Anecdote Origin: Your Question Is Quite Simple. Hence, I’m Going To Ask My Chauffeur To Respond

Albert Einstein? Wernher von Braun? Max Planck? Charlie Munger? Ezekiel Landau? Jacob ben Wolf Kranz? Apocryphal?

Stylized time-lapse image taken through a windshield from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A humorous anecdote describes a brilliant person who has been invited by many organizations to deliver a lecture about their esoteric work. After successfully delivering lectures in multiple venues the person becomes bored and open to change. High jinks ensue when the lecturer and their chauffeur secretly swap places.

The chauffeur delivers a flawless speech while the brilliant person sits near the front disguised as the chauffeur. A tense moment occurs when an audience member asks a difficult question. The quick-witted chauffeur replies:

Your question is interesting, but the answer is remarkably simple. Hence, I’m going to ask my chauffeur to respond.

The role of the brilliant person in this tale has been assigned to several different people including theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun, quantum physicist Max Planck, and Rabbi Ezekiel Landau. Would you please explore the provenance of this story.

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1926 within “Laughs from Jewish Lore” compiled by Jacob Richman. The brilliant person in this version of the story was a prominent rabbi. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

It was the custom of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, of Prague, to make semi-annual trips to the communities suburban to his city, and render his services in settling their religious and economic problems.

His driver was a jolly man and he often took the liberty to jest with his famous master. “Rabbi,” he once facetiously remarked, “I  tell you that my task requires more skill than yours. I could settle the petty squabbles of the tiny hamlets just as well as you, but you couldn’t do my work.”

The ecclesiastical passenger accepted the challenge, and the two exchanged their clothes and their positions on the wagon, continuing their journey incognito.

Arriving in the first village the “rabbi” was welcomed by a committee of prominent men, who  escorted  him  to  the  house  of  one  of  their leading citizens. After having dined with the guest, the representative men of the community brought before the consideration of the visiting “rabbi” some difficult problem that had been baffling the best minds of the community for a long time.

The pseudo-rabbi heard the query with  great solemnity, and shrugged his shoulders, evidently wondering at the ignorance of his interlocutors.

“You have asked me a very, very silly question,” he finally remarked. “Even my driver can answer that. Here he is, ask him.”

QI hypothesizes that this family of anecdotes was derived from Jewish folklore. The stories were meant to be humorous and not veridical. The creator of the original tale remains unknown.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1948 the anecdote appeared in “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore” edited by Nathan Ausubel. The brilliant individual was Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Kranz who was known as the Preacher of Dubno. The driver wished to experience the attention and praise directed toward Kranz, and the two temporarily switched roles. When a local scholar asked for the explication of a difficult passage in a religious book the driver employed the clever punchline:2

With knitted brows the “rabbi” peered into the sacred book placed before him, although he could not understand one word. Then, impatiently pushing it away from him, he addressed himself sarcastically to the learned men of the town, “A fine lot of scholars you are! Is this the most difficult question you could ask me? Why, this passage is so simple even my driver could explain it to you!”

Then he called to the Preacher of Dubno: “Driver, come here for a moment and explain the Law to these ‘scholars’!”

In September 1948 publisher and raconteur Bennett Cerf praised Nathan Ausubel’s book in his column within the “Saturday Review of Literature”. Cerf reprinted a condensed version of the tale about the Preacher of Dubno.3 Also, in 1950 Cerf placed the tale into his book “Laughter Incorporated”.4 Thus, the anecdote achieved further circulation.

In 1958 an instance appeared in the “Teacher’s Treasury of Stories for Every Occasion” compiled by M. Dale Baughman. The brilliant person in this version of the story was a “well-known atomic scientist” who was not named.

While the scientist was rehearsing a speech, his chauffeur wistfully expressed a desire to address a large audience. In response the scientist gave the driver the manuscript of the lecture and suggested a plan. The scientist would pretend to be the chauffeur, and the chauffeur would deliver the speech. The plan began, and the chauffeur’s lecture was excellent. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:5

Strangely enough, he got along very well but was taken aback when someone in the audience called for a question and answer period. When a very technical question was addressed to him, he said, “Well, it’s really very simple; just to prove how simple it really is, I think I’ll let my chauffeur answer it.”

In 1970 the U.S. state of Illinois held a constitutional convention. Delegate Madison L. Brown told a version of the anecdote which featured an unnamed “professor who had worn himself out with so many speeches”. His chauffeur replaced the professor and gave a presentation. A sharp student in the audience asked a challenging question and received this response:6

“Son, that’s a very good question, but it’s so simple I think I am going to let my chauffeur answer it for you.”

In January 1978 “Reader’s Digest” magazine published a version of the anecdote together with an acknowledgment to a newspaper in West Virginia. Albert Einstein was the lecturer, and his chauffeur told him that he had heard Einstein’s talk thirty times and knew it by heart. So they switched places, and the chauffeur delivered an excellent performance behind the podium:7

When he finished, he started to leave, but one of the professors stopped him and asked a complex question filled with mathematical equations and formulas. The chauffeur thought fast. “The solution to that problem is so simple,” he said, “I’m surprised you have to ask me. In fact, to show you just how simple it is, I’m going to ask my chauffeur to come up here and answer your question.”
— James Dent in Charleston, W.Va., Gazette

In October 1978 a newspaper in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma printed another instance of the tale with Einstein. This instance stated that the episode occurred in the 1930s when the physicist was lecturing on relativity.8

In 1987 “Mule Eggs and Topknots: Motivating People with Humor” by King Duncan included a version in which rocket scientist Werner Von Braun was the lecturer. The chauffeur was confronted with a tricky question, and the punchline was similar:9

The quick thinking chauffeur replied, “Sir, the solution to that problem is so simple, I’m really surprised you have asked me to give it to you. Indeed, to prove to you just how simple it is, I am going to ask my chauffeur to step forward and answer your question.”

