In a certain dictatorship inhabitants were warned by official propaganda to beware of foreigners. If they had to talk to foreigners they were told to ask them what was their business in the country, and to report the replies to the police.
A foreigner who had lived in the country before and knew the language was making another visit. He thought he would exercise his sense of humour and to a question from a restaurant owner as to his business he replied: “Well, don’t tell anyone but I am a spy.” He was gratified to see the shock on the others face. The restaurateur excused himself hurriedly and the foreigner went on happily eating his meal. Quite soon however the doorway was filled with the bulky form of the local police sergeant who sat down at the table and began: “You have said you are a spy and I am going to arrest you.”
“But if I was a spy I would not say I was a spy, would I? So I cannot be a spy.”
“But you have said you are a spy, so you must be one.”
“But that was a joke.”
“Spies don’t make jokes, so it must be true.”
“I have made a joke so I cannot be a spy, because spies don’t make jokes.”
The sergeant scratched his head and then made a telephone call which led to another and then another. The traveller was called over to the telephone and a cultivated voice established that his native language was English. The voice then said in English, “My good sir, you are free to go but let me give you a word of advice. There is no column in police records for humour. Do not make a joke of us. You would not want us to make a joke of you, would you?”
A spiritual teacher who heard this story or something like it remarked that some people think that they can have a good time making a fool of the world, but the world always has the last laugh.
When radio was new, the microphone technique had not developed, and a singer would simply sing as if in a concert hall with the microphone at a good distance. In the early 1930s a baritone was going to sing some popular songs on the BBC but that afternoon he developed a bad throat. There was no time to get a substitute so he thought he would stand closer to the microphone to make up for his hoarse voice. But his throat got worse and worse so he ended up standing just in front of the microphone and breathing his songs into it. The studio manager was horrified but next day many letters came to ask about this wonderful “whispering baritone”. He went on singing in this style and did enjoy a brief stardom but quite soon the novelty passed and he dropped into insignificance; he could not get contracts now for the standard performances.
Again, in America, the band leader Cab Calloway, who was also the singer, once could not remember the words of a pop song. Unable to think what to do he made growls, shrieks and bellowings and other jungle noises. This too was a great success, and he made it his style. But again the novelty passed.
In quantum physics, the great Erwin Schrodinger invented a joke thought experiment concerning his cat. He wanted to expose the absurdity of what was becoming the standard view which predicted that the cat would be both alive and dead at the same time. However, it has now turned out that if the experiment is performed that will be the situation. Physics has the last laugh after all.
As a final example, Abbot Obora cited the case of an old woman in Japan who told him she was tired of life, and wanted the Buddha to take her immediately into his paradise. She used to pray for this everyday at the temple. One day he hid behind the Buddha image and when she finished her little prayer, he boomed: “I going to take you now!”. She turned and ran out of the temple crying: “Can’t the Buddha take a joke!” Obora says many believers make jokes like this, without realising that they are jokes; but when the time comes they do not have the support to stand on and enjoy the last laugh.
© 2000 Trevor Leggett
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