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It didn't take long for thousands of would-be comedians in New York to respond when it was announced that a special phone line was being initiated to record and play back their jokes.

The phone service, called Punch Line Communications Inc., enlists the 970 prefix but adds a whole new dimension to the already-eclectic mix of offerings presented under the 970 umbrella.Since its inception on April 15, the people who started Punch Line estimate that 2,000 to 3,000 jokes have been recorded. And thousands more have been calling daily just to hear the best of the lot.

"There are about 250 information providers in New York," said Bill Benedict, an investment banker who along with 14 partners created the entire concept. "You can dial up anything from pornography to horoscopes by dialing the 970 numbers.

"But this is the only interactive 970 service provided in New York, and I believe the only one in the United States, for that matter, where the service is actually provided by the caller."

After dialing 970-JOKE, the caller may elect to tell a joke by punching 0 or may choose just to listen to the latest jokes by punching in numbers one, two or three, which separates the entries according to the taste and judgment of previous callers.

The rankings are established after a caller finishes hearing any given sample. Patrons are asked to press a number between one and five to grade the humor from the low end to the high end.

"Each incoming joke is basically a little piece of data," Benedict said. "Your speech is recorded digitally, in the same way you can play music over a compact disc."

Technology aside, each incoming joke also reflects a little piece of New York's collective psyche as well. The line is open to a potential 15 million people in New York, Long Island and four suburban counties, and certain patterns are definitely beginning to emerge.

Benedict said Jewish jokes make up the bulk of incoming ethnic humor, while every conceivable variety of sex-related jokes are also recorded.

"You also get a lot of lawyer jokes, like `How can you tell when your lawyer is lying to you? His lips are moving.' "

But there is a constant element of surprise, even when the Punch Line staff believes it has heard just about everything.

"We got one call from a man who identified himself as a pilot for the Soviet airline, Aeroflot," Benedict said. "He proceeds to tell this Jesse Jackson joke . . . . Then he tells the whole joke again, this time in Russian. So I don't think he was putting us on by claiming to be an Aeroflot pilot."

Benedict's biggest complaint at this point has nothing to do with the content of material, but the limitations of the format. People outside the greater New York area cannot tap into the proceedings.

"But we've already begun preliminary discussions with some companies who want to develop the same system for an in-house format," Benedict said.