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Not Actually The Ultimate Question
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are out camping. Suddenly, Holmes wakes up Watson in the middle of the night.
"Look up, Watson," Holmes says, "and tell me what you see."
"I see billions of stars," says Watson.
"And what do you deduce from that?" says Holmes.
Watson thinks for a minute. "Well, Astrologically, I deduce that Saturn is in Capricorn.
Astronomically, that it is 3:00 am. Meteorologically, that tomorrow will be a beautiful day.
Theologically, that God is all-powerful, and we are small and insignificant.
What do you deduce?"
Holmes sighs. "Watson, you idiot. I deduce that someone has stolen our tent."

Where the Ultimate Answer is not actually 42.

A scene opens. Two characters stand by each other in silence. Then, one character breaks the silence by asking a vague, multi-meaning question such as "Why are we here?"

The other character then answers by going into a long monologue about the meaning of life, the existence of God, everyone's place in the world, how it is all one big mystery, and no one may ever know for sure.

Only that's not what the first character was asking. He meant something simpler, like "What did we come into this bookstore for?"

In a variation, it's obvious from the first that the question is about something specific, and the very act of treating it like a big question in the first place makes for a joke.

Mostly seen as the first lines of the first scene or a new scene. This can also be used as an exposition shortcut.

Compare, contrast What's a Henway? Frequently a form of Comically Missing the Point. A variation of Mathematician's Answer.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime 
  • Episode 5 of Yuru-Yuri starts with one character being invited out in the middle of the night by her love interest and dragged all over town by her and others to line up in front of a huge building (each cut has her give a bemused "eh?" in hilarious contrast to the calm, collected others). She finally asks, "Just when are you going to explain this to me? What on Earth am I doing here?"
    Kyoko: You're here to find that out!
    Yui: I don't think she was hoping for a philosophical answer.

    Comic Books 
  • Lampshaded in The DCU Elseworlds JLA - Secret Society of Super Heroes:
    Bruce Wayne: So, why am I here?
    The Riddler: You need to be more specific, Agent Wayne. By "here", do you mean in an existential to-be-or-not-to-be way, or "here" in an visiting-me way?''
    Bruce Wayne: In a visiting-you way.
  • Used in Green Lantern: Agent Orange. Hal Jordan has been stuck with a blue ring, which is messing with his green ring, and keeps asking, "What do you hope for?"
    Hal: World peace?
    Blue Ring: LACK OF SINCERITY DETECTED. WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR?
    Hal: A hamburger?
    Blue Ring: LACK OF SINCERITY DETECTED. WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR?
    Hal: Right now, I really hope you'll shut up!
    Blue Ring: SINCERITY DETECTED. RING POWER CHARGE: 210%

    Film 
  • Field of Dreams: Ray Kinsella convinces Terrence Mann to go to a baseball game with him. As they walk into the stadium, they discuss Terrence's writing, his activism, and his current reclusiveness. Finally, Ray asks him:
    Ray: So what do you want?
    Terrence: I want people to stop looking to me for answers; begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want people to start thinking for themselves. And I want my privacy!
    Beat
    Ray: No, I mean... (points at the concession stand) What do you want?
    Terrence: Oh... A dog and a beer.
  • In the film Dunston Checks In, an orangutan gets loose in the Majestic Hotel.
    Mrs. Dubrow (Hotel Owner): Where did he come from?!
    Animal Control Guy: Well, when two orangutans fall in love...
    Robert (Manager): I think she means, "How did it get into the hotel?"
  • In Airplane II: The Sequel:
    Steve McCroskey: Jacobs, I want to know absolutely everything that's happened up till now.
    Jacobs: Well, let's see. First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. And then the Arabs came and they bought Mercedes Benzes. And Prince Charles started wearing all of Lady Di's clothes. I couldn't believe it.
  • A Running Gag in The Muppet Movie.
    Bernie the Agent: You with the banjo, can you help me? I have lost my sense of direction.
    Kermit: Have you tried Hare Krishna?
  • From Michael Leigh's Naked:
    Louise: How did you get here?
    Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.
  • Chinatown. In this case Gittes understands perfectly well what Sessions means but is simply exasperated by his lot in life.
    Sessions: Are you alone?
    Gittes: Isn't everybody?
  • In the 1968 version of The Love Bug, when Jim and Carole find out that the VW Bug has a mind of its own, and it won't let either of them exit the car, Carole tries to call for help from some hippies in the van parked next to them:
    Carole: Help, I'm a prisoner! I can't get out!
    Hippy: We all prisoners, chickee-baby. We all locked in.
  • From A Hard Day's Night:
    Reporter: (to John) How did you find America?
    John: Turn left at Greenland.

