HOUSTON – So Ken Lay walks into this bar ...
Fill in your own punchline. Everyone else is doing it.
Enron's collapse has been money in the bank for late-night comedians and other professional wiseacres.
"You know what Ken Lay had for breakfast this morning? Shredded wheat," Jay Leno jokes.
Dennis Miller asks: "Wouldn't it be great if all of Usama bin Laden's money was tied up in Enron stock?"
On Late Show With David Letterman, the bald man in a dark business suit sitting quietly in the audience isn't really Lay, but he plays him on TV. In recent days the silent actor has generated guffaws when introduced by Letterman as the former Enron chairman and chief executive.
With its colossal bankruptcy, the collapse of its stock, its document-shredding, its big contributions to both political parties and its Fifth Amendment-taking executives, Enron has been a comic windfall for funnymen.
"It's kind of funny because people say this is a capitalist country and we really believe in capitalism," says Lawrence Mintz, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and editor in chief of the International Journal of Humor Research. "But while it is a country that holds socialism and communism as anathema, capitalism itself is not really beloved in this country either, especially at the very top — the tycoons, the very wealthy, the manipulators.
"We love to see these guys screw up," Mintz says.
Conan O'Brien on NBC's Late Night demonstrated the principle this way: "The U.S. Senate has announced they are going to subpoena Ken Lay and make him testify. Apparently Lay received the subpoena this morning and then, out of habit, immediately shredded it."
You won't find the barbs aimed at the laid-off workers, or those who lost their nest eggs.
"Jokes tend to get directed at the people at the top who are very easy to revile," Mintz says.
Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry has referred to Enron executives as "dirtballs," and tried to explain how the company, which rose to No. 7 on the Fortune 500, made money.
"Nobody knows," Barry wrote. "This is usually the case with corporations whose names sound like fictional planets from Star Wars."
Politicians and others have been coming up with new uses for the word "Enron," including a verb form that means, roughly, "to give someone the shaft." Example: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says he won't let the Republicans "enron" the American people.
Alan Dundes, an adviser in the graduate folklore program at the University of California at Berkeley, says Enron probably won't yield the comic dividends that the O.J. Simpson trial or the Monica Lewinsky scandal did.
"It doesn't have sex or violence. When a scandal has sex or murder or a combination, you're likely to get a good spate of these," he says. "I had a lot of good O.J. stuff. And some wonderful stuff on Lewinsky and Clinton."
Then he recalls an Enron joke.
"On Feb. 2 Dick Cheney came out from an undisclosed location and saw his shadow," Dundes says. "That means we have six more weeks of Enron."