FOR SOME MISCREANTS, CRIME WILL NEVER PAY. EVEN INSPECTOR Clouseau could nail the bank robber who scrawls a holdup note on the back of an envelope addressed to the robber. Ditto for the vending machine thief who pays his $400 bail in quarters, or the would-be convenience store thief who chokes on a heisted hot dog and has to be Heimliched in the parking lot. Rare exceptions? Hardly. As humorists Daniel Butler and Alan Ray discovered, a surprising number of felons just aren't very good at what they do.

"Most criminals," Butler observes, "are either idiots or people doing the dumbest thing they've ever done." Inspired by newspaper accounts of bungled felonies, Butler and Ray set out in 1995 to collect tales of the crooked-but-incompetent from police officers around the nation. The resulting book, America's Dumbest Criminals, became a surprise hit, selling more than 250,000 copies—enough to rate a four-month stretch on The New York Times bestseller list. Last November the authors brought out a sequel, Wanted! Dumb or Alive, which quickly sold more than 100,000 copies. Last fall they also launched America's Dumbest Criminals TV show, currently syndicated weekly to 120 U.S. cities and 52 countries.

Now Butler and Ray are widening their dragnet, touring the country in a custom-built motor home in search of even more tales from the stupid side of the street. One benefit, they say, is giving society's guardians a chance to let down their guard. "How often do you see a police officer laugh?" Ray asks. Of course the United States has no corner on dim-witted defrauders. Witness the Australian computer thief who mistakenly left his flip-flops at the scene of the crime. When a police officer noticed a shoeless man brought to the station for an unrelated driving offense a few hours later, the cop offered the man the sandals. "Oh, great," the perp said. "I was wondering where I'd left them." That one made the May debut of Australia's Dumbest Criminals. Other nation-specific spin-offs are set for the airwaves in Spain, England and Germany. As Ray observes, "I guess everyone likes laughing at bad guys."

Butler and Ray have been in the laughter business for years. Butler, 46, who hosts the ADC TV show, honed his comedy chops writing and acting in Ernest P. Worrell ("Hey, Vern!") commercials and movies. Ray, also 46, made his first score by penning a No. 1 country song in 1978 (Eddie Rabbitt's "You Don't Love Me Anymore"), then spent four years writing for Butler's morning radio show. The two collaborated on an array of National Public Radio shows before Butler—disturbed to see his kids drawn in by the slick criminals on America's Most Wanted—decided to tell how idiotic most criminals really are. "It was like God gave us something we couldn't screw up," he says.

After selling the idea of a dumb crooks video to a producer, the pair got a book contract from Nashville's Rutledge Hill Press and started making the rounds of police stations. Butler and Ray's enthusiasm for law enforcement soon put the cops they met at ease. Says Butler: "If we can make robbery and drunk driving look stupid, people might stop and say, 'I'm not going to do that.' " Adds his partner: "And we all need a good laugh."

PETER AMES CARLIN
JONI H. BLACKMAN in Chicago and LUCHINA FISHER in Nashville

  • Contributors:
  • Joni H. Blackman,
  • Luchina Fisher.