Saturday, December 27, 2008

I’m Penniless, but the Laugh’s on Them

DID you hear the one about the stockbroker who’s been sleeping like a baby? Every hour, he wakes up and cries.

That was before he read that Somali pirates were issuing a new ransom-backed security to buy Citigroup. Moody’s rated it AAA, Henry M. Paulson Jr. deemed the pirates “fundamentally sound,” and Bernard L. Madoff will safeguard the returns.

It’s not every day that hijackers, the Treasury secretary and disgraced Wall Street moguls are lumped into the same wisecrack. Then again, these aren’t ordinary times. Financial jokes that were once mainly the province of pointy-headed economists are flourishing as a popular genre, thanks to the recession and an intense longing for a national catharsis to deal with everyone’s miserable personal finances.

Late-night comedians are only the tip of the squawk box. Internet pranksters have mapped out a road trip from Detroit to Washington for the chief executives of the Big Three automakers (instructions include “Go to full-serve gas station, refill, drive away without paying bill” and “Ask government to pay for toll”). YouTubers are writing ballads about Fannie Mae, the mortgage company, and A.I.G., the much-bailed-out insurance group (the most common refrain: “Where’s my bailout?”). Even the nation of Iceland, which went bankrupt this fall, is being kicked around: someone recently put it up for auction on eBay for 50 cents.

Few outlets have lampooned the crisis more mercilessly than The Onion, the satirical paper, whose coverage can serve as a leading indicator of our collective mood. “Financial Planner Advises Shorter Lifespan,” was the headline of one recent story, a dark turn from sunnier days when headlines like “Screaming Japanese Schoolgirls Overturn Greenspan’s Bus” were the norm.

Across the board, some of the most scathing satire has been reserved for former Masters of the Universe, whose power, money and lawyers can no longer insulate them from the public’s schadenfreude. Names that used to appear on lists of the wealthiest and most influential Americans are now being dragged through the mud on Web sites like LolFed.com, where pidgin-English captions are scrawled on the faces of famous bankers and others, the same treatment given to silly cat pictures on Lolcat.com.

Recent victims have included John A. Thain of Merrill Lynch, whose request for a large bonus prompted the posting of a photo of him with the words, “10 milluyn n unmarkd billz plz.” The site’s most popular villain is “Vikram Bandit,” a k a Vikram Pandit, the head of Citigroup, shown in a robber’s mask (with labels like, “Mah bizniss model is no longr relavint”). When Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, was pleading with Congress to pass the $700 billion bailout, LolFed ran a photo of him praying: “oh pls oh pls oh pls let dis work.”

The site, introduced last January, is the brainchild of Alyx Kaczuwka, 29, a Web analyst in Orlando, Fla. Traffic began to spike as the meltdown worsened in September. Users from every major bank and brokerage company — including JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and even the Federal Reserve — now show up in the analytics Ms. Kaczuwka uses to track readership.
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