    Literature 
  • This is very common in the Discworld books.
    • In The Light Fantastic, it's mentioned that the greatest philosopher of the Disc was asked at a party "Why are you here?" He needed three years for the answer.
    • In Equal Rites, when a young girl is asked (after arriving unexpectedly) where she came from, she answers that Granny won't tell her that yet.
    • In Eric, when at the end of time Astfgl the demon lord speaks with Death, resulting in the following exchange:
    "Have you seen anybody?"
    "Yes."
    "Who?"
    'Everyone."
    "I mean anyone recently."
    "It's been very quiet."
    • In Reaper Man, when Death is asked: "Why are we here?", he says: "I do not speculate on cosmic matters."
    • In I Shall Wear Midnight, when Esk is asked "Do you know what the time is?" she replies "It is a way of describing one of the notional dimensions of four-dimensional space. But for your purposes, it's about ten forty-five."
    • In Going Postal, there's an inversion, as unlikely as that sounds. Vetinari asks a serious philosophical question and gets the answer, "Well, my lord, I've always thought that what the world really needs are filing boxes which are not so flimsy."
  • This happens in a serious and plot-relevant way in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series. The protagonist asks for "directions to the garden," which is misinterpreted as a request for ultimate enlightenment by an entity capable of obliging.

    Live Action TV 
  • An episode of Goodness Gracious Me had two teenagers in a Hindu temple, one of whom asked the other "why are we here?" After the second gave a long philosophical speech the first asked "No, why are we here? We're Sikhs."
  • In a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch, Dennis Moore, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, is asked by his latest victims "What do you want? Why are you here?" He takes this as a philosophical question despite the fact that he just swung into their window to steal their possessions for the third time.
  • Babylon 5:
    • Deconstructed in one episode where the point is to ask these questions until the questionee starts revealing things that are actually relevant:
      Morden: What do you want?
      G'Kar: Well, what do you mean, what do I want?
      Morden: What do you want?
      G'Kar: What do I want for supper, what do I want to do this evening, what do I...
      Morden: What do you want?
      G'Kar: This is pointless. What I want is for you to go away and leave me in peace.
      Morden: As you say.
      G'Kar: Wait! What do I want? The Centauri stripped my world. I want justice.
    • And also inverted by the episode "Comes the Inquisitor", in which the titular inquisitor interrogates Delenn with questions of this type, responding to mundane answers with Electric Torture:
      Sebastian: Do you know why you're here?
      Delenn: Here?
      Sebastian: Here, now, yes!
      Delenn: I was sent.
      Sebastian: Here?
      Delenn: Yes, by Kosh.
      Sebastian: You've answered the wrong question! Why are you here now, in this place, in this life?
    • The above are 2 of 5 questions pivotal to the series which invert this trope, they are presented as the ultimate questions, each asked by a different race. Which one is answered and how it is answered is very important... and NEVER ask the question from one race to another.
      Vorlon Question: Who are you?
      Shadow Question: What do you want?
      Techno Mage Question: Where are you going?
      Emperor Turhan's Question: Why are you here?
      Lorien's Question (the most important, as its asked by the 1st sentient being in the galaxy): Do you have anything worth living for?
  • Shows up in the Angel episode "Sanctuary". Faith has agreed to stay with Angel and start atoning for her (many) sins:
    Faith: (in kitchen) So, how does this work?
    Angel: There's no real simple answer to that. I won't lie to you and tell you it'll be easy, because it won't be. Just because you've decided to change doesn't mean the world's ready for you to. The truth is... no matter how much you suffer, no matter how many good deeds you do to try to make up for the past, you may never balance out the cosmic scale. The only thing I can promise you is that you'll probably be haunted... and maybe for the rest of your life.
    Faith: (indicates the Microwave) So how does *this* work?
    Angel: Uh... power level, time, start. Sure that popcorn is gonna be enough for you?
  • The Friends episode "The One With The Two Parts":
    Rachel: So Pheebs, what do you want for your birthday?
    Phoebe: Well, what I really want is for my mom to be alive and enjoy it with me.
    Rachel: Okay. Let me put it this way. Anything from Crabtree & Evelyn?
    Phoebe: Ooh! Bath salts would be nice.
  • Leverage has a classic example:
    Nate: Soph. Where are we at?
