The air was still and tense. The National Mall had been cleared of all civilians, except for the press. Twelve rows of bleachers had been set up in a circle around the flying saucer, and on the bleachers were twelve rows of soldiers in the ready position with guns trained upon the saucer. There were no markings on the outside of the ship, and no creases or cracks in its smooth surface, so there was no way to tell where it might open. For three days the saucer had sat there, suspended six feet above the ground and yet completely still, as if it were resting on an invisible platform. There had been no communications from inside the ship, so there was no way to know what its intentions might be. Then, something happened.
An area of the ship facing the Washington Monument melted away, revealing a black aperture. Then, a beam of light came from the bottom of the aperture in a diagonal and fell on the grass, forming a bridge of light that led from the ground into the ship.
This was the greatest moment of decision of my life. I could order my troops to fire upon the saucer, and either destroy it or not leave a dent. Or, I could wait and see what happened. I told my troops to hold their fire. A row of single arrows of black light formed on the bridge of light pointing upwards. The meaning was clear. The aliens wanted somebody to enter. I had planned for this contingency.
Luke Ramsey was a young man of forty. A Pentagon hotshot, he had degrees in comparative linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and evolutionary biology. He was also about to become the first man to make contact with an alien species. Ramsey stood at the edge of the bridge of light and took a tentative step onto it. The bridge held his weight.
Ramsey walked through the aperture and entered the flying saucer. It was so quiet outside the ship you could hear the light autumn breeze. Ramsey was gone five minutes, then ten. What was going on inside the ship?
Then, Ramsey came stumbling through the aperture, out into the open, leaned against the side of the aperture, and slid down until he was sitting on the platform of light. Everybody leaned in as all the soldiers and military personnel and press strained their eyes and ears to figure out what was going on with him. Was Ramsey hurt? Was he scared? Did he seem disoriented? Was he trying to escape?
No! There was a big smile on his face. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first, but Ramsey was laughing. Ramsey made an attempt to rise to his feet, but he was laughing so hard that he fell back down and tumbled all the way down the platform of light onto the grass of the National Mall, where he rolled onto on his back, and continued to laugh uproariously.
As everybody looked on in hushed awe, I tried to imagine what must have happened in the ship to have had such an effect on Ramsey. Had Ramsey merely panicked in the face of the unfamiliar? It wasn’t likely, given Ramsey’s profile, but it couldn’t be ruled out. Had the aliens done something to Ramsey? If so, what? If Ramsey had merely panicked, what would the aliens’ reaction be? What was going on inside the alien ship right now? I was a man accustomed to making big decisions, decisions that meant life or death for masses of people, but good decisions rely on good information, and in this case, I had no information to go on, good or bad. I ordered the medics to retrieve Ramsey and my soldiers to aim their guns at the aperture which led inside the flying saucer and to wait for the command to fire.
The only noise that broke the quiet was the hysterical laughter that still came from Ramsey as the medics brought him toward me across the grass. Then, an alien stepped through the aperture onto the platform of light. The alien reached his hands into the air and said something in his language. All was quiet as everybody squinted their eyes to get their first look at this being from the stars.
Then, a titter went through the crowd. There was something about the alien. What was it? Was it its nose that drooped down below its blubbery lips? Was it its eyes, which were round like saucers and protruded from its face, giving them a surprised look? Even now it’s impossible to say why, but there was something very funny about that face. As the alien continued to speak, the titter that went through the crowd turned into a full-throated laugh. Even I was not immune. As hard as I tried to stifle it, to swallow it, to suppress it, laughter burst from my throat. What happened next I could not tell you, except that I was rolling around on the ground with everybody else, growing hoarse with laughter and blinded by my tears.
* * *
The next evening at the Pentagon, I met with Dr. Albert, a scientist who I had assigned head of research into the aliens after firing Dr. Ramsey. He wasn’t as accomplished as Ramsey, but he had a reputation for having a level head on his shoulders. “Well, General McAlister, it’s not good.”
“What do you mean ‘not good?’ Spill. I like people who are direct, not people who talk around a problem and make excuses.”
“Like you, I first assumed that the laughter at the Mall was a kind of mass hysteria, perhaps due to nerves or the stress of confronting the unknown. But it seems that there is something inherently funny about the aliens’ faces.”
“What do you mean, ‘inherently funny?’ How can something be inherently funny?”
