Weapon of Mass Distraction

Funny Times has lampooned modern American society for 19 years now, turning Raymond Lesser's left-leaning humor newspaper into an underground favorite.

Seeds of Discontent

It started out as a marketing ploy. But sometime after distributing them on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 2000, The Funny Times "Texas Homegrown Dope" seed packets became the gag gift of the moment among Democrats.

Since then, Raymond Lesser says, the Funny TimesÆ'has moved more than 100,000 of the packets, which question President George W. Bush's mental fitness for the nation's top office.

"We were asking ourselves, 'How can we let people know about the Funny Times other than giving them the paper?' " Lesser recalls.

Now, Lesser and his crew are gearing up for the 2004 presidential election with a new gimmick: "Soldier Bush Beans." The seed packets poke fun at the media spectacle the president created by donning a flight suit and landing on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May 2003.

"We look to do the same thing as we did in 2000," Lesser says. "Hopefully, we'll be able to distribute about 100,000 of these before the election."

For a free sample of the Funny Times, call 1-888-386-6984 or visit www.funnytimes.com.

Steven Spielberg is a subscriber. So is actor James Garner. Hillary Clinton was sure to note her change of address before moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Raymond Lesser, publisher of Funny Times, recalls these bits of trivia in somewhat murky detail when talking about how his newspaper has grown from 600 to 65,000 subscribers since 1989.

"I don't even know who all the famous subscribers are," Lesser notes with a semi-embarrassed shrug, kicked back in his chair at the small Funny Times headquarters on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights.

Lesser launched Funny Times as a local advertiser-supported humor biweekly in 1985. Four years later, he turned it into a national, subcriber-supported monthly humor newspaper that takes shots at modern life in the United States from a liberal viewpoint.

"We're living in the funniest of all times, probably in the history of mankind," Lesser declares. "Our job is to go out and find all those funny things that are being generated by our modern world, collect them all into one easy-to-digest monthly source and have our subscribers rolling in the aisles."

Buoyed by word-of-mouth and gift subscriptions, which account for 40 percent of new Funny Times subscribers, Lesser's list of customers has grown exponentially, while a small staff has kept the business profitable in a world where such ventures are easily swamped by the crush of media options competing for the average American's attention.

Former Free Times columnist and humor writer Eric Broder serves as co-editor of the newspaper and helps Lesser slog through the dozens of submissions the magazine receives from cartoonists and humor writers each month. Since subscribers pay $23 for 12 issues, Lesser demands quality. "It should be something that's good enough that people will freely part with their bucks because they want to purchase it," he says.

Lesser has published work from a laundry list of well-known cartoonists and comedy writers over the years, including Matt Groening, Garrison Keillor and Dave Barry. In 2002, Three Rivers Press collected some of these contributions in a Funny Times anthology.

Naturally, as President Bush's public opinion polls have dropped, the commander in chief and his administration have become more frequent targets of political cartoonists and humor writers. However, Funny Times also skewered the strange crew of Democrats jockeying for the party's nomination earlier this year and routinely pokes fun at a host of nonpolitical topics ranging from airline food to Wal-Mart to the media.

"I have no greater desire than to make fun of Democrats for the next four years," Lesser says with a wide smile. "I would love to make fun of someone's sexual foibles and stains on blue dresses again. What a great year that was."

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