Years ago, when I was doing public speaking in churches around the country, I learned a lot about the art of public joke-telling and fooling the audience. The most important aspect of the Muzzio style of getting the audience's rapt attention is to make the joke sound so completely plausible that the audience never knows what is coming. They must not know it is a joke. A serious demeanor is essential.
So, I adapted a joke I had heard years earlier in the Philippines. Putting it into a real time and place, it came out something like this:
"On the way over here tonight I had the weirdest experience. Unreal. I was parking right in the lot near this building, where I happened to have parked a few weeks ago when I was in the area running errands at the local photo shop. I ran into a guy who I had encountered at that time. We had met before, and as he lived walking distance from where I was parked, he invited me over to his place for a coffee.
He told me that he needed to warn me about his roommate. She was apparently a psychic who was a bit weird and rather ‘over the top’ – to use his words. I assured him I would be cool. So, we came to his house – one of those large, wonderful old houses in Northwest Portland, that had been subdivided into smaller apartments. There were several tenants in the building, but my friend and his roommate shared a two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor and were the only tenants home during the day.
The room was full of indoor palms and all manner of plants, crystals, dreamcatchers and other typical psychic paraphernalia. No crystal ball, however. A rather portly, middle-aged woman wearing a sort of Hawaiian-looking caftan, and dripping with all sorts of jewelry, walked across the Bukhara-carpeted floor to meet me. The incense burner on a nearby table was turning the air blue with the sweet smell of jasmine.
'You have come from afar on a long journey,' she crooned. But Mr. Cynic that I am, I decided to thwart her attempts to 'draw me in.'
'Not really,' I said flatly. 'I just came from up Burnside a half mile or so.' Well, this did not help her gain the upper hand at all. I could tell she was thinking of another approach.
'You seem so unhappy. I can tell that you don't believe that I am a medium.'
'Well, I guess I am about as happy as the next guy,' I parried. Then she decided to take the full frontal assault approach. She got right up in my face and, with breath smelling of camels, she roared:
'I am a medium, and I am happy! I mean it. I am happy.' Okay, at this point I was a bit nonplussed and even a bit intimidated ... not knowing exactly what to say. But she went on!
'I mean it! I am happy, happy, happy!'"
Back at church... At this point, I got right up into the microphone on the podium and softly said: "Well, what should I do?" Then: "What do you think I did?" Stone silence.
Nobody in the audience moved a muscle, but everybody was right there, obviously perplexed. Then I went on...
"Suddenly, I remembered some advice my mother once gave me for situations like this." Pausing, I said... "Then I reached out and slapped her right across the face!" (simultaneously clapping my hands as loud as possible right into the microphone). The whole crowd jumped, then gasped. Everyone was genuinely shocked. I could see it on their faces. How could he have done such a thing? Then the coup d'grâs... "Mom told me to always try to strike a happy medium!"
Suddenly everybody realized that they had been hornswoggled – duped! It was a joke! The trick is to convince the audience that it is a real story until the very end – and then the punchline. That way, they are dealing with a whole different sense of reality. Within an instant, the whole reality shifts. Caught off-guard, they always paid close attention to what I said after that! I knew that I was never a boring speaker, and that no one ever fell asleep during one of my sermons.
Well, fell asleep – no – but a lady actually died during one of my sermons once! I noticed her about half way through the sermon, eyes shut contemplatively. I figured she was praying in the spirit! (Obviously, in the spirit world was more likely.)
After I was finished, the offering was taken and the pastor asked everyone to stand for the benediction. She remained sitting, eyes closed. Finally, everyone filtered out of the room and a few stragglers remarked that Mrs. Wheeler had not moved. We all gathered around her. "Is she dead?" everyone asked incredulously. "Well, she looks pretty dead to me!" a teenage kid said matter-of-factly. The pastor ran and called 911. The paramedics said that she had likely been dead at least half an hour.
Well, either I scared her to death or I bored her to death, I mused to myself while driving home. One way or the other, she didn't make it through my sermon. In any case, thereafter I dropped that joke from my repertoire.