    Sophie: Huh? I don't know, Nate. I think you need to ask yourself that question. You called me, remember? And now we're working together every day... I don't know what you want! And you ask me that, dressed as a vicar! You're a very strange man.
    Nate: No no no, I meant, where are we at, finding the money?
  • An interesting aversion/variation occurs in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:
    George Smiley: Why did Lacon send you for me?
    Peter Guillam: Do you mean why did he send me for you? Or why did he send me for you?
    George Smiley: Quite right, Peter. I should have known better than to have asked.
  • The Doctor Who serial "City of Death" (written by Douglas Adams) features the following exchange:
    Romana: Where are we going?
    Doctor: Are you talking philosophically or geographically?
    Romana: Philosophically.
    Doctor: Then we're going to lunch.
    • Also, in the Seventh Doctor story "Dragon Fire", the Doctor distracts a guard by engaging him in a philosophical discussion and then later bursts in on a hold up by Belazs, gun in hand:
      Belazs : Where did you come from?
      Doctor: Why is everyone so interested in philosophy here?
      Glitz: I think she means to do away with you!
      Doctor: Ah, an existentialist.
    • A variant in New Who when Donna tells Ten she has to leave and he launches into a heartwarming goodbye monologue...only to realize she meant she's going to visit her family for a bit and then come back. Donna doesn't let him off the hook easily, predictably.
  • Inverted in a comic scene from Xena: Warrior Princess, in which Plucky Comic Relief Joxer is helping the heroines and "king of thieves" Autolycus track down Joxer's long-lost brother Jett.
    Autolycus: (watching Joxer's antics from a distance): Why is he here?
    Gabrielle: Because he knows how to find Jett.
    Autolycus: No, in a larger sense... why is he here?
  • In the Firefly episode "Out of Gas", Mal tries to convince Zoe that Serenity is a decent ship:
    Mal: Try to look beyond what she is now, and see what she could be.
    Zoe: What's that, sir?
    Mal: Freedom is what.
    Zoe: [points to something on the floor] No, what's that, sir?
    Mal: Oh, yeah, I guess something must've been living in here, just step around that.
  • In the Mad Men episode "The Gypsy and the Hobo", Don and Betty take the kids trick-or-treating following Don's confession of his past identity.
    Neighbor: Let's see what we've got here; a hobo and gypsy (looks up at Don) and who're you supposed to be?
  • Inverted in Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray's daughter Ally asks 'Where do babies come from?'. He responds with a typical, awkward birds and the bees talk, but it turns out she was wondering about the meaning of human existence.
  • In Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda: Trance has just inexplicably broken into Dylan's prison cell and offers him water. Dylan asks, "How?" Trance replies: "Well, when two hydrogen atoms love each other very much, they find an oxygen atom and..."
  • Pops up in Mystery Science Theatre 3000 during The Incredible Melting Man.
    Actor: What did go on here, Doc?
    Mike: During the Ice Age, glaciers moved through...oh, you mean recently.
  • Space Cases has an example where Thelma gets asked the wrong question, and sure enough, ends up starting with the Big Bang...surprisingly enough, she gets to the end after a scene switch!
  • In an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, Jennifer reluctantly became the host of a radio advice show. One exchange from her show:
    Caller: What is the meaning of life?
    Jennifer: The cereal or the magazine?
  • LOST
    Charlie: [giving Locke the drugs] You really think you can find my guitar?
    Locke: Look up, Charlie.
    Charlie: You're not going to ask me to pray or something.
    Locke: I want you to look up.
    [Charlie looks up... and his guitar is wrapped in vines on a cliff]
  • Blake's 7
    Tarrant: Where are we going, Avon?
    Avon: Profound philosophical questions never really interested me.
    Tarrant: Ooh, not up to your usual standard.
  • The Suite Life of Zack and Cody:
    Zack: Arwin? Why are you here?
    Arwin: Well, there are two theories, one is evolution, and the other is-
    Zack: No, why are you here, in the basement?
  • Austin & Ally:
    Austin: What are we selling here?
    Ally: Love, hope, a triumph of the human spirit...
    Austin: No. (beat) We're selling soup.
  • Veronica Mars had this exchange:
    Logan: So, what do you think?
    Veronica: Like...in general, or is there a specific arena in which you'd like my opinion?
    Logan: Do you think Duncan, uh, is just cooling off or is he, like, holed up in some hotel room pouring peroxide on his hair and trying to file his fingerprints off?
  • In Blackadder II, when Blackadder is obviously drunk in front of his Puritan relatives:
    Lady Whiteadder: Explain yourself, Edmund!
    Blackadder: I can't. Not just like that. I'm a very complicated person.

