If I drew up a list of the most popular and productive newspaper writers of the last four decades, high on that list would be Dave Barry.
He built an international reputation as a humorist, writing for the Miami Herald. His syndicated columns, collected in many popular books, spread his name and reputation for cheerful irreverence.
(I cannot witness one dog in the park smelling the work of another without thinking of Dave’s take that the dog is actually “reading.”)
One of Dave’s virtues — more important than ever in the digital age — is his versatility. He writes short and long. He has written nonfiction and fiction; he has written for films, television, and audio recordings. Though known for his wit, he often directs it to issues that are deadly serious. His work has earned him many accolades including a Pulitzer Prize and an award named after Walter Cronkite.
Dave is a good guitar player. On a personal note, I have played music with Dave now and then, once sitting in with The Rock Bottom Remainders, a band of famous authors who are rich and influential enough to pose as rock stars. Actually, they are pretty good and use their celebrity in support of literacy projects. Vocally, Dave favors songs with the names of women in the title such as “Susie Q” and “Gloria.”
Earlier this year, I began to write the occasional column for the Tampa Bay Times focused on the theme of experiencing the pandemic in the Florida paradise. I would describe these essays as off-beat and whimsical, hitting on such topics as the eccentric ways folks wear their medical masks, such as hanging it over one ear.
In response to that column, I received a long message from the daughter of a man who had died in recent weeks from COVID-19. She described how a good laugh on a Sunday morning had lifted her and her mom out of their doldrums. That something I banged out in 45 minutes could serve as an escape hatch for people who were suffering gave me pause. Maybe we underestimate the role of humor and the off-beat in helping lift folks who feel beaten down.
To help me think this through, I turned to my guru of the goofy, Dave Barry. I explained that I was thinking about what it meant to yuk it up during the year of the plague, and if we needed permission to be funny. Here’s what he had to say in our email exchange.
Roy Peter Clark: How has the pandemic and house arrest influenced your own writing? And what have you been working on?
Dave Barry: My son and his family came down from New York and moved in with us, which meant that for four months we had a very full household, including two boys, ages 6 and 1. This had a major influence on my writing in the sense that I was doing a LOT less of it, because I was busy with important grandparent duties such as watching “Moana” 2,317 times.
The kids have gone back to New York, but I’m still having trouble focusing on writing. You’d think it would be easier to focus during the quarantine, since there are so few other things to do, but I’ve become very skilled at finding distractions. I’ll be looking at a blank computer screen, and suddenly I’ll think, “I need to change the air conditioner filter RIGHT NOW!”
I’ve been trying to get started on a novel. I have sort of a half-assed idea for one. All it needs now is a plot. And maybe characters. Also I wrote a few pandemic-related columns, and have started the Year in Review I do every year. It’s always a chore to write, but this year it’s going to be a monster. I have already started drinking.
Clark: I remember conversations after 9/11 about whether irony and cynicism were dead, at least for a while. It appears that the culture will allow you to be funny about anything given the passage of time. (I am thinking about Mel Brooks writing “Springtime for Hitler,” and an episode of “Seinfeld” in which they parody the Zapruder film.) After a horrible event, how long should a moratorium on humor last?
Barry: I don’t really think there has been a humor moratorium with the pandemic. People have been making jokes about it from the start, because there have been so many surreal elements — the toilet paper shortage, for example — and because we’re all affected by it. I think humor has been keeping us sane.
Clark: Dave, when I think of you, I think, of course, of William Shakespeare. In the play “Macbeth,” right after the slaughter of the king, a character named the Porter delivers a hilarious soliloquy on why too much drinking makes you want to have sex but messes with your performance. How does the mixing of funny stuff and serious stuff work in your view of the craft?
Barry: At the heart of almost all humor there is some serious truth. The reason we have a sense of humor is that life is scary, and we need some way to deal with our fears, so we turn them into jokes. That is not just my opinion; that’s also Shakespeare’s opinion. He and I were college roommates.x
Clark: In journalism, especially in places like Miami and Florida in general, there is beat reporting and there is off-beat reporting. These days, beat reporting includes a global pandemic, economic collapse, social unrest, scary elections. Is there any space left — physical or psychic — for the offbeat and comic? If so, what purpose does it serve?
Barry: I think there are still lots of great offbeat stories out there. The problem is that, as newspapers shrivel, reporters no longer have the freedom to find those stories or the time to write about them. Reporters are under pressure to crank out a lot of short, shallow pieces and hype them on social media. The newspaper business is not what it used to be. And stay off my lawn.
Clark: I am trying to understand what readers get out of humor and satire, especially in a news context. I find that I can’t end my day with a news report. I need a rerun of “Seinfeld” or “Married with Children.” Something to sweep away the radioactive waste of bad news. When readers reach out to you, what need do they say you fulfill for them?
Barry: I think readers reach out to me because they know that, when they are finished reading something I wrote, they can be absolutely certain that they will have learned nothing remotely useful. This is reassuring.
Clark: I want to give you a chance to riff on some of your standard comic moves. Have you run into any band names from the lexicon of COVID-19? How about the Mitigators? How about COVID-1965?
Barry: I’m gonna go with Flatten the Curve.
Clark: Your latest book is “Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old Happy Dog.” It was published before the pandemic hit. If Lucy could talk, rather than howl, what joyful lessons would she teach us to help us survive the moment?
Barry: I don’t know if we should look to Lucy for pandemic lessons. She has NOT been practicing social distancing, nor will she wear a mask.
Clark: There are all kinds of writers who read the Poynter site. Can you offer three tips for those who might want to experiment with writing humor? (Permit me to go first: Put the funniest word in a sentence at the end, knucklehead.) Your turn, Dave, and thank you.
Barry: That’s a good tip. Another one is, don’t beat the joke to death — tell it, then move on to the next joke. Be aware that some words are inherently funny: “spatula” and “rectum,” for example. Remember that puns are funny only to the punster. And above all, do not neglect to change your air conditioner filter.
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.