September 2012 marked the loss of one of Mormonism’s most beloved professors and champions of LDS literature, Richard H. Cracroft. With both joy and sadness, we offer the following slice from his wonderful essay, “The Humor of Mormon Seriousness: A Celestial Balancing Act,” from the January 1985 Sunstone.
MANY, . . . FROM BERT Wilson and Leonard Arrington down to me, have, in their probings, suggested that humor is serious business, and that Mormon humor, because the Church is true and serious, must likewise be true and serious. I can’t think of anything more damaging to humor than such labels, especially if such labeling is merely to enable those of us who desire to enjoy a forbidden belly-laugh and the blessings of the Church to justify our chuckles. Fortunately, we enjoy the company of a number of estimables who seek “serious laughter.” It was Hans Christian Anderson who wrote, “He who takes the serious only seriously and the humorous only humorously has understood everything only very poorly.” And Mark Twain, who hated to be thought of as a buffoon, wrote, “Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.” Thus Hans and Mark and Leonard and Bert and I (I like that company!) are fully in accord. . . .
The whole matter of Mormon humor is problematic, and I have thought about it at length—which means, for me, as much as two or three minutes at a sitting. The question of whether and where and whither Mormon humor is, for some, oxymoronic—like “funny stake president,” “underworked bishop,” or “exciting high priest group leader.” But this is not enough for committed students of Mormon humor. Of them it is required not only to defend, in all earnestness and with straight face, the seriousness of humor and its inverse, the humor of seriousness, but they must also defend as intellectually profound the impious examination of Three Nephite stories, accounts of angelic intervention, dirty jokes about my bishop and your missionary companion, and J. Golden Kimball’s swearing—all without jeopardizing any Church positions they may hold. . . .
HUMOR IS A great blessing, especially for Latter-day Saints. Recognizing the irony of the gap between his solemn and heartfelt profession of belief and the reality of his life, the lay member must shatter or flex, repent or rationalize. Most of us flex and rationalize, and the best means of doing both is to lessen the burden of guilt by laughing at ourselves instead of crying, by gently bringing our leaders (and our ideals) down from their pedestals. . . .
Twain said it well when he insisted that humor was like the screw on the opera glass, “it helps us to adjust our focus.” Humor is therapeutic; it can be a safety valve, particularly in a tight and demanding society which is directed by a strong hierarchy of leaders who say we should beware of humor. Humor in the Church, if it is kept in balance with a vibrant faith, can assist Church members to live in better harmony with themselves and their ideals, and, by enabling us to flex, grow, and assert ourselves without threatening our standing in the Church, can help us to deal with our leaders and doctrines without shattering or breaking. Humor thereby enables us to lessen the tension and the incongruity between ourselves and the high and demanding standards of our faith and the Church which houses our faith. . . .
I believe the heart of Mormon humor—the twinkle-eyed response to life which is just as valid in such cases as a sober and basic black response to life. Despite our desire for the ideal, the real will ever be with us—especially as long as we have earthy boys preparing to become spiritual missionaries. . . .
As long as such incongruities exist—and they always will—as long as Saints continue to be sinners who keep on trying, as long as we live and thus make gaffes and goofs, humor will be a necessary restorative and corrective and blessing. Mark Twain was right when he wrote, “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing at last. The minute it crops up all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” I hope it is so; I hope, among the Latter-day Saints, it will be ever and increasingly so—until we stop getting Urim on our Thummims or until we are all translated correctly, whichever comes first!