    Music 
  • An old musical joke:
    Question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
    Answer: Practice.
    • Alternately, if you live in NYC the answer is "Take the 'F' train to..."
    • And one can get to Nashville by singing through one's nose.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Inverted in a Calvin and Hobbes strip.
    Calvin: Why do you suppose we're here?
    Hobbes: Because we walked here.
    Calvin: No, I mean, here on Earth?
    Hobbes: Because Earth can support life.
    Calvin: No, I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?
    Hobbes: Because we were born.
    Calvin: Forget it.
    Hobbes: I will, thank you.
    • Although, a philosopher with a pragmatic bent really would say that "because we were born" is a suitable answer to that question.
  • Used in a FoxTrot strip, with Paige asking her father why they have fireworks for the Fourth of July. Roger muses on the celebratory symbolism behind the tradition before Paige corrects him; why do they have fireworks, as they duck an out-of-control rocket Jason had lit that zooms over their heads.
  • In Beetle Bailey when Zero asks Sarge why he is wearing a particular uniform, and Sarge goes off the scale in patriotic fervour. But Zero wondered why he was wearing a parade uniform on a regular day.

    Radio 
  • A variant occurs in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when the ship has just landed in a weird, icy cave. Zaphod, waxing philosophical: "We could really... we could really be in this cave!" Arthur, unimpressed: "We are in this cave."
    • And a few minutes later...
    Arthur: Why are we here?
    Ford: Now don't you start.
    Arthur: I mean in this cave.
    • We already know that the Answer to the Ultimate Question is "42". So, in a more plot-relevant sense, "What do you get when you multiply six by nine?" is Not Actually The Ultimate Question. Especially since six times nine is 54. Except in base 13. Douglas Adams does not write jokes in base 13.
    • The joke was also used in this context; when Arthur learns that the mice have spent millions of years trying to find the Question, he immediately asks "Why?" They reply "No, we thought of that, but it doesn't fit the answer."
  • Hamish And Dougal subverted the page quote utterly.
    Dougal: Look up in the sky, Hamish...tell me what you see.
    Hamish: I see the full moon and a lot of stars, each one in its proper place...which tells me God is in his heaven, and all's right with the world.
    Dougal: ...Hamish, you're an idiot. We are in a tent. It is impossible to see the moon or any of the stars from here.
    Hamish: Well...not if somebody had stolen the tent.
    Dougal: (laughing) Stolen the tent! That would be the funniest joke in the world, wouldn't it!

    Video Games 
  • In Normality, when you are about to be captured later in the game, the Dialogue Tree allows you to respond to the question "Why are you here?" with "That is a question that has puzzled philosophers for thousands of years.".
  • Two of the White Ninjas in Destroy All Humans! 2 have a conversation that is a direct Shout-Out to the Red vs. Blue example.

    Webcomics 

    Web Original 
  • The first episode of Red vs. Blue shows two characters on top of one of the Blood Gulch bases. One asks the other, "Do you ever wonder why we're here?". The other expectantly responds with a brief speech about whether or not we were created, or just popped into existence. What the asking character actually meant was "Why are we here in a box-canyon in the middle of nowhere?"
    • And then it's played with and returned to in a later episode.
      "Do you ever wonder why we're here?"
      "No. I never, ever wonder why we're here. Semper Fi, bitch."
    • Similarly, the Blood Gulch Chronicles series ends with another character asking the same question, and the other gives a rant about how hate should be a personal thing, not a product of prejudice. The other just wanted to know why they were standing in the open sun when they could stand in the shade. It even gives a Shout-Out to Halo and how they'd be fighting aliens if Master Chief hadn't blown up the Covenant armada single-handed.
    • And given a Double Subversion, combined with a Call Back in Revelation, Chapter 18. Sarge asks each and every one of the remaining Reds and Blues why they are here. Grif begins reading his lines from Season One, when Sarge cuts him off and explains that he meant to ask an even more meaningful question - why are each of the Reds and Blues still in this group, when they could be off somewhere else? He then delivers a Rousing Speech that brings the both teams together and makes them ready to kick ass.
  • Played with in the Bri TA Nick sketch Everything, in which Brian really does want to hear everything.
  • On Not Always Related, this little girl asks her mother where she came from. She was expecting an answer like "St. Louis".

