Humor Can Break Down Barriers of Pride
Derrick Clements is an arts reporter for the Daily Herald in Utah and the host of "The Pixar Podcast."
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
DERRICK CLEMENTS: The real Book of Mormon is on my shelf, and here’s The Book of Mormon musical on my shelf, as well.
LILY PERCY, HOST: [laughs]
MR. CLEMENTS: And I’m getting spiritually enriched by both.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
MS. PERCY: I’m Lily Percy, and this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully by listening, we learn how to create our own.
This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. But humor doesn’t always come in the form of jokes. It can also be a lightness or a joy that is used to frame your life and who you are, or even a way to deal with being the butt of the joke. In Colombia, one of the words that we use for “naive” is pastuso, which is also a stereotype for the people of the city of Pasto. I’ve always wondered how Pastusos deal with this, knowing that they are the butt of a joke, and what that would feel like.
Here in the U.S., I’ve wondered the same about Mormons and how they feel being joked about. Ask anyone who isn’t a Mormon what they know about Mormonism — chances are, they’ll cite something they learned from South Park or The Book of Mormon. They’ll also probably say that Mormons are the nicest people you’ll ever meet. And that has certainly been my experience with my friend, Derrick Clements. As you will hear in my conversation with him, Derrick’s happiness and enthusiasm for life is undeniable, but they don’t undermine the thoughtfulness and depth of his faith. He also has infinite patience for people like me, his non-Mormon friends.
MS. PERCY: The first thing I wanted to ask you is, who was the funniest person in your life, growing up, the person that made you laugh the most?
MR. CLEMENTS: Funniest person… The first person that comes to mind is Dave Barry. I wish it was a friend of mine, like an uncle or something.
MS. PERCY: So you didn’t have it in your family, but Dave Barry was the one.
MR. CLEMENTS: Yeah. [laughs] But what I would do, I would read Dave Barry’s — he is this great humor columnist in newspapers. So I would read aloud his columns to my siblings, or my mom in particular, and we would just be in stitches [laughs] with reading his stuff. So I have a lot of fond memories of that. I also — my mom is a very funny person. And we would get — I would get this — I was a Boy Scout, and I would get this magazine, Boys’ Life magazine. And in the back of the magazine, they would have these really cheesy, delightful jokes.
And they were not great jokes, but I loved them, and my mom loved them. And one day, I remember I was probably 12 or 13, and I was upstairs, and I hear this just hilarious laughter from my mom downstairs. And I’m like, I wonder who she’s talking to or what’s going on. So I walk downstairs. And she’s just there on the other end of the kitchen table with Boys’ Life magazine open and just reading the jokes and laughing to herself.
MR. CLEMENTS: And then we shared some of them together. But that was a fun thing.
MS. PERCY: So you grew up in the Mormon faith. How far back does Mormon faith go in your family?
MR. CLEMENTS: A long time. I know that on my mom’s side, there were people walking across the Plains to Utah. And on my dad’s side, I believe they were converts to the church in England, but in the 1800s, they came over. So both sides go back many generations of Mormonism.
MS. PERCY: And you studied English Literature at BYU, right?
MR. CLEMENTS: I did, yes.
MS. PERCY: I was also an English major, and one of the classes that I took when I was in college was about Mark Twain. And one of those books that we read in class was Roughing It, where he makes all these jokes about not only Mormon people but about the Mormon faith.
MR. CLEMENTS: [laughs] Yes. Yeah.
MS. PERCY: And so I wondered, did you encounter that when you were at BYU, and was that the first time you’d kind of seen — granted, it’s the context of the time he was writing, and all the — partially that’s why he was writing the way he was writing. But was that the first time that you encountered this idea of the stereotype of the Mormon or the Mormon faith? Or when was that?
MR. CLEMENTS: Well, actually that, in particular, I remember encountering as a teenager when I was in high school. And somehow I came across sort of the colorful things — I think Mark Twain said that the reading the Book of Mormon was like chloroform in print, or something, something like that. [laughs] And so I don’t know that that, necessarily, was a turning point in anything. It was more of a novelty. You know, we get very excited when people talk about us. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Well, it’s so interesting to me that you say that any time — Mormons like if someone just — anyone talking about them, whether it’s good or bad. That kind of good-naturedness is a stereotype of what Mormon people are. I mean to the non-Mormon people, that’s often what you say: “Oh, Mormons are so nice.” This is what you hear all the time.
MR. CLEMENTS: Yes. It’s what Trey Parker and Matt Stone have really narrowed in on, on both South Park, in their depictions, and also in The Book of Mormon musical. That’s something that they very much have noticed. And I would say it’s pretty accurate, that sort of general good-naturedness and things.
MS. PERCY: Where does that come from? I mean the ability to, it sounds like, even if you’re being criticized or being stereotyped, to just kind of be good-natured about it, laugh about it.
