This caption is not a pun about raising Cain or how able Cain is, so, in a sense, progress has been made. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

I know a joke candidate when I see one. He's the Sanjaya of the
circuit. He wouldn't be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He'd be William Hung Goes to Hollywood.

I'm not saying this because he has a mustache. I'm not saying this because he appears, from nearly all accounts by anyone who has been to a critical state, to have no campaign apparatus at all. I am not even saying this because he appears to be using his campaign funds to buy himself a thoroughly modern book tour.

I say this because of his popularity. I say this because of his ads.

At this stage of the game, poll numbers indicate no more
willingness to vote for a hopeful than initial call-in totals
indicate whom we want to prevail on “American Idol.” We just don't want the personable Cain kicked out of the lineup yet

I know whereof I speak. I never thought this experience would come in handy, but I was once a joke candidate too. We were Waite Petri 08, and we were going to replace the student council with a Habsburg prince.

The joke candidate has three distinguishing features: congeniality,
a fundamentally incoherent but catchy Big Idea and a dogged refusal to admit that you are joking. The last is the most critical.

You make people laugh at debates and candidate forums. With your equal time, you unleash a few reliable punch lines, and everyone looks forward to hearing you restate the Moderately Terrible Plan you have concocted. The form of what you say is standard. The content is sublimely ridiculous. But forget fact-checking. You can't kill a cartoon platform plank any more than you can kill a cartoon character. That’s a mole that just won’t stay whacked.

Another hallmark of the joke candidacy is terrible ads, ads that no one in his, her, or its right mind would think were remotely effective. Have you seen Cain’s ads?

In his most recent ad, his mustachioed campaign manager explains that he supports Herman Cain. Then he blows smoke into the camera. Then Herman Cain smiles slowly and creepily and the ad is over. This is the sort of thing you expect to see late at night on Cartoon Network. Rick Perry’s not ready for prime time? Herman Cain’s not ready for afternoon cable.

Yet right now, he’s winning. Technically.

This is by far the best joke campaign since, well, maybe ever. I don't think anyone else could have pulled it off.

But I am beginning to fear that it's gotten out of hand.

He’s doing the political equivalent of shooting the moon, playing a ridiculous, extravagant hand in the hopes that no one will notice or call his bluff.

When Cain was still behind, seventh or eighth out of nine, it was fine that he was a joke. He was the guy at the side pulpit offering levity.

Now he’s the “front-runner”?

Even Jennifer Rubin suggests that Cain is a practical joke.

Everyone likes the joke candidate.

"I would bring a sense of humor to the white house," Herman Cain said
at that debate. That’s the truth.

If people sense that you aren’t to be taken seriously, you can take outlandish stances and videos can surface in which you sing about pizza — and none of it can affect you. You're rubber! Just be sure to show up at all the debates and remember to wear a tie. Anything that would hurt a “real” candidate only helps you. Anything that would end a “real” campaign only makes you stronger.

But the converse is also true. It might help Mitt Romney if anyone ever discovered evidence that he was joking.

But for Cain? That would ruin everything.

The trick is keeping the wink out of your eye. The moment you imply that your intentions are not serious, the moment you acknowledge the camera, the ride ends, the princess wakes up, and the spell is broken, and you are just a guy with a very, very expensive book tour.

Right now, we’re laughing with him. But if we ever discovered that he was laughing at us, this will quickly stop being funny.