Mormon Talk Show

by Melvin Leavitt

Editorial Assistant

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    What’s black and white and read all over; fat and skinny; writes songs; tells jokes; plays the guitar and harmonica; imitates locomotives; has ten legs, a Ph.D., a testimony, and sings?

    Give up? It’s the cast of the Mormon talk show in Preston, Idaho. It’s Marvin Payne, who writes songs, sings, and plays the guitar and harmonica; the D’s—Dick Davis and Duane Hiatt—who do too; Alan Cherry, a black member who is a very funny comedian; and Truman Madsen, a Ph.D. who is a professor at BYU and a popular lecturer. As for the fat and skinny, Duane thinks Dick is fat, and Dick thinks Duane is skinny, as they reminded each other all night long.

    Their audience was more than a thousand seminary students and their parents, who filled the local high school gymnasium bleachers and spilled over onto the playing floor.

    The guests spent most of the first half of the evening fielding questions from the audience and voicing their feelings about the gospel, their brothers, and themselves.

    Then it was concert time. Alan Cherry came bounding out on the floor in the blue and yellow, caped costume of Zero Power, the “super doofus,” the man who never wins, the champion of all the nobodies of the world. He dedicated the evening to all the nobodies in the audience. “I don’t want you to stand up,” he said, “because I don’t want the people to spot you. But just in your hearts all over, feel good.” He then went on to do a hilarious interpretation of what might have happened if Adam had acted like a modern man.

    Marvin Payne followed Alan, singing a selection of his songs, including the popular “Ships of Dust.” He sang one song, “You Are My Reason to Be Here,” which he had written especially for the occasion. He explained that the you in the song referred to the Lord.

    His songs are uniquely LDS, and he sings with a sincerity that brings the audience right into the song, whether it’s slow or fast, happy or sad. Blessed with a fine voice and skill as a lyricist and composer, which could probably earn him a lot of money if he would sing the kind of songs the world wants to hear, Marvin concentrates on gospel themes, as became clear in his presentation. He also led the audience in a sing-along.

    Then the D’s blew on in their usual whirlwind style, tossing out songs and jokes like a Primary party Santa Claus tosses out candy canes. They did a series of frontier songs about women, a gaggle of train songs (that’s when Dick did his locomotive imitation), and other toe-tappers. There was also a sketch in which they imagined what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark paddling along in the same canoe—except that Lewis and Clark probably didn’t paddle with guitars! Perhaps the high spot of their performance was a little thing called “Big Bad Jog” about a fat man who became a human drain plug to save his companions from drowning in the sauna bath.

    The evening ended softly as Marvin sang a special arrangement of “I Am a Child of God,” and then everyone joined in singing the traditional version. When the last note faded, and for moments afterward, the audience was silent as if there was nothing to say but a lot to think about.

    When the silence finally was broken, there was a wave of happy chatter and on top of it a froth of comments like “great,” “fantastic,” “outasight.” These young people were obviously happy to be there, happy to be LDS, and happy to have met some intelligent and talented men who were happy to be LDS too.

    Much of the success of the evening can be attributed to the format, which allowed the audience to get to know these fine Latter-day Saints on a more personal basis and to understand their philosophies before seeing them as performers. This gave them great insight into the performances. To help you share the experience, here are some of the questions asked and the answers given:

    Q. Why do you sing the kind of songs you do?

    Marvin Payne: I believe that most people who are sincerely involved in artistic expression write or sing about the things that are important to them. The gospel is important to me—I think it’s something to stomp your feet and clap your hands about—so that’s why I write about the gospel. The reason we use images and so forth, the reason that we even use songs instead of just talking about the gospel all the time, is that we hear about various elements of the plan of salvation so often in precisely the same words that we become kind of dulled to the truths that are there.

    Let me give you an example. When I was about nine years old, my older sister was a senior in high school, and I used to wonder what all those guys who came around knocking on the door could possibly see in her. They’d ask, “Is your sister here?” and I’d say, “Well, yeah, but why?” We saw so much of each other that there was a veil of familiarity drawn across my eyes so I couldn’t really see her. When she got married—which really amazed me—and moved away, she was taken right out of that old familiar context and plunged into a new one. Then I used to ride my bike across town all the time just to visit her and help her with stuff around the house. She was the same person and had the same qualities, the same beauties, but now all of a sudden I could see her. The veil of familiarity had been ripped off.

    So when we write a song that talks about our bodies as though they were ships of dust (which they really are), voyaging through the night waters of mortality, well, then we’re talking about something very familiar, the idea of a pre-earth life and coming down here into this mortal probation, and we’re putting it into new clothes. We’re not taking the truth and trying to cover it up and challenge you to dig away and find it under all that stuff. We’re just trying to put it in some different terms and some different packages and maybe rip off the veil of familiarity that may have been drawn across it because of the many times we’ve heard about it.