MR. CLEMENTS: I don’t know. It’s a question I probably should be more self-reflective on. I’m not really sure how. I definitely fit the stereotype very much. I think I’m a very bubbly, happy person. When I was a serving missionary for the church, other missionaries would make fun of me for how I was just constantly smiling, and my mouth was, like, wide open. And they were like, oh, you always have your mouth open. [laughs] It’s a big, like, [laughs] grin.
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MR. CLEMENTS: So I don’t know. That’s definitely part of my personality, and probably a lot of it is tied to my Mormonism.
MS. PERCY: Well, it’s remarkable to me, because you wrote this essay about interning at Radiolab, and you kind of talk about what it was like to be a Mormon in New York City and these great anecdotes. But a lot of the situations you describe, going to get coffee for the first time for Jad Abumrad, who’s one of the hosts.
MR. CLEMENTS: [laughs] Yes.
MS. PERCY: You know, this is the difference between our perspectives. When I read that, I’m Hispanic, and my thing was to have an approach of: “Oh, they’re asking me this, not just because I’m the intern but because I’m Hispanic.” And then it goes with all these other identity issues that come with that. And it’s amazing to me that your reaction is never that. Your reaction as a Mormon, even though in a lot of ways, you are stereotyped — outside of Utah in particular — you don’t have that reaction. Your reaction is this one of, really, of compassion and thinking through their side. And I just — I’m so in awe of that, that you’re able to do that.
MR. CLEMENTS: That’s nice.
MS. PERCY: And I wonder, how do you do that? What are the steps — if someone approaches you with these ideas of what being a Mormon is, is there a thought process in your head, or what do you think about?
MR. CLEMENTS: I’m not sure. I mean I would say, probably the more interesting conversations that I have about Mormonism are with other Mormons. I have a lot of sympathy with and affiliation with the fringes of Mormonism. I would probably say I have — my best friend in college was gay, and when he came out to me, that prompted me on a journey of reconciling what my faith taught, and what I believe, and how much those overlap.
But in terms of — going back to the Radiolab internship that I experienced, that was a time in my life where I was probably more aware than was healthy of how people saw my Mormonism. And I was obsessed with portraying an identity to them that would signal all these really complex things, like: Yeah, I’m Mormon, and I’m happy to be Mormon. And also, I think it’s great if you’re gay. And also—
MS. PERCY: Because you were so afraid of what they might think of you, what they had already made up in their minds about you?
MR. CLEMENTS: Yeah, I guess. And also I feel like I had been so stereotyped by other Mormons, as well. You know, when you meet somebody else who’s another member of the church, there’s a great affinity that you share with them. But at BYU, I had sort of struggled to know, do I fit in here? How do I fit in here? What do I believe? What’s the deal here? And so before I went on a mission, I really had to look hard within myself and decide what I believed and what I wanted to do.
And that mini-crisis was a really important point in my life that simultaneously tied me to Mormonism in a deeper way than I had before, just growing up and kind of being a happy young Mormon without questions, without problems. But it also sort of severed me from Mormonism in a way too. It kind of did both.
So several years later now, when I was an intern at Radiolab, all of those years of effort and thought — I kind of wanted to give everybody the perfect, concise synopsis of my whole religious identity so that I could just create what they thought of me and not just leave it up to whatever stereotypes they had, whether it’s that I’m totally faithful or that I’m this ex-Mormon or whatever stereotype it might be.
MS. PERCY: Well, this kind of reminds me of that narrative of the good immigrant or the bad immigrant. I mean that’s kind of what you were trying to be, was the good Mormon, because chances are, they may never encounter another Mormon again. [laughs]
MR. CLEMENTS: Yeah.
MS. PERCY: That’s a lot of pressure.
MR. CLEMENTS: I mean, it’s probably not real, [laughs] you know what I mean? I didn’t need to have that pressure on myself — but I did.
MS. PERCY: Well, I wonder, so with just all the journey you’ve taken within your own faith, has humor played a role at all in helping you shape that identity and shaping who you are? It might not even be — so the thing about humor is that it’s not just jokes, right, and it’s not just making fun of things. One of the things that I’ve noticed in talking to people about this topic is how often the folks that I talk to have been kind in their humor. Their humor is used in a way that is never to put someone down. It’s actually to connect with other people and to bring others in. And I think you use that, yourself, whether you’re conscious of it or unconscious of it. And so I wonder where that comes from.
MR. CLEMENTS: Yeah, I mean it’s funny, because the humor that I mostly loved, growing up, and now to some degree, too, is — I loved — I loved what I considered to be dark humor. [laughs] I didn’t like musicals until one day I was stumbling through our Windows media library on the family computer, and my sister had uploaded her album of Little Shop of Horrors. And I was listening through the tracks, and I was so taken by the lightness of musical theater being applied to this really dark subject matter of murder and abuse and poverty [laughs] and all these things that Little Shop is about.
MS. PERCY: And that it could be done.
MR. CLEMENTS: Yes. Exactly. And then fast-forward later to, again, I was in college when The Book of Mormon musical came out. And I really connect with that musical, and I admire a lot about it, even though there’s things about it that I bristle at and even disagree with. But I also see myself in it.
