Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Your Daily Llama

Here's a joke going wrong. An Australian TV anchor, or, as I like to call them, a TV deadweight, is interviewing the Dalai Lama and tells a joke his son told him: So the Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop . . . and says, "Can you make me one with everything?"

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".

12 comments:

Sven said...

It is not really correct to call the Lama a "theologian", since there is no Buddhist theos about which to spew logoi.

In any case, I'm sure that what the Llamatron was doing here, obviously, was making a very rational and logical set-theoretical point, viz., that you can't make a pizza with everything, because the set of everything includes the pizza itself, and you can't put the pizza on itself.

Your readers will have noticed, of course, that this can be interpreted as a fragment of Russell's Paradox, than which no more hard-headed and analytical result may readily be imagined.

sw said...

What about calzone?

Sven said...

A folded pizza still does not contain itself. What you need is a pizza that represents the endpoint of an ourobouros, ie a snake that has entirely eaten itself. But that is, of course, theoretically impossible.

sw said...

What about a pizza sandwich? Doesn't a sandwich contain itself? And I'm not sure that a calzone is not the ourobouros of the food world.

Sven said...

Doesn't a sandwich contain itself?

No. Sigh.

Jeff Strabone said...

Let me make sure I understand you correctly. You spend half a week considering Tracy Morgan/Jordan's homophobia and then have the gall to ask who could 'hate on' the Dalai Lama, a heterosexist theocrat who allows others to worship him as a reincarnated god? Among the sex-relevant quotations at his Wikipedia page one finds this gem:

'Buddhist sexual proscriptions ban homosexual activity and heterosexual sex through orifices other than the vagina, including masturbation or other sexual activity with the hand... From a Buddhist point of view, lesbian and gay sex is generally considered sexual misconduct.'

Imagine Rick Santorum carrying on as a reincarnated god and you'll come close to how I feel about your Dalai Lama.

Now that that's out of the way, I must say, I did not hear the theocrat say 'Theoretically impossible' the two times I played the video.

I did, however, pay attention to the post-joke morning-show banter. One in-studio idiot tells the joker that he should have said one 'with a lot' rather than 'one with everything'. The joker says that the Dalai Lama did not get the joke because he does not know what pizza is. These are possibly the dumbest morning-show hosts in the world.

As for your growing catalogue of comedy insights, add this one: puns dont't translate well.

Sven said...

It is not really correct to call the Lama a "theocrat", since there is no Buddhist theos on whose supposed behalf anyone may seek to wield kratos.

Still, I was excited to see that there were "sex-relevant quotations at his Wikipedia page". Here's another one: "I think I would say 'if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay.'" He doesn't really seem to have made his mind up, does he?

Jeff Strabone said...

A history of sex-negative decrees is not undone by one remark the other way.

Jeff Strabone said...

Oh, this is rich (and lazy). Again from Wikipedia, your Dalai Lama opposes abortion unless 'the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent'.

You can love the Dalai Lama all you like. Just don't kid yourself about the political implications of supporting this medieval ghoul.

Sven said...

Thank you for allowing me to love the Dalai Lama all I like! I love him long time. Oh, wait, but actually, I never said I loved him, did I? I was just correcting some lazy "theologian"/"theocrat"-bashing. I do love to correct that shit whenever I see it on a blog about comedy and jokes.r

Jeff Strabone said...

From the OED, with emphasis added:

'theocracy, n.
a. A form of government in which God (or a deity) is recognized as the king or immediate ruler, and his laws are taken as the statute-book of the kingdom, these laws being usually administered by a priestly order as his ministers and agents; hence (loosely) a system of government by a sacerdotal order, claiming a divine commission; also, a state so governed: esp. applied to the commonwealth of Israel from the exodus to the election of Saul as king.
b. transf. A priestly order or religious body exercising political or civil power.'

I stand by my application of the word 'theocrat' to your friend, the Dalai Lama.

Daniel F said...

Are we all just going to ignore the fact that sw's response to Sven's assertion that you can't put the pizza on itself is the best joke of the year so far?