I did something quite adventurous last month: I got a library card. (Pause for laugh track…and continue--) The first book I read was by Phil Rosenthal, the creator of one of my favorite sitcoms, “Everybody Loves Raymond.” I’ve seen most episodes more than once, and they still make me laugh. The book documents how many of those zany, hysterical, and sometimes improbable situations in the show were largely inspired by the creator’s own loud Jewish family. Halfway into my reading, I started thinking competitively: “What about my childhood!? Weren’t we crazy enough back home to inspire a sitcom?” I’d like to think so.
“Latter-Day Sitcom” (LDS, for short…of course) would be a half hour, multi-camera, family comedy inspired by my life. (Think “Little House on the Prairie” meets “Family Ties.”) It would be groundbreaking! I mean really, what’s out there for Mormons as far as comedy goes? A few irrelevant polygamy jokes…and that’s about it. If people only knew how relatable our relative insanity actually is!
I once heard my dad say that you should always lock your car when you go to a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or it might be filled with zucchinis by the time you get back. In short, that’s the kind of supportive community I grew up in: full of service, love, and food.
Truthfully, I should be more specific when I say “food.” While my family always had a garden, just like our pioneer ancestors before us, our house was also stocked with plenty of processed sugar. On any given morning, there were about six different breakfast cereals to satisfy the ever-changing appetites of five children and two adults. Most of the cereal boxes could barely stand up since they had been destroyed on the day of purchase by eager hands trying to find the cereal’s hidden toy.
In addition to the sugar cereals, our household single handedly kept Hostess bakery prospering during the 90s. You name it: Twinkies, Cupcakes, Ho-Ho’s, Ding Dongs, all delicious additions to our pantry shelves. This kind of nutritional controversy was bound to create waves in a small farm town like mine. I remember once my mom was asked to watch a couple of neighborhood kids on a Saturday afternoon, and while they were at our house, we all had peanut butter and honey sandwiches on white Wonder bread with Doritos on the side. They seemed particularly happy, but we didn’t think anything of it until their own mother showed up, and the first words out of the children’s mouths were, “MOM, GUESS WHAT WE ATE!?”
Yes, in a conservative town that size, we were brimming with fascinating stock characters. The congregation I attended growing up always sported its fair share of mullets (surprisingly from women). Still, that’s not to say we were without culture. To be honest, my life could also be accurately portrayed in variety show form.
Every year, each congregation, or ward, was in charge of putting together their own “Road Show,” or mini-musical that was performed on one evening with all the other shows from the LDS wards in the area. There was usually a theme. One year it was “Colors”; another year it was “Fairy Tales: The Rest of the Story.” That year, I played the Frog Prince; my older sister was Dorothy Gale. Turns out Dorothy’s “ruby slippers” had been defective and lead her through various fairy tales on her way back to Kansas. Long story short, my sister had to kiss me on the cheek…in front of people…I was mortified…a mortified Mormon.
My family came to be known as the family that sang together, like the Mormon Von Trapps. Wait, I guess the Osmonds were the Mormon Von Trapps, so we were more like the Osmonds. In any case, we frequently sang together as a family. For example, my mom and dad created a family tradition by taking us Christmas Caroling to the widows of our hometown during the holidays. My brother, always humiliated to be accompanying me, would take along his guitar, and we’d all sing a little “Silent Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” And if those widows were lucky, I’d throw out a show-stopping rendition of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” complete with optional notes and choreography. Oh yeah, my sisters were there, too.
In fact, I always got along great with my three sisters, as long as I wasn’t making them cry. We’d put on shows, play Nintendo, swim in Grandpa’s reservoir. We had a grand old time. The more bankable comedy of my childhood was found in my relationship with my brother. We shared many of the same interests: music, tennis, church, but we couldn’t have been more different. To begin with, he’s about six years older than me. In addition, when he was playing Pink Floyd on his guitar, I was blasting the score of Beauty & the Beast. You get the idea… Still, there are a couple of times that I remember hanging out with him.
