Years ago, noted actor Dustin Hoffman played the role of Shylock in a Broadway production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." That generated a certain amount of controversy, given the fact that "The Merchant of Venice" is a decidedly anti-Semitic play. Shylock is nothing but a collection of hoary Jewish stereotypes, as well as a melodramatic stock villain a la Snidely Whiplash. It's not hard to imagine audiences in Shakespeare's day booing and hissing at him as he performed the Elizabethan equivalent of tying a damsel in distress to the railroad tracks.
But Hoffman, himself Jewish, was lauded for performing the role in a way that turned Shylock into a three-dimensional person, generating a degree of sympathy for the character and his cultural plight. Ever since then, every production of "The Merchant of Venice" has taken a similar approach, which is entirely appropriate. Modern audiences, to their credit, refuse to tolerate ignorant slander of groups of people because of their race or religion.
There is, however, at least one glaring exception.
I was watching a late night rerun of "The Simpsons," in which Homer and his family find themselves in an indoor play place, with a huge slide that leads to a dark hole in the ground. "Where does that slide go?" Bart asks. The answer comes as we follow a young boy down the slide as it empties into a room filled with dead-eyed children wearing white shirts and ties and standing in rows. The boy finds himself wearing a white shirt and tie, too, and he hears a voice over a loudspeaker saying, "Welcome to the Mormon Church, America's most respectable cult."
Cue uproarious laughter.
My guess is that, unless you've seen that particular episode, this is the first you're hearing about this snotty little dig at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The broadcast was not followed by protests or outrage. Members of the church who saw it took it in stride. I wonder if the same thing would've been true if Shylock–style stereotypes were hauled out of mothballs for a throwaway sitcom gag. There's really no way of knowing, because no producer would ever do something so disrespectful to the Jewish community, and furthermore, no audience would find it funny. But when the Mormons are the butt of the joke, laughing is acceptable and indignation is absent.
If you doubt that, look no further than the Broadway stage, where an extraordinarily vulgar musical portraying Mormons as deluded, albeit well-intentioned imbeciles is the toast of New York, hauling in big box office and winning hordes of prestigious awards.
My point is not to lobby for Mormon victim status. To the contrary, there's something positive about the fact that Mormons are now considered worthy of ridicule and no longer ignored. It's also a credit to members of my church that the specter of violence is never raised when Mormons are mocked like this.
At the same time, I wonder if the people who would recoil at Shylock but laugh heartily at a performance rife with Mormon caricatures even notice the double standard. I would hope so, but I also know that it took hundreds of years before Shylock stopped being funny.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.