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Who knew that accounting could be so funny?

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 3, 2002


Q: Why does Martha Stewart insist Andersen auditors help out on her cooking shows?

A: She knows they're the best at shredding.

* * *

In all these business scandals lies a silver lining.

Defying all odds, it has produced a wave of not-too-lame jokes about the accounting industry.

Now accountants are busy flipping bean counter jokes via e-mails among each other.

Why should they have all the fun?

We've culled the Internet, our own e-mails, the latest books and speeches to offer up some of the best accounting and corporate humor in the wake of such business disasters as Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Xerox -- oh, you know the list by now ...

Hey, this will be valuable currency tomorrow when you're swapping gossip with your neighbors or co-workers during the July 4 celebration.

For all the heat on Andersen, accountants have received more media coverage in the past six months than in the past century. Accountant jokes are now more hip than lawyer jokes.

One accountant recently wrote in an accounting publication that he had always thought accounting was "the second oldest profession," but now he isn't sure.

Even President Bush can't resist a zinger or two. At one dinner, the President quipped that the White House has just received a message from Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. "The good news is that he's willing to have his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons counted," the president said. "The bad news is that he wants Arthur Andersen to do it."

Even those more steeped in accountant jargon have something to chew on these days. We're not sure where these one-liners originated, though Barron's commentator Alan Abelson credits a hedge fund manager. I first received these from fellow Times business reporter Helen Huntley. Among the best "new" definitions of accounting terms:

EBITDA (earnings before interest expenses, taxes, depreciation and amortization): Earnings before I tricked the dumb auditor.

EBIT (earnings before interest expenses and taxes): Earnings before irregularities and tampering.

CEO (chief executive officer): Chief Embezzlement Officer.

CFO (chief financial officer): Corporate Fraud Officer.

NAV (net asset value): Normal Andersen Valuation.

EPS (earnings per share): Eventual Prison Sentence.

To be sure, not all of the blossoming accountant humor passes muster.

Q: How many Arthur Andersen accountants does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Eleven. One to reach up and change the light bulb. Ten to try to find out why they didn't know until now that the bulb was burned out.

Other humor tries to play off company names, as in WorldCon or, in Enron's case, Endrun and Enrob ("a global purveyor of smoke, mirrors and hot air").

Still other jokes rely on old and reliable punch lines.

Q: Why do they bury Andersen executives at least 20 feet under ground?

A: Deep down, they're really good people.

Off screen, late night TV comedians must get down on their knees and give thanks to Enron, WorldCom and their accounting blunders. The material never ends.

On the Tonight Show, Jay Leno depicted Andersen's chief as Satan taking the Fifth Amendment. "I hope this Enron scandal doesn't turn kids off to an exciting career in accounting," Leno cracked.

Or this Leno slap at WorldCom: "'WorldCom, in conjunction with the Arthur Andersen crime family -- you know this story -- have defrauded investors out of $3.9-billion. See, the way they got away with it for so long, they made their financial statements look like the cell phone bills and nobody could figure it out."

Comedian David Letterman has had his own field day with Andersen and Enron. "Enron CEO Kenneth Lay has sold all of his Enron stock. I guess we all knew that. In fact, the only thing he owns now is the Bush administration," he said.

Enron's staggering collapse already has inspired its own book of humor, called The Totally Unauthorized Enron Joke Book. Among some of its material:

Q: What's the difference between an Enron auditor's report from Arthur Andersen and a vivid sexual fantasy?

A: The sexual fantasy is based upon things that you can imagine.

(Okay, so the 96-page book could have used some more work.)

Even accounting jokes that sound dated are enjoying a comeback.

Q: What's a shy and retiring accountant?

A: An accountant who's half a million shy and that's why he or she is retiring.

A few Enron workers in Houston who lost their jobs were quick to become merchants of T-shirts with timely, if bitter, punch lines: "Loss of job -- $100,000. Watching 401K disappear -- $225,000. Losses on company stock options -- $505,000. Ten years hard time for guilty executives -- Priceless."

Other professionals find they are their own worst punch line. At dozens of universities, Andersen endowed chairs in accounting that now bear the firm's tainted name. Two years ago, Keith Poole figured he'd landed a top job when he won a lifetime endowed professorship as the "Kenneth L. Lay professor" of political science. Now the title, named for Enron's disgraced ex-chairman, is something he does not volunteer.

On the Internet, a satirical news article is circulating reports that a roving band of executives -- known as the CEOnistas -- have made a run for the border, wreaking fiscal havoc along the way.

Late night comedian Conan O'Brien is no exception to the barrage of business jokes:

"It was reported today that executives from WorldCom -- that's the company that owns MCI -- could face prison time for the latest accounting scandal there. Yeah, when asked about it, the head of MCI said he'll use his one phone call to annoy someone at dinnertime."

Like Rodney Dangerfield, the WorldComs and Enrons and Andersens can't get respect. But at least they can supply a chuckle or two before the fireworks. Happy Independence Day.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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