It was a chain e-mail, winking effortlessly through the Internet cloud from terminal to terminal, offering a long, typically over-literate e-mail joke. Here's a sample:
If Dr. Seuss wrote for "Star Trek: the Next Generation" . . .
Picard: Sigma Indri, that's the star,
So, Data, please, how far? How far?
Data: Our ship can get there very fast.
But still the trip will last and last.
If you've been online for any length of time, you've gotten things like this from friends, colleagues and complete strangers. Soon enough we'll have sociologists studying the unique characteristics of the e-mail joke, particularly as it reflects the pressures of the high-tech business world. We already have lawyers and human resources managers concerned; some companies have already seen sexist and racist e-mail jokes implicated in court cases over harassment.
But most e-mail jokes more innocently target Bill Gates and information technology departments. Like this e-mail joke, "The Top 12 Things You Don't Want to Hear From Tech Support," which includes:
If you're interested in the lighter side of Net life, there's a new trade paperback from Castle Pacific Publishing, "Best Jokes & Other Humor From the Internet," that collects a variety of e-mail and news-group amusements. It's a scattered collection, but it still packs some good laughs.
The author, Jon@thon P. Sulliv@n (I know, what's a bigger joke these days than an @ sign in your company name or byline?) claims in his foreword that the Internet is supplanting the telephone (which itself supplanted the legendary watercooler) as a medium for spreading jokes in the office.
That's still arguable, but his book does clearly identify a certain special kind of literate, text-based humor that really thrives on e-mail and can't possibly exist by phone. Much of it takes the form of long lists (office managers beware: The infamous "Why Beer Is Better than Women" e-mail played a role in a $2 million harassment settlement), rankings and comparisons, and revolves around a geeky high-tech sensibility.
The most distinctive e-mail humor juxtaposes high-end business with low-end comedy and parody. For example, also from the book, this answer from Andersen Consulting on "Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?"
"Deregulation of the chicken's side of the road was threatening its dominant market position . . . Andersen Consulting helped the chicken by rethinking its physical distribution strategy and implementation processes . . . ."
Personally, I prefer Ernest Hemingway's reply to why the chicken crossed the road: "To die. In the rain."
That's from the same e-mail posting and marks the only time I've ever seen Ernest Hemingway linked with Andersen Consulting and a chicken. And the best part is, none of those three is likely to sue you.
David Klein is associate publisher-editor of the Ad Age Group. He's happy to receive e-mail jokes, but has no interest whatsoever in making cash in his spare time.