It may be the most idiotic trend since the panic set in about VPL (visible panty line). And experts say it's going absolutely nowhere. But in this rare age in which experts and idiots are two sides of the same coin, we can't afford to ignore it.
The WASP joke. As in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. And like the Polish joke. Only different.
Not that we haven't had WASP jokes all the time in, say, the complete works of John Cheever, or 50-odd years of New Yorker cartoons. Or Dan Aykroyd doing his Julia Child imitation on "Saturday Night Live." Or just Julia Child.
But in an age in which a Polish pope with two PhDs is pumping out big-time charisma, we are embarrassingly overdue on a replacement for the Polish joke, which has so far refused to slink off and die the death it deserves. The problem is that human beings have always savored jokes about both stupidity and ethnicity. The Polish joke took care of both, inheriting the tradition of moron jokes and those old anecdotal embarrassments about Father Duffy and Rabbi Weinberg, or Rastus and the sheriff, or whatever. (In Canada, the Poles get replaced by "Newfies," or Newfoundlanders. In Texas it's "Aggies," or students at Texas A&M.)
In any case, the trend went national a couple of months ago, when Buddy Hackett told a WASP joke on "The Tonight Show." He got it from Wally Hankin, at radio station WLLE in Raleigh, N.C., who got it, he thinks, from a newspaper.
It was a variation on the classic lightbulb theme, as in: How many feminists does it take to replace a lightbulb? (Five - one to screw it in, four to write novels about it.)
Or how many Californians? (Five - one to screw it in, four to share the experience.)
Or how many Poles? (Two - one to hold the lightbulb, the other to turn the stepladder around and around.)
So Hackett, thanks to Hankin, thanks to a newspaper, asked the nation how many WASPs it took, the answer being: Two - one to call the electrician, the other to make sure the martinis are chilled.
"I made up one of my own, too." says Hackett. "Ya wanna hear it? How many WASPs does it take to plan a trip to Israel? Two - one to ask where, the other to ask why."
New York columnist Liz Smith hedged her trend bets yesterday by running a stack of WASP jokes which included:
What do you call a sexy WASP honeymoon? Mission Impossible.
What do you get when you cross a WASP with an ape? A hairy chairman of the board.
What is a WASP's idea of an orgy? Xerox shares splitting.
How can you recognize a WASP at a nudist colony? He's the one with the Wall Street Journal on his lap.
If these jokes have failed to provoke raucous and prolonged laughter, Hackett will not be upset.
"WASP jokes can't happen. You'd have to start from scratch and they'd be so highly stylized. Polish jokes were just moron jokes and Little Audrey jokes with a new twist. But WASP jokes . . . see, WASP's have no sense of humor. When Johnny Carson started doing goon monologues he lost his WASP standing immediately."
Mark Russell made his bid recently with: "Why didn't the WASP finish eating his corned beef sandwich at the Woodmont Country Club? Because the chef ran out of raisin bread."
The problem here is that if you're a WASP, you probably don't get it, unless your palate has been schooled by a good Jewish delicatessen, and you know that only an idiot would put corned beef on raisin bread.
Henny Youngman, who answers his own phone in New York ("Is this the real Henny Youngman? Take my wife . . . please."), says, "I don't tell WASP jokes, no. All I use is Polish jokes. I say, 'My brother tells these jokes, I wouldn't tell these jokes.' Then I tell them. You hear about the Polish jigsaw puzzle? One piece.
"Sure, I could tell WASP jokes. Be the same jokes. WASPS, they're no better than anybody else. You hear about the new WASP jigsaw puzzle? One piece. See what I mean?"
Somehow it doesn't work.
"Sure. WASPs aren't hot.Nobody's talking about WASPs. To tell you the truth, I hadn't even heard the term for years."
The problem with the Polish joke, all these years, has been that it always seems faintly wicked. And as Oscar Wilde said about was, as long as it "is regarded as wicked it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular."
WASP jokes aren't vulgar. "How many courses in a WASP dinner? Seven - six martinis and a cheese-and-cracker." Nothing vulgar there. But there's nothing wicked, either. Actually, it's more of a martini joke than a WASP joke.
Richard Pryor has been doing white people routines for years, but he lumps the Poles with the WASPs with all the rest of them. The English do "twit" bits about the follies of the upper classes, but since they're nearly all WASPs over there, they're upper-class jokes, not WASP jokes. They also do jokes about the Scots, but the gags all revolve around stinginess, as Genoese jokes do in Italy. Italy also has carabinieri jokes, about its beautifully uniformed but largely ceremonial police force. Some are identical to the Italian jokes which Polish jokes superseded: How many carabinieri sharpshooters did it take to put the first bullet into Mussolin's body? Seventy-five.
There was even said to be an American joke in Poland: How many Americans does it take to replace a light bulb? One. But this, of course, was just another Polish joke, with a twist.
"I see a lot of projection going on in Polish jokes, to put it in Freudian terms," says Georgetown University social psychologist Suzanne Pallak. The people who have power aren't certain how long they'll have it, and they project their fears about their own abilities on other people - they say they're stupid, for instance. They reassure the powerful that the people they control are incompetent."
Freud himself, in "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious," said that all "foreign people" have traditionally been fair game. "All moral codes about the subjection of active hatred bear even today the clearest indications that they were originally meant for a small community of clansmen. As we may all consider ourselves members of some nation, we permit ourselves for the most part to forget these restrictions in matters touching a foreign people."
So seeing what WASPs are a minority just like any other, why is it that the WASP joke is the most flaccid fad to come along since mood rings? Or Billy Beer? Or WIN buttons
First of all, it's WASPs who need WASP jokes to replace their beloved Polish jokes. Second, the ultimate WASP joke is that even if the greatest comic minds in America devised scores of WASP jokes, WASPs probably wouldn't get them. The reason is that, third, the element of cruelty would be removed by the fact that the WASPs would adore having people telling jokes about them - they'd love the attention.
Perhaps this point is made better by a WASP joke:
Why do WASP's smile at lighting? Because they think they're having their picture taken. CAPTION: Illustration, THE RISE OF THE WASP JOKE by Susan Davis for The Washington Post