Dave Barry: Bravely Navel-Gazing

Ever try to have a friendly conversation with an investigative journalist? It's like talking to dry wall, except plasterboard doesn't record you or scour through your divorce files. But as seriously as he takes himself, the Pulitzer winner with Deep Throat in the Rolodex and Ahmadinejad on speed dial isn't the bravest soul in the newsroom. No, that would be the goofy humor columnist with the Monkees hairdo who gets story ideas by studying the ceiling tiles above his desk and chewing gum.

Imagine sitting at your blank computer screen with nothing but your navel to guide you. No sources, no quotes, no assignment but this: Write something that will make readers of 500 newspapers, serving every swath of America, chuckle. Now do that for 20 years, when said readers know all of your punch lines, gimmicks, crutches, and obsessions. Terrified yet? If you can survive that long, you're probably Dave Barry, and — sorry, Woodward and Bernstein — you have a Pulitzer of your own hanging by your desk.

Barry, a former Miami Herald columnist and author of dozens of books, who won literature's most coveted bauble for commentary in 1988, has a time-tested method of figuring out if what he just wrote is funny. He lets his wife, Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman, who shares a Coral Gables home office with him and their farting mutt Lucy, take a look. "While she's reading it," Barry says, "I go to the living room to eat potato chips for a while."

Such is the low-tech conveyor belt of funny that keeps Barry, who has published more than 42 books, very busy. He got his start as a reporter for the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pennsylvania, covering "sewage meetings," he says, and volunteering humor writing for the paper's Sunday op-ed section. Eventually, he charged for the columns ($23.50 each) and in 1981 earned national attention for a piece about the birth of his son that he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He began receiving calls from other newspapers looking to run the story. "That was the first time I realized you could write something once and get paid for it many times," Barry recalls fondly.

The Herald hired him as a full-time columnist, and he wrote from Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, for a few years before finally embracing South Florida's weirdness and moving his family here. "For humor, this place is ridiculous," he says. "It's like what [former Herald reporter] Carl Hiaasen used to say: 'Whatever you make up won't be as strange as South Florida's reality.'"

Though he periodically writes columns, Barry quit the Herald in 2005. Today, he writes children's books. He still stares into the glowing abyss of his computer every day and tries to craft something his wife won't want to shred to pieces — and he refuses to take himself seriously. "I'm in my office eight hours a day," he says. "But I wouldn't call it 'work.'"

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