For Dave Barry, humor writing is not a choice. “It’s the only skill I have,” he explains earnestly. “I really can’t do anything else.” Fortunately, he’s exceptionally good at it. Over the past thirty years, his tireless efforts to inform his readers about exploding cows, the worst songs ever written and the perils of male/female communication have resulted in nearly 40 books and a Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
Barry’s decision to stop writing his weekly syndicated column in 2005 created an unofficial period of mourning among devoted readers. His prose is marked by a keen sense of the absurd, a marked predilection for the word “booger” and an active disdain for low flow toilets. Lack of actual information has never prevented him from delving into the realms of politics (Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway: A Vicious and Unprovoked Attack on Our Most Cherished Political Institutions), history (Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States) international travel (Dave Barry Does Japan) and parenting (Babies and Other Hazards of Sex).
Recently he embarked on a series of bestselling children’s books, co-authoring prequels to the “Peter Pan” story with Ridley Pearson, a fellow musician in The Rock Bottom Remainders. The band, composed entirely of authors, includes Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Barbara Kingsolver and characterizes its genre as “hard listening.”
Barry spoke with SC Magazine about his early influences, the importance of humor, and the laughter of eight year olds.
SC: Somewhere along the line, you learned not to take yourself too seriously or all the things we’re “supposed to” take seriously as adults – romance, career and all that. Where did you learn that, or were you always that way?
"They were very good at identifying silliness masquerading as importance. In my family, you didn’t take yourself too seriously or you would be viciously mocked by your siblings and parents"
DB: I learned it. My parents definitely were funny people. My dad had a serious career, but they both, particularly my mom, had excellent senses of humor and they were not big on pretension. I thought that was really the way most people viewed the world and was always a little surprised to discover that there were people who took pretty much everything very seriously.
The world still seems to divide that way. I think most people have a pretty good sense of humor, but there’s a sizable chunk of people who just can’t get over themselves and how grim everything is, and how important everything is. I want to say, “You know what? You’re going to be dead, eventually. This is your only real opportunity here. You might as well at least try to enjoy it, and not view EVERYTHING as being so unbelievably serious.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t do that, too. If I need to get to the plane and I’ve got a flat tire, I’ll be just as annoyed as anybody, and while it’s happening, I’ll probably think it’s the most important thing in the world. But generally I think I’m able to get past that fairly quickly. I think a lot of people are, and it’s a necessary component of personality.
SC: Related to that, it seems like your perspective is one of someone who basically enjoys people.
DB: That’s true. I agree with part of that. I think that it comes pretty organically from the fact that I am amused by the world and people – which isn’t the same exactly as saying I like people. I’m not as sociable as, for example, my wife or a lot of other people who just love to talk to people and could talk to anybody. I think that one of the things that people who do humor for a living have in common is we tend to be kind of shy. At the same time that we’re entertaining people, we’re also kind of keeping them at arms length. It’s a little more complicated than just liking people.
SC: I don’t mean necessarily that you’re hugely sociable, but –
DB: Yeah, don’t accuse ME of being sociable.
SC: But even when you’re making fun of people in your writing, there’s no real malice in it. There are people who are either comedians or humor writers who are making fun of “them” and then there are people who really are making fun of “us,” and that’s how I would see you.
DB: I shouldn’t say that I don’t feel malice, I sometimes do. And it’s not to say that I don’t write out of anger. I sometimes do. But I do think that if there’s too much of that, it usually doesn’t work as humor.
"I’ve always felt that it’s better to be making fun of yourself than to be making fun of other people. People will respond better to it if you include yourself in the group being made fun of, if not just outright mocking yourself"
SC: Lately you’ve been writing for children. In a way, it seems like you’re always writing for children –
DB: I’m immature.
SC: – because you’re writing to that piece of us that finds parts of life absurd. Is there a difference in how you approach it?
