When Malcolm Kushner didn't call me back right away, I was afraid he'd been whacked.

I didn't think it was such a good idea when Kushner came out with his mafia joke book earlier this month, telling hilarious tales of "Not so wise guys" and "Dumbfellas."

Some of his jokes go like this: "Why was the stupid hit man hospitalized? He was sent to blow up a car and burned his lips on the tailpipe."

Kushner, 59, is quick to note that this isn't really a mafia joke book. It's a mob humor book. No disrespect intended.

It includes a compendium of mobster movies going back to the 1930s. And it features real-life headlines, like this one from a 2003 New York Post story about a mob boss gunned down because he was gay: "Mobster Sleeps with the Swishes."

Lucky for Kushner, at least some mobsters have a sense of humor. Former Gambino family associate Louis Ferrante contributed this blurb for Kushner's book jacket: "When the judge threw the book at me, I wish it had been "The Official Book of Mob Humor.'"

At least one joke highlights a fundamental flaw that this book struggles to overcome: "What's the problem with mobster jokes? Mobsters don't think they're funny, and everyone else thinks they're not jokes."

Read a few one-liners and you'll see what I mean:

"How many mobsters does it take to throw a man down the stairs? None. He fell."

"How come a mobster's eyes water on a first date? Mace."

"Who was the last person to see Jimmy Hoffa? Jacques Cousteau."

Former Luchhese crime family associate Henry Hill, immortalized in the movie "Goodfellas," wrote the forward for the book. He recalled a scene in the movie where Ray Liotta, playing Hill, made the mistake of telling Joe Pesci's character he thought he was funny.

"Funny how?" Pesci intimidated. "Funny, like I'm a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh?"

On Valentine's Day, Kushner will have to sit beside Hill at the long-awaited grand opening of the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas.

"His girlfriend requested it be next to me," Kushner said of Hill's seat. "I don't know if we're having a ribbon cutting or a ribbon whacking."

The Mob Museum, a.k.a. the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, is the dream of Oscar Goodman, former Las Vegas mayor and former defense counsel for organized crime figures. With any luck, it will be more successful than a copycat concept at the Tropicana called the Las Vegas Mob Experience that opened much sooner and swiftly went bankrupt.

Kushner is a self-described humor consultant who not long ago moved from sunny California to a really cold town in Wisconsin. If he is famous for anything, it's for a bizarre economic indicator he created in 1987, which has been cited in textbooks, talk shows and newspaper articles.

It is the Cost of Laughing Index -- a compilation of 16 leading humor indicators such as the price of singing telegrams, rubber chickens, Groucho glasses, whoopee cushions, a copy of Mad Magazines, and the ticket prices at comedy clubs.

The latest read on the index is due out next month. And despite Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's claim that there isn't much inflation, the cost of a good laugh has been inching up over the past couple years.

I just hope Kushner doesn't have to pay the ultimate price for his laughter. But he says his book is in the same vein as Hollywood movies, The Sopranos of TV fame, and basic gangster lore -- oh, and some of it is actually true.

"It's a part of the cultural mythology of America," he said. "Henry Hill now makes a living just being Henry Hill. He goes around the country and sells his autograph. There's a market for it."

Mobsters offer any audience a dramatic approach to the archetypical tale of money, power and corruption.

"The difference between them and Wall Street," said Kushner, "is that the real mob has a moral code."

Somebody is going to think this book isn't so funny. But Kushner has been learning how to sound like a tough guy:

"Anybody who doesn't think it's funny. Give me their names. I've got ways of making them laugh."

 

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at al.lewis@dowjones.com or tellittoal.com)