Here’s how life works: On the day you’re scheduled to interview your idol, you wake up with acute laryngitis. I mean bad. You can’t speak above a guttural whisper and the occasional deep, booming croak.
Fortunately, Dave Barry’s got enough voice for the both of us.
Perhaps the best-known columnist in America, Barry wrote a humor column for the Miami Herald for more than 20 years. It was syndicated to more than 500 newspapers and earned him a Pulitzer Prize — which is a really serious award to give a man who once wrote a column titled “Decaf Poopacino” and for whom exploding Pop-Tarts is a well-trod motif.
Known for the catchphrases “I am not making this up” and “… which is a really good name for a rock band,” Barry has an unmistakable voice; his style is recognizable even before you see the byline. When I tell him this — rather, when I squawk it at him, sounding like a phone-sex operator who is gagging on a small toad — he agrees that it’s easy to spot his work “because it has the word booger in it somewhere.”
Barry, who comes to town in January, is more than a columnist; he’s written more than 30 books, including the new novel Insane City. He’s responsible for popularizing International Talk Like a Pirate Day. And he plays guitar in a rock band with authors Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Mitch Albom — which makes him, like, the Bono of the publishing universe.
Some highlights of my mortifyingly wheezy conversation about column-writing with the brilliant Barry:
You’ve said that you don’t write intellectual material — but you also make humor look easier than it is. I’m not writing for intellectuals. I don’t want to. I always felt that there were so many columnists who were trying to do that, and that’s not me. I want to make people laugh. I belong on the comics page so there’s no confusion about what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to amuse you for a few minutes, which is, to me, an honorable thing to do.
There are weeks when I have stuff to rant about and funny things to say — and weeks when I just don’t. Does it ever get easier? No. You just described my life.
Have you ever broken character to write about a topic, or in a style, that’s atypical for you? I wrote six or seven really serious columns. They were all when something horrible happened: My mom or dad died, my son got hit by a car, 9/11. I didn’t even try to be funny. The reaction was always really positive and people said, “Why don’t you write more like that?” I said, “I don’t want to write more like that! I wrote that ’cause I was really upset!”
What does it do to your sense of humor to win a Pulitzer Prize? There was this brief time, like a day, when I thought, Does this mean that I have to write important things? My next column, I was going to write about my dog throwing up a lizard on the rug, but then I thought, Do I have to write about the Middle East? So I ended up comparing the situation in the Middle East to a dog throwing up.
But the Pulitzer! Surely it squelches any self-doubt that burrows in when readers say you’re not funny. Wait — dear god, please tell me that readers say that to you, too. Oh, yeah. It’s the easiest thing in the world to tell people they’re not funny. It’s hard to actually be funny. Not to compare us to coal miners or anything — but you’ll always have those people.
I’m not sure what he said after that, because I had a sort of journo-gasm when he called us an “us.” Did you catch that? I could have died right then with a grin on my face — a geeked-out, squeak-throated fangirl.
Which, I think Barry would agree, is an excellent name for a rock band.
Dave Barry will be in town for a UCSB Arts & Lectures event on Wednesday, January 22, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. For tickets, call 893-3535.
Starshine Roshell is the author of the new book Broad Assumptions.