When you think of sketch comedy, the Mormon Church may not be the first thing that springs to mind. With the huge popularity of the play The Book of Mormon, you might think of the church as more of a punch line. A new documentary is changing that by following a sketch group called “Studio C” based in Provo, Utah. It's made up of practicing Mormons, with oversight from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Juliet Werner is the filmmaker behind the new documentary The Laughter Life, which debuts on Saturday, Aug. 27 at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. Werner, who is also a producer at The Daily Show, spoke with VPR about the documentary and Studio C.
Does Studio C’s humor translate for secular audiences? Is it funny?
“It is actually funny,” Werner says. “They kind of produce a variety of things. They tape weekly so you can kind of picture it as a Saturday Night Live-type schedule: They come in, they pitch ideas, they do some writing, they have sort of a grueling rehearsal schedule and then by Friday they're ready for taping.”
But Studio C sketches are a little different than what you’d see on Saturday Night Live, Werner says.
“They were doing a sketch while I was there, kind of based off of the idea of Christian Bale playing Moses,” Werner explains, “and the basic idea was that Christian Bale was unable to do anything other than his Batman voice. So this is a sketch that a secular audience could definitely follow. But in writing the sketch, the way they riffed off of that with these Old Testament jokes … that's where they sort of veered off into territory that I would not have observed at, say, The Daily Show or Upright Citizens Brigade or The Onion.”
“They start with a premise that is sort of mainstream comedy but then where their minds go, it's just certainly very different,” says Werner.
On the relationship between Studio C and the LDS Church:
“I think when it comes down to it they're trying to make clean comedy,” Werner says. “They're trying to walk this line between comedy that they would find funny and also that the church will approve of. They may be inspired to do a parody of Breaking Bad, but they understand that Breaking Bad is not a show widely consumed by the members of the LDS Church. So they may take some risks with the understanding that the church may take issue with it down the line.”
“The church wants to make sure that this is something that would be family-appropriate, something that, you know, a 10-year-old could watch,” she says. “The group members themselves are very invested in having it be clean comedy, but they'd also like it to be something that their peers could enjoy it.”
On the influence the community in Provo, Utah has on Studio C:
In the film, Werner presents this idea of the “Provo bubble,” a nod to the devout city — Provo, Utah — where the group is based. Warner says backlash from the community is “a constant question in their minds.”
“I think they’re pretty closely watched, so that by the time it goes to air these sketches have been reviewed by [BYUtv, the channel show airs on, operated and funded by Brigham Young University] closely,” Werner explains. “As they're writing they're constantly asking themselves, 'Will we get angry letters?' This is just a constant question in their minds, in a way that I don't see happening at The Daily Show. Obviously, all entertainment can receive backlash, but they are very aware of how their comedy will be received.”
Can clean comedy be funny?
In the documentary, Werner explores the larger question: Can clean comedy be funny?
Can a group like Studio C be able to take the kind of risks that are so important to making good comedy? Werner says yes.
“I think it absolutely can be,” Werner says. “You find that because certain things are considered off limits they stay away from those — so you're not going to see a sex sketch, you're not going to see mentions of pornography — but there is the ability to kind of play with dark humor. So there’s a sketch they have right now that’s very popular called 'Scott Sterling,' where this soccer goalie is just being beaten by the soccer ball again and again and again. It's interesting how sex is off limits but a bloody face is totally fine.”
“Feeling like an outsider always seems to be a breeding ground for comedic minds,” says Werner, “and I think in that way you see how as single people — there are a few in the group who are still single —that sort of outsider status if you will yields some interesting comedy in my opinion.”
Werner’s documentary, The Laughter Life, will show at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, at 10:30 a.m. at the Marquis Theatre.