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The long history of Mormon satire

Published March 17, 2011 2:43 pm

Pop culture • The LDS Church and its members have provided fodder for generations of melodramas, novels, films and TV shows.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Despite "South Park," the raunchy comedy "Orgazmo" and now their Broadway musical, "The Book of Mormon," Trey Parker and Matt Stone have hardly cornered the market on skewering the LDS Church or its members.

They're just the latest in a long line of artists who have taken jabs at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through books, films, plays and television shows.

Even Capt. James T. Kirk once explained to a 20th-century woman in a "Star Trek" movie that Spock acted a little strange and dressed like a hippie because he "did a little too much LDS."

"Mormonism has been fodder for pop culture since the beginning of the faith," said Gideon Burton, an English professor at Brigham Young University.

For more than a century, artists, writers and filmmakers have produced controversial works that have satirized, parodied or just plain thrashed Mormonism. Here are some prominent examples:

"The Danites in the Sierras" • This 1877 play was perhaps the most popular of anti-Mormon melodramas to hit the frontier stages in the 1800s. A girl is chased by villainous Mormons and hides out in a cabin. The play was so well-received that it was also staged in London.

"All of them shared this view of Mormons as bloodthirsty murderers," said BYU theater and film professor Eric Samuelsen of these anti-Mormon plays. "They tended to come in clusters, especially in the 1880s, when Utah was applying for statehood."

A Study in Scarlet • This 1887 novel was the first story to introduce Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective Sherlock Holmes, and the plot painted Mormons as kidnapping, murderous slave drivers living in Salt Lake City.

"You know, father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons," the author's daughter, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, once told Michael W. Homer, a Salt Lake City attorney and member of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society, in a 1991 interview.

"A Mormon Maid" • Like the anti-Mormon frontier plays of the late 1800s, the early silent films used Mormons as fuel for outrageous villainy. In 1917's "A Mormon Maid," a family is rescued by Mormons only to get caught in a web of murder and kidnapping. It's "arguably the most potent and important anti-Mormon film in the history of cinema," according to LDS film scholar Randy Astle.

"Trapped by the Mormons" • This popular campy 1922 silent film about evil Mormons who kidnap women to be their wives had been a longtime staple at the old Blue Mouse art house theater and Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City.

"Saturday's Voyeur" • It's hard to believe that regional theater group Salt Lake Acting Company has been lampooning Utah culture and its Mormon roots for more than 30 years. But co-creators Nancy Borgenicht and Michael Buttars launched a local phenomenon in 1978 when they hatched this annual stage production that has turned to the state's news and newsmakers for comical inspiration.

"Angels in America" • Considered a contemporary classic, this epic 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner introduces a closeted-gay LDS lawyer as it explores the conservative politics in the age of AIDS and Ronald Reagan. The two-part hit drama was followed by national tours, regional productions including from Salt Lake Acting Company, and a 2003 Emmy-winning HBO film adaptation.

"Orgazmo" • Parker's and Stone's first poke at Mormons was this NC-17-rated gross-out 1998 comedy film about a Mormon missionary (played by Parker) who decides to star in a porn film to help pay for his wedding.

"The Singles Ward" • Even Mormons themselves can acknowledge their culture can be a little wacky. This locally made 2002 film, one of the first in a wave of so-called Mormon Cinema, had fun with the LDS culture, including ward activities and the desperate search for eternal marriage. Other films in the genre include "The R.M." and "The Home Teachers."

"South Park" • Parker and Stone managed to take a number of comical shots at Mormons in their celebrated animated television show, but in 2003, in the seventh season, they devoted an entire episode to the subject in "All About the Mormons?"

Stan objects to the new kid being too nice and wants to "kick his a—." But he later learns the Mormon boy and his family are just too affable to harm. Included in part of the episode is a musical adaptation of the story of Joseph Smith, which might have provided a springboard to their current "Book of Mormon" musical.

"Latter Days" • This 2003 romantic drama exemplified a popular theme in certain films about the church — the homosexual Mormon. A gay missionary falls for another man while on his mission.

"Big Love" • The most popular example of Hollywood's view of LDS theocracy is this 2006 HBO TV series about a polygamist family living in suburban Salt Lake County.

The show, which launched its fifth and final season in January, follows a "fundamentalist" Mormon family involved in plural marriage, yet many episodes have included satirical or critical portrayals of mainstream Latter-day Saints. Those have included one of the wives' uptight and ultraconservative sister and brother-in-law, gun-toting LDS legislators and nosy Mormon neighbors.

The show's most controversial episode included a scene in which a sister wife goes through an LDS temple ceremony, which depicted temple clothing and rituals that members consider sacred.

vince@sltrib.com