“We’ve been there.” When I asked my husband, Wally, what he meant by this remark, he explained that he now understood why we did not enjoy the recent “smash” musical “The Book of Mormon.” Of course! Yes, the staging was awesome, the choreography stunning and the voices outstanding, but the humor failed to amuse. The lyrics were rude, but we’ve heard rude language in musicals before. There was a definite disconnect between what we find to be laughter-worthy and what we saw and heard in that show.
In the words of a 2009 NOVA production, “Humor is more aptly described as beneficial to us when it is … what researchers call affiliative or self-enhancing.” Affiliative humor is amusing and being amused by others. Self-enhancing humor is maintaining an amused outlook on life; being able to laugh at yourself and see the humor in your circumstances. The edginess of this musical suggests a more negative aspect of humor: “Aggressive humor is contemptuous, hostile and manipulative.”
For us, the reason the show didn’t work is because “we have been there.” We have spent time in Salt Lake City, and although not of the Mormon faith, we came to appreciate the devotion and commitment of Latter Day Saints members to high moral principles. We spoke to Mormons, stayed in a Mormon family home, visited their inspiring edifices and even stopped at a Mormon cemetery.
These experiences helped us to understand that for LDS members, family comes first and love of humankind is a second core value. During a tour of the Mission Training Center in Salt Lake City, we witnessed the seriousness and commitment to purpose of the young men and women from many countries preparing for service, and applaud their efforts on behalf of their faith.
Even more important than the glimpse of LDS life we encountered is the fact that “we’ve been there” in Africa, as well. Meeting Africans, sharing in their stories and working side-by-side for several weeks gave us a firsthand perspective of unwavering faith in humanity, love of children and the elderly, and hope for the future, in spite of a very real lack of tangible resources and abundant crime and poverty.
These experiences made us feel that the “sick” jokes about AIDS and genital mutilation in “The Book of Mormon” just aren’t funny. Sadly, these atrocities do exist in Africa and the battle to change these fearsome realities takes place every day. Illness, abuse of women and malnutrition are often cruel facts of daily life. Amazingly, real Africans, not African caricatures, are creative, funny, joyful, musical, hospitable and endure enormous odds that we, as affluent theatergoers, are fortunate not to experience.
We don’t mean to be spoilsports, but surely the creators of “South Park” could have come up with a musical that inspires rather than leaves a flat taste. By the way, thanks to wonderful Shea’s season programming, we also saw Blue Man Group earlier this year. As theatergoers left that performance, smiles, laughing faces and happy chatter abounded.
Perhaps we might wish to rethink what constitutes true affiliative humor and look instead for entertainment that respects rather than disparages humanity, whether in Utah or Africa.