No one comes to General Conference for the jokes. And yet, some of the conference moments I remember most clearly involve laughter. In 1997, after Elder Nelson gave a laudatory talk about President Hinckley, President Hinckley took the stand and said, “I thought we were conducting General Conference. It’s turned out to be a funeral.” He went on to challenge Elder Nelson to a duel in the basement of the Tabernacle. Later in the session, he postponed the duel. It was a fabulous moment in conference history.
What does humor in General Conference do? First, the spiritual tide of General Conference can feel overwhelming at times and humor can break it up, making it easier to be attentive to the rest of the counsel we’re receiving. Second, it can teach a subtle lesson, as with the humility implicit in President Hinckley’s embarrassment at being praised. Third, it can make a story that teaches a lesson more memorable, as when President Tad Callister, at the most recent conference, recounted [and all the links in this post go straight to the laugh-inducing moment, so click with caution] the time his aged mother told him she was delivering food to the elderly, to which Brother Callister thought, “Mother, you are the elderly.” The joke makes the story – fundamentally about lifelong service – stand out more.
With that (limited) justification, I propose the General Conference Mirth Index (yes, it’s the GCMI). To construct it, I listened carefully to the full audio of each session of conference, noting which talks had any laughter. I then re-listened to each of those talks and recorded each instance of laughter. Note that I focus on laughter, not jokes, since whether a line is a joke or not is much more subjective than whether or not a line elicits audible laughter in the conference center. (A more ambitious empiricist might seek to quantify the length or volume of laughter.) I then adjusted for the length of the talk.
Here’s what I found in the most recent General Conference, last October. We didn’t laugh too much. About 40% of talks (two in five) had any laughs at all; that’s 15 talks with laughs in total. There were no laughs during conducting (as in President Hinckley’s challenge above). Among talks that did have laughs, the average was four laughs per talk. The laughs range from one liners (apparently there’s something inherently funny about hearing President Uchtdorf say “Pinterest”) to stories that set up the talk (Elder Allan Packer forgetting to take the cover off his hatchet).
Across sessions, we laughed about 5½ times per hour, although to be frank, the answer to the question: “Which is the least mirthful session of General Conference?” is probably “The session in which President Uchtdorf isn’t speaking.”
Several jokes were made about the new format, with General Authorities speaking in the language of their choice, as when Elder Christofferson opened with “Muy buenos días” or Elder Godoy joked about previously worrying about his accent in English and now worrying about the speed of his Portuguese. Only a couple of jokes didn’t make it into the written record, most notably President Eyring’s comment in Priesthood Session about someone he visited as a youth who kicked beer cans under the sofa and being “not a very likely success.”
So here they are, the 15 talks accompanied by laughter, compiled in the GCMI. Elder Bednar takes the cake with his serial-laugh-inducing story about one of his sons treating the wounds of another. President Uchtdorf, unsurprisingly, stands out with all three of his talks among the five most mirthful (an honor to which he has most likely never aspired).
In the October 1970 General Conference, then-Elder Thomas S. Monson cited a “cardinal principle of industrial management” as “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.” As an indulgent laugher myself, I can only hope that the GCMI improves performance without distracting anyone from the central goals of the assembly.
What moments of mirth do you remember most vividly from General Conferences past? What role do you feel humor plays in General Conference?
Bonus reading on humor and spirituality or the Church
- Lawrence Flake, BYU Professor of Church History, has a legendary Education Week talk on humor in Church history. Many of the anecdotes are included in write-ups from his 2006 and 2010
- James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer, authored the excellent Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I recommend it in great detail here.
Behold the GCMI… General Conference will never be the same!
Sunday Morning has always tried to be the respectable conference session that missionaries and members can invite their friends to and have half a hope they might watch. Since humor often depends on existing bonds, and can alienate others, it probably good that speakers for that session stick to playing it straight.
I like to think that some of the laughter reflects our ability to not take ourselves too seriously. I note that the Sunday AM session, which is sort of directed to visitors, is the least mirthful (we want to be taken as sober and serious when watched by outsiders), whereas the gender-segregated meetings, Priesthood session and the Women’s meeting, are the most mirthful.
