Select one of the keywords
Between the Lines: Laugh Until it Hurts
(May 2002)
By David Pitt

Ever wake up in the morning - or in the middle of the night - and feel like you're not firing on all thrusters? Ever do something incredibly stupid, then stand there like an idiot and wonder why you just did that? Don't panic: you're not alone. In fact, you're better off than most of the people who appear in The Darwin Awards II: Unnatural Selection (Dutton), by Wendy Northcutt. At least you're still alive. In case you're not familiar with them, the Darwin Awards have been around for nearly a decade. Northcutt, a molecular biologist by trade, began collecting stories about people who accidentally killed themselves in bizarre, and usually hysterically funny, ways. Now there's a website, an enormous fan following, and some books.

To qualify for a Darwin Award, Northcutt writes, "nominees must improve the gene pool by eliminating themselves from the human race using astonishingly stupid means." Northcutt collects these stories from newspapers, television reports, and (of course) emails sent to her from fans. She tries to weed out the patently unbelievable, the urban legends, the stories that just don't seem true. Whenever possible, she verifies the reports by checking the sources from which they originate. What's left is a collection of absurdities that would be even funnier than it already is, if people hadn't actually died.

We can't help laughing, for instance, at the poor soul who thought it'd be a good idea to let his friend perform some amateur liposuction on him in his garage. Or the woman who drowned in her submerged car, even though she was a strong swimmer and even though one of the windows was completely open. Or the forklift operator who ran over himself while filming a safety video. Or the guy who stuck his head in front of a seemingly-malfunctioning firework, only to find out it worked after all. Or the construction workers who, if you can believe it, cut a hole through the concrete they were standing on, cut it right around themselves, and plummeted to their deaths. The thing about the Darwin Awards is: we know people have died, here, we know this stuff should be tragic, but it isn't. It's funny. It's okay to laugh, because it really is funny.

In kind of the same vein, you should check out Non Campus Mentis: World History According to College Students (Workman Publishing), compiled by Anders Henriksson, chairman of the department of history at West Virginia's Shepard College. This book, which retells the history of the world in the words of students across North America, demonstrates that it's okay to laugh at someone else's ignorance. "Literature can open valuable windows into the past," one student writes, "if the reader is careful to pluck bites of reality from the author's figlets of imagination." Another tells us that "Egypt, for example, had only Egyptians, but Babylon had Summarians, Acadians, and Canadians, to name just a few."

A couple of pages later we learn that "Moses was told by Jesus Christ to lead the people of Egypt into the Sahaira Desert. The Book of Exodus describes this trip and the amazing things that happened on it, including the Ten Commandments, various special effects, and the building of the Suez Canal." That's right, the Suez Canal. We're also told that "The entire city of Constantinople rose up with a tremendous ejaculation every time the emperor came," and (later) that "the major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West." And did you know that "when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, the head cheerleader for the League of Nations lost his pompoms"? Neither did I.

This insanely funny book - I'm shaking as I type this - is a combination of bizarre language usage and startling ignorance. Can students really not know that Jesus Christ lived long after Moses, or that the Suez Canal is a little more recent than Exodus times, or that there were no Canadians in ancient Egypt? Can they not know how to spell "Sahara," or "expeditions," or "Romantic," or "elephants"? Can they not know the difference between tentacles and testicles, between annals and anals, between abbess and abyss? Every word in the book, Henriksson swears, is genuine. "Culled from term papers and blue-book exams written by college and university students, (the book) is an authentic voice of youth." All Henriksson has done is put these wacky bits of prose together, so they appear as a single long, ludicrous, laugh-out-loud essay.

And if you like this stuff, you absolutely must check out the Anguished English series by Richard Lederer: Anguished English, More Anguished English, and (most recently) Bride of Anguished English. (You can find the first two in paperback from Dell, and the third in hardcover from St. Martin's Press. At least those are the editions I have.) Lederer, a former English teacher, has been collecting linguistic bloopers for a long time, and these three books, if read one right after the other, are sure to cause major stomach cramps and drooling.

Unlike Henriksson, who deals specifically with student bloopers, Lederer covers the whole spectrum: peculiar translations from other languages, unusual statements in church bulletins, weird dialogue in the courtroom, newspaper mistypes, student confusions, quotes from famous people, strangely-worded signs, pretty much anything you can think up. I'm just gonna pick some examples at random. "The Gorgons had long snakes in their hair," a student tells us. "They looked like women, only more horrible." And: "Zwingli's followers all smashed their organs." (Yikes.)

Here's a note a parent wrote to an offspring's teacher: "Dear School: Please eckuse John being absent on Jan. 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, and also 33." And: "Please excuse Tom for being absent yesterday. He had diarrhea and his boots leak." From a physician's report: "Went to bed feeling well, but woke up dead." And: "The patient is a three-year-old who has been vomiting off and on for twelve years." From a newspaper ad: "Try our cough syrup. You will never get any better." And: "Why not have the kids shot for Easter, or have a family portrait taken? What have you to lose?"

A note posted on a television set in a Yugoslavia hotel room said: "If set breaks, inform manager. Do not interfere with yourself." And, from a German hotel: "Ladies, please rinse out your teapots standing upside down in sink. In no event should hot bottoms be placed on the counter." From a Swiss restaurant menu: "Our wines leave you nothing to hope for." And, from a Tel Aviv room service menu: "If you wish your breakfast, life our telephone, and the waitress will arrive. This will be enough to bring your food up."

I could keep going forever, but I'm laughing too hard to continue. So I'll stop now.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.