YES, there is humor in Washington. Americans in the real world may think the whole Washington establishment merits a big guffaw. But they may be surprised to learn that the politicians, pundits, and press in the nation's capital are capable of a good laugh at themselves.
Take the Saturday evening that former Democratic Party leader Robert Strauss looked out benignly across a head table that included President Reagan and told an audience, ''Let's relax and enjoy ourselves, especially you and me, Mr. President. We're two guys who don't have to get up and go to church tomorrow.''
Or the same night when the President quipped that he wasn't going to worry about the federal deficit. ''It's big enough to take care of itself.''
The occasion was that annual ritual, the Gridiron Dinner, when journalists and justices, Democrats and Republicans, senators and Cabinet officers, get together to rib one another, poke fun at political foibles and flaws - and demonstrate that behind the rough and tumble of partisan democracy is often an underlying spirit of goodwill, mutual respect, and camaraderie.
The Gridiron Club, an exclusive club of 60 working journalists, has been putting on satiric shows since 1885. The 99th took place March 24 at the Capital Hilton, with 600 guests in attendance.
Among them were the Reagans, George and Barbara Bush, eight Cabinet officers, four Supreme Court justices, White House counselor Edwin Meese III, White House chief of staff James Baker III, congressional leaders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson (who left early), Gary Hart, seven governors, and a host of other powerful makers and shakers of American political life. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, dean of the diplomatic corps, was invited, too, but called at the last moment to say he could not attend because of illness.
It was a black-tie evening of predictable mirth and madness.
No one was surprised that the club's musical parody centered on the election campaign and the coming political conventions. In the Democratic skit, produced by Alan S. Emory of the Watertown Daily Times, a rocket ship inadvertently landed the ''party of the future'' in prehistoric San Francisco. The tradition-bound Republicans, in a skit produced by Dan Thomasson of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, pushed the wrong button and ended up in Dallas in the year 8419 instead of 1984.
As guests worked their way through quail and filet mignon, the outlandishly costumed journalists - columnist Carl Rowan in a leopard skin? - performed familiar musical numbers set to satiric lyrics. They had a little outside help. Hit of the Democratic skit was a song and dance by a professional female dancer impersonating Gary Hart impersonating Michael Jackson singing a ''Beat It'' parody called ''Beat 'Em.'' I am the FU-ture and the FU-ture is Hart I MAY not know my age, but I am GA-ry Hart The VO-ters aren't smart, that's WHY it's Ga-ry Hart: I'll beat 'em, just beat 'em.
Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson also took a roasting. Laughter broke out when ''Lieutenant Goodman'' - a portlier version of the Navy flier rescued from Syria - solemnly sang (to the tune of ''Swing Low, Sweet Chariot''): I looked o-ver Jordan, and what did I see, Com-'in for to carry me home? An an-gel called Jack-son com-'in af-ter me,
Run-nin' while he car-ried me home.
There were chuckles, too, when ''Jackson'' rang out with ''That old white ma-gic has you in its spell, That old white ma-gic Rea-gan weaves so well. . . . And ev-ery time he starts to preach, Ba-by, down and down we go/ Round and round we go. . . .''
Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger became a target in the Republican skit. Dressed like futuristic space creatures, the chorus kept a syncopated Latin beat going as an impersonator of ''Cap'' sang:
Our troops sit offshore and they're yearning once more
They still feel the breeze stirred by bombs in palm trees
And then there was the ribbing of Elizabeth Dole as impersonator Marjorie Hunter of the New York Times crooned: What a friend we have in Reagan, Sees no need for women's lib. Ron thinks we were liberated When Eve came from Adam's rib.
Though Edwin Meese certainly didn't count on attending the Gridiron against the background of an embarrassing Justice Department investigation into his finances, he took repeated razzing with smiles on his face. It could not have been easy. Gridiron president Jack Germond, syndicated columnist of the Baltimore Evening Sun, started off the evening's jibes with the comment that President Reagan ''has two attorneys general just in case some legal problems develop.''
Mr. Strauss then told a story about once tipping a washroom attendant for Meese when the latter had no change.
''Imagine my surprise when two weeks later I was appointed assistant deputy inspector of the EPA in Albuquerque!'' drawled the Texan. Moreover, he went on, it wasn't Jim Baker who got Meese out of the White House but Nancy Reagan, who wanted to stop all the arguing ''which caused the President so many sleepless afternoons.''
Then on to another deft line: ''I guess everyone's seen Cap Weinberger's new bumper sticker: 'WEINBERGER FOR PRESIDENT. LET'S GET IT OVER WITH!' ''
Those who came to laugh, came also to be laughed at, however. Strauss didn't get away scot free as his impersonator and the Democratic ''cavemen'' belted out an updated version of ''It's Hard to Be Humble'': Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble, When you're perfect in every way, Each morning to Helen I mumble That I get even smarter each day. In politics I'm a known genius, I leave off where others began, Oh, Lord, it's hard to be humble, But I'm doing the best that I can.
It was almost Libby Dole's night, however, when the transportation secretary - the first woman ever to be asked to make a speech at a Gridiron dinner - brought down the house with her pungent wit. ''One thing about our candidate,'' she said with a sideways glance at Gary Hart, seated at the head table. ''He may be old, but we know exactly how old.'' At one point the President interrupted her with, ''Elizabeth, you stole six of my lines and now you're eating into my time.''
''Mr. President,'' came the indignant retort. ''I paid for this microphone!'' echoing a Reagan one-liner from the 1980 New Hampshire primary. But as is traditional at a Gridiron Dinner, the President was allowed the last laugh.
No stranger to the adroit phrase and suave delivery, Mr. Reagan drew appreciative applause when he took on the journalists. ''Ask yourself,'' he told the black-tie gathering, ''if you are really better off than you were three and a half hours ago.'' He loved reading newspapers, he said, because he enjoyed ''a half-hour of fiction over breakfast.''
And, though Reagan took a lot of hazing about his age, he showed he could give it back. He and Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko have much in common, he said: ''Neither one of us trusts anyone under 70.''
''I'm not going to make any cracks about Jesse Jackson,'' he said. ''I may need him to get me out of China.''
Theoretically the whole Gridiron event is ''off record.'' Invited editors, news executives, and reporters are expected not to write it up. But the system is falling apart as reporters collar the guests afterwards for snippets of information and detailed accounts blossom out the next day in the local newspapers. The club itself provides news organizations with a transcript of the lyrics in the skits, suggesting that the journalists-turned-amateur musical stars are not averse to a little publicity after working so hard.
And work they do. It takes months of organization, producing everything from guest lists to skits. Then many hours and weeks of rehearsal - weeks during which those columns by Evans and Novak, Carl Rowan, and the United Press dispatches by Helen Thomas still have to be produced.
Yet, almost saddened to see their night of triumph over with, the Gridironers put on the show the next day for the spouses of the first-night guests. On that occasion, with nerves calmed and spirits buoyant, the show is livelier and funnier than ever.