When Hans Petersen gives a history lecture, he uses slides, discussion questions - and a textbook by Dave Barry. The result is American history at its funniest. American history without sentiment.
"Our motto is: To hell with the role of the plow in the settlement of Nebraska," quotes Petersen.Using the book "Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States," Petersen lectures for nearly two hours. It seems more like one hour.
"Jamestown. Later known as Jimtown. And still later, JimBobtown," reads Petersen, from the chapter titled, "The Colonies Develop a Life-Style."
Petersen's deep voice, easily recognized by KALL radio listeners, and the slides he's found of U.S. presidents at their dippiest, add humor to an already-very-funny text. Petersen does a credible imitation of various presidential voices, which also adds to the material.
Deseret News readers, who peruse Dave Barry's syndicated column every Sunday, will understand when I say this book is classic Dave Barry.
Like his year-end news review, Barry's "Sort of History of the United States" is mainly a repetition of facts.
Facts. These sad, stupid events really happened. What else can we do about our history except laugh until we cry?
"Eventually Benjamin Franklin became so dodderingly pathetic that he was placed in charge of the U.S. Postal Service," reads Petersen.
And on the subject of war: "At a cost of a few million dead people, World War I transformed Europe from a group of nations that hated each other to a group of nations that really hated each other."
And about slavery: The cotton-growers didn't set out to own slaves, Barry explains. They just couldn't get anyone to answer a nice upbeat newspaper ad that went something like, "ATTENTION SELF-STARTERS! Looking for a chance to work hard . . . no salary . . . and we keep your kids."
After his Ogden performance, Petersen plans to take "A Sort of History" to St. George, Provo and eventually, perhaps, to a large audience in the State Capitol.
His contract with Barry for exclusive performance rights includes a clause saying that Barry will rewrite some of the material if necessary. If ex-president Nixon dies those Nixon-making-a-comeback jokes are going to be revised, says Petersen.
Earlier this spring, Petersen gave his first formal lecture, to a nearly full house, at Bryant Intermediate School. The audience laughed warmly throughout his professorial performance - and seemed heartened by their brush with history.
It's reassuring, somehow, to think of all the laughable presidents and political maneuvers we've survived.