Humor night at the Washington Press Club. 3 Comics 3. Bob Orben, who wrote jokes for Jerry Ford (not to be confused with Chevy Chase, who wrote jokes about Jerry Ford), Liz Carpenter, who was Lady Johnson's press secretary and is now the assistant secretary for public affairs with the Department of Education (what's a public affair in education -- See Dick run away with Jane?) and Mark Shields, a longtime political consultant, now an editorial writer with the Washington Post (sort of like being a surgeon; it's so tough to sign your work).

Tough crowd. Lots of blue suits. Lots of support stockings. Some of these people looked like they'd been around a lot longer than Ronald Reagan. Let's put it this way: At their age a knee slapper could be fatal. r

"Humor," the moderator said at this panel discussion last at the Sheraton-Carlton, "is a very serious business."

That's why they only let him moderate.

Okay, let's go straight to the videotape.

Orben, who looks a little like Frank Perdue after hyperventilating laughting gas, went first. Many of his lines dealt with the sad financial state of those who write jokes for politicians. "You often get calls from politicians asking, 'Can you help me out?'" Orben said. "That's a code phrase for, 'Can you write something for free?' The first thing I tell them is, 'Anything worth doing is worth doing for money.'

Orben closed with a funny Richard Nixon story. The joke goes that in 1973, when the stock market hit bottom, Nixon called a famous Wall Street broker to the White House, wined him and dined him and then, as they sat around sipping brandy, Nixon said to the broker, "I'm convinced we'll experience four more years of sound economic growth. In fact, if I wasn't president, I'd be buying stocks right now."

"Mr. Nixon," the broker said, "if you weren't president, so would I."

Orben said that joke got no laughs at all when he began telling it on the lecture circuit. But as Watergate wore on, it was the most sure-fire yuk he had.

"That's how you knew," Orben said, "that Nixon was on the way out."

Carpenter followed with about 15 minutes of anecdotes, a routine she could easily have done on Dinah. She said that the three funniest presidents were Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, but her two funniest comments were about Warren G. Harding and Lyndon Johnson.

"You may be interested," she said, "in knowing that Al Jolson wrote the Warren G. Harding campaign song, 'Warren G. Harding, We Need You.' [Pause] Which, as it turned out, we didn't."

Her LBJ story was prefaced by her comment that LBJ was a vigorous campaigner; he loved the stump. "We were doing a whistle-stop train tour, and we were in the South, in a city called Culpeper," she said. "It was the 1960 campaign and LBJ was the vice-presidential candidate, stumping for Kennedy. Well, he just wouldn't stop talking, and finally the man in charge of our scheduling told the engineer to just pull the train out. The last thing LBJ said was, 'I ask you, what did Dick Nixon ever do for Culpeper?"

"An old man's voice range out, 'Hell, what did anyone ever do for Culpeper?"

It was a tough act to follow, but Shields was up to it.He started by telling his favorite Liz Carpenter story. During the 1972 presidential campaign John Connally had organized Democrats for Nixon. It was Carpenter, Shields said, who said of Connally, "If John Connally had been at the Alamo, he would have organized Texans for Santa Ana."

Shields then scored a 9.9 with his original line about Jerry Brown. "You see," he said, "there's a wide culture gap between California and the rest of the country. Brown found out how wide when he first came east to campaign and the people in New Hampshire thought [WORD ILLEGIBLE] was a congressman from New Jersey."

Mel Brooks once differentiated between comedy and tragedy: "Comedy is you falling into an open manhole. Tragedy is me cutting my finger." In Washington, the people falling into open manholes are politicians. If the current craze in jokes is the How Many (. . .) Does it Take to Screw in a Lightbulb gambit, the Washington spin on that joke is political.

How many Abscam agents does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Fifty. One to do it and 49 to film it and leak it to the press.

How many Republicans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Fifty. One to screw it in. One to say Ronald Reagan was willing to let everyone do it, but George Bush refused. And 48 to complain about it on the nightly news.

"The key to Washington humor," wrote Richard Reeves, "is the two words 'politics' and 'experts.'" It is the humor of information. That's why the topical one-liner is the essence of Washington humor -- the audience already has the background if the subject is political."

The more current a political joke, the better. The optimum Washington joke would be about something that happened 20 seconds ago. Anyone who didn't laugh would be admitting he didn't know what was going on, the worst sin imaginable.

"John Sears" can be a punch line here.

How many Reaganites does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Certainly not John Sears.

So that this doesn't get boring, let's go with some classic political humor.

Remember Scoop Jackson's try for the presidency? It was Scoop who, when given a Nixon joke that ended on the line, "Pardon me," changed the ending to, "Excuse me." And what killed Jerry Ford was his timing. If he was a cliff diver, he'd be the one to wait for low tide before jumping.

John Wilkes, responding to the Earl of Sandwich's prediction that Wilkes would die either by the gallows or from veneral disease: "That depends, my Lord, whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

Al Smith's debate opponent: "Go ahead, Al, tell 'em all you know. It won't take long," Al Smith: "If I tell 'em all we both know it won't take any longer."

Candidate: "I was born a Democrat, have been a Democrat all my life, and expect to die a Democrat." Heckler: "Not very ambitious, are you?"

Woman temperature candidate: "I'd rather commit adultery than take a glass of beer." Heckler: "Who wouldn't?"

At the end of the panel discussion last night Orben handed out his "Orben's Comedy Filler," the comedy newsletter he sells. He has also writen some 44 books on comedy, and, if nothing else, has killed a lot of trees in the pursuit of humor.

Here is some of humor.

"I don't know why I think Sen. Kennedy may have gone too far in his latest accusations against President Carter. Maybe it's the stopping of grain shipments to Massachusetts."

"There may be a very good reason for President Carter staying in his office. It's against the law to leave the scene of an accident."

"I'd have nothing against the Rose Garden strategy if Jimmy were running for gardener."

Always leave 'em laughing.