05.04.10

Dave Barry Lives!

Five years after he quit his beloved humor column, Dave Barry talks to Bryan Curtis about his new book on adulthood, co-writing the Oscars, and getting a vasectomy.

Alarming news from the world of semi-retired humorists: Dave Barry, 62, doesn’t seem to have aged. The unlined, boyish face that appears on the cover of I’ll Mature When I’m Dead, Barry’s new collection of essays, looks eerily like the unlined, boyish face that appeared on the cover of Dave Barry Turns 40.

“I don’t really get a whole lot older- looking,” Barry explained by phone the other day. He added: “But, really, I’m a whole lot older.”

Questions of mortality were in the air. It was five years ago that Barry ditched his beloved humor column that appeared in 500 newspapers, won him a Pulitzer, and explored such scholarly topics as exploding toilets. Barry has not exactly pulled a Salinger: he writes children’s books with co-author Ridley Pearson and still files occasional columns to the Miami Herald. But publishing a book about “what it means to be an adult”—it almost sounds introspective—sort of begs the question: What has Dave been doing with himself?

“I never wrote a column to be read years later,” Barry said, “and I certainly didn’t write them to be called ‘classic.’”

Let us begin with the vasectomy. Barry is married to Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman, his third wife, and, in 2000, they had Sophie, the author’s second child. As he writes in the new book, this made Barry a regular at dance recitals that ran longer than the third season of The Wire. And after discussing it with Kaufman, it was decided that the spigot would be turned off for good. “Vasectomy is a safe, effective, and reliable procedure,” Barry writes, “and there is absolutely no reason to be afraid of it, except that: They cut a hole in your scrotum.”

book-cover---curtis-dave-barry
I’ll Mature When I’m Dead: Dave Barry’s Amazing Tales of Adulthood. By Dave Barry. 272 pages. Putnam. $24.95. ()

Barry opted for what he calls the “Full Coward Package”—aka, he was knocked out cold. “I had the same drug Michael Jackson had too much of,” he said in the interview, “and I can see why.” After some intimate hours with a bag of frozen peas, Barry was back to his old self, complaining about the length of Sophie’s recitals. “When you’re as virile I am,” he said, “you can lose a little and still be manly.”

File the vasectomy under “unpleasant experiences.” On a brighter note, Barry got to co-write the script for this year’s Academy Awards. His pal Steve Martin asked him to join the team that would craft patter for Martin and co-host Alec Baldwin. Due to what Hollywood types call “previous commitments,” Bruce Vilanch, one of the show’s longtime writers, said Dave did most of his funny-making via speaker phone from Miami.

“We’d be pondering, and we’d hear a dog barking thousands of miles away and we’d know Dave was still with us,” said Vilanch.

Barry was the only member of the writing team who had not been absorbed into Hollywood’s bosom. “He has a whole other perspective because he’s not a movie business insider,” says Vilanch. “He really is the audience in Miami that’s watching the show. He comes in wide-eyed—he’s stunned by what he sees.”

On Oscar night, Barry and the gang huddled in a small area off stage left, with makeup assistants and wardrobe assistants, and stood by as Martin and Baldwin ducked in during commercials. Scripts were scotch-taped to the reverse side of the curtains; jokes were fiddled with or created on the spot. Alas, Barry was unable to squeeze in a favorite line (“ Up tells the moving story of a bitter old man whose life is transformed by the most powerful force of all: helium”). And while Barry said he had fun, he swore off a Hollywood second act, lamenting that bits were lost for “issues that have nothing to do with whether the joke was funny or not.”

(Vilanch revealed one casualty: a Twilight-themed gag in which one host was to come onstage wearing a “Team Precious” t-shirt. The other would appear with a shirt reading “Team Mom.”)

More developments: Barry has become a man of the Internet. He tweets under the handle @RayAdverb and has a respectable 4,300 followers. (“I suspect that LaGuardia is an elaborate prank, and New York has a real airport nearby that only locals know about,” he tweeted from this book tour.) Barry also has a lively blog. He aggregates news about giant African snails and locust pizza in Australia—the sort of stories that in the old days would be sent along by an “alert reader,” as Barry called them, and that Barry, in turn, would blow out into a column. Touchingly, longtime readers are still sending him the clips.

“I am pretty much the worldwide clearinghouse for this sort of thing, and I take that responsibility as seriously as I should,” Barry said. He added that he finds it odd that the Internet—where “funny” news commands an outlandish amount of attention—has come to resemble one sprawling Dave Barry column.

Outside of some men-vs.-women riffs that feel familiar, I’ll Mature When I’m Dead is quite funny. Barry has an imagined script for the Fox series 24 that is the best and most pointed thing ever written about the show. From the perch of his second fatherhood, he has an excellent open letter to new dads. (“You will, at some point, go to the bathroom while holding the baby.”) This doesn’t feel like the work of an over-the-hill humorist, like an Andy Rooney segment. But there’s something more… adult about the book—it’s little less zippy and more august than Barry’s previous writing. Now that he has time to reflect, does Barry have some existential angst, some memory of humiliation, that drives him to be funny? “I would say to the extent that I do,” Barry said, “it goes back to the very beginning of being funny: this small, puny, hairless kid, wearing glasses and getting his classmates to like him and that was the only way.”

But Barry said he discovered that a long time ago.

“He doesn’t strike me as tortured soul,” says Joel Achenbach, a Washington Post reporter who worked with the author at the Miami Herald. “He’s extremely smart and very hard working and very professional, in addition to being funny—and it all goes together.”

In any case, Barry’s soul is further unburdened without a weekly newspaper deadline.

“I don’t feel that pressure for me to come up with a 650-word, ‘wacky’ humor piece every week, and that’s been kind of nice,” Barry said. As to whether he suffers the most common journalistic malady, longing for his byline: “No. I can honestly say that. I had that experience for decades, so now it really doesn’t bother me that much.” He paused. “It really doesn’t bother me at all.”

Of course, until recently it was possible to pick up a Sunday newspaper and find “classic” Barry columns, right next to the beyond-the-grave Charles Schulz. (Tribune Media Services said it no longer syndicates his old columns.) “To be honest, I wish they would stop,” Barry lamented. It is not because the columns remind him of his own mortality; it is because the 20-year-old references haven’t aged as gracefully as his own mug. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” Barry continued. “I never wrote a column to be read years later, and I certainly didn’t write them to be called ‘classic.’”

“Which just means old.”

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Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather's softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.