As yet there are not many contenders for the 2003 Darwin Award. In the running are a ‘cock owner’ from the Philippines who bled to death in January when the bird he had fitted out for a fight turned round and slashed two of his major arteries, and the Spanish robbers who tried to shoot past the police surrounding their Madrid brothel using blanks, probably because they spent the night getting drunk at the bar.
The Darwin Awards are named in honour of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, and ‘commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it’. Of necessity, the website adds wryly, ‘the honour is generally bestowed posthumously’. There are honorary mentions for those who survive – like the man who supposedly tied a weather balloon to a deckchair so he could look into his neighbour’s garden, and was only rescued when he drifted into the flightpath of a low-flying plane. This was the first Darwin account I ever received by email, which is probably how most people hear about them. The Awards, like those websites devoted to signs written in poor English in foreign hotels and restaurants, were invented to cater for people in office jobs with too much time on their hands. Which was alright because – as far as I can remember – they used to be really funny.
The numerous winners of previous years are still listed. Among the pick of 2002 there is the farmer in Säo Paulo who went out to torch a beehive in his orange tree with a ‘protective’ plastic bag tied round his head (he suffocated); the 21 year old Kansas farm boy who jumped off the grain harvester he was driving, leaving the engine running, when his cowboy hat was blown in front of it (he was ‘scattered’); and the English tree-surgeon who decided to save time by throwing pruned branches directly into the fire he had built near the base of the tree (it caught fire). These are kind of funny because so genuinely stupid, but also, weirdly, a bit sad because so genuinely stupid.
Chainsaws, guns and trains feature heavily among the winning entries of all years, presumably because they also feature heavily in deaths of a less hilarious kind. A macho polish farmer cut off his own head with a chainsaw in a drunken show of strength (someone on the website has written in to say it was probably an axe: it’s unlikely he could have afforded a chainsaw) and an Italian bouncer had someone cut his leg off with a chainsaw as part of an insurance scam. People have looked down the barrels of guns with cigarette lighters or tried to play Russian Roulette with semiautomatic pistols or blown their heads of when the phone rang during the night and they answered their gun. In one case someone unthinkingly used a gun to hold up a gun shop. Unsurprisingly most of this seems to happen in the U.S., and a fair proportion actually in Texas. More than one person has been run over while putting their ear to the railway track to listen for the train, though more pertinent is the story about the man last seen with his hand over one ear, blotting out the noise of the oncoming train so he can talk into his mobile phone. Admittedly it is probably always funny when a psychic tries to stop a train with the power of his mind alone.
But it’s beginning to look like the funny, well-told ones are the exceptions from the organisers of the Darwin Awards. More often than not they offer rambling, unclear accounts of how a housewife accidentally fell into a woodchipper or a man encouraged his ten-year old son to stab him with a five-inch breadknife or somebody just, like, drowned. And if the stories don’t have wacky titles like ‘The Human Popsicle’ or ‘Slip-Sliding Away’, they are likely to be accompanied by a shite cartoon. One from 1995, for instance, about six people who died trying to rescue a chicken from a well in Egypt (how does this demonstrate stupidity or a genetically deficient sense of danger? Maybe they just really needed/liked the chicken.) is followed by a graphic of six turbaned ethnic types caught in a whirlpool.
But just when you think you’re completely losing your sense of humour, there are the ‘Vintage’ Darwin Awards, which are more or less as funny as the whole thing once seemed. There’s the fisherman who died when the fish he was trying to ‘bite to death’ slid down his throat and became further lodged by his efforts to poke it out with a stick. Then the 1994 winner: a man who was flattened by a coke machine while trying to tip out a free drink. This is surprisingly similar to the classic account of how a Saguaro cactus fell on top of the marksman using it for target practice in the Arizona desert. When you think about it, then, it’s the elements of brevity and slapstick that seem to be missing from the Darwin’s of the last five or so years. One argument for this would be–given how the oldest of these ‘vintage’ awards hales from 1982 – that the objectives celebrated by the Darwin Awards are being met. If natural selection continues to improve the human species by eliminating those with no innate fear of electric pylons or precariously balanced objects, unfortunately the Darwin Awards are just going to get less and less funny. More likely, though, it’s because a lot of the best stories are notably ‘unconfirmed’. People aren’t getting any less stupid, and while any idiot can die in an idiotic way, it’s much harder to die stupidly with aplomb. The Darwin Awards seems to have evolved to it can’t tell the difference.