It was more than predictable pranks between the press and pols last night at the annual Washington Press Club congressional dinner, when Press Secretary James Brady was publicly, and triumphantly, honored.

Brady, who is still recovering from injuries he received in the assassination attempt on President Reagan last March, entered the Sheraton Hotel's grand ballroom in a wheelchair, accompanied by his wife, Sarah, and his daughter, Missy. Making his trademark thumbs-up gesture, he took his seat at the head table, before 1,400 people and thunderous applause. Earlier, at a cocktail reception, the press secretary greeted one guest after another who approached him with extended hands and smiles, and said to at least one visitor, "It's going to be a wonderful evening."

So the roasting and boasting that goes on each year between journalists and their sources momentarily diverged from its well-trodden path. But after Brady's grand entrance, a video greeting by President Reagan and dinner, the tribal ritual ensued as usual. The jokes this year were generally received by a silent audience (and a few boos), but clearly the hit of the evening was Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), whose stories, quips and philosophy of life included:

* More cows than people in the state of Wyoming because "we prefer 'em."

* A snide reference to the tobacco industry that went something like, "Lips that touch a cigaroot will never rest below my snoot."

* An impotent bull that goes hog wild after a vet administers something tasting "like vanilla."

* And, "The reason the Sagebrush Rebellion is on the wane is because politicians never keep their promises. But I guess that's why this country has survived 200 years."

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) also held their own with:

* A mobsteresque "token of appreciation" to Rep. Kent Hance (D-Tex.) from Chicago's Rostenkowski, of two cement blocks with rubber feet sticking out.

* Rostenkowski's claim that he maintains his youth and grace by having sat through 23 years of State of the Union Addresses -- in other words, "23 new beginnings."

* And Moynihan, dressed in academic robes complete with graduation cap, alluded to David Stockman's career at Harvard ("where he lost his divinity") and stint in the Reagan woodshed by saying, "Stockman never did actually believe that confession was good for the soul. But he did believe that it was good for David Stockman."

The other appointed comedians were Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Calif.), Hance and Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.). Schroeder said during cocktails that her 11-year-old asked her, "Why did the press ask you to speak? I thought the press thought politicians were liars, not comedians.'"

Well, getting back to the floor. Competition thrived not only on the podium last night: while the standups were busy preparing their texts, sit-downs scrambled for prestigious guests. Various publications and television networks had their own receptions and dinner tables, with a mysterious matching between journalist and public official. For example, CBS anchor Dan Rather brought Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor and her husband, John; Phil Gailey of The New York Times took along former vice president Walter Mondale; ABC anchor Sam Donaldson "just sat at the ABC table," across from defense secretary Caspar Weinberger; NBC Washington Bureau Chief Sid David played host to White House spokesman David Gergen; and so on.

Inevitably, talk turned to the President's State of the Union address and Democrats were especially vocal. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a guest of Newsweek, called it "superbly-delivered and well-executed, but it didn't give much reassurance to people who are concerned with high unemployment and economic problems." Likewise, Rostenkowski said earlier, "It was an exquisite performance. The content I'm not so sure about."

But back to the jokes, or lack of them.Political speech writer Robert Orben remarked, afterward, "Someday you'll stand up before an audience and feel the anxiety and the trauma of humor. Humor is the most honest of emotions. Applause for a speech can be insincere, but with humor, if the audience doesn't like it there's no faking it."

The evening's bipartisan spirit and general congeniality was summed up by WPC President Carol Richards, who said in reference to the politically mixed panel of speakers, "A liberal is someone with both feet firmly planted in midair. Nowadays, a conservative is someone with both feet firmly planted on a liberal."