The Dead Guy Interviews is based on the intriguing premise that forty-five of history’s greatest, and most interesting, people can be summoned back to life long enough to sit for an interview with the author. The theory goes that Michael Stusser will ask the hard questions, questions that would have in some cases probably gotten him killed if he had dared to ask them during the actual lifetimes of his subjects. Stusser will combine insightful questions and humor in his interviews in a way that will provide the reader with forty-five painless little history lessons. So much for the theory, because in reality, this hit-and-miss book is more miss than hit.
Stusser interviews Beethoven, Napoleon, Churchill, Einstein, Darwin, Freud, Hoover, Poe, Mae West, Wilde, Crazy Horse, Washington, Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Buddha and thirty others. Each interview runs five or six pages and is introduced by a one-page biography of the person being interviewed. The interviews seldom fail to offer at least one or two lesser-known, but intriguing, historical facts about their subjects, but so many of the questions are phrased in such a sophomoric style of humor that the facts are soon overwhelmed by the silliness. And because Stusser sometimes has his historical figures respond in the same tone in which the questions are asked, many of them seem to have the same personality regardless of what they accomplished in life or in what era they lived. After a while, it starts to seem that everyone who comes back to life does so with the personality of Don Rickles.
Although many, if not most, of the interviews stress the sex lives of those answering the questions, with Stusser seeming to take particular delight in pointing out how many great figures of history were either homosexual or bisexual, some of the conversations do serve as good capsule histories. Unfortunately, because of the numerous sex jokes and the constant trading of insults between interviewer and interviewee, those conversations are do not happen as often as they could have.
More typical is the way that the interviewer begins his session with Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Michael Stusser: Gotta ask about the facial hair. Why not trim up the old mono-brow and wax the ‘stache, you know?
But along the way we are reminded of Beethoven’s deafness, that Mozart may have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, that only seven of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime, and we learn how Harry Houdini (and Siegfried and Roy) made an elephant disappear on stage. Stusser provides the kind of historical trivia that puts a human face on history’s legends, but the book is ultimately less a history lesson than it is a book filled with jokes written at the expense of those legends.
Frida Kahlo: Yes, I now see this is going to be like sitting with a pig for an hour. Why don’t you shave your back?