A 1989 article in The Mennonite Encyclopedia about humour by a former editor of mine Katie Funk Wiebe, says that humour has not been a traditional feature of Mennonite culture. The church’s history of persecution, a preoccupation with schismatic activity, and more recently the pursuit of social justice have required a serious honest faith and life that left no room for humourous stories with their use of fiction, hyperbole and satire.
Katie Funk Wiebe cites leaders of various Mennonite denominations who admonished their members about the perils of jesting and joking and laughing. She does note in her article however that things are changing and Mennonites seem to be more open to poking fun at themselves.
The proof of that change, and it’s been a huge one, was on dramatic display Friday night when I attended an event at McNally Robinson Booksellers called Mennonites Laughing featuring Andrew Unger, Armin Wiebe and Corny Rempel.
Andrew is the author of the novel Once Removed which won the prize for Best First Novel at the Manitoba Book Awards last year. In January Turnstone Press published his The Best of the Bonnet a collection of posts from Andrew’s hugely popular blog The Daily Bonnet.
In his writing, Andrew comments in a humorous way on many aspects of Mennonite life. On Friday night when questioned about whether the joke or the plot comes first in his writing process he said for his novel he planned the plot first but with his Daily Bonnet posts the joke is definitely what comes first and once he has that figured out the articles almost write themselves.
Armin Wiebe a former winner of the Manitoba Book of the Year award has written five published novels. Four are set in the same fictional Mennonite community. He has also published a book of short stories called Armin’s Shorts and written two plays.
In an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press just before the first stage production of one of those plays Armin said we misjudge Mennonites if we see them as humourless or serious. In reality, he says they love to laugh, tell jokes and do crazy things.
On Friday night there was some joking about whether Armin might be confused with a much more serious Mennonite writer who shares Armin’s last name- Rudy Wiebe. We also witnessed Armin’s ability to create humour when he made a deprecating remark about marriage which had his wife popping up to question him from the audience.
Mennonites Laughing was ably hosted by the comedian Corny Rempel who is also a popular radio show host and world-renowned Elvis Presley impersonator.
A highlight of the evening was his performance of the Elvis hit Blue Suede Shoes in both English and Low German.
There was a full house for the Mennonites Laughing evening at McNally Robinson Booksellers. Because I recognized so many people I know the majority of them were Mennonites ready to listen to someone make fun of their culture and faith. They loved all the joking, jesting and laughter clearly proving that it is definitely time for The Mennonite Encyclopedia to update its entry about humour.