Several hours before taking their killer cartoon-punk-metal act to the stage, the Donnas are in their dressing room at New York City's Irving Plaza. ''Why did Michael Jackson cross the street?'' asks bassist Maya ''Donna F.'' Ford, 24, testing out the self-penned Jacko jokes she's planning to spring on tonight's audience. Ford waits a beat, then delivers her punchline: ''To dangle his baby from the window!''
If this stab at wit seems a little -- how to put this nicely? -- stupid, well, you're right. ''We're just really obsessed with dumb humor,'' says singer Brett ''Donna A.'' Anderson, 23. ''But not, like, 'Dumb and Dumber' humor,'' clarifies guitarist Allison ''Donna R.'' Robertson, 23. ''It has to be specific.''
To truly understand the Donnas -- something an exploding fan base is struggling to do, now that the band's brand of raw, old-school hard rock is back in fashion, and its sassily kick-ass single ''Take It Off'' is in heavy rotation on MTV -- you first have to get The Joke. This is not easy. Over the band's 10-year history, The Joke has spun into a dizzyingly complex web of sub-jokes and inside references. The most obvious sub-joke is the ''Tarted-Up Bad Girl'' bit. Its punchline? Though the Donnas can crank it up like Crue and snarl sexed-up lyrics like ''I saw his foozball moves and I knew he was right/Looks like you'll need another ride home tonight,'' they're really just middle-class Northern California suburbanites who get on with their folks and are more likely to giggle than to growl at you.
As with much of the Donnas' shtick, this smirky image twisting is lost on lots of people. Especially new fans. ''They want us to be slutty,'' Robertson says. ''They think we're going to strip while playing 'Take It Off,''' Anderson adds, looking horrified.