DB: I’ve never written a purely humor book for kids. But when Ridley Pearson and I write for younger readers, we do include humor. In fact, we just finished a book that’s coming out in October, called Science Fair, which is really, basically a humor novel. It’s got a plot and everything, but it’s really supposed to be pretty funny all the way through, as opposed to the others we wrote, which were more adventure books with some humor in them.
I don’t really try to make jokes for kids the way I would make a joke for a grown up. I more try to let it arise from the situation and have it be a little gentler and part of the plot. I think it’s probably because I’d feel silly if I, as an old guy, tried to make a joke for them.
That said, I’ve found kids to be a wonderful audience for humor. I have an eight-year-old daughter, and her friends are an easy audience. The thing that really strikes me about kids is that they’re ready to laugh at everything. I don’t know when they lose that. A certain percentage of them just lose it, and can no longer laugh any more. They just take themselves and life too seriously. But kids don’t have that problem.
When my daughter is with a friend of hers, just two of them, they laugh all the time. They’re constantly making jokes to each other, just slaying each other, and they don’t have any hesitation to really just roar. There’s no, “I gotta be cool.” None of that. It’s a wonderful thing to listen to two girls giggling all day. I don’t know where that goes.
SC: How does your humor translate cross-culturally?
DB: I have no idea. I have books translated in a lot of different languages. I get books in the mail from the publisher, and I don’t even know what book it is. I can’t even read the title. The only thing I can read is “Dave Barry.” I cringe, because I can’t imagine. There are a lot of Americans who don’t get my humor. I don’t know how a person in Poland would get it.
SC: You’ve said that you’re not trying to convey any deep meaning with anything you write, that there’s no huge moral or message. At the same time, I would argue that allowing people to laugh all over the world is a huge contribution in itself.
"I have a hard time in any situation (ask my wife) not thinking of a way to make fun of it after about a minute. So that’s just the way my brain works"
DB: Well, it may be true. Many, many people (and I hope I don’t sound immodest when I say this) have told me that reading my humor has helped them through difficult times and helped them get to know their kids better, or vice versa. That’s really nice to hear. But I have to always tell them, “To be honest, I would do this if it hurt you.”
This is what I was made to do. I’ve always felt that way. The way I think about everything.
SC: What have you learned, through all of your writing and your work, about the nature of laughter?
DB: It’s still kind of as much of a mystery to me as it always was. I think that at some point, we became the only animal that figured out that we were going to die. We’re also capable of understanding that even if we don’t die right away, the world we’re in is extremely irrational, dangerous, unjust, unfair; it’s an advantage to be like a pelican, because you’re just not thinking about that. You may die in some horrible unfair way, but you’re a pelican, so it didn’t really occur to you to think about it. You’re just thinking about getting the next fish.
We’re of course capable of thinking about much more. It just seems to me that we had to develop a defense mechanism. Because our natural reaction is to think, “Okay. Here I am in this crazy, unfair, dangerous world where I’ll most likely get sick and I’ll certainly die. What is the point of all that? What is the point of anything?”
There basically seem to be two reactions to that in the human brain. One is to invent religion, and decide that we’re not going to die. It’s all fine, it really is fair, there are reasons for all this. And the other is humor, which is to say, “I don’t like to feel this terrible anxiety, so I’m going to have this pleasant reaction to it,” which is really what we do when we laugh. We’re often laughing at things that aren’t totally positive or good or happy, but we still laugh pretty hard. So I think it’s just that.
"I’ve always viewed humor as one of those things that justifies itself. If it’s genuinely funny to a lot of people, it’s worth doing"
It’s like a steam valve, a psychic steam valve that we’ve developed. There may be some reason that it actually does do you some good to laugh, because it shows that your brain is somehow processing this kind of grim news all the time and converting it into something pleasant. I don’t have any proof of any of that; it’s just what I think.
To read Dave's columns, find out about upcoming events or learn about socks, accordions or exploding toilets, visit www.davebarry.com.
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