Hey, did you see the one about...

Humor: Thanks to the Internet, sharing a joke has become fast, easy and even anonymous.

July 05, 1999|By Kathryn McKenzie Nichols | Kathryn McKenzie Nichols,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Stop me if you've read this one before.

That's right. Nobody tells jokes anymore -- they e-mail them.

For better or worse, humor has become a staple of the Internet, both for e-mailers who just have to share the latest one-liner, and those who love to surf humorous Web sites.

With a click of the mouse, you can send the latest Clinton joke to the hundreds of people in your e-mail circle. Or you can copy witticisms from the Web and pass them on through the electronic pathways.

If you have e-mail, no doubt you've received jokes about dumb blondes, Bill and Monica, Tinky Winky, Microsoft, "Star Wars" and people who don't understand their computers.

Bill Shein, humor columnist for America Online's Buzzsaw, said the proliferation of e-mail humor is the result of it being easy to pass along.

"It's easier than ever to share something that you find funny. Everyone who's online is gathered around one giant water cooler. And it takes only a few seconds to pass along a copy of something funny to your friends," Shein said in an e-mail interview.

"Most significantly, reading jokes in e-mail can easily be done while you're at work, without your boss knowing that you're just goofing off."

Buzzsaw, launched as a daily feature of the AOL News Channel in December 1996, receives about 125,000 visitors a week. Its interactive features like "The Lying Game" encourage submissions, which Shein said "produce some really top-quality content."

Sean Michael, a founder of interactive humor site Hecklers Online (www.hecklers .com), said that people like the anonymity of telling jokes in e-mail, where they can be more outrageous than in their everyday lives.

"All kinds of people send us things -- it might be a retired 70-year-old professor, a civil engineer in Washington, D.C., or a lawyer in New York," said Michael, based in Santa Monica, Calif. "That's the great thing about the online medium."

Michael and others on the Hecklers Online staff sift through thousands of jokes and funny lines that cyber-wits send them -- each day, typically in response to posted topics. The best of the bunch are put on the hecklers.com site to share with the universe.

"We don't have a single comedy writer," said Michael, who started Hecklers Online in 1995 with Mike Ragsdale and Scott Davis. "All our content is generated for us."

Sometimes this leads to odd situations. Michael recalls posting a Top Ten list that a few hours later turned up in submissions.

What had happened, Michael said, was that the Top Ten list had been copied by someone and had gone through several generations of e-mailing. Then someone sent it back to Hecklers, not realizing that it was the source.

E-mail has led to the phenomenon of jokes making the rounds within days or hours. Have you received a funny e-mail lately? Chances are that everyone else has received the same thing.

Not everyone is amused by this.

E-mail has become a steady drip of dubious prose, bad jokes and impatient requests, said Seth Shostak, who wrote an opinion column for the Jan. 18 Newsweek, "You Call This Progress?"

He calls it "the greatest threat to civilization since lead dinnerware addled the brains of the Roman aristocracy."

Jokes are among what Shostak terms "junk e-mail"; he hits the delete key when one comes along.

However, the majority of those who exchange e-mail seem to like the funny stuff.

Is this humor eruption a sign that there is a bunch of frustrated standup comics out there in cyberspace?

"From a career standpoint, I certainly hope not," said Shein. "Seriously, I think that the Internet has created an outlet for creative expression, and there's an audience out there to be entertained 24/7."

Michael notes, "Hecklers Online gives the people in the audience the chance to get up on stage in the spotlight."

If you prefer passing along the jokes instead of creating them, Shein has a few suggestions.

First, he highly recommends visiting AOL Keyword: Buzzsaw and the new site (www.witcity.com) on the Web to satisfy daily humor needs.

Also, said Shein:

Try not to become known as the person who sends so many e-mail jokes that people start to wonder what you do all day.

Use discretion; send only the best jokes.

Always credit the material; if you are copying something from a Web site, include the author's byline, Web site address, and any copyright information.

There are hundreds of jokes and mailing lists on the Web -- far too many to print here. For a good listing, go to www.yahoo.com and enter the word "jokes" (without the quotes) in the search bar. Moms and dads: Many of the sites that appear may not be suitable for young children, so check them first.

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