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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Unbelievable-But-True Stories Amuse Media, Public and Comedians

Unbelievable-But-True Stories Amuse Media, Public and Comedians

Ripley's Believe It or Not Is Global Franchise - Rudolph.A.furtado

Cynics would say that tales of the bizarre cannot possibly be factual. But actually, the weird, unusual and strange show that ‘you couldn’t make it up’.

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not has been thrilling people with odd and amazing, unbelievable exploits, mishaps, deformities and human failings from the ‘World of the Weird’ in museums and attractions since 1919. In effect, it’s a franchise, enabling entrepreneurs to open museums of artifacts so strange and unusual that people might doubt their claims.

The idea has also been developed into radio and TV programmes, events, books, posters and a pinball game. Over 12 million visitors a year marvel in the museum chain, confirming the fact that people like to be amazed; that the unbelievable-but-true has a place in a world where technology has made the amazing commonplace.

It’s the same curiosity that marvelled at ‘The Bearded Lady’ in carnivals of old, watched public executions, visited London’s Bethlehem ‘Bedlam’ Hospital for the Insane to stare, or who rubberneck motorway pile-ups. There is human fascination in what others get up to.

Unbelievability of the Ordinary

In his book You Really Couldn’t Make It Up (2004), former journalist Jack Crossley published his collected ‘bizarre-but-true’ stories from around Great Britain, culled from local and national newspapers. Snippets ranged from bureaucracy’s stupidity to the breath-taking wisdom of the fool.

The Moscow State Circus tight rope performer made to wear a hard hat to comply with EU safety rules (from The Times); West Midlands’ council workers called to mend a broken window in a disabled woman’s house replaced every window but the broken one (from The Guardian) and “Fifty percent of the population do not know what 50 percent is” (from former Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt, in The Observer) typify the observations many readers would scarcely credit.

Crossley guessed that people would enjoy incredible-but-true trivia. Proof of the increasing bulk of average people came from comparing 14 people crammed into a telephone box claiming a world record in the 21st century, with 19 claiming it in 1959 (from The Times). A group of people interested in fairies had over 1000 members (from Scarborough Evening News). John Wayne called his dog ‘Dog’ (from The Times).

Misprints and Unintended Humour

Despite modern technology, misprints and errors creep into the written media, and to such an extent that publishing collections make best sellers. In 1985, British satirical magazine Private Eye published The Thrid Book of Boobs, in a successful series enjoyed by people reveling in the errors of others.

A spokesperson for the Royal Ballet School was quoted in the Daily Telegraph saying they wanted young dancers who could walk into “any ballet school and stand on their own two feet”. Super Marketing reported a new group manager at a food company who had previously worked at ‘Kentucky Fried Children’, while the Times of India picked up an Irish coroner who said: “People are dying this year who have never died before”.

The Morecambe Visitor carried an ad for a photographer: “Children Shot for Christmas”; Time Out promoted a “Master of Arts Degree in Deviancy” at Middlesex Polytechnic and Spare Rib displayed an ad for “Lesbian, 35, nonsmoker, loves horses, seeks same for friendship”. South Wales Evening Post carried a classified ad: “Please save from destruction, three kitchens in desperate need of good homes”.

Sometimes it’s headlines or juxtapositions of people’s names that cause amusement and fascination. Private Eye noted from the Western Daily Press that a pig fell from a lorry on the M5 onto a car driven by Linda Hogg: “the pig was killed”. Kent and Sussex Courier announced the wedding of Benjamin Bath to Miss Sally Tubb and The Daily Telegraph reported a reservoir opened by the Housing Minister, Ian God (should have been Gow).

The Weekend Australian headlined: “One-legged Escapee Rapist Still On the Run”. The Times Literary Supplement proclaimed; “Six-Legged Sex”, for a book on insect mating systems. The Standard reckoned “Mao’s Widow Will Not Die”. An unmissable event was bannered in Northwich and Winsford Advertiser: “A Public Meeting May Give Ratepayers a Chance to Express Disgust at Level of Rats in Cheshire”.

The Darwin Awards and the Gene Pool of Life

What people do, deliberately or by accident, will always amuse/shock/sicken others and provide material to stand-up comedians who use observational humour. The australian who swam 300 metres to get first aid with a shark clamped to his leg; the Brighton burglar who stole the camera police used to take his mugshot; the Finnish taxman who died at his desk and remained unnoticed by 30 colleagues for two days; the Romanian who complained to consumer authorities at the poor quality of the rope he tried to hang himself with, and the man who beheaded himself with a guillotine he erected in his bedroom, have unwittingly caused smiles and head-shakes.

People may posthumously be nominated for a Darwin Award. These commemorate, in honour of Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory, those “who remove themselves from the gene pool, thereby ensuring the next generation is smarter by one”. The 35 year old Romanian welding a family heirloom tamper back together, discovered too late that it was a World War 2 cannon shell. He thought it was safe because his father had battered the ground with it for 40 years!

The 2010 nominees included a handicapped man who rammed his chair into closed elevator doors till he broke in; people parked on a Rio de Janeiro freeway slow lane in heavy fog “for a quickie”; two mechanics at a racing car service centre who were injured in an explosion when they raced on a barrel and the Kentucky couple who swapped driver and passenger while the car was in motion!

So it may well be true that when it comes to things people do or have wrong with them, it really can’t be made up. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s often bizarrely so.

First published on Suite 101, 19 January 2011.

Photo: Ripley’s Believe It or Not Is Global Franchise – Rudolph.A.furtado

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