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High Interest, Low Humor

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998; Page D1

It’s been a little over a week (is that all?) since the news broke about President Clinton’s alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky, and the jokes are raining down like seltzer water in a Three Stooges movie.

If only these jokes were that intellectual.

The scandal has bum’s-rushed through the popular culture in essentially two forms: breathless news reports and bawdy sexual humor. The unedited Internet is the chief conduit of unprintable yuks. But the late-night talk shows are coming close.

It’s part of a comedian’s responsibility to test the limits of acceptability. But it used to happen in stand-up clubs or on cable specials. Not on free network TV.

When Johnny Carson spoke to a sleepy Mr. and Mrs. Middle America, the "Tonight Show" monologue was fit to print. But now, because the Lewinsky allegations involve not just sex but a specific sexual act, printing excerpts from last night’s Jay Leno monologue is a judgment call. Consider this bit from Wednesday:

"Now we know why Clinton’s eyes always seem so puffy and red," Leno teased. "Mace."

On Monday, David Letterman offered the "Top 10 White House Jobs that Sound Dirty." No. 5: "Waxing Air Force One." No. 1: "Polling."

The greatest bulk of Clinton sex jokes, though, are storming across the culture via e-mail, the global office water cooler of the ’90s. The Internet-relayed jokes are characterized by their sheer volume and their often unrepeatable tone.

K Street lawyer Cindy Fornelli was off from work Tuesday. When she came in the next day and turned on her computer, she had 12 e-mails containing several jokes each. Most were from Wall Street traders and brokers, a traditional source of rapid-response humor keyed to current events. As she began reading, more e-mail poured into her PC.

"I couldn’t keep up with them," she says.

The volume of e-mail jokes – only a trickle way back in the old days of O.J. – began to build steadily through the deaths of John Denver, Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono, she says. With Clinton, they’ve reached diluvian proportions. And Fornelli observed something else as well.

"I’ve noticed a lot of them are recycled jokes," she says.

Not just repeats. (Though the top repeats making the rounds seem to be: the Titanic joke, the warm-ankles joke and the one with the punch line that rhymes with "follow the leader.") These Internet laffmeisters are deploying creaky Borscht Belt shtick, as crude and hackneyed as any Jackie Mason routine. It’s a tested formula, passed down through generations of comics: "Didja hear the one about (insert name of sexual buffoon here)‚. . ." This time, the butt of the joke happens to be the president of the United States.

Today’s Clinton sex jokes are essentially the same sex jokes passed around about Hugh Grant, arrested for having oral sex with a Los Angeles prostitute in 1995, and Rob Lowe, accused of videotaping himself having sex with an underage woman during the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988.

Consider the age difference between Clinton and Lewinsky, for instance. One 1988 Lowe joke went like this:

"Rob Lowe’s got a new movie out: ‘Close Encounters With the Third Grade.’"

Tuesday night, Leno’s monologue echoed that gag:

"I saw one of those White House spin-doctor lawyer guys on the news today, and his latest explanation was that Bill merely reached out to Monica in a fatherly way. You know, like Woody Allen and Soon-Yi."

Sorting through the e-mail, one has a tough time finding a legitimately clever Clinton joke (one that surfaced was a Seussian rhyme called "Starr I Are") among the hundreds of junior-high locker room jokes, which seem to dominate late 20th-century American humor, says a comedy professor. Yes, "comedy professor."

"It doesn’t do much for the literature of humor when you lower it to the most common denominator of lowering your pants," says Mel Helitzer, who teaches a journalism class in comedy writing at Ohio University. Helitzer, who used to write jokes for Ernie Kovacs, knows he’s fighting a losing battle. "I tell my students, ‘Up your standards,’ and they say, ‘Up yours!’"

The first president in this half of the century to be a punch line for nasty potshots was Lyndon Johnson, says Helitzer, who wandered into the cross hairs of radicalized, taste-testing ’60s comics. With Nixon, the floodgates opened. Now comes Zippergate or Profligate or Tailgate or a dozen other -gates.

"Unfortunately, the presidency has come down in esteem and it gets the same kind of humor as Pee-wee Herman," says Helitzer. "We call it nihilistic humor, and no one is beyond it, from God to the pope to Mother Teresa all the way down to Bill Clinton."

Today, our social velocity is driven by 24-hour TV news and light-speed e-mail – the perfect sanctuary for the crude one-liner, Helitzer says. There’s simply no time or inclination to craft the well-honed, subtle, elegant satire or parody of Evelyn Waugh and Robert Benchley.

This is e-mail, after all, not Punch. The beauty of it is its speed, its terseness, its disposability. You’re at work, at your desk, in between phone calls. You can read and forward a joke in an eye-blink.

Helitzer predicts that people will tire of Clinton jokes within the next week, because the saturation point is being reached faster, thanks to the Internet. He may be right. The "subject" line of one e-mail in circulation yesterday was scented with obligation: "More damn Clinton jokes."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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