There’s got to be a better way! (Reuters)

Haven’t we learned all that there is to know about these people?

Usually, when people begin a joke, they manage the caveat — “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.” No such luck. At every debate, we hear the same tired quips: the exact number of Michele Bachmann’s children, the exact number of jobs that Rick Perry lovingly fostered, the exact number of dollars that Ron Paul believes it costs to air-condition our foreign wars.

And no one seems to be joking, with the possible exception of Newt Gingrich, the only one who ever appears to be having any fun.

The debates claim to demand serious answers but reward sound bites. The short-response format limits serious discussion and means that only by the 12th debate will we actually have heard the equivalent of a full speech by Rick Santorum.

And Thursday night’s debate was just more of the same, I can say, now, several hours before it begins.

It’s not that I’m opposed to getting to know more about the candidates. But who on Earth thinks that debates are the best way to do this?

I’m not advocating that we “delve deeper into new media” or “socialize” or “realify” or do any of the newfangled maybe-verbs that dominate the discussion these days. If the Twitter debate did anything, it proved that the question, “Is there anything less substantive and sillier than a live primary debate?” is not rhetorical.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, to quote the creepiest proverb ever coined.

A few better options:

The Rev. Peter Gomes said that the most intimate thing you could do with another person was eat with him. Why not try that? Have a giant table placed before the candidates, Last-Supper-style (Rick Perry would feel right at home) and see what develops. At best, you learn a lot about those there (why is only Newt eating? Who thought serving corn dogs was a good idea?). At worst, you have an instant Eugene O’Neill play. And it would answer the real questions of character: Who’s rude to the waiter? Who hoards hash browns in his or her pockets? Who pockets the silverware, muttering, “It’s worth more than the lot of ye”?

It’s been claimed by legendary French kings (and some people in the Men Seeking Women section of Craigslist) that the only way to know if a mate is suitable is to take him to an undisclosed location and chop logs with him. Why not try that with the candidates? It would be a change from the sort of log-rolling that generally happens. And for those who are swayed by that sort of thing, it would provide an occasion to decide which of the beefcake candidates are more cake than beef.

Being president requires more than just an ability to generate pundit-puzzling sound bites. The run-up to the election ought to include more realistic tests. I submit that the last hour of every debate should bring in a UCB-trained team of improvisers to play through test scenarios with the presidential hopefuls.

The phone rings at 2 a.m., asking for Hillary. “Yes and!” You’re golfing with John Boehner and he seems to be undercounting his strokes. “Yes and!” China calls wanting to know if next Tuesday would be a good time for you to pay it back, since it wants to buy some high-speed rail it’s had its eye on for a while. “Yes and!” The Debt Ceiling won’t get up no matter how much you yell. “Yes and! Yes and!”

There’s got to be something more interesting than just reheating the usual-suspect-looking leftovers. Even Miss Universe doesn’t judge entirely on short responses. I’m not suggesting we initiate a swimsuit contest. But if one of the contestants is a ventriloquist, I’d like to know now, not later, when mysterious demonic voices are echoing through the Oval Office.

Look, if I wanted to watch a group of semi-polished talents shuffling awkwardly around on a garish stage, the “X-Factor’s” on now.