    Western Animation 
  • In an episode of The Tick, Tick is knocked into orbit by a rampaging Proto-Clown. When he asks "What am I doing here?", a manifestation of his subconscious thinks he means this in the existential sense and sends him to a Journey to the Center of the Mind. After much weirdness, Tick finally has the answer: "I'm here because... a big clown hit me!"
  • The Real Ghostbusters episode Drool the Dog-Faced Goblin had this conversation:
    Winston: Egon, why are we here?
    Peter: (groaning) That was a mistake!
    Egon: Well, we're here because billions of years ago there was a cataclysmic explosion which...
    Winston: (making the timeout sign with his hands) No, Egon! Time! I meant, why are we in the Poconos?
    Egon: Oh. We're here because of...(indicates "Drool, the Dog-faced Goblin" poster)...that.
  • A minor running gag in House of Mouse is that Horace Horsecollar would respond to any question in such a manner, at least the first time. (He'd always use three statements, too.)
    • The first episode had this:
    Mickey: What's wrong?
    Horace: All the rainforests are being chopped down, nobody votes anymore, and the Internet's too dang slow!
    Mickey: No, I mean what's wrong in here?
    Horace: Oh, somebody tied me up and took all our cartoons.
  • Done once in Ed, Edd n Eddy, when Ed somehow gets out of having his head stuck in a mailbox offscreen.
    Eddy: Where'd you come from?
    Ed: Blame my parents, Eddy.
    • Inverted in "One Plus One Equals Ed"
    Edd: We may be getting closer to answering that all-important question!
    Eddy: "Is Eddy rich yet?"
    Ed: "Can Ed go to the bathroom?"
  • One episode of The Penguins of Madagascar opens thusly.
    Skipper: So why are we here?
    Kowalsky: Ah, the question that has vexed common man and philosopher alike!
    Skipper: ...
    Kowalsky: That's not what you're going for, is it?
  • In the Bugs Bunny cartoon "This Is A Life?", host Elmer Fudd surprises Bugs to be the guest of honor on the show. He entreats Bugs to tell his life story, and says "Start from the beginning." Bugs goes back to the origins of life itself.
  • From the Animaniacs episode "Taming of the Screwy"
    Scratchanshiff: Do you know why you're here?
    Yakko: Nobody really knows why we're here, although Schopenhauer put forth an interesting theory.
    Scratchansniff: That's not what I meant!
    Dot: Then why'd you say it?
  • The Legend of Korra: Invoked by the smooth-talking Varrick when Asami asks Varrick why he's there. He starts to wax poetics about the nature of the universe, she wants to know why an escaped criminal is eating dinner with the ruler of Zaofu. (It's hard to tell if his tangent is sincere or not.)
    Asami: "Varrick? What are you doing here?"
    Varrick: "Good question, Asami! I mean, What are we all doing here... food for thought!"
  • In an episode of Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers where the team was in France, whenever a character would ask a question about their specific circumstances, they'd be in the presence of an French existentialist philosopher mouse who would take the question and run with it.
    Evil French Cat: (after Dale has sabotaged his scheme) "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!"
    Philosopher Mouse: "What has any of us done? To exist is to do. To do is to be done." (continues in this fashion until knocked into the sewer)

    Real Life 
  • The story about how Che Guevara became Fidel Castro's right hand man goes like this: Che, Castro and a bunch of other people are having a dinner party, and one of them innocently asks Castro what he was doing in Argentina. Cut to five hours later where everybody but Che has left the table and Castro is still talking.
  • Jay-Z misinterpreting Nardwuar the Human Serviette's "Who are you?"
  • There's a story told about a German philosopher (which one varies). He was wandering round a park, deep in thought, and he walked right into a flowerbed without noticing. The park-keeper shouted "What are you doing there?" and he replied "What are any of us doing here?"
  • Robber Willie Sutton, when asked why he robs banks, answers "because that's where the money is".


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