Why don't more jokes die?

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A clip from Australian TV is rapidly becoming viral. Karl Stefanovic, a TV journalist on Australia's Today show, running out of topics in an interview with the Dalai Lama, tried to tell him a familiar Buddhism joke — a very good one (he says he had heard it the previous night from his 12-year-old son). The joke is brief and simple: The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza joint and says, "Make me one with everything." What's either uproariously funny or twitchingly embarrassing about the video clip (your mileage may differ) is that the Dalai Lama simply doesn't get the joke at all; he has no idea what's going on.

Stefanovic is surely not the only person who has discovered to his cost how easy it is to underestimate the quantity of cultural and linguistic background needed if you are to reliably get the jokes that people tell. For this one, (i) you must have encountered the Buddhist idea of merging or unifying with the universe, expressed using the idiom become one with (which in other contexts is not common); and (ii) you must have encountered pizza in the American style, with loads of different topping choices, ordered using a preposition phrase headed by with (as in with pepperoni and mushroom); and (iii) you must have been in a pizzeria that has as one of the choices on its menu the indecisive glutton's non-choice consisting of a megacombo of all available toppings (by no means all pizza restaurants give you that option), so that everything is a possible topping choice.

It isn't clear what was lacking in the Dalai Lama's preparation for this ill-considered televised attempt at cross-cultural merriment. The atmosphere remained genial, but comprehension simply did not dawn, and Stefanovic's excursion into comedy died a quietly horrible public death.

But if you think about it, it's a wonder most jokes don't, considering the complex web of previously encountered phrases and cultural references that jokes typically rely on.

[Comments are closed because some commenters would try out jokes that you might not get, and that would be embarrassing.]

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