Thursday, November 14, 2002

Spokane

Let's hear it for natural selection
Darwin was right when it comes to these dolts, Doug Clark says.

Doug Clark
Staff writer

photo
Brian Plonka - The Spokesman-Review
Wendy Northcutt's twisted sense of humor has made her the Darwin Awards guru.

The president of a Maine company that manufactures wood chippers climbs onto a conveyor belt and attempts to unclog his own firm's chipper.

While it's running.

A New Yorker gives his pet 12-foot Burmese phython, Damien, free run of his home. Man and beast co-exist peacefully.

Until Damien gets hungry.

A telephone rings in a North Carolina bedroom at 3 a.m. In the groggy state of half-sleep, a man mistakenly grabs the handgun he keeps on the table next to the phone and pulls it to his ear.

It's loaded.

We all die, eventually. Nobody weasels out of that contract.

But for some, The End comes via bursts of breathtakingly witless behavior that calls to mind the ever-doomed coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons.

The difference, of course, is that humanity's chuckleheads never get a second chance to mess up again.

But they can win prizes.

Thanks to Wendy Northcutt, who is visiting Spokane this week, the planet's dimmest bulbs are gone
but definitely not forgotten.

Northcutt is a camera-shy Californian with a degree in microbiology and a sense of humor more twisted than a hangman's noose.

This small woman with straight dark hair is also the guiding life behind the Darwin Awards.

So named after evolution's pappy, Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards are bestowed only on those who do the gene pool a favor by removing themselves from it.

"Most of us have a basic common sense that eliminates the need for public service announcements such as, Warning: COFFEE IS HOT!" writes Northcutt in the opening chapter of her first book.

"Darwin Award winners do not."

We are talking about buffoons like 20 Alabama revelers who laughed at the hurricane warnings and decided to throw themselves a beachfront party.

Until a 24-foot wave struck.

Oops.

Nature's removal of these stumblebums had to raise the general IQ at least a point or two.

Northcutt began collecting stupid human death tricks about a decade ago. Her storehouse evolved into one of the Internet's most popular Web sites.

Darwinawards.com now receives some 7 million page hits a month, she says.

Northcutt compiled her favorite stories into two best-selling books. The most recent hit shops last month.

This woman is not without critics, of course.

Northcutt, in fact, receives regular hate mail from members of the tight-undied crowd. Fear of being attacked by some loon is why she won't show her entire face in photographs.

Some people with no appreciation of irony think it is always sick and wrong to guffaw at anybody's demise. Even if it is someone who kills himself while filming a forklift safety video.

Go figure.

Fortunately none of these spoilsports was at Auntie's Bookstore on Tuesday night. Northcutt regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales from the Darwin files.

The stories she gets are submitted by the thousands from those visiting her Web sites. Northcutt tries to confirm the best ones through newspaper accounts. The ones that can't be authenticated are labeled as unconfirmed or urban legends.

One of the most popular stories, for example, centers around an Arizona dolt who supposedly installs a rocket on his Impala. When he fires it up, the force launches the Chevy into a cliff.

Alas, says Northcutt, the story is bogus. "The Arizona Highway Patrol still gets a couple of calls a month about that one," she says.

The real stories are plenty good enough.

Like the guy who electrocuted fish and then waded in to scoop up his catch.

Without turning off the power.

Yep, he's Darwin material, all right.

Pam Smith, a high school art teacher who attended Northcutt's talk, believes she knows why so many of us can laugh at the fatal miscues of others.

"I'm glad it wasn't me," she says cheerily. "I'm just glad it wasn't me."

•Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at dougc@spokesman.com.


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