COLUMN ONE : Man, Can't You Take a Joke? : In the 'Year of the Woman,' dumb-men jokes are in vogue. It's a watershed in comedy history--which, by the way, has left some guys unamused.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cause was politically correct and so, it turned out, was the humor.

"So didja see the cover of Life magazine this month?" comedian Diane Ford asked the mixed-gender audience at the comedy benefit for the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault. " 'What if women ran America?' . . . I can think of a couple changes we'd make right away."

And off she went: a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with models from Big and Beautiful catalogues; beer commercials featuring "the Swedish jock strap team," and the clincher--"expiration dates on men's underwear!"

Men, it seems, have become the last safe butt of a joke.

Whether this is a fleeting humor fad or reflective of socially significant change depends on whom you ask in this "Year of the Woman."

Men's Movement member and Playboy magazine columnist Asa Baber sees the latest rash of dumb-men jokes as part of a 20-year onslaught by the most radical of America's feminists, those he thinks want superiority--not equality.

"I think there is a strong element of anti-male rhetoric that is politically correct in this culture," Baber says. ". . . It's sort of the white-men-are-slime era, it's definitely out there and I think it does affect the culture."

Joseph Boskin, a Boston University professor and author who has examined humor as a social and political form, says history is being made.

"We're in a period now which I call joke wars," Boskin said. "For the first time in American history, minority groups have been able to retaliate against their oppressors in humor as they've never been able to before."

Oh, lighten up already! says comedian Ford. "This whole term male-bashing --if women did it for 30 years, we still wouldn't even the score. I say, learn to laugh at yourself, like women have had to over the years. Develop a sense of humor. Or," she adds with a giggle, "at least marry one."

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So, you know why dumb-blonde jokes are one-liners? So men can understand them!

What's the difference between government bonds and men? Bonds mature.

How do you force that man of yours to do sit-ups? Put the TV remote control between his toes.

What does a man consider a seven-course meal? Hot dog and a six-pack.

Why's it a good thing there are women astronauts? When the crew gets lost in space, someone will ask directions.

Toward the end of summer, these and half a dozen other male-busting jokes seemed to be circulating around the country.

"I called my mother up one day," said college student Ted Thompson, "and my mother told me the whole list."

Photocopies passed among co-workers on both coasts and the telephone carried them back and forth between distant offices.

The national press corps heard a bunch of them as the presidential campaigns toured the country. During the Republican and Democratic conventions a group of women published a newspaper called Getting It Gazette--meaning men don't--that was peppered with humor deriding males.

By August, even congresswomen reportedly got into the act, faxing jokes to one another.

But sociologists and comics say the only thing new is the list of jokes; humor poking fun at men has been popular for some time now.

Witness "Roseanne," a top-rated TV series about a working-class family--the Conners--starring comedian Roseanne Arnold. Wisecracks about men are a trademark of her stand-up gigs, and they remain part of the loving barbs she trades with Dan, her TV hubby, played by John Goodman.

After learning that their teen-age daughter has lost her virginity, Dan says, "It almost makes me want to go back and apologize to your father for having sex with you." Retorts Roseanne: "Oh, that's all right Dan. It's enough that you apologized to me ."

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Some observers believe the "Year of the Woman"--and the latest round of man-needling jokes--was triggered by the outrage that resulted from Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings. After days of nationally televised testimony that held millions of Americans transfixed, Thomas was confirmed despite allegations by former employee Anita Hill that he sexually harassed her.

Invariably, discussion of gender-based humor draws up the bigger picture: male-female relations, the history and progress of--or backlash against--the women's and men's movements, and who is reacting to whom.

From the Jewish-American princess jokes decades ago through last year's batch of dumb-blonde jokes--all are "male retaliation against the women's movement and social change in the United States, which affected their role," Boskin says.

Alan Dundes, a Berkeley anthropology professor specializing in folk humor, says "castration humor" and legends are ancient in many cultures, and the recent batch of male jokes is similar to a round of them compiled in books that compared men, unfavorably, to cucumbers. Many of them are about sex, but virtually all of them "are folk commentary on women's complaints about men."

Women have been ridiculed in humor for centuries, Dundes says, as have a variety of ethnic minorities--from bad-driver and burned-meatloaf jokes to dingbat humor a la the "Honeymooners" and "I Love Lucy."

"It's bogus political consciousness to claim now that (white men) are victims of political correctness," Boskin said. "When WASP jokes appeared about the same time as the Jewish-American princess jokes did, WASPS . . . hollered loudly that here they were being sullied . . . and one never heard from them when all the other ethnic jokes--anti-black, anti-female jokes--were being told."

He noticed the men-as-nincompoop jokes about the time school let out for the summer. "They may be around for a couple years, or until the war between the sexes balances out."

One way to do battle, Boskin said, is with ridicule, and "one of the ways of doing that is through humor, partly because it's a socially acceptable form for women."

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A comic like Judy Tenuta takes it to the extreme, riding men around the stage and calling them "stud puppets." At a Sept. 3 benefit in Anaheim for the late comic Sam Kinison--ironic since he was often called a misogynist--Tenuta drew big laughs from men and women with barbs about the traditional wife and mother: "Sure, I want to get tied to the stove and make pancakes for some pipe fitter ."

Feminist Susan Brownmiller, author of "Against Our Will," a landmark history of sexual violence, dismisses the importance of the dumb-guy jokes.

"I laughed at a few of them. . . . I wouldn't say it's a big thing, except that the last group to be criticized (as a group) seems to be white men. . . . It's a positive thing."

But she added, "I don't really care to dignify it by giving it a great significance. It's just a blip on the screen."

Comic Ford agrees. At a recent show, she recalled that the comic who preceded her spent 30 minutes telling jokes about how he can't date women over 30 years old because he says they are "mean bitches."

"And all the guys are laughing in the audience, 'Hah! Hah! Hah!,' " she said after the cable television fund-raiser. "I walk out, I'm a woman over 30, and I tell this joke: 'Men like to run their fingers through their hair. That's why, when they go bald, they start wearing really baggy pants.' And all the guys in the audience boo .

"I said OK, you guys, you think all these jokes that bash women are funny, you laugh and laugh, and I tell one teeny joke that isn't one-tenth the magnitude of bashing that this other guy was saying, and you say"--pause for whiny voice--" 'Ouch, ouch!' Well, wear a cup, boys."

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Greg Howard, Minneapolis creator of the nationally syndicated Sally Forth comic strip about a spirited working wife and mother, points out that comedy is almost always at someone's expense. And he believes that humor has historically been used to cast the "downtrodden" in a bad light, women most certainly included.

His feminist-minded Sally Forth character has launched her share of complaints about her husband, Ted, and her boorish male boss.

"But they are never," Howard says, "vicious or relationship-threatening barbs."

Comic-strip husband Ted Forth spent early August bemoaning the male-bashing trend. "Stand-up comics, sitcoms, comic strips . . . more and more it's men who are the butt of the jokes. . . . Pretty soon we'll be hearing jokes about how many husbands it takes to fix a faucet," Ted gripes. "Two," says his wife. "One to get out the Yellow Pages, and one to dial the phone."

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