David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Research, Revenge

Research

• Oral historian Studs Terkel may have been the world’s greatest interviewer, but he was inept when it comes to mechanical things such as making sure that a tape recorder is turned on. One day, he was interviewing an African-American woman with three kids, all of whom were living in public housing. She asked him, “’Have you noticed that machine is not working?” He had pushed the wrong button. She pushed the right button, and the tape recorder began to work. Mr. Terkel said, “From that point on, she became not only my equal but my better. And that is important, because when you are interviewing a person, that person must count.” The African-American woman spoke eloquently about her life. After the interview, her children wanted to hear her voice on the tape, so he played the tape. Mr. Terkel said, “She’d given the most eloquent account you could imagine of her life: a black person’s outing in a white world. It was so moving. When it finished, there was a pause. She said: ‘My God — I never knew I felt that way.’” Mr. Terkel added about himself, “It can help to be inept.”

• David Grazian wrote a book about Philadelphia’s nightlife titled On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, partly because as a sociologist, he knew that the cities that have been most studied — New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas — are not like other American cities. Mr. Grazian was able to do research by interviewing people partly because he looks like an everyman and not competition or a wolf. He asks, “Can you think up a worse pickup line than ‘Hey, I’m a sociologist … mind if I study you?’” Mr. Grazian says that only one woman ever fell for that line “and I married her.” One thing that Mr. Grazian discovered in his research was that nightlife provokes anxiety: “Shrinking violets and 40-year-old virgins, sure, they were scared. But also the popular kids and the beautiful people — especially the popular kids and the beautiful people. I sometimes think we’d all just be better off dressing down, and stop trying so hard to be hip. Having fun should be way more fun than this.”

• The Brothers Grimm — Jacob and Wilhelm — researched fairy tales. In addition to perusing old books, they also perused old people. Often, they would barter for fairy tales. For example, Katharina Dorothea Viehmann was rewarded for her fairy tales with rolls and butter, while the elderly soldier Johann Friedrich Krause was rewarded for his fairy tales with some of the Grimm brothers’ old pants. By the way, mistakes did creep into some of the stories. For example, the story of Cinderella originally was a French story titled “The Little Fur Slipper.” However, the French word vair (fur) is similar to the French word verre (glass) and so the little fur slipper somehow became a little glass slipper.

Revenge

• Addison Mizner once entered polite society in New York, but he was worried when his younger brother Wilson showed up, fearing that he would mess up his chance to hobnob with the snobs. Therefore, he warned Wilson that he would pretend not to know him if they should ever meet. Wilson, of course, resented this bit of news, and he planned to get revenge. He learned that Addison and some of his society friends would be in a box at the National Horse Show, so he showed up, too. Addison pretended not to notice him, but Wilson loudly called to him. When Wilson came over to the society people’s box, Addison stiffly asked him when he was staying. Wilson replied, “I’m in a cathouse at Broadway and Forty-second Street. I just sit there all day reading my beloved books and smoking opium.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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