“I don’t know. We have sent dozens of people into the ship: scientists, doctors, and test subjects. Every single person, after a few minutes with the aliens, became consumed with uncontrollable laughter.”
“Have you seen the aliens, Dr. Albert?”
The doctor looked away. “Yes.”
“Well, go on. What was your experience? There is no need to be ashamed. I like people who speak honestly with me.”
“I tried not to laugh, General McAlister. I tried so hard. I struggled both physically, and mentally. Physically, I tried to swallow, to bite my bottom lip, and to clamp down on the insides of my cheeks with my molars. None of it worked. My mental effort to not laugh was just as useless. First, I tried to think of something other than the aliens’ faces, which were right in front of me. When that didn’t work, I tried to explore, mentally, what it was exactly that makes the aliens’ faces funny, thinking that by doing so I could overcome the need to laugh. But the more I thought about the aliens’ faces, the funnier they became, until I was laughing so hard I could no longer stand and had to crawl helplessly from the ship.”
I took all this in. “And how did the aliens take it?”
“They remained completely stoic throughout all of it. There is something so noble about them, sir.” Dr. Albert started to titter as he recalled the nobility of the aliens. “That’s the worst part: the aliens remaining so dignified while they’re being laughed at.”
Dr. Albert’s tittering turned into laughter. I waited for him to regain composure and then said, “I want to meet with them.”
Dr. Albert talked me out of meeting with the aliens until a solution to the laughter could be found. I gave him free reign to conduct experiments and tests. His idea was that perhaps greater exposure to the aliens would lessen the effect that their faces had. First, he tried leaving people in a room with the aliens for long periods of time, but it was the same with each test subject. The laughter continued to build until the subject’s physical safety was in danger.
Doctor Albert then asked my permission to try the experiment with prisoners, so he could leave them with the aliens beyond the point where it was safe. The prisoners all died of laughter.
Then he tried to leave people in the room with the aliens for short periods of time at regular intervals in order to build up tolerance, but each time somebody was placed in the room with the aliens, he laughed as if it were his first time seeing them.
While Dr. Albert was performing his experiments, other scientists were able to set up communications with the aliens through radio. The aliens were able to quickly learn English. They said that they came in peace. We were the first intelligent species they had found in the galaxy, and they were eager to share their technology with us for the betterment of mankind.
But they were growing frustrated with humanity laughing at them and were on the verge of leaving. Our diplomats talked the aliens into staying, but the aliens gave a six-month ultimatum. In six months, they would either speak in front of every single leader on Earth at the United Nations without a peep of laughter coming from anybody, or they would leave Earth, never to return.
Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of first contact with an alien species, and my mind was aflame with the possibilities of all the gifts these aliens could bestow upon us. I called Dr. Albert into my office and chewed him out. “You said that the aliens took all this stoically.”
“I know I did, sir. That was at first, before they understood the significance of our reaction to them. But since learning what laughter is, they have become very sensitive to it, and they now react in an indignant way, which unfortunately is even funnier than their former stoicism.”
I told him that he must find a solution to the problem before the planned address at the United Nations.
A few weeks went by, and then Dr. Albert came to me to tell me that the problem had been solved. Dr. Albert had developed an operation that made people not laugh at the aliens. He performed it on a number of prisoners, and it worked on each one, so he had it performed on himself and was able to converse with the aliens without laughing.
“What kind of operation?”
“It’s performed with lasers. A laser through the corner of the eye, right up into the brain. It is my recommendation that you have the operation performed on yourself so you can talk with the aliens. They are just so interesting. Talking with them in person is so incredible.”
“I want the operation performed on myself immediately.”
“Good. There’s only one catch.”
“The operation lowers the IQ of the patient by five points.”
I silently weighed the pros and cons, and eventually decided that it would be worth it to sacrifice five IQ points to be able to talk with the aliens.
I felt no different after the operation than I had before, but Dr. Albert assured me that it was a success, and that when I met with the aliens I would not laugh. I can honestly say that sitting with the aliens and talking with them, listening to them, and hearing about the world they came from was the most amazing experience of my life.
After my meeting with the aliens, Dr. Albert recommended that the operation be performed on every single person in the world ahead of the aliens’ speech at the United Nations. I was worried about the effects of lowering the IQ of everybody on the planet by five points. Dr. Albert reminded me that the children of the people who had the operation performed on them would be normal, so any negative effects would only last for one generation, and by the time the next generation came along, perhaps a better solution would have been found.
