Friday, August 10, 2012

Joanna Brooks on The Daily Show

When I got up this morning, knowing what was on my DVR, I was almost giddy with anticipation.  Two of my favorite people on earth (neither of whom I've ever met, or am ever likely to meet), were going to be on television together!  Yay!  Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl, on the Daily Show, being interviewed by Jon Stewart.  Couldn't wait.

Okay, The Book of Mormon Girl is Brooks' account of growing up Mormon in Orange County California, her education at BYU, her coming-of-age as an intellectual and liberal, her dismay over problematic issues in Mormon history and over the Church's involvement with, among other conservative causes, the Prop 8 campaign in California, and the way she eventually found a balance, found a way she could be herself, committed to progressivism and social justice, but also at home, spiritually, as a Mormon.  It's a lovely book, funny and smart and achingly honest.  Sad and profound and simple and real.  It's one of my favorite memoirs ever.  And it's made Joanna Brooks something of a spokeswoman for Mormonism.

I don't know of you're aware of this, but a Mormon is running for President.  I mean, who knew?  Right now, apparently, even as we speak.  And, you know, official spokespeople, for the Church or for any other large public entity, that carefully modulated institutional voice of officialdom, that's not so much what anyone wants anymore.  Offical statements are seen as inauthentic, are seen as spin.  It's interesting to me how a conservative Mormon is running for President, and the people the media want to talk to about him are liberal Mormons.  It was so interesting on The Daily Show when Brooks said, about gay Mormons, something frankly innocuous ('there are gay Mormons and we don't to lose them') the audience cheered.

And The Daily Show.  I adore The Daily Show.  Jon Stewart's only real allegiance is to the Church of Funny, but within the world of politics and media and the media's coverage of politics, he finds a rich rich vein of Funny.  He's our Aristophanes.  And I know Jon's interviews are oft-criticized, but they're often my favorite parts of the show.  He finds great books to read and talk about, and when he talks to the authors of those books, he's clearly read the book, he's clearly interested in engaging its author in conversation, somethings challenging, sometimes laudatory.  I respect and admire that about him.

Jon Stewart stands for something.  In part, what he stands for is the satiric tradition, that essential requirement of any free society, that we get to mock those in power, that we get to laugh at human pretention, that laughter and sunshine are the best combined disinfectant.  He's Jonathan Swift, he's Mark Twain.  But he's also an intelligent and decent man, with a genuine interest in public policy, informed by a strong moral sense.

And Joanna Brooks stands for something to, in Mormon culture.  In part, she stands for the Eugene England strain in our culture, the deeply committed faithful intellectual. But she's a satirist in her own right--nowhere is her book more brilliant than in the passages about the Marie Osmond beauty secrets book she received as a Christmas present one year.  And she's an ardent and committed feminist.  She stands for equality, in the best sense of that word. 

So the fact that Joanna Brooks was on The Daily Show was sort of more important than anything either of them said.  And Jon seemed genuinely respectful of both her book and her position in Mormon culture.  I think there was more to it, though, than respect.  Jon seemed to spend a lot of time comparing Mormonism and Judaism, as though he was comparing her childhood to the resources he has as a Jewish father, for his own children.  At times, he seemed almost wistful, especially when she talked about LDS dance festivals.

It might have sounded a little condescending to some.  Jon seemed at times to be saying 'you're a young religion, and as a representative of a very old religion, here's where you are, here's how you need to evolve.'  I don't know when I've heard Jon talk about himself as a Jew quite so much.  But I thought he was actually trying to get a different, better sense of Mormonism as a faith.

Jon Stewart has certainly mocked Mormons from time to time.  Well, he's mocked some Mormons, Mitt Romney, Harry Reid in particular.  They're his favorite targets, politicians and especially politicians as wooden as Romney. (Earlier on the show, for example, he made fun of the Romney campaign, a frequent target).  Did his conversation with Joanna Brooks serve as a kind of mea culpa, an apology?  Maybe.  But what I saw was a smart and thoughtful conversation between two great people.  Made for a great night of television.


  1. I love Jon Stewart; I'm Jewish, and the interview made me extremely uncomfortable. I'll have to think some more about "why". I also was raised Jewish, went to BYU for a MSW, live in Utah.Thanks for your insights, though!

  2. I am in Canada, and the Internet, while it allows me to log on, won't allow me to watch anything American. So, even though I am an Amazon Prime member, I cannot stream the second season of Downton Abbey (and I know you can understand how frustrating that is!!!!) and when I tried to stream the Jon Stewart show, I was informed that I could only watch this in the Good Ol' US of A. sigh. I can't wait til Sunday evening, when I have crossed to border back into the land of the "able to watch American shows" again. Thanks for this bit... I am also giddy with anticipation!!!
    Carol Watson

  3. Great response to a great interview. I've always thought that while Stewart has mocked Mormons in the public arena, he has typically been very gentle with Mormonism itself. I even recall him spending an entire segment defending Mormonism against evangelical accusations of not being Christians when that was part of the news cycle. I thought it was great that his response was something like "Not Christians? Somebody really needs to see The Book of Mormon!" (Which is especially fantastic in contrast with the standard member response "You really need to _read_ the Book of Mormon!") It seems like he latched onto the idea of making any comedic treatment of the subject more celebratory than derisive when Trey Parker and Matt Stone came on and argued that their play was really a loving homage to a culture that completely fascinates them. It has made me feel more comfortable with our position in American culture, as long as we don't take ourselves too seriously. If only there was a cultural and religious example we could look to that applied Joanna's model of owning various degrees of orthodoxy within its identity AND was survivalistically self-deprecating...

  4. I have watched the interview a few times now. The sheer joy of watching two smart people interact in a positive manner, about something I love deeply, and struggle to love, was thrilling. Thanks for bringing it to mind again this morning. I enjoy your blog.

  5. In a "Small World" moment, my husband (who is a new convert) watched the interview when he got home from a business trip, and he recognized Joanna from when he was growing up. Since he knew a number of LDS families, even if he was NOT worrying about rootbeer or Coke, he was at several of the same activities. In an extreme compliment to Joanna and me, Scott said she was almost as interesting to talk to as I am. (Scott never comments on the way women look. He compares everyone based on intelligence and whether talking to that person can keep his attention. He is very intelligent, and completely lacking in the social graces to tolerate inane conversation.)

    My two favorite moments were:

    When John said that really we are all the same sh$@&eads underneath, and that he would say it because she/we wouldn't.

    When Joanna explained that the gospel teaches us to ask hard questions, and that outlook helps LDS members to ask and answer hard questions throughout life.

    My one disappointing moment came in the online "extra" video when Joanna said 80% were Republicans and 20% were Democrats. I was disappointed that she didn't address the fact that there are lots of members who are independents, libertarians, socialists and non-affiliated voters.

    All told, it was a great interview, from both Joanna and John!