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Best Internet Humor
by Larry Belling

Prior to the merger of Cap Gemini and the consulting division of Ernst & Young in 2000, I was asked to come up with an appropriate present to all 55,000 employees when the merger was complete - a millennium gift. I suggested that I compile a book consisting of great works of original humor that had appeared on the Internet over the years and spread via e-mail to millions of people. We could ask people in the company to nominate their favorites.

We published our request for nominations in various newsletters I was writing and on Cap Gemini's intranet site on which I wrote and edited a daily newsletter.. Suggestions did not flood in. I should have taken this as an omen, but I didn't. Instead I went to my computer file marked Miscellaneous Humor Stuff and found I had saved most of the great and funny e-mails myself over the years. I decided to fib and attribute them to various Cap Gemini teams around the world.

The distribution of humor over the web had gone from a trickle to a torrential flood. When I first started working on the book, the search engine Altavista found 2,959,150 web pages when one asked for 'humor,' and 685,950 if you spelled 'humour' the English way. Today, Google finds 13,200,000 for 'humor,' four million if you spell it the English way, 5.8 million if you ask for 'joke,' and a whopping 471,000 if you ask for the whole phrase "joke of the day."

The idea was embraced by Cap Gemini's CEO with one proviso - that I try to locate the authors so that no copyrights were violated. This turned out to be an exercise in futility. I assigned the best researcher I knew, Louise Stein, to the task. Through incredible diligence she was able to find some, but not all of our targets. In a number of cases there were two or three different writers claiming credit for the same piece, and these were impossible to straighten out. One such writer, who became a friend, insisted we publish his work with another of the writers credited since the other fellow had submitted it to a national magazine and even won a prize for it!

We traced some of our favorite pieces and discovered to our dismay that they were written by some of the planet's best known names. Steven Wright's entire act is on the Internet on a multitude of sights, sometimes labeled 'author unknown.' Rita Rudner, David Letterman and Jay Leno are also plagiarized willy nilly. Adam Sandler's hilarious angry horoscope seems to go around the e-mail circuit every few months without crediting him.

We communicated with every author we could find and they were all most generous with their permissions. We had some failures including the Chicago Tribune which refused us permission to publish the famous Kurt Vonnegut parody that had been written by staff writer Mary Schmich. (She also wrote a follow-up piece on her experiences with the piece as it swamped her friend's e-mails.) On the other hand, the Washington Post is unique in that it claims no ownership of material submitted in its Style Section competitions, and did not object to our publishing ‘Children’s Books You’ll Never Read’ or ‘Excuses for Staying Home From Work.’ Permissions Editor Kim Oster and Style Editor Judy Weinraub were most helpful.

In the end, however, the book was not meant to be. The technologists of Cap Gemini and the business management consultants of Ernst & Young turned out to have very dissimilar senses of humor (if any). The problem of good and bad taste (and as we know many of the funniest pieces on the web are lacking in taste) could not be sorted out. Computer-oriented pieces were axed by the Cap Gemini people because they thought the E&Y people wouldn't understand the technical side of things and would feel that they themselves were being made fun of. And, most frustratingly, some of the pieces I felt were hilarious went right over the heads of the Cap Gemini executives.

The project collapsed, and it may have been a metaphor for the merger itself. When the deal was sealed in April, 2000, the stock traded at euros 369 a share. When I left the company in April of 2003 (after a cost-cutting massacre when the company axed all independent contractors) the stock was trading at euros 18.

Here are some of the best pieces that were to be included in the book. Many of them have probably found their way into your e-mail inbox already, but, if not, I hope you enjoy them. Please let us know if you know any authors who have not been properly credited.

Humor is important in our lives. As W.C. Fields said, "Start off every day with a smile and get it over with.” And this from a witty Victorian woman named Mary Pettibone Pool: “He who laughs, lasts.”

 

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