In 1997 the reference “Physically Speaking: A Dictionary of Quotations on Physics and Astronomy” compiled by Carl C. Gaither and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither included a version of the anecdote featuring Einstein. The physicist was unable to give a full lecture because he had laryngitis; hence, the driver acted as a substitute. Yet, Einstein was still called upon when a complicated question was asked:10

Without missing a beat the driver replied, “That is ‘the’ most stupid and elementary question I’ve ever been asked. I bet even my chauffeur can answer it.”

In 1998 the anecdote appeared in “A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers” compiled by William J. Bausch. The lecturer was a “world-famous episcopal theologian” instead of a scientist or engineer. The chauffeur was a priest with simple garments, but the lecturer was a bishop with a fancy robe. When they swapped roles they exchanged clothes. The punchline was similar.11

In 2003 the prominent investor Charlie Munger delivered a speech at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The transcript was published in the third edition of “Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger”. He included a version of the joke featuring physicist Max Planck although he mentioned that the story was apocryphal. After telling the gag, Munger provided a didactic interpretation:12

The chauffeur, ready for the situation, replied, “I’m surprised that a citizen of an advanced city like Munich is asking so elementary a question, so I’m going to ask my chauffeur to respond.”

In the real world, it is critical to distinguish when you are “Max Planck,” and when you are the “chauffeur.” If you cannot respond legitimately to the next question, you lack true mastery and are likely outside your “Circle of Competence.”

In conclusion, this anecdote has evolved over time. It originated within Jewish folklore, and a version was circulating by 1926. The role of the brilliant individual has shifted between Ezekiel Landau, Jacob ben Wolf Kranz, Albert Einstein, Wernher von Braun, Max Planck, an unnamed theologian, and others.

Image Notes: Stylized time-lapse picture taken through the windshield of a moving car from Samuele Errico Piccarini at Unsplash.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to the researchers at Snopes who explored this topic and suggested an origin within Jewish folklore. The Snopes article contained citations beginning in 1950. Special thanks to Allan Olley who told QI about the Snopes article and presented germane scans from a reprint of the 1948 book “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore”. Also, thanks to Kimpire who told QI about the 1948 book and provided helpful links.

Update History: On June 5, 2023 the citations in 1926, 1948, and 1950 were added to the Medium article. The article was partially rewritten. On May 2, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated. Also, the full article was placed on this website.

  1. 1926 Copyright, Laughs from Jewish Lore by Jacob Richman, Chapter 1: Leaders in Israel, Story: Even His Driver Was a Scholar, Quote Page 30 and 31, Funk & Wagnalls, New York. (Full View in link ↩︎
  2. 1948 Copyright (Twenty-Ninth Printing 1972), A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, Part One: Jewish Salt, Chapter 11: A Rabbi for a Day, Quote Page 21, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  3. 1948 September 4, Saturday Review of Literature, Volume 31, Number 36, Trade Winds Bennett Cerf, Start Page 4, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩︎
  4. 1950 Copyright, Laughter Incorporated: The Cream of the Recent Crop of Stories and Anecdotes by Bennett Cerf, Chapter: Red Pastures, Quote Page 39 and 40, Garden City Books, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  5. 1958, Teacher’s Treasury of Stories for Every Occasion, Compiled by M. Dale Baughman, Topic: Speakers — Speaking — General, Quote Page 225 and 226, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  6. 1972, Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention, Record of Proceedings, Verbatim Transcripts, Meeting Held July 10, 1970 to August 5, 1970, Date: July 28, 1970, Speaker: Mr. Brown (Madison L. Brown), Quote Page 3257, Published by John W. Lewis, Secretary of State of Illinois, State House, Springfield, Illinois. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩︎
  7. 1978 January, Reader’s Digest, Volume 112, Number 669, Laughter, the Best Medicine, Quote Page 110, Column 1 and 2, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  8. 1978 August 5, Saturday Oklahoman & Times, Our Times by Wayne Mackey, Quote Page 15, Column 1 and 2, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 1987, Mule Eggs and Topknots: Motivating People with Humor by King Duncan, Topic: Knowledge, Quote Page 107, Seven Worlds Press, Knoxville, Tennessee. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  10. 1997, Physically Speaking: A Dictionary of Quotations on Physics and Astronomy by Carl C. Gaither and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither, Topic Albert Einstein, Quote Page 68, Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol, England. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  11. 1998, A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers, Compiled by William J. Bausch, Chapter 341: The Lecturer, Quote Page 392, Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  12. 2008 (2019 15th Printing), Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, Expanded Third Edition, Edited by Peter D. Kaufman, Chapter 4: Eleven Talks, Lecture Number 9: Academic Economics: Strengths and Faults after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs, Lecture Type: Herb Kay Undergraduate Lecture, Lecture Location: University of California, Santa Barbara Economics Department, Lecture Date: October 3, 2003, Start Page 374, Quote Page 399 and 400, The Donning Company Publishers, Virginia Beach, Virginia. (Verified with scans) ↩︎