Mon
Oct 12 2009 12:29pm

All this stuff totally happened (except for how it didn’t)

My introduction to alternate history was a funny one. No, literally. My first encounter occurred in 1997 with Dave Barry Slept Here—an oddball comedy gem masquerading as a history book. Written by Dave Barry (surprise!), DBSH’s crowning delight was that the more you knew about history, the funnier it got.

I could appreciate that.

Coincidentally, about that same time I began watching Hysteria!, a Looney Toons production that didn’t run nearly long enough for my liking. Hysteria! was a smart, funny show with an alternate-history/parody base from the creators of Animaniacs (a true classic, to be sure). While Hysteria! was genuinely informative, it also had a tendency to run rather cleverly off the rails—granting history’s players unexpected quirks, paths, challenges, and comparisons. My personal favorite episode remains the one wherein the Justice League is populated with FDR as Batman and Truman as Robin. Eleanor Roosevelt was Wonder Woman. Et cetera.

COMEDY GOLD.

And I think I loved it so much because it surprised me. Anytime you watch or read something with a historic bent (if you know anything about the real-life events) you have expectations about how it’ll play out. Then those expectations are thwarted, and voila—you get humor…

…Or something else. I’ve long maintained that the difference between humor and horror is nothing but context. A man hits another man over the head with a hammer; is it the Stooges or Stephen King? The mechanism is the same either way. You react because you’re surprised.

Anyway. As my most recent novel demonstrates nicely, I’m still interested in alternate history, and for the very same reasons. It still surprises me, and delights me how it can go very wrong, or very interesting. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s godawful—like how I dragged out the Civil War for nearly two decades in the Clockwork Century universe. But I always find it cool to start with a known quantity and muck it up.

For inspiration—or usually just for giggles—I’ve started following Today in Alternate History, a site/blog that plays it so straight that sometimes it takes me a minute to sort out where, precisely, the real story ends and “alternate” bit begins. Scroll through their archives and find the best of “what if” and the worst of “it could’ve gone down this way.”

Some people insist on the butterfly effect, and others insist that the flow of history will always find a way to correct itself. The truth is, there’s no telling. But it’s plenty of fun to speculate.


Cherie Priest is the author of seven novels from Tor books and Subterranean Press, including the award-winning Eden Moore series, Dreadful Skin, and Fathom. Her most recent book, Boneshaker, was released on September 29th by Tor Books.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
8 comments
Rikka Cordin
1. Rikka
Histeria! almost always tops my list of cartoons from my childhood that I miss. History + comedy = the ultimate in entertainment, even for second graders. We don't even want to go over how many of the songs I still remember. Huzzah for grabbing us while we're young!
Stefan Jones
2. Stefan Jones
Oh, good.

I was afraid I'd imagined that show.
Fake Name
3. ThePendragon
I liked it, but it wasn't anywhere near as good as Tiny Toons and Animaniac. I couldn't stand those egg-shaped baby things.
Stefan Jones
4. F-Ring
If History jokes tickle your fancy, you should be reading Kate Beaton's Hark a Vagrant. I submit for your approval and interesting take on Jules Vernes admiration of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Check it out.
R B
5. MasterAlThor
Histeria...man it was so short that I forgot that it exsisted. To bad it didn't chatch on like Ren & Stimpy or something like that. That would have been great!
Tudza White
6. tudzax1
Yes, Dave Barry and funny is a surprising juxtaposition. I tried to appreciate Dave Barry more than once since people seem to enjoy his work, but he failed me miserably.
Stefan Jones
7. DemetriosX
I've never even heard of Histeria!, but I put it to you that it could never have existed without Mr. Peabody, Sherman and the WABAC machine.

(Why yes, I do have a lawn you shouldn't be on. Why do you ask?)
Stefan Jones
8. cmpriest
No! You did not imagine Hysteria! That was an awesome show, and I adored it. I'm led to understand that it was briefly available online, but no one seems to have it now, which is a shame. Lots of great writing went into it, and I'd love to watch it again.

And as for Dave Barry, well, he's not for everyone - and that's okay. I like some of his stuff better than others; but as a native Floridian who has been reading his columns since I was knee-high to Elmyra, I've got a permanent soft spot in my heart for him.

Furthermore, you may be right re: the WABAC machine. I'm old enough that I've seen Rocky and Bullwinkle plenty, thank you very much. But I still loved Hysteria! more :)

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