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‘Retired’ humorist remains ready to stir it up

During his storied career as a humor columnist in more than 500 newspapers, and as the author of more than 25 books, Barry has explored virtually every nuance of daily life  — sex, telemarketers, bodily functions and low-flow toilets.
/ Source: NBC News producer

Some accomplishments are reserved for truly unique people.

Take Dave Barry. Being the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner for Commentary carries great distinction. But Barry takes that distinction to another level. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winner who uses words like ‘booger’ with reckless abandon.

In fact, there are a lot of irreverent, (and occasionally gross) expressions in Dave Barry’s vernacular. But that’s why folks love him so much.

During his storied career as a humor columnist in more than 500 newspapers, and as the author of more than 25 books, Barry has explored virtually every nuance of daily life imaginable. Sex, telemarketers, bodily functions, politics, low-flow toilets, and the aforementioned ‘boogers.’ (Which, incidentally, appears in the title of one of his books.)

The reaction has been visceral, and not limited to laughter. Legions of wildly amused followers, his own Internet fan club, and in one instance — organized revolt.

In 2003, Barry expressed his distaste at telemarketers by publishing the phone number for the American Teleservices Association in his column.

The result? Countless readers not only laughed, they called the number. A lot. The organization’s phone system was so overloaded, the number was eventually disconnected.

Then, earlier this month, Dave Barry did something that would shock everyone. He quit. Sort of.

On January 2, he announced that after three decades, he would take a break from his weekly column for a year — and then decide whether or not he would continue at all. Fans were devastated. Tons of humor column wannabes rushed to fill his shoes. Actor and comic Steve Martin was so outraged he accused Barry of worshipping Satan (He did so affectionately). Needless to say, Barry had made an impact.

I checked in with Barry, whose wit is firmly intact.

So you know, this interview is for a column called “Ten Questions With...” But if you like, I’ll cheat and ask you more in case some aren’t interesting.

(Laughter.) Feel free. In the case of Barry Manilow it took three hundred questions!

So are you calling this a retirement from your column or a break?

I haven’t really called it anything. The main thing I guess, is a hiatus, and I don’t really know what that is — it sounds like a body part. I can’t say retirement, because I may resume the column — the way I left it was I’d stop for a year and before the end of the year I would let them know whether I would start again. And during the year I would be working on books. That’s a long answer. I really don’t know what it is — a leave of absence, I guess.

Right. Gotcha.

Wow. You couldn’t wait for me to stop talking! (Laughter.)

Oh no! Did I come across that way? ‘Okay, yeah. Gotcha. Moving on, abundantly clear in the first sentence...’

(mocking me) “Boy, he’s got a lot to say about it...”

So what was the issue — was the daily grind of working from home getting to be too much for you?

It was more like I was doing too many things. And the one I had been doing the longest — 30 years I had been writing this column. I thought maybe I can stop that for a while and see how it felt.

How does it feel?

Good — it feels really good not to have a column to do all the time. There are whole days that go by when I don’t think of anything funny. That used to happen a lot when I was writing the column too.

You won the Pulitzer Prize! When you ...

You say that with great astonishment! The truth is that you don’t know that I did. I mean, the word is out that I did. It’s been on the Internet that I did — but you haven’t fact checked it. You don’t really know and so I’m just saying that I did.

(NOTE: Yes, he really did win, in 1988. And yes, I fact checked it. If you’d like to fact check yourself, look no further than!)

What went through your mind when you first heard you’d won it?

My immediate printable reaction was “Whoa!” What does this mean? Does this mean I can’t write humor any more?” I thought I had to be sort of distinguished to win this distinguished award for commentary. And so, my first column afterward I sort of froze up. (I was asking myself) “Can I write about my dog throwing up?” Because that was really my topic, “Or do I have to write about the Middle East now?” So I wrote a column that said, “I was going to write about my dog throwing up, and then I won the Pulitzer Prize, so now I think I should write about the Middle East. And I think the best way to do that is to compare it to a dog that is throwing up.” Right back to low-life excretory humor. I don’t know that there is such a word as excretory humor, just for the record.

All right. Well, I’ll do a spell check.

Thank you!

Is it true you once flew around the country teaching business people how to write interoffice memos?

It is true! I taught an effective writing seminar where I would go and there would be a group of business people and I would try to get them not to write “Enclosed please find the enclosed enclosure.”

But you had to begin a humor column because that’s where the money is, right?

(Laughter.) Yes! All that time when I was teaching that course I was writing what was essentially the column I just finished writing. And I got $22.50 a week for most of that time. For a little suburban newspaper in Pennsylvania called The West Chester Daily Local News. That was my big newspaper customer. So I really wasn’t doing it for the money.

Your Web site has a message board page where thousands of people discuss random subjects like the weather and what music they like. Things that have nothing to do with you. Doesn’t that feel a little strange? A little cult-like?

I kind of zoom in and zoom out of that — I can’t even begin to keep track of what’s going on. The way these communities form on the Internet — I’m almost irrelevant to the community. You know how you don’t really think of the dollar bill as a testament to the greatness of George Washington? It’s a dollar bill — that’s kind of what my Web site is like.

Is there anyone from your past that once told you you weren’t funny — that you’d like to ‘coincidentally’ run into on the street so you could fill them in on the last few decades?

That’s one of the nice things of having written a column for 30 years. I’m fully aware that there are many people who don’t think I’m funny, never thought I was funny, think I’m horrible, and hate me, but I don’t feel like I need to prove anything to those people.

When I first started writing a humor column ... I wrote a piece that I thought was pretty funny, and then I wrote another one that I thought was pretty funny, and then the third week I wrote one that ran the week of the Christmas Party. And this editor took me aside, and meaning it in a very nice way, said, “Your column is kind of getting stale. You used to be funny.” (laughter) And it was my third column! So I do often think back to that. But you’ll hear that forever in any field. I think musicians always hear that they used to be better, novelists always are told their books were better ... because people get used to you. If I really took that seriously I figure I have long since passed completely below zero and now I’m actually depressing millions of people.

Is there one observation or column that has gotten the most powerful reaction from people?

Every now and then I’ll just hit a nerve — when I wrote about disliking low-flow toilets, which were foisted on Americans by an act of Congress when Congress paid really no attention to this law that was passing. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently no one had ever really talked about that ... around 1993 new toilets stopped actually flushing! And I didn’t know that! We bought a house and we had new toilets and they didn’t work very well, and I thought there was something wrong with our toilets. And the plumber came and I said “Can you fix our toilets?” and he said “No. That’s the law now.”

I wrote a column about it and it turns out about nine million Americans had the same experience. That got an incredibly strong reaction that still reverberates. I am known as the guy that ‘tore the lid’ off that story.

Then I put the number of the telemarketers on my column ... boy! Whew! That was the biggest story in the United States for about a day there.

That’s how huge that was. Just because I put their phone number in. And everybody called them and it shut their phones down and their whole office! People was so thrilled about that.

I should have retired that day. I will never as a journalist ever accomplish anything like that again. That was pretty neat.

Now that you’re not in the newspaper all the time, have you considered doing anything to give yourself a little press? Is there a big scandal or headline in which you’d like to see yourself as the central figure?

You know, I have tried to stay out of the Jennifer Aniston/Brad Pitt breakup. But I can’t help but think that the fact that I’ve suddenly got more time had to have something to do with it.

Time for Jennifer you mean...

Exactly! What, you think it’s coincidence? Is that what you think? Please!

Well, that was what I was insinuating.

If there was any possible way that my name could be worked into that breakup that would make me feel that much better. I gotta be back in the game just a little bit.