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Hit 'Send' And the World Laughs With You

Ramick scrolls. Click. Up pops a gallery of fictitious Air Force medals, including the "Missed Every Deployment Ribbon," decorated with a smiley face, and the "Drinking Buddy's Commendation Ribbon," decorated with a martini glass.

Ramick scrolls. Click. Up pops what looks like a formal oil painting of our 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton, looking solemn and presidential. But wait. What's that movement in the lower left corner? Oops! It's the head of Monica bobbing up from below the desk. Clinton pushes the head back down. He's trying desperately to maintain his solemnity, but the head keeps popping up.

Ramick scrolls. This time he doesn't click. Instead, he reads the subject line on the e-mail: "Where the hell do you find these jokes?"

Good question. And the answer is: He gets them the same way you do -- they appear in his computer as if by magic, sent by relatives and friends and relative friends.

Ramick is just one link in a secret worldwide conspiracy -- a shadowy cabal of anonymous operatives working to make sure that when you check your e-mail, you'll find some bizarre bit of humor amid the ads for penis enlargers and the letters from people who promise to send you $10 million if you'll give them your bank account number.

Another secret agent of this cabal is Doug Holton, 54, a retired Air Force major now living in Florida. He's the man who supplies Ramick with many of his jokes, including those fake Air Force medals. Holton gets the stuff from military pals all over the world.

"People used to stand around the water cooler and tell jokes," he says. "Now we have home computers to do it."

"What you're seeing on the Internet is the next step in folk humor," says Mark Schaffer, co-author of "The Office Humor Book," a 1985 collection of Xeroxed humor. "The new technology is creating a new network for anonymous humor."

"It's modern folklore," Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, said shortly before he died March 30. "The Internet shows that folklore isn't dead. It's just gone from face-to-face stuff to the computer."

Dundes, who was among America's most famous and prolific folklorists, loved Internet humor and he eagerly forwarded jokes to a wide circle of friends, sometimes adding comments identifying the gags as modern variations of some thousand-year-old fable or folk tale or Bible story.

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