Long a mother lode for satirists, the tanking Internet business has become much tougher to mine for laughs. "The dot-com crash is not as funny as it was a few months ago," concedes Modern Humorist co-editor Michael Colton in an e-mail interview. "Now that so many people have lost jobs and money, it's harder to laugh at." Things have become so unfunny that these professional jesters are publicly disowning their own dot-com work. Last fall the site put up a faux first-aid poster in which a stricken-looking guy is being administered the Heimlich maneuver. "Grasp your venture capitalist from behind," the poster read. "Place your fist on his abdomen and squeeze quickly and firmly until he coughs up more cash." But now a caption has been added that reads: "When we first posted this in October 2000, it was funny. Now it's just painful."
But Modern Humorist is still running "New Jobs for the Pets.com Mascot," a visual spoof starring the famed canine sock puppet reincarnated as the "Lead singer for Rage Against the Machine" and "Copy editor at Working Woman Magazine." "We're making fun not of the dot-com demise itself," Colton insists, "but of coverage of the crash, and of the hype surrounding it." Like the recent profile parody, "After the Cliché Rush," in which a writer who makes it big interviewing once-high-flying dot-com entrepreneurs himself comes to a sad end when interest in his subjects runs dry. "Paul Thorsen once scoffed at editors who 'didn't get' the dot-com crash," reads a says-it-all caption. "Now he polishes his resume and watches reruns of 'C.S.I.' "
Andy Borowitz, author of the very funny day-trading send-up The Trillionaire Next Door, recently published a piece in the New York Times op-ed page titled "Buy SilkPurse.com!" His premise was that there's a new bunch of technology startups worthy of the renewed attention of investors.
SpinPrep Software: This Palo Alto- based firm's software generates buoyant, face-saving speeches for bubble economy moguls whose doomed enterprises have been taken over at fire- sale prices. The software's find/replace feature substitutes the words "strategic alliance" for "desperation bailout," "gathering momentum" for "hemorrhaging money" and "impetuous suitor" for "despised rival."
I thought I'd ask Borowitz what could possibly sustain his interest in the Internet as comic fodder. "The whole notion of 'dot-com' humor does feel somewhat played out to me," he admitted in an e-mail reply, "largely because people like me have beaten it into the ground. And yet, the dot-com aftermath, in my opinion, may be even funnier than the dot-com boom: the humbling of all of the would-be dot-com millionaires."
But in his Times piece, Borowitz's comic radar is actually tuned to face-saving PR-speak—worthy of satire, maybe, but tellingly off-topic (and when isn't it easy to parody PR?). Borowitz is targeting secondary things, just as Modern Humorist is flaying discarded mascots and media reporters. The great mockery-worthy days of staggering hubris are past, these pieces seem to say with their wan picking-over of the dot-com wreckage.
The only people who may still be getting some humor mileage out of the dot-com crash are those who would otherwise be crying: the laid-off and dis-optioned, who know the story from the inside. But comics who are also dot-com veterans face a vexing problem, as illustrated at a recent Pink Slip party, a New York new media networking event. Two Internet startup veterans and professional comics were putting on a special evening of stand-up titled "DotComedy." It started out promisingly: Organizer Ritch Duncan, who writes for Saturday Night Live, pleaded with his co-emcee Lynn Harris to tell the audience about her nightmare days at a well-known Internet content play. And she looked like she wanted to, badly—but finally she said no. Huh? "I signed a nondisparagement agreement," she explained, looking like she had turned over her firstborn.