It was the largest scale United Nations mission in history. Dr. Albert was placed in charge. Every single person on Earth had to have the operation. Doctors had to be trained and sent to remote areas. Those doctors had to train local doctors to perform the operation. And those doctors had to train others still. Databases had to be kept in order to track who had had the operation, and who had not. In remote areas where there was little or no census data, census data had to be created.
There was a worldwide propaganda campaign to get people to submit. Instead of being called a lobotomy, the operation was called “inoculation against involuntary laughter,” or “IAIL” for short. Articles appeared on all major news platforms about how important IAIL was to the future of mankind.
Of course, there was resistance. For example, organizations representing various immigrant populations in Europe argued that since the average IQ of Europeans of non-European origin was less than that of the native white population, they would be sacrificing a greater percentage of their IQ when they lost five IQ points than their fellow Europeans. And rural white Americans railed against the wisdom of accepting gifts from the aliens without knowing what they wanted from us in return and argued that humanity would be better off if the aliens just left.
Those who wouldn’t submit to the operation, even after the propaganda campaign, had to be forced. Every military and police force on Earth took part. People were rounded up and put into camps. Hundreds of thousands died in the fighting.
We came down to the wire, but by the time of the scheduled address at the United Nations, all seven and a half billion people in the world had had the operation. The cumulative IQ of the planet had dropped by five points. But the problem of people laughing at the aliens had been solved.
* * *
Every single leader of every country on Earth was seated in the United Nations general assembly hall. All was quiet as the alien took the podium and spoke a greeting of peace. Then, a titter went through the audience. The alien stopped and cleared his throat. He continued, saying something about the wonders of the stars. The tittering turned into audible laughter. The alien halted his speech again, and then continued, saying something about the wealth of technology his people were willing to share with mankind. The laughter from the audience grew louder. Tears streamed down faces, and bodies fell out of their seats and rolled around on the ground.
The alien stopped his speech once more and looked disdainfully out at the audience, which consisted of every single president, prime minister, and chancellor on Earth, every king and queen, and every head of state of every title, all rolling on the ground, clutching their bellies, with tears streaming down their cheeks, howling, shrieking, and bellowing with laughter.
After surveying the mad crowd for a moment, the alien shouted, “That’s it! I give up. We came to Earth in order to share the wonders of space travel with your people, and all you have done since we got here is laugh at us. Enough is enough! Goodbye.”
The alien stormed off with his entourage. They returned to their ship that evening and took off, never to be seen or heard from again. Their scientific knowledge would be lost to mankind forever.
I was in the back of the general assembly hall, and I was furious. I pulled Dr. Albert aside and yelled, “You said that everybody on Earth had been inoculated!”
“They were! But the only way I could get the governments of the world to go along with it was to exempt their leaders.”
“You mean that we lobotomized every single person on Earth except for the small group of people that would actually be in the physical presence of the aliens? The only people who actually needed the operation? Are you an idiot?”
“Well, what do you expect? I’d had an operation performed on myself that lowered my IQ by five points.”
And that is the funniest story ever told.
J. Manfred Weichsel is the author of the fun pulp adventure novella EXPEDITION TO EDEN
and the dark science fiction novella TOMORROW’S PEOPLE.
His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Cirsova Magazine, EconoClash Review, and the Planetary Anthology Series from Tuscany Bay Press, among others.
In order to be notified about upcoming releases of short stories and novels, you can join J. Manfred Weichsel’s newsletter HERE.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Funniest Story Ever Told”:
How many stories or movies have we seen where the aliens land in Washington, D.C.? Those of you old enough to remember the original 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still with Michael Rennie will remember that Klaatu’s saucer indeed lands in D.C. (The 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves has the ship landing in Central Park.)
That bit of trivia aside, author J. Manfred Weichsel gives us a rather different alien encounter, and he does it with lovely splashes of humor that manage to get in some digs at our human leaders. We admit to being suckers for well-told humorous pieces, which many other magazines seem to avoid for some reason. We thank the author for sending us this one.
Delightful! If “A Small Talent For War” married Monty Python’s Deadly Joke sketch, this would be their offspring.
Funny! And funny that it sounds kind of like something that would really happen on this crazy planet.