Brow Beat

Larry Wilmore on Race, Politics, and Mormonism

Larry Wilmore

Larry Wilmore is most recognizable these days as a “senior black correspondent” on The Daily Show. He was also a writer, producer, and occasional guest star on The Office—and he won an Emmy for The Bernie Mac Show, which he created.

His latest project is a special on Showtime called Larry Wilmore’s Race, Religion, & Sex. It was filmed in Salt Lake City, Utah, and focuses on Mormonism. I spoke with Wilmore about the special on the phone yesterday.

Slate: What inspired this show?

Larry Wilmore: I think Romney’s Mormonism is as unique to this election as Obama’s blackness was in the last election. We’ve never had a Mormon candidate before. It’s a pretty big deal. And a lot of people don’t know about Mormonism—I certainly didn’t know a lot of the details. It’s unfortunate that Romney doesn’t talk about it too much. And he doesn’t have to talk about it. So I thought it would be good to go Salt Lake City. If you’re going to talk about Mormonism, go to the place that’s the heart of it.

Slate: There are a lot of people talking about Mormonism, joking about Mormonism, and what have you. But to actually go to Utah suggests you really want to learn about it.

Wilmore: Yeah. My goal was not just to have an opinion, and then tell jokes proving my opinion. I go to a place and make discoveries and have fun with the discoveries that I make. We had a black member of the LDS Church on the panel. His name is Don Harwell. He’s president of the Genesis Group, an African-American support group for Mormons. You talk about an outlier. It’s a very rare category: a black Mormon conservative. So I thought it would be good to have his voice on the show and hear from him directly, instead of trying to speak for someone like that, and assume we know how they think.

Slate: How long were you able to spend in Salt Lake?

Wilmore: I was there two and a half weeks. Salt Lake City gave me a lot of surprises. How progressive the city actually is, for instance, compared to the rest of Utah—it’s like this purple dot in a sea of red. And the government there is kind of a mix of conservative values and progressive ideas. They have a great public transportation system there. You don’t see any garbage anywhere, they’ve got solar and wind power being used. So I was fascinated by that. And our audience was surprising. We ended up getting a lot of Daily Show fans, I think, and a lot more non-Mormons or ex-LDS came to the show than LDS people. That just happened to be the people who were excited to come out and see us.

Slate: That’s the challenge of dialogue: It’s one thing to want to talk, but you need the other side to come to the table, too.

Wilmore: We had Troy Williams, who was raised LDS and is a gay activist. He talked about the importance of people trying to change it from within—and I thought that was a very powerful.

Wilmore: Did you feel comfortable in Salt Lake?

Slate: Oh absolutely. Mormons are some of the nicest people—that’s the thing. You’re expecting to be uncomfortable, but people are so nice there. And we had mixed feelings about that, like, people can’t be this nice. There must be something else going on here. We’re just jaded.

Slate: Do you have a religious background of your own?

Wilmore: I’m Catholic. I talk a little about it on the show. In my monologue I say that we Catholics share many of the moral guidelines of Mormons, the difference is you guys take it seriously. When the church says something we don’t agree with we say, “Oh don’t be so crazy.” We just laugh it off.

Slate: From one perspective, a lot of what the Mormon Church is going through now is stuff the Catholic Church has gone through before.

Wilmore: Absolutely. We asked the question of the panel: Is the Mormon Church too new? It’s so new that it’s hard for people to accept it. I find those kinds of questions interesting.

Slate: Did you come away with a strong opinion of your own about the Mormon Church’s history with race and what it’s doing now?

Wilmore: You know, I started to learn more things about it, but you’d have to spend more time within the church to really get a sense of where it’s at and where it’s going. I do believe that the Mormon Church is at kind of an awakening now, in two different ways: More people are becoming aware of it, and it’s becoming a force to be reckoned with. There’s a lot of Mormon converts globally now. I think the comparison to Catholicism is a good one because a lot of poor people are joining the church. Catholicism seems to attract a lot of poor people. And with Mormonism becoming more visible now, people of different shades realize that there are Mormons they didn’t know about. I didn’t know Gladys Knight was a Mormon. Who else is a Mormon out there?

Slate: Do you find it difficult to make jokes about religion? Does it pose any special challenge to you as a comic?

Wilmore: I don’t think it’s difficult to make jokes, but it’s all about the point of view that you go in with. If you’re just going in with, “The Mormon Church is racist,” and all your jokes prove that, then you’re kind of limited. But if your point of view is, “I don’t know about the Mormon Church, so now when I find things out, I’ll just make fun of what I learn,” then you open up what kind of things you can make fun of.

Slate: Do you talk about your own faith much?

Wilmore: I’ve mentioned it here and there. I think I’ve mentioned it on the Daily Show a couple times, but very quickly—you know those bits are pretty fast. This is the first time I’ve done it in a more outward way. It’s something I may do more. I kind of enjoyed it, actually.

Slate: Did you feel like you were really able to engage the audience in a serious way?

Wilmore: People were so engaged—they were passionate. We had a couple moments that unfortunately didn’t make the cut; we talked for about two and a half hours, but the show is only an hour long. There were a couple people who just stood up and started yelling things that they were passionate about—and some of them Jeff Garlin made fun of.  I think the audience reaction is going to surprise people, because it was a very progressive audience. But I think people will be entertained by it—and it’ll be provocative, too. I wanted people to feel safe to have their point of view without being attacked—that was a big deal to me, and I think we achieved that.

Slate: There’s a lot of defensiveness on both sides when it comes to topics like this.

Wilmore: Absolutely. And my basic political philosophy is, I ain’t mad at that. Which basically means I don’t have to have a strong opinion about everything. I’m too tired most of the time. Why do I have to take a stand on everything? Sometimes I’m just not mad at it. Like, What do you think about gay marriage? I ain’t mad at you, you’re gay and you’re married: I ain’t mad at you, go do it. I think a lot of people feel that way. And I don’t care if my opinion falls on the right or the left. I’m more of what I call a passionate centrist. I just believe what I believe. I’m not trying to prove anything for the right or the left. Which gives me freedom to make jokes about either side, too.

Slate: That’s probably a good perspective to bring to Salt Lake.

Wilmore: And I don’t want to slam somebody else’s religion. I mean as a Catholic, we’re basically cannibals: We eat Jesus every Sunday, you know? So who am I to say your religion is creepy?