He Can't Make This Up

Millions read Dave Barry's syndicated humor column. But how many have heard Dave Barry actually speak? If you called him before Thanksgiving, here's what his answering machine would have said: "Hello. You have reached the booking agent for Long Dong Silver. Due to his recent rise in popularity, Long Dong is booked up right now. But if you'll leave your name and number, we'll get back to you with information about some of our other acts, including Medium Dong Silver, Barely Adequate Dong Silver and Senator Orrin Hatch."

That Dave. Once his twisted little mind gets a major target in its cross hairs, it keeps strafing. Barry already demolished Hatch, Joseph Biden and Ted Kennedy in his column on the Clarence Thomas hearings, a mock transcript of the Senate Judiciary Committee's blatherings that even managed to translate Strom Thurmond. SENATOR THURMOND: Soamwhoan ben cudrin' mheah widm tan' bfust drang. TRANSLATOR: He says, "Somebody has colored my hair with what appears to be Tang breakfast drink." A lot of sobersided op-ed page types considered that piece the funniest sendup of elected officials since the last issue of the Congressional Record. But to legions of dweebs-a word Dave reveres almost as much as "boogers"-it was just another reinforcement of years of addiction. Back before The New York Times Book Review called Barry "the funniest man in America" (even though he loves to deflate the Times's pomposity) and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize Board honored him for Distinguished Commentary (even though one of his entries razzed the Pulitzers), Barry addicts were subsisting on such classics as his proposal for President Reagan's 1984 campaign slogan: RONALD REAGAN: MOST OF HIS POLYPS WERE BENIGN.

These days, Dave Barry seems in danger of becoming an industry. The number of papers carrying his weekly column has soared past 400, including a daily in Thailand. Books bearing his byline now total 13, three of which were best sellers. Happily, none of that has undermined the silliness that got Barry elected Class Clown at New York's Pleasantville High School. Just check out his latest book, "Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need." It's not exactly a Proustian read, as the author acknowledges: "My books are shorter than the foreword to one of Norman Mailer's." Still, it's rich in travel tips, such as "Never board a commercial aircraft if the pilot is wearing a tank top."

Perhaps Barry's head remains unscrewed because he never left Pleasantville High. His humor style is unabashedly sophomoric, perfectly attuned to the boomers who never grew up, either, and who comprise his biggest fans. "I kind of like sophomores," he shrugs. "Sophomores can be pretty funny." He tends to write long sentences with multiple jokes, many exhibiting a fascination with animal excretions (notably, "pig doots"). Like Robert Benchley, his boyhood hero, he'll adopt the tone of a world authority, then make inane statements. He also has a gift for demented hyperbole. Sen. Bill Bradley possesses "the charisma of gravel," heavy metal sounds like "music to slaughter cattle by." He's no dry wit; mostly, he's the kid in the back of the class lobbing literary spitballs at Adult Stuff, such as NASA and its "Hubble Orbiting Space Paperweight."

Dave Barry in person is exactly what one would expect. With his Beatle bangs and chipmunk visage, this 44-year-old father of an 11-year-old projects the rugged, maturescent authority of Doogie Howser. Barry's at The Miami Herald, his base of operations. The clippings on his office door, however, are strictly National Lampoon. Beneath a bumper sticker that sneers my KID BEAT UP YOUR HONOR STUDENT, a giant headline blares: HUSKY WOMEN SUBDUE DUCKS. Barry himself is turned out in polo shirt, jeans and bare feet. Why bare feet? "Because I get too many complaints when I go around totally naked."

Today Dave is doing his mail. He receives more than 400 letters a week, many suggesting news items for his periodic wrap-- ups on things that have been inexplicably exploding-cows, flounders, snails, toilets and human stomachs. The first letter in today's pile contains a grievance: "Dear Dave: The Sixties are over. For crying out loud, GET A HAIRCUT!" Barry sighs, then recounts a shattering experience. Just the other night, while he and his son, Robert, were at a restaurant, the waitress asked Dave for proof of age before serving him a beer. Robert thought that was hilarious. Not so his dad. "Pretty soon he'll look older than I do," Barry says. He slits open more letters, unearthing clippings about killer sardines, bottled deer urine and earrings made of Alaskan moose poop. Suitably cheered, Barry recalls the day he received an advertisement for a new antiflatulence product called Beano from-as Dave's always saying, we are not making this up--Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Editors at The Oregonian in Portland considered the resulting column so indigestible that they killed it.