And I remember when it first came out and I didn’t have a chance to see it for a long, long time, and I bought the book of it, the script. And I remember just lying on my bed in my apartment, as a student at BYU, reading it. And this is going to be crazy, maybe, but the real Book of Mormon is on my shelf next to it, and here’s The Book of Mormon musical on my shelf as well.
MR. CLEMENTS: And I’m getting spiritually enriched by both. [laughs] So it might be a total — I mean I might just be weird…
MS. PERCY: No. No. I don’t think Mel Brooks would disagree with you.
MR. CLEMENTS: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Well, there’s a scene in particular where a character is really disenchanted with the things that the missionaries have taught her, and it kind of is all crumbling down. And she is very upset about that, which I, you know, had related to that in some aspects of my life. And then there’s this great line where one of the other villagers is like, “No, Salt Lake City is not a place. It’s an idea. A metaphor.”
MR. CLEMENTS: And I think it’s the most brilliant moment in the show, because, of course, Salt Lake City is a place, but it’s also an idea. In the context that she was understanding it, it was also an idea and a metaphor. And that — reading that little piece of literature really helped me to think about how metaphor plays a powerful role in faith and in religion.
MS. PERCY: Well, yeah, and I also think that often, to make fun of something, you have to really understand it. Right? And so where they’re coming from, in The Book of Mormon, is that struggle in wrestling with their own faith, which is why you can be really funny, because it means you really know it. You can make those jokes that are going to land with you especially, a Mormon, a lot differently than a non-Mormon would. But it still comes from that place, I think — maybe it’s too positive to say — but of love, a little bit.
MR. CLEMENTS: Totally. Yeah.
MS. PERCY: So when you’re thinking about our conversation and what we’ve talked about, I wonder if you could put into words what you find that humor gives you that you don’t find anywhere else.
MR. CLEMENTS: I think humor breaks barriers. Like for me, humor is an entry point into serious ideas, into serious things. And it can break down barriers of pride. Actually, let me give you an example that came to mind as I was thinking about this conversation.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, please do.
MR. CLEMENTS: So I was recently married. And when Mormons get married, they often get married in the Temple, which is a place that is more reserved for sacred rites and ordinances than normal church buildings. And so in order to enter the Temple, you need a Temple recommend. You need to go through an interview, and they kind of verify that your behavior and your life and your beliefs line up with orthodoxy.
MS. PERCY: Got it. And a Mormon needs this, even being part of the — okay.
MR. CLEMENTS: Yes. So people that are not members of the church don’t enter the Temple at all.
MS. PERCY: Got it.
MR. CLEMENTS: And when I was getting ready to go into the Temple to get married, I was sitting there with my priesthood leader, and he asked me some questions that were a little off-book. [laughs] And it threw me, which is, I guess, within his prerogative. And I won’t get into the real specifics, but he felt like I was not in harmony with those questions.
And that was really devastating. But it wasn’t devastating — it was devastating because I knew that I was being honest with him. I knew that I was just expressing my real attitudes and ideas, and the fact that it wasn’t lining up could have severe — it meant that I maybe couldn’t get married in the Temple.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, some real consequences.
MR. CLEMENTS: Some real consequences. And it was really, really scary. And I went home, and then what actually came to my mind was a humor story that Mike Birbiglia, the comedian storyteller, told on This American Life. And I had heard it years ago, but it just came to my mind, and I had this feeling that I should listen to it again. So I pulled it up on the This American Life website, and I listened to the story. And I saw myself in it. And it humbled me, because it’s a story about him getting in an accident, somebody was drunk, and they T-boned him. And he ended up, because of a mistake that the police officer had made, he ended up needing to pay thousands of dollars for the drunk driver. And so the whole story is about how he had the truth on his side, and he was fighting this, and he was going to do everything — but the way that that story resolves is that sometimes it’s not about being right. Sometimes it’s about seeing a bigger picture.
And that was what I needed to do. I needed to recognize that I felt like I was right in my rebellious [laughs] attitude toward this leader, but I needed to look past my feeling that I was right in order to really see where I was genuinely wrong, where I was wrong with God, where I was wrong with the church, and how those things lined up. And I was able, because of that story, to humble myself in order to go back to my priesthood leader and say I was wrong. [laughs] And it’s complicated, and it’s messy, and it’s still stressful in some ways, but that humor was able to open me up to get past my pride and understand something bigger.
MS. PERCY: And give you a new framework to see it through.
MR. CLEMENTS: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
[music: “Satisfied” by Sia feat. Miguel and Queen Latifah]
Derrick Clements is an arts reporter for the Daily Herald in Utah and the host of the wonderful “Pixar Podcast.” Derrick has been talking about Pixar, and talking to the key creators behind the scenes, for nearly 150 episodes. It’s always a joy to hear him geek out.
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy, thanks for listening.
[music: “Satisfied” by Sia feat. Miguel and Queen Latifah]