Many Washington business barons didn't get the joke, but secret snickers emanated from the executive suites where Off The Wall Street Journal showed up in the morning mail last week.

No, Francis Ford Coppola is not negotiating an International Monetary Fund loan to buy the entire nation of Gambia as a set for his next movie, despite the front page story saying so.

Nor has the Internal Revenue Service decided that U.S. Steel can depreciate employes suffering from chronic diseases. And Atari doesn't really plan to acquire the Strategic Air Command so it can make its video games more realistic.

But anyone who devours daily the Journal's mandatory morning mishmash could appreciate the financial follies that inspired the 24-page parody of the business bible.

Make that anyone who doesn't live in Washington.

While 500,000 copies of Off The Wall Street Journal went on sale around the country, only 600 made it to Washington because the big local magazine distributor decided not to touch it.

"It's kind of embarrassing in your home town," lamented Peter Cohen, the 26-year-old Washington native who is president of Off The Wall Street Journal Inc. "The distribution company here didn't want it," he explained, though another 3,000 copies of the paper are to be distributed to newsstands and book stores here this week.

Cohen and some college friends from the University of Chicago dreamed up the Off The Wall idea. To turn inspiration into ink they recruited Tony Hendra and Larry Durocher, who published a parody called Not The New York Times when the real Times was on strike a couple of years ago.

Making jokes about politics and world affairs was a snap, Hendra said, but finance isn't nearly as funny. "We have an in item that reads, 'Existence of God proved conclusively, effect on market, page 29.' I think that sums up what the Wall Street Journal is all about."

Cohen & company's OTWSJ may satirize the world of Wall Street, but financially it's no joke. With $45,000 in cash and enough credit to create a $100,000 capitalization, Off The Wall etc. Inc. has sold more than $1 million worth of newspapers since April Fools Day.

The initial press run of half a million copies sold out at $2 apiece, another 85,000 copies have been reprinted so far and the backers figure the total reprint order could hit 250,000 copies, "depending on the shelf life."

Retailers and distributors get "over half" the cover price, but the creators of the parody paper have made too much money to talk about. "I hate to be cagey," said Cohen "but it's into six figures."

As a result, he's given up a brief career on the real Wall Street to go into business with some of his Off The Wall associates who Cohen says plan "to try to take our new-found assets and redeploy them into something else."

A new monthly magazine can quickly turn into a multi-million dollar rat hole, as plenty of publishers can attest, but a one-shot publication, Cohen claims, can be "a very low cost" way to break into the business. The National Lampoon began as a one-shot vehicle and Mad Magazine--little more than a one-joke publication--is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Any company that can parlay a $100,000 grubstake into $1 million worth of business ought to come to the attention of the real Wall Street Journal, but the Dow Jones & Co. publication has had nothing good to say about the nonsense knockoff.

"Tasteless" is the official WSJ response.

It's hard to argue with that judgment, when one front page feature describes the life of the executive mistress and another is a takeover story, with the headline, "Christians Seek Controlling Interest in Jewish Faith," that details a proposed tender offer for $85 a share in stock, covenants and first-born.

But Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca has no complaints about the ad that shows him promoting his newest model, "The Generic Car--no chrome, no name, no air conditioning, no new models, no brand identity, no rebates, nothing." Nothing but new evidence that while imitation may be the sheerist form of flattery, parody is pretty good publicity.

Mobil Oil executives may not be amused by the story reporting their company spent $65 million to acquire a Texas solar energy company only to learn that Mobil had already acquired the same business in 1973. Compared with the pie in the face Mobil threw its stockholders when it bought Montgomery Ward, buying something you already own might make sense.

For a real belly laugh, Off The Wall Street Journal carries an ad for Executive Pork Bellies: gold plated, for the commodity trader who has everything. Or digital wing-tip shoes, with a built-in microprocessor that automatically adds to your net worth when you step on someone else's toes to get ahead.

Not all the jokes are on capitalism; the familiar advertisement for South African krugerrands is satirized with "The Mitterrand," a coin of "socialist gold" made "of entirely worthless metal."

The bottom line of The Off The Wall Street Journal is the ultimate irony: where but on Wall Street could you set out to satirize making money and wind up raking in a million bucks?