The Dalai Lama, pleading for help from his interpreter, waits for the punchline . . . after the anchor has delivered it. The anchor cracks up, acutely aware that the joke has plummeted from the heights of comic nirvana into the material rocks far below, where it fractures into a thousand unblessed coughs of embarrassment.
The bit I really love is when the two men face each other, quite kindly and sweetly, and the Australian anchor says "Do you know I mean?" It's a very human moment because clearly the Dalai Lama has no idea what he means.
Anway, with the professionally self-effacing charm of benign morning television "hosts", the anchor goes on to explain what the joke means, making use of some cringeworthy mime. The Dalai Lama, perhaps sort of guessing the meaning of the joke and certainly understanding the question, then seems to say, "Theoretically impossible."
Theoretically impossible? But not . . . practically impossible?
What does he mean? Does he mean that it is theoretically impossible to be at one with everything or that it is theoretically impossible for the surly, gum-smacking kid behind the counter at your local pizzeria to make you (at) one with everything? Or is that the Dalai Lama finds it theoretically impossible that he would order a pizza that, including everything, would be loaded with pepperoni, beef, sausage and anchovies?
Obviously, hating on the Dalai Lama would be like urinating on the baby Jesus in his manger, murdering the shepherds, buggering their flocks of sheep, and then lying in wait for the Three Kings to steal their gold, frankincense and myrrh; it's not something one does. And surely this good-spirited encounter doesn't deserve to be analysed as anything other than a pleasant encounter rife with misunderstanding resulting from difficulties in translation?
But I think something quite interesting happened: we get to watch the combined failure of the comic and the spiritual, with the resurrection of the former but not the latter.
The failure of comedy can be comic, because failure can be amusing; there is, in comedy, no theoretical impossibility either in content or in practice. A comic narrative may involve the suspension of disbelief but that is, quite precisely, refusing to countenance theoretical impossibility; and because the failure of comedy can be comic, as we see in this example (in varying degrees: the anchor's laughter is one type of laughter at the failure of his comedy, but our laughter at him, and at his laughter, may be another), there is no end to comedy: the final moment, the human teleological last gasp, however dramatic, however pitiable, could still be funny.
But for a theological figure to denounce the theoretical possibility of something is absurd; a day's-worth of oil that can burn for eight days, turning water into wine, being the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of compassion - theoretically impossible! Now, before you use those mad assassin moves you learned during your retreat in Dharamsala and, prior to jabbing your little finger into my lifebutton, I will concede that, of course, the Dalai Lama might be right in saying that it is "theoretically impossible" to be at one with everything, in just the same way that a Christian who believes that God bestowed divine wisdom on George W. Bush could say it is "theoretically impossible" for the Dalai Lama to go to heaven. But this "theoretically impossible" is only a tautology: Here's my theory; whatever is exterior to it is "theoretically impossible". That is not actually a pronouncement on actual theoretical possibility but is an arbitrary reification of arbitrary theological convention. As such, it is an act of theological force, a demonstration of power, not an assessment of what is or is not theoretically possible.
To respond to a joke that some part of it is not "theoretically possible" is to fail to get the joke; in the examples above of what might have been "theoretically impossible", we have at least three potential impossibilities. I'm not daintily lambasting the Dalai Lama for failing to get the joke per se; but I don't want to let him off the hook for what he actually did say just because he is so benign.
To resort to "theoretically impossible" in a comic context is to refuse (or fail) to get the joke, but comedy can spin out of this failure; to resort to "theoretically impossible" in a spiritual context is to apply the conventions of the intellect to the mystery of the spiritual, which is not just putting lipstick on a pig, it's adding pearl earrings and a dress, and then taking the pig to the prom and then being surprised when you don't win "cutest couple".