No dootbrain, Barry has devoted many minutes to analyzing his enormous appeal. His theory: "The world has gotten so scary-every day you read a statistic like 'Three out of every five Americans have too much aluminum in their blood'-that people can't cope anymore. So they really like to read something that's not just lighthearted, but actually stupid. That a paper would pay someone to write a column about exploding carp is very reassuring."

As it happens, this humorist's background is rife with tragedy. Barry's father (Dave Sr.) and brother were alcoholics. His sister is an institutionalized schizophrenic. And his mother, who suffered from chronic depression, committed suicide. Fortunately, most of this hit Barry after he'd grown up. Nevertheless, he wrote a haunting column about his mother's suicide, apparently prompted by her inability to face life after her husband's death. An excerpt: "She would note the date each year on the calendar in the kitchen. 'Dave died, 1984,' the note would say. 'Come back, Dave'." Four years after the column ran, Barry is still getting grateful notes from readers.

Apparently, it was Barry's mother who begat his bent take on life. "My mom was the funniest person I've ever known," he says. Her fun also had a distinctly dark edge. When Dave headed off for a swim somewhere, his mother would lean out the window and, in perfect imitation of June Cleaver, chirp: "Don't drown!"

After Haverford College, he played lead guitar with a determinedly awful band called the Phlegmtones ("People were always throwing up on our amplifiers") and joined a small paper in West Chester, Pa., called the Daily Local News. He specialized in zoning and sewage ("How to get sewage into all those zones"). Then came a brain-deadening stint with the Associated Press, "whose idea of good writing was an ability to correctly abbreviate Third District Court." Finally, a company that runs "effective writing" seminars for executives hired Barry as an instructor. He put in eight years. "The key was to teach them to be boring," he says. "Suppose you figured out a way to turn mayonnaise into platinum for one dollar a pound, and had to write a business report about that. Your goal should be to make sure nobody is still awake when you get to the part about the platinum."

Meanwhile, Barry was turning out weekly humor columns-at $22.50 each-for the Daily Local News, where his wife, Beth, was features editor. A small California syndicate began sending them around. The Miami Herald was impressed enough to hire their author for its Sunday magazine in 1983. Though The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have since made major moves on Barry, he's happy in Miami, where he's as big as Don Shula. He lives in a five-bedroom ranch, drives a "shit-kicker" Dodge van ("All it's missing is a bumper sticker that says NO FAT CHICKS") and spends much quality time with two incorrigibly stupid animal companions: Earnest, "our large main dog," and Zippy, "our small auxiliary dog." Both make regular appearances in his column, especially when he's grappling with such weighty ethical questions as "Is it OK to eat your dog?"

Fame has brought its fruits, not the least of which is the advent of the platonic Barry groupies. They send him naked pictures of themselves and invitations to drop by if he's ever in town. Dave recognizes that it's not his body that intrigues them. "In my columns," he says, "I'm willing to come right out and admit that men are slobs, which women always have suspected. But they love me for confirming it." Or maybe it's political action they want a piece of, because Barry is running for president. He announced his candidacy in January, choosing as his running mate none other than Dan Quayle. "We've never had a vice president who's done the job that he's done with eyes that close together," Barry explains. But he wants to make one thing perfectly clear. "There are two areas I don't intend to get bogged down in: foreign affairs and domestic policy."

Fine, Dave, but suppose voters don't buy that platform. What do you still want to achieve in life? He gazes out the office window at a busy piece of Miami waterway. "Hardworking Miamians on their way to help the import-export program," he cracks. Come on, Dave, what about those Unfulfilled Dreams? He scratches his naked foot for a long moment. Finally, he owns up. "What I look forward to," he solemnly says, "is continued immaturity followed by death."

And if you call Dave Barry this week, what does his answering machine say? "Hi, you've reached the offices of Mario Cuomo for President. At the sound of the tone, please leave a message. Well, maybe you better not leave a message. No, go ahead and leave... No, maybe you better not ... Yeah, go... Well, no. . ."

New York has more commissioners than Des Moines, Iowa, has residents, including ... the Commissioner for Bicycle Messengers Bearing Down on You at Warp Speed with Mohawk Haircuts and Pupils Smaller than Purely Theoretical Particles.

Can New York Save Itself? (August 1987)

The Reagan administration ... has "deregulated" the airline industry. Airlines are no longer required to follow any rules whatsoever. They can show snuff movies. They can charge for oxygen. They can hire pilots right out of Vending Machine Refill Person School... Of course, certain restrictions do apply, the main one being that all these flights take you to Newark, N.J

Iowa's Safe But You'll Be Sorry (June 1986)

Yuppies have a very low birth rate, because apparently they have to go to Aspen to mate.

Yup the Establishment (March 1985)