Interesting that applause (showing appreciation for a good talk or a good musical number) is not allowed, but laughter (showing appreciation for a good joke) is allowed.
From October 1972, in Elder Faust’s first conference address–sorry, kids, it was funnier back then:
That got nearly 10 seconds of laughter.
And a few lines later:
That got about 3 seconds.
Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of the entire session, but I recall that Pres. Lee got up after Elder Faust’s talk and cautioned that conference was serious business–I couldn’t tell if that was pointed at Elder Faust or at the people who laughed so long, especially at the lawyer joke.
This post is wonderful; thank you so much.
My favorite GC joke:
President Monson: “I’m reminded of the man who walked into a bookstore and asked the clerk—a woman—for help: “Have you got a book titled Man, the Master of Women?” The clerk looked him straight in the eye and said sarcastically, “Try the fiction section!””
As a disinterested youth, I remember being struck by the humor in Elder Haight’s story of playing in his school’s first football game in 1923. Still makes me laugh.
“He went on to challenge Elder Nelson to a duel in the basement of the Tabernacle.” And later on, P. Monson got up and said something like “in light of the forthcoming duel, President Faust and I will be your seconds.”
It’s really too bad that all the conducting humor gets edited out in print, as does some of the other humor. I recall a priesthood session pre-Conference Center, where the air conditioning wasn’t working. P. Hinckley got up and said “It’s hot, Brethren, but not as hot as it will be if you don’t repent.” And then he suggested everyone remove their jackets.
This is brilliant. I am so impressed at the research you did on this, Dave!
I think one of the reasons Hinckley was so beloved (and so missed) was because of his humor. It took him from the pedestal to the human and we loved seeing such a human prophet. Uchtdorf’s popularity probably had some of those elements as well. Laughing makes us feel good and we are endeared to those who make us feel good.
I love this post. Both humor and bar charts are near to my heart, so it’s a beautiful combination.
This isn’t my favorite Conference joke ever, but a recent one I liked was when President Uchtdorf talked about having fallen while on a ski slope in Utah, and how he carefully secured his helmet and goggles to be sure that other skiers wouldn’t recognize him think less of him as they skillfully skied past and greeted him.
The line “He’s breathing my air” from Elder Bednar’s More Concerned and Diligent At Home (October 2009) immediately entered our family lexicon.
I loved the time right after Pres. Monson was called as the Prophet, when he wiggled his ears, as part of a story he was telling. I recall several seconds of laughter.
Surely you jest
There is a real risk after this post that some overzealous audiovisual people at the COB start adding laugh tracks to GW talks – the laughter that ideally should have occurred, ala Poelman
Annie (#11): “I loved the time right after Pres. Monson was called as the Prophet, when he wiggled his ears, as part of a story he was telling. I recall several seconds of laughter.”
It must be watched to be appreciated! https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/examples-of-righteousness?lang=hrv&clang=eng
In that same talk, he also tells the story of a young boy who went up to the podium to bear his testimony, but lost his nerve, returned to his seat, and sat down without saying anything, implying he knew how that young boy felt and saying, sheepishly, “I can’t do that.”
Here’s another one. This, alas, is an unscripted moment of levity; but those, I think, are often the best. Years ago, I remember President Marion G. Romney in the First Presidency giving a masterful discourse on Priesthood power. I mean, it was really good, and he really got into it, but he had to stop midway through because the pages from which he was reading had apparently gotten out of order. (I’m not sure what the state of the art for Teleprompters was at the time, but I doubt his vision was good enough that he could have used one then, anyway. He was silent for several seconds but for the shuffling of pages as he tried to find his place. Finally, he looked up and said, “I don’t have the power to find the pages!” (I’m with you, President Romney!) Granted, I’m just middle aged, but frankly, my vision has never been that good: while I try to be prepared enough to not simply read a prepared text, I don’t like speaking without at least a rough outline of what I’m going to say, and to ensure (as much as possible) that I don’t have a problem finding my place if I need to refer to my notes/text, they’re not in 10- or 12-point font, but, rather, in 14- or even 16-point font!
