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Q: Why are `dumb blond' jokes one-liners?

A: So men can understand them!There's a new kind of "ethnic" joke making the rounds. The latest target: men.

Q: Why do we need women astronauts?

A: So if the crew gets lost in space, someone will ask directions.

Q: What's the difference between men's dirty jokes and women's dirty jokes?

A: Women require theirs to be funny.

Some men don't think "dumb man" jokes are funny, proclaiming them the dastardly work of radical feminists. Others yell "No fair!" though they tell "women driver" and "mother-in-law" jokes with gusto. But some men laugh delightedly. What's going on?

Anti-male humor is not new, but it used to be secret. In the days when women were dependent on men, any suggestion of anti-male sentiment was taboo. It was scary to women because it could bring down dangerous male wrath, and scary to men because it challenged the notion that men were all-powerful.

Then the women's movement came along and challenged every male taboo it could find. Posters sported slogans like, "A woman has to be twice as good as a man to get the same pay. Fortunately, that's not difficult." This humor was direct and political, and many women greeted it with a kind of terrific glee: "Can we really say that and get away with it!"

But these angry political jokes weren't quite the same as ethnic jokes. Ethnic jokes start as a way for powerful people to belittle a target group by sneering at a caricature of it. However, if the target group gains power and self-confidence it may adopt the ethnic joke for itself, as an "in joke" to be told only by group members.

One sign of the growing strength of women is that women are now telling "ethnic" jokes on themselves. One recent afternoon I asked my colleague Jane if she had solved a computer problem. Her response: "Not yet. I have to hook up my male brain. I'm just a girl, you know!"

We both laughed, enjoying the contrast between the stereotype and Jane's competence. But Jane wouldn't let many men get away with making the same crack about her.

It could happen, though. The third stage with ethnic jokes is that some members of the dominant group may demonstrate enough sensitivity to the target group's concerns that they are made "honorary members" and given license to use the ethnic jokes, too. When that happens, swapping ethnic jokes between the groups is the ultimate sign of trust. This process may be what's going on with the "dumb man" jokes.

I used to be opposed to anti-male jokes - I didn't think we needed any more Battle of the Sexes. But when women started telling anti-male jokes lightheartedly I had a surprise. Many men, far from crying foul, thought they were funny! And they welcomed them as a sign that women could stick up for themselves in the verbal games men like to play.

"Dumb man" jokes, told openly, may be a healthy sign that anti-male sentiments are safer than they used to be. Safer for women who can now take care of themselves, and safer for men who no longer have to maintain a facade of omnipotence. "Dumb man" jokes may bring the good news that both women and men are becoming strong enough to laugh at each other and strong enough to laugh at themselves.

So . . .

I wonder how many men it takes to change a light bulb?