    No matter how tired we might get of hearing the Sunday School teacher talk about faith, it’s still an enriching and enlivening gift we can receive from our Father in heaven. And so it’s been talked about, and so we sing about it.

    Q. It’s been said that the only black person who would want to join the Church would be the sort of person with no leadership ability. You haven’t impressed me as being that kind of a person at all. I believe you made a statement in your book that it’s not important who leads into the kingdom of heaven; what’s important is who gets there. Would you amplify that a little more?

    Alan Cherry: I’ve noticed that a lot of people feel that the best way to be in life is to have power over other people, telling them what to do, to be the man on top and say, “Hey you, pick that up! Move it over there!” That’s a lot better than being told, “Hey you, stupid! Pick it up! Move it over there,” and being the one who has to move it. But what I sense in the gospel is a system of power, which the Savior seems to exemplify, that induces people to cooperate toward a meaningful end, and the way in which the Lord does it is not by an over-display of power but by a magnificent sacrifice that opens up compassion in our hearts.

    This man who walked the earth officially for only three years has influenced the world so much that roughly two thousand years later people are saying they’re for him or against him in so many definite ways that it’s got to be impressive. And that was just under three years, without trying to beat people up, become elected mayor of Jerusalem, or make a law that they had to worship him or elect him forever or something. He did it by just being the kind of individual he was and working in his own way. That kind of power impresses me.

    We’re all in a family. Our relationship on earth doesn’t make that much difference as long as we’re going forward in the direction we’re supposed to be going in and interacting toward a good conclusion. I could care less whether I’m a general or whether I’m directing anybody else, because in the theory of the Lord’s use of power, having a leader doesn’t mean I have somebody who tells me what to do; it means I have someone who helps me get to where I want to go, and someone I help to where he wants to go. We need each other. So we’re both going together, not taking advantage of each other. And that celestial theory makes everything beneficial. It’s only the worldly idea that says it’s better to be involved in leadership because eventually somebody’s going to take advantage of somebody else. That theory is out when it comes to dealing with the Lord. It’s a matter of faith. If you have faith, then you perceive it, and you can believe it, and you can look forward to having that kind of leadership relationship that means you’re not going to be abused in the long run. If you don’t have the faith, then you tend to question it.

    Q. If a friend has had a lot of problems at home and elsewhere and is always depressed, what can we do to cheer him up?

    Truman Madsen: I have two responses. Number one, there are certain kinds of medical problems that can cause depression, and the best way to handle that is to get some careful medical attention.

    But when you are in balance medically, you can still have terrible discouragement, depression, and even despair. That’s where the gospel comes in.

    There’s a hospital in New York called a foundling hospital that cares for orphaned infants. Their mortality rate some years ago was unbelievable. About two out of three died, no matter what the directors and doctors did in terms of constant surveillance, medical care, all the things that you do to keep a child alive. Two out of three still died.

    And then they discovered a ward in that hospital where all of these little kids were flourishing. There was a light in their eyes; they would eat instead of ignore their food; they smiled and gooed, and their crying wasn’t a chronic sick cry. It was a “let you know what is needed” cry.

    They couldn’t understand why these children were so hale and hearty—until they discovered old Anna, not a nurse but a washwoman. A huge, older woman, she would strap (she knew she shouldn’t, but she waited till nobody was watching) a little baby on each hip, and then while she was working along she would cluck, and put a hand under each baby’s head, and say nice things.

    These children lived because they were loved! The others died because they weren’t. Love is a matter of life and death, and you’d better believe it! The only way, ultimately, that you can lift a person who is deep in depression to a sense of his potential and to a balanced view of life is to love him. And sometimes the people who need it the most are the least lovable. That’s the challenge of the gospel. Christ loved them all and was willing to suffer for them. And once you begin to comprehend that if no one else in the whole universe cares about you, He does, you begin to get hold of that reality, and then the Spirit of God, which is the power of love, begins to generate a new person. So I say, among a lot of other things, if you want to help a person who is depressed, love him! That’s the beginning and maybe the end.

    Q. What does Jesus Christ mean to you?

    Duane Hiatt: Jesus Christ means to us—everything—life eternal. Not just out there, not just pie-in-the-sky life eternal, but life eternal here. Jesus means to us that we say a prayer before we come on stage each time. We don’t pray that we’ll be the most talented, glorious, funny, handsome entertainers on the stage, but we do pray that whatever we do on stage will be pleasing in his sight and that the people who come to see us will be brought closer to him.

    Jesus is very real to us. Jesus to us doesn’t mean “What can we do in the great hereafter?” He means “Where do we go on our show next time? Is somebody waiting out there to hear from us?” He means “How do we conduct our private lives?” He means “Do we sing mainly in night clubs and do the kinds of songs they want to hear there, which would be the smart thing to do financially, or do we sing to groups like this, which isn’t very smart financially” but we felt he wanted us to. So these are some of the things that Jesus means to us—a very personal Savior and Christ.

    Photos by Craig A. Larsen