Comedian David Cross went for a cheap joke over the weekend — using social media to poke fun at the special long two-piece underwear worn by members of the religion formerly known as Mormons — to promote his upcoming show in Salt Lake City.
He drew a major social media backlash from members of the faith, outraged that he would profane something they held sacred, and drew demands that the University of Utah cancel the show.
I’m not suggesting that Latter-day Saints shouldn’t be offended. That’s entirely up to them. But as members of a faith that has experienced a rapidly growing profile in recent years, they should probably also get used to the idea of this sort of barb.
Religion has been an easy target for comedians for decades. If you don’t believe me, watch Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” or a Mel Brooks movie. Or go online and listen to routines from Lenny Bruce, George Carlin or Ricky Gervais.
Carlin, in particular, could probably have done two full hours tearing apart every single religion.
“War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption and the Ice Capades,” Carlin said. “If this is the best God can do, I am NOT impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kind of s*** you'd expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.”
And comedians should go after religion. After all, the best comedy tells the truth about our society and does it with so much honesty and insight and bluntness, it’s uncomfortable.
When it’s done badly — like Cross’ tired magic underwear gag — it comes off as lazy and mean-spirited.
And the spirit of comedy matters. Just ask Cynthia Fleming, who is the executive artistic director at Salt Lake Acting Company and since 2010 the director of Saturday’s Voyeur, the annual satire of Utah’s foibles now in its 40th year.
Fleming says she and writers Nancy Borgenicht and Allen Nevins approach it as a “tongue-in-cheek tribute to this peculiar place.” But the current political climate, she said, is “bringing not only comedy, but pretty much everything into question.”
“What’s ‘appropriate’ is relative and what’s considered funny one moment is suddenly extremely offensive the next,” she said. Her goal is to focus on the comedy and avoid “sometimes fickle societal pressure.”
There’s not much that is off-limits when it comes to comedy. We’ve seen everything from spoofs making fun of racism to sitcoms about Nazis. Sept. 11 may still be off-limits. But we’ve mined pretty much every other element of our culture and history — including religion.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have had their dose of this in a big way with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Tony-award winning musical “The Book of Mormon.”
And it won’t be the last instance of it, because, as with any religion, there are things in the Mormon faith that don’t make much sense to outsiders.
You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever tried to explain the planet Kolob, or the Curse of Cain, or where Mormons believe Native Americans came from, or, yes, the underwear, and seen the dumbfounded looks on non-Mormons’ faces.
And that’s OK. People can believe what they want and they can say what they want, which brings us back to Cross.
I’ve liked a lot of Cross’ comedy going back to the days of “Mr. Show With Bob and Dave,” through his various comedy specials and his role as Tobias Funke on “Arrested Development.” But, especially when it comes to his stand-up act, Cross doesn’t push limits — he smashes through them like the Kool-Aid man.
He did a joke in his 2016 act about God letting so many children die from gun violence so they can be the virgins to service martyred Islamic State terrorists.
Yeah. He goes there.
So putting that into context, Cross doesn’t care if he offends Mormons. They aren’t exactly going to make up the bulk of his audience Wednesday night, anyway, and, if they are, they should brace for a lot more digs than a little swipe at their garments.
What probably happened here was that Cross has had a hard time selling tickets to his upcoming show — plenty of good seats still available! — and figured if he ruffled some Mormon feathers and stirred up a little publicity, he might bring in some more non-Mormons.
Mission accomplished on the first part; we’ll see about the second.
University of Utah President Ruth Watkins made the right call in rejecting demands that they cancel the show and got the reason exactly right: “We acknowledge the free speech rights of individuals and entities who rent university facilities — even those with whom we disagree. By doing so we protect the free speech rights of all,” she said in a statement.
It’s the same argument I made last year when right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro spoke on campus and drew throngs of protesters — that a campus should foster diverse viewpoints and critical thinking.
If people (Mormons or non-Mormons) are offended by what Cross says, that’s fine. If they refuse to pay to go to his show, that would only seem to make sense. If they want to speak up and voice their opposition or anger, they should — it’s still America.
But as long as it is America, people like Cross will push the limits, to shock or entertain or both, and it’s probably best not to let it get your garments in a bunch.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of "Saturday's Voyeur" co-playright Allen Nevins.