SALT LAKE CITY — If the world seems a little drearier today, grumpier, taking itself more serious, well, there’s a reason.
Robert Kirby just wrote his last column and put away his pen.
Kirby didn’t die. But he’ll turn 68 this summer and, as he said this month in his farewell column in the Salt Lake Tribune, “I have far more time behind me than I do ahead,” and there are other projects he wants to pursue after spending the past three-plus decades poking fun at himself and the rest of us.
Of course, you didn’t have to be a Tribune subscriber to know Robert Kirby. The state has produced few writers with a wider reach — his columns have been reproduced in no less than seven books — and fewer yet who could size up the dominant culture so expertly and humorously. He was the state’s poet laureate smack talker, quoted in bars and priesthood meetings alike.
Like all great humorists, from Will Rogers to Dave Barry and all in between, pretty much everything was fair game for Kirby. In Utah that meant taking aim more often than not at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or more precisely its practitioners, a group that included, importantly, himself.
When he was just getting started, back in the 1990s, he wrote a column about people asking him if he was afraid of church leaders because of some of the things he was writing.
His answer: No, he wasn’t afraid of church leaders “because they’re old. I could beat up President Hinckley if I wanted to.”
He braced for the public outrage to such heresy, for card-carrying, recommend-holding Latter-day Saints to heat up the tar and feathers — and it didn’t come. All he got was a summons from his stake president, who felt it was his duty to chastise him for saying he could beat up the prophet. Kirby answered, “Yeah, I can,” and that ended that conversation.
Still, he decided to write a letter to President Gordon B. Hinckley explaining himself:
“Dear President Hinckley, I wrote that I could beat you up. I hope you understand I was just trying to make a joke. It’s my job at the Tribune to be funny and I didn’t really mean it the way it sounded.”
Then he added a P.S.: “I think I could still beat up the pope.”
A few weeks later, Kirby opened his mail and found a letter from church headquarters. It was from President Hinckley’s executive secretary, who wrote: “I’ve discussed this matter with the president. He wishes to assure you that he is not offended. Good luck. Have fun.”
“That really impressed me about President Hinckley,” says Kirby. “Not only did it show he had a good sense of humor, but if you’re going to be the prophet to millions of people you need to be smart enough not to put your name on a letter to an idiot.”
Kirby discovered that not only could the populace take a joke, they could enjoy it. Most of them anyway.
“I set about teasing Mormons as much as I could,” he said. “I decided early on the rules I was going to use when writing about the church. The first one, OK, you don’t make fun of sacred things. The second one, you don’t challenge general authorities on what they say, because it’s their job to lead and guide the church and it’s not my job to make their job harder. Other than those two things, I gave myself carte blanche to say whatever I wanted, so I wrote about everything.”
It helped that no one was the butt of more jokes in Kirby’s columns than Kirby. Raised in a devout Latter-day Saint home, from an early age he observed the nuances and the ironies of the culture — often from a timeout bench in the corner.
“I was an unruly child,” he said. “If I got bored you were in trouble, so I had to develop some coping skills and one of the things was to keep myself entertained so I could tolerate the suffocating environment that I was stuck in, whether it was church or school or whatever it was. So I was always looking at the humorous side of things. I paid for it, whether it was with suspensions or sitting in corners or getting spanked and stuff like that, but it was worth it to me in order to free myself of that feeling like I was about ready to explode.”
The problem, looking back, was attention deficit disorder, something that wasn’t understood in the 1950s and 1960s like it is now. Kirby barely squeaked through Skyline High School with a 1.7 GPA (which has to be a record for the lowest grade point average ever recorded by someone who was later inducted into the school’s hall of fame.)
Eventually, Kirby turned his ADD into his asset. Observing the world through his unique lens allowed him to appreciate the richness of human irony and bring a new standard to lampooning the resident culture. Being outside the mainstream, a noncookie-cutter believer, only helped sharpen the focus and helped him realize there were plenty others out there with him.
“I found there were a lot of Mormons who felt the same way I did about the inclusivity being a form of punishment,” he said.
“If I were to hope that I had accomplished anything with respect to the faith,” he said after writing his last column, “it would be that I’ve encouraged people to stay that otherwise might have left; that I’ve given them the courage to be themselves in an environment that’s yelling at them to be something else.”
That said, the Latter-day Saint man of letters is off to “finish a novel I’ve been working on for a hundred years,” continue his work with the Utah Law Enforcement Memorial organization (as all his followers know, Kirby was a cop before he was a writer), and spoil his nine grandkids, which in Kirby World amounts to him trying to get them to do stuff their parents don’t want them to.
Grandkid: “My mom says we can’t do that.”
Kirby: “Well, I’m your mom’s dad and I say we can. Here, light this.”
That and remain tethered to his anchor, his wife of 45 years, Irene, of whom he says: “Fortunately, I ran into somebody who could handle me and was amused by me quite often, although she told me once, ‘I should have bought a monkey instead.’”
You only make fun of the things you truly love.