The first was playing Nerf basketball in his room. I truly felt honored that he had asked me, because, after all, he could have asked my older sister. But, seeing that she was taller than him, I think he picked me out of pride. Anyway, I went downstairs to his room to begin the game. There wasn’t much space, but the plastic hoop was firmly attached to the door, and the sponge-like basketball was ready to dunk. After playing a handful of points, he told me that we needed to take a break and “juice up.” He retreated to his dresser, and stared at a picture of his then 6th grade girlfriend. By staring at her, he somehow regained the energy to continue playing. Not really grasping the concept, I followed suit by staring at a picture of Jesus.
When my brother turned sixteen and got his driver’s license, he then became a hot commodity to me. He was another person who could take me to my clogging events! I remember one event in particular during a summer when the Olympics were on. My clogging team was sponsoring a barbeque at someone’s house, and since I was the youngest on the team, and one of only two boys at the studio, my parents made my brother chaperone for the evening. I don’t remember much that happened. I know there was a pool. We brought hamburger patties to grill, and he and his Oakley sunglasses spent most of the time on a lounge chair while I swam. He didn’t even bring a swimsuit. Loser. Now, I didn’t do anything to provoke him, but as I was splashing around, he suddenly got up from his chair, tore his shirt off, and jumped into the pool wearing only his cut-off jeans. Flashing a smile to the ladies, he started to tickle and throw me around the pool while all of the girls giggled and sighed. And though I was far from adolescence, I distinctly remember thinking, “What the Hell?”
I think those would make pretty good scenes. Still, the best sitcom episodes are usually born out of tragedy, (“Chuckles Bites the Dust,” from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and it is no different for my family. The day my father passed away was a long one, for many reasons, but that evening proved especially unforgettable. I’ll paint the picture for you:
The house is quiet. There is a still, solemn air prevailing in the living room. Our bishop comes over to make sure everything is ok and to possibly start talking about funeral plans. (Which was great…it was nice to feel the support of a church leader.) So, while he is in the living room, the doorbell rings. It’s a woman from church, holding a casserole. (It was one of those classy Utah entrees with cream of something soup and canned green beans. Still, very kind of her...) Then, I hear another knock on the door: the local florist with a delivery. How nice. My big sister takes off to the kitchen to make room in the refrigerator for the casserole, I put the flowers by the fireplace, and Mom is still talking to the bishop. Doorbell rings. It’s another dear lady from the church, bringing a dish of lasagna and Jell-O for dessert. (It’s always Jell-O, by the way.) So, my sister starts clearing more room in the fridge. I say thank you, and as she leaves, the florist dude comes back with something else he found in the delivery van. Beautiful. I set it next to the other one by the fireplace. (How had all these people already found time to make food and order floral arrangements!?)
“Hello!!” (Now they’re just yelling into the house, because I haven’t had time to close the door.) It’s an older couple working as missionaries. I’ve never met them, so I take a message for my mom, who is now deciding which uncle should say the benediction at the funeral. By now, my youngest sister has begun to develop an allergic reaction to the new potted plant that was just discovered sitting at the back door. As she sneezes uncontrollably, the phone starts to ring, which terrifies our cat, who decides to cope with all the madness by vomiting on the carpet. All the meanwhile, my older sister still hasn’t found a place in the refrigerator for the lasagna, so we decide to eat it. By eleven o’ clock, I am laying on the floor in the living room, with my feet up on the couch like a pregnant woman. The bishop looks down at me and says, “You look tired.” I say,
“Charity is exhausting.”
You know, the reason “Raymond” will still be funny and relevant in twenty years is because we know those characters. After all, it’s just about a family hashing out life over a dinner table. But what matters is the audience cares about who’s sitting at that table. And when you care about them, you care about what happens to them, and that’s where comedy is born.
It kind of gives hope to storytelling, doesn’t it? Everyone has a story. The whole world is filled with stories to tell. Personally, I think mine is golden. But then again, I know the characters sitting at the dinner table, and I love them.
Here’s to all of our shows! May they run in syndication for years to come. As long as they’re filled with those you care about, they’re bound to be classics.