So funny I forgot to laugh
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – A FEW WEEKS AGO I WAS AT A management boondoggle in Vegas, mostly walking around in a closed, artificial environment like an ant in a plastic farm. The second morning there was a ferment around the breakfast table, at an hour when people usually are content to saw on their sausages and make small talk about trends in associated market segments. "Did you see what happened to the PR director of the 49ers?" said Krupke.

"Is it about me?" I said into the remains of the Danish. I have a rule about media in the morning. If it's about me or my company, I read it. If it's not, I don't. This makes me very well informed about certain things and pleasantly unaware of other stuff, like what's going on with Nick and Jessica or global warming. "No," said Krupke. "But it could be."

On that basis--that it could possibly be about me in some way--I looked into it. And Krupke was right. Before I tell you why, I'd like to look briefly at what happened, or what I believe happened, or what appears to have happened.

The PR director of the San Francisco 49ers decided, after a long, illustrious career with that franchise, to pursue the other activities that all guys do when they've been shown the door to the executive departure lounge. It seems this fellow, whose name is Reynolds, had produced a training tape to help players deal with public relations issues they might encounter. The tape featured nudity, lesbian smooching in a religious setting, lots of very bad language, and some racial slurs. I can only imagine how disturbed those football players must have been when they saw it.

Anyhow, a copy of this oeuvre was obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, which--shocked that such a thing might have been done in a sporting environment--ran a story about it on the front page, next to the article announcing the identity of Deep Throat. Reynolds expressed his desire to explore the great outdoors shortly thereafter.

Naturally, once we in Vegas had learned the bare bones of this tale, my entire breakfast table had to go to the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, which had made the video available. The newspaper had blurred out all nudity, particularly a wide assortment of breasts, except for those of Reynolds himself, who appeared at one point in a towel, stepping out of a shower while a young woman stepped in to soap herself. I mean, honestly. Who was in charge of what to blur? The guy was not attractive.

More important--what was he thinking? This was not some loser with no track record, but a long-term player in the organization, a friend of city insiders and reporters, a guy with deep ties to team management. Equally to the point for me personally, this was a manager whose cachet entitled him to rib the organization, to play the clown, to treat the business with irreverence. Hmm, I thought.

There was more--a backstory, one in which senior management showed its unchanging stripes. The tape had actually been made many months before. It was shown to players before the start of the 2004-05 season. One may imagine the laughter and high-fives that ensued. Reynolds was a laugh-riot hero. And the tape was forgotten, as these things always are--except when they're not.

Then the 49ers had a very bad year, which culminated in the decruitment of several of their top bananas. Recriminations ensued, and it's not inconceivable that during this time of corporate transition Reynolds rubbed one of his former colleagues the wrong way. What we do know is that a copy of this deeply offensive video landed on the desk of editors at the Chronicle, who came to the defense of the public weal by playing the story as a scandal as newsworthy as the solution to one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.

And here's where I get the willies. The management of the club, faced now with an object not of immature, stupid, inappropriate amusement but of public shame, expressed righteous anger and shock over something it had known about for months and kicked the funny dude out. That's what organizations do. Yesterday's commander of the zeitgeist is tomorrow's fool.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you what I was doing in Vegas. Every year I do a presentation to report on the activities of my department before 500 executives from our field operations and all my peers and bosses. My role, in addition to supplying tidbits of information, is to put on a show that makes them laugh. The only way you make a bunch of hardened operators laugh is to say stuff that they don't expect to hear, sometimes as rudely as you can get away with.

So I looked at the story of this Reynolds guy with one eye squinted shut.

Ask not for whom the joke tolls, you know.

STANLEY BING's latest book, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends, and Wage the REAL Art of War (HarperBusiness), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at