Not to turn a thread about levity unduly serious, but I appreciate these moments when our leaders, notwithstanding the fact that they are called of God, show us their human side: Such moments give me hope that God might even find ways to use a schlub like me. Other than, perhaps, the magnitude of the call, our leaders aren’t all that much different than the rank-and-file. All of us have been asked to serve; all of us have felt inadequate and have wondered how we can possibly measure up to what we’re being asked to do; and all of us, perhaps with a sigh and a instant prayer, have accepted the call anyway, trusting that God somehow will make of us what He needs us to be in His service. (Incidentally, that reminds me of the reaction of one Elder Steven E. Snow’s ancestors when the ancestor was called to go settle southern Utah, which Elder Snow talked about in General Conference a few years ago. Elder Snow said, “He looked and spat, took off his hat, and said, ‘Alright.'” There! More levity! Hope I haven’t ruined the thread! ;-D)
Crispe News (#14): “There is a real risk after this post that some overzealous audiovisual people at the COB start adding laugh tracks to GW talks – the laughter that ideally should have occurred, ala Poelman.”
Whats “GW”? (Reminds me of the line from the movie, “Big,” where one of the big-wigs at the firm who’s interviewing him for a job asks him where he went to school and he says, “George Washington,” apparently meaning, of course, George Washington Elementary, but the guy thinks he went to George Washington University, and he asks, “Did you pledge?” Hanks’s character says, “Every morning.” [Cue laughter.]
Aaaanyway, I digress
Typo; meant “GA,” NOT GW.
Back in 2001, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin gave a talk that got a couple of good laughs and still makes me smile:
“In my younger days, I loved to run. Although it may be hard for you to believe it, I did. And I did win a few races. I’m not so fast anymore. In fact, I’m not sure how well I would do in a race if the only contestants were the members of the Quorum of the Twelve. [good 7-second laugh]
“My ability to run is not so swift now. While I am looking forward to that future time when, with a resurrected body, I can once again sprint over a field and feel the wind blowing through my hair, [another 5-second laugh] I do not dwell on the fact that I cannot do it now.”
Thanks to everyone for sharing these wonderful stories and thoughts. These are such wonderful, endearing memories.
I’m interested in the Sunday morning low-levity hypothesis. To be measured across multiple conferences! (Coming not-too-soon to a Times & Seasons post near you.)
One other memory from me: I was sitting with my father in our Southern California chapel during the Priesthood Session of the May 1989 GC when President Benson (turning 90 later that year) received scouting’s most prestigious award, the Bronze Wolf. President Benson replied graciously, “May the Lord bless you, and the devil miss you.” Our chapel roared with laughter (and as a snide 13-year-old, I remember thinking, “That wasn’t THAT funny”). I think that now, I would have laughed.
I can’t wait to see the next in the series, Dave. It is interesting that Sunday AM seems to be understood as the Somber Session. Never noticed that before.
I hope you weighted the results to account for the quantitative differences between between gut-busters, belly laughs, cackles, guffaws, chuckles, and faint-almost-pity-laughs. There’s a whole spectrum of laughter that needs to be properly documented.
In his talk “Come What May and Love It,” (https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/10/come-what-may-and-love-it) Elder Wirthlin recounted some funny incidents from his life, as when his daughter thought her blind date had arrived, and she didn’t discover until she got in his car that her “date” was the married man who had come to pick up her sister to babysit.
I remember another unscripted moment of humor from many years ago which happened at the end of a rather warm (and therefore potentially sleep-inducing) afternoon session. President Monson (then a counselor in the FP) got up to announce the closing hymn, which was “Awake, Ye Saints of God, Awake!” When the audience responded with laughter, he was momentarily taken aback, and then got the joke :)
I enjoy the laughter, President Hinckley so loved I think in part cause he was funny. but on a side note does anyone recall the priesthood session talk spring of 03 by Monson recalling a navy guy being picked on for praying and I swear.. pun intended that he said that some “Had kicked the Ass” of the guys giving the guy praying a hard time.