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Arts & Entertainment
05/02/04

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer
An Interview with Dave Barry

Dave Barry is one of America’s most critically acclaimed and popular humorists. He has been a columnist at the Miami Herald since 1983, and his syndicated column appears in more than 500 newspapers in the United States and abroad. He has also written twenty-five books, and in 1988 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

“People are sometimes surprised I won a Pulitzer,” said Barry in a recent phone interview from his office in Miami. “In fact, I’m sometimes surprised I won a Pulitzer, but I like to remind people that I’ve written quite a few columns about how silly and obnoxious our government is.”

Other than the government, some other major concerns of Dave Barry are beer, Barbie, snakes in toilets, exploding pop tarts, and the worst songs ever recorded.

On Tuesday, Barry will conduct a public reading at 8 p.m. at Page Hall located at the University at Albany’s downtown campus. The talk, which is free, is part of the New York State Writers Institute.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to New York state,” said Barry, who grew up in the Westchester County town of Armonk.

“I lived there till I was in high school,” said Barry. “When I was a kid in the fifties and early sixties it was more like a Midwestern town. Today it’s part of the mega-burbs, but when I was a kid I never really thought of myself as a New Yorker.”

He was considered a funny kid as a student. “I was elected the class clown when I was a senior in high school,” he said. “Humor was about all I had going for me. I wasn’t a very good athlete, but I could write funny stories, and the class loved hearing them.”

Barry admitted that some of his teachers hated him. “But the teachers who were less threatened by discipline problems liked me,” he said.

He credits much of his talent for humor as a trait coming from his mother. “She was not like the typical American housewife at the time,” said Barry. “She had a very edgy sense of humor.”

His parents encouraged his reading of such humorists as Robert Benchly and Max Schulman. “I’ve always been an avid reader,” said Barry, “but today I tend to read a lot of serious stuff. I was the last person in America to discover Patrick O’Brien, the author of Master and Commander. I’m now reading everything he’s ever written.”

When he wants to read some humor he’ll search out Steve Martin, Carl Hiassen, a fellow journalist at the Miami Herald, and Gene Weingarten at The Washington Post. “I also like David Sedaris,” said Barry. “He’s very edgy, and he’s a great performer of his writing.”

After high school Dave Barry became an English major at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and after graduation from college he got his start in writing as a beat reporter for the Daily Local News of West Chester, Pennsylvania. “I also became a writer for the Associated Press, and then I got a job teaching business writing to professionals,” he said. This job forced him to travel quite a bit, and he began writing observational humor pieces for fun while living in different hotel rooms. Many of these became published articles, and soon he was writing for a group of editors at various magazines and newspapers around the country.

As a humor columnist he considers himself a bit of a dinosaur. “Most writers of humor today are working for sit-coms or writing screenplays. Some of them write for Comedy Central or The Onion, but very few of us write humor for newspapers,” he said. “Most newspaper editors are cowardly, and they don’t want to publish any humor because they think it might offend someone.”

Barry also believes many editors feel Americans need to read more serious stuff since 9/11. “But I think that’s ridiculous,” he said. “The American people are generally funny and irreverent and they don’t want 9/11 to change them.”

Dave Barry believes if humans ever stop laughing they’ll probably go insane. “Most people eventually come to the realization that the world is unfair, and we’re all going to die,” he said. “There are two basic reactions we can have to this. We can become deeply religious, or we can learn to laugh at most things.

According to Barry, most people become somewhat religious and also learn to laugh. “But the only people I’ve ever met that had no sense of humor are the deeply religious people,” he said.

He writes one column a week, and many of his ideas come from articles he’s read in the newspaper or things he’s heard in conversations. “People often send me article ideas,” said Barry. “I also get a lot of good stuff from politicians, and this summer I’ll be attending the political conventions. That should give me at least one year of good material.”

His advice for someone who wants to write humor is to stop telling people that you’re a funny writer and sit down and write something funny. “Some people think that if they can make people laugh at a party, they can also write funny stories,” said Barry. “This isn’t always true.”

Dave Barry has a new novel coming out this September. “It’s a young adult book,” he said, “and I wrote it with Ridley Pearson. We had a lot of fun doing that. It’s called ‘Peter and the Star Catcher.’”

He’s also getting reading to play lead guitar for the literary rock band the Rock Bottom Remainders. Other members include Stephen King, Amy Tan, Ridley Pearson and Mitch Albom. “We usually play once a year,” said Barry. “This fall we’re going to travel by bus and make a few stops in the Midwest. As our website says, we’re not musically skilled, but we’re extremely loud.”

When he visits Albany, Dave Barry isn’t quite sure what he’s going to read. “You mean I have to read something,” he said. “Usually I just end up talking randomly. Hopefully people will ask a few questions. I like when people ask me questions.”

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