Elegy for the humorist.
Dave Barry, who quit his syndicated humor column last week, has been playing dumb for 22 years. Whenever someone suggests that Barry is our noblest social commentator, that he regularly makes the lions of the New York Times editorial page look like bozos, Barry points out that this is impossible, because, unlike most Times men, he takes great pride in making booger jokes. Let us ignore that objection and repeat the suggestion. Dave Barry is—was—the most heroic newspaper columnist in America. He hides his considerable candlepower behind a jokester's guise of "Don't trust me, I'm just the comedian!" Or, as Barry once put it, "Readers are sometimes critical of me because just about everything I write about is an irresponsible lie."
Barry began his writing career in humiliating fashion: Slumming for a company called Burger Associates, he flew around the country teaching businessmen how to write interoffice memos. He also produced a syndicated humor column that ran in a few tiny newspapers and that practically nobody read. Barry came to the attention of Gene Weingarten, the editor of Miami Herald's Sundaymagazine, Tropic, after freelancing an article on natural childbirth for a Philadelphia newspaper. "I read it and realized it was the first time in my life I had laughed out loud while reading the printed word," says Weingarten, who now writes a humor column for the Washington Post. Barry began freelancing a monthly column for Tropic, which became biweekly, then weekly—and eventually landed Barry a full-time job at the Herald, where he camped out for the next two decades. Weingarten and his heirs eagerly deployed Barry as humorist, reporter, and quixotic political correspondent, such as the occasion when he began an interview with then-Gov. Bob Graham with a question about harmonica safety.
Weingarten suggests, tantalizingly, that Barry is something of a great brain—a strange thing to say about a man who enjoys covering exploding livestock. "Dave had astonishingly high SAT scores," says Weingarten. "His humor is informed by an astounding intellect." One week, when Tropic converted itself into a kind of Devil's Dictionary, Weingarten instructed Barry to come up with a definition for "sense of humor." Barry disappeared from the office for a few days. He came back with this: "A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge." Then he promptly went back to writing about exploding livestock.
Barry evades questions about what makes his writing funny. (In a column, he once suggested it was his copious use of the word "weasel.") Weingarten says Barry codified one rule of comedy: "Put the funniest word at the end of sentence." A second rule might be: "Put the funniest sentence at the beginning of the story." Barry writes some of the jazziest opening lines in the business. This is partly out of necessity, since Barry's column usually runs about 800 words. It can take up to a minute or two to unwrap a humor piece by the New Yorker's Ian Frazier or Steve Martin, compared to mere seconds for one by Barry. Among Barry's best openers:
Without my eyeglasses, I have a great deal of trouble distinguishing between house fires and beer signs.
I have received a disturbing letter from Mr. Frank J. Phillips, who describes himself as both a patriot and a Latin teacher.
Obviously, we—and when I say "we," I mean people who no longer laugh at the concept of hemorrhoids—need to come up with some kind of plan for dealing with the yuppies.
Like most Americans, I was thrilled to death last February when our wealthy yachting snots won the coveted America's Cup back from Australia's wealthy yachting snots.
At the Miami Herald we ordinarily don't provide extensive coverage of New York City unless a major news development occurs up there, such as Sean Penn coming out of a restaurant.
Next, we move to Barry's third rule of comedy, which is to change subjects as frequently and jarringly as possible, often beginning with the second sentence of the article. Last July, for example, Barry began a column wondering why breakfast-cereal mascots—Toucan Sam, Cap'n Crunch, et al.—were uniformly male. A few hundred words later, Barry had forgotten about that idea and was asking whether we should ditch the phrase "the birds and the bees" for a zoologically correct expression, "the dogs."
Because he's read by boomers and teenagers alike, Barry is often thought of as a guileless, domestic funnyman. And, true, Barry wrote plenty of sweet columns about his son, his dogs (Earnest and Zippy, themselves comic icons), and his lifelong battle with recalcitrant air conditioners. But Barry wrote an astonishing amount about politics, too. Few know, perhaps, that his book Dave Barry's Greatest Hits contains two columns about airline deregulation. And another about tax reform. And another about the defense of Western Europe. And that in his book about American history, Dave Barry Slept Here, he inveighed, comically, against the Hawley-Smoot Tariff ("the most terrible and destructive event in the history of Mankind").And that from the Democratic Convention—he's covered a half-dozen—he wrote that poor John Glenn "couldn't electrify a fish tank if he threw a toaster in it."
In 1987, after the New York Times published a bleak article about South Florida ("Can Miami Save Itself?"), Barry's editors dispatched their man to New York to give the Times its comeuppance. Barry returned with a wicked 4,000-word story in which he gently pointed out that Ed Koch's Manhattan was a carnival of urban decay and drug paraphernalia, too. Where the Times' storyhad been heavy-handed and sober, Barry was impish and hilarious, reporting, "[W]e immediately detect signs of a healthy economy in the form of people squatting on the sidewalk selling realistic jewelry." The denizens of Times Square, he observed, were "very friendly, often coming right up and offering to engage in acts of leisure with you." After catching a cab at LaGuardia Airport, Barry formulated the three immutable laws of New York taxis:
1. DRIVER SPEAKS NO ENGLISH.
2. DRIVER JUST GOT HERE TWO DAYS AGO FROM SOMEPLACE LIKE SENEGAL.
3. DRIVER HATES YOU.
Barry (not the Times)won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary the next year. And perhaps his gifts as a political satirist point toward a second act. In his valedictory, Barry refused to rule out a return to column-writing. Here's an idea: As soon as William Safire shuffles off to the Old Columnists' Home, put Barry smack dab in the middle of the Times editorial page. Barry confessed a few years ago that he's a raving libertarian—just the kind of dyspeptic crank who would take pleasure in thumbing Washington in the eye. Give him 14 inches twice a week and let him write whatever he wants. Why settle for another graying libertarian when you can have a libertarian who makes booger jokes?
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.