Living by his wit 'Funniest man in America' does what he does best: make people laugh

November 16, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — Washington--It was only nine days after the elections and, frankly, Washington needed some light moments. Then Dave Barry stepped in.

He was the guest speaker at a National Press Club luncheon last Thursday, drawing a well-dressed, in-the-know crowd -- or at lTC least one that fancied itself in the know. Usually, serious types hold forth at these lunches; recent guests were Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, one-time Democratic presidential hopeful Paul Tsongas and "suicide doctor" Jack Kevorkian.

The import was not lost on Mr. Barry.

"Today, as I look out over this crowd at the National Press Club," the humor columnist intoned in mock solemnity from the podium, "I see the most pressing issue facing the country as: How did the Clinton presidency fail?"

Pleasant chuckles.

"I read in the New York Times yesterday that his administration 'lacks focus,' " Mr. Barry went on as laughter began to build. "Think of it: A week on the job, and all you read is he's not handling foreign affairs well, the economy is down the toilet. And every one of you folks in the media is starting to haul out all your long take-outs on [New Jersey Senator] Bill Bradley as our next hope."

He waited for the laughter to die down, then continued. "The problem, as I see it, is lack of communication. Clinton gathers his staff together and says" -- here Mr. Barry's voice turned hoarse and indecipherable -- "ay ay ay aya aya aya aya ay."

This went over big with the crowd; naturally, everybody in the room was aware of President-elect Clinton's voice problems on the campaign trail. Mr. Barry finished telling his story:

" 'What did he say?' one staffer says.

"Somebody else says, 'Either he wants some iced tea, or else he's going to name Raymond Burr as his attorney general."

It was a splendid performance, one that gave ample illustration to the New York Times' assertion that Mr. Barry is "the funniest man in America," pretty good for a fresh-faced 44-year-old guy with a Beatle haircut who, by his own admission, never has learned to play the electric guitar after a quarter-century of trying.

But he has learned to put his natural wit to good use. The "Class Clown" of the 1965 senior class at Pleasantville (N.Y.) High School, he began writing humor pieces for the school paper that were modeled after the writing of his hero, Robert Benchley. He worked at a West Chester, Pa., newspaper in the mid-'70s before moving to the Miami Herald in 1983 to write a weekly humor column. It's now carried by 400 newspapers, including The Sunday Sun.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 and is the author of 12 books, the most recent is his frequently hysterical "Dave Barry Does Japan." As he told the Press Club:

"My original idea was to go over and have lots of insights about their economy and that sort of thing. Once I got there, I shifted my goal to finding food that didn't have suckers on it. And if they didn't have suckers, they had eyeballs."

"What amazes me is Dave's consistency over the years," says another funny man, cartoonist Jeff MacNelly ("Shoe"), who illustrates Mr. Barry's columns. "He's always funny because he puts a lot of work into it. That's what makes it so offhand -- he really is a craftsman."

Some humor writers are clever on the page and couldn't tell a joke in public if their life depended on it; Mr. Barry showed an amazingly nimble wit during the question-and-answer period. So after the luncheon, in an interview over a beer (a Bass Ale; Mr. Barry writes frequently about his affection for good brew), he was asked if he ever wanted to do stand-up comedy.

"Not on your life," he answered quickly. "I've never met a happy stand-up comic. I don't mind an event like today, where the audience is essentially disposed toward you, but you can die a horrible death doing comedy."

Nor does he want to write for television or the movies, though he says he is appalled by the scarcity of funny films lately.

"I have this theory about movies," he says. "Basically, how funny a movie will be is inversely proportional to the number of people involved. You can have a great idea, a great screenplay, and then there are a thousand people who can water it down.

"What I like about writing is that you're the writer, you're the director, you're the star."

Several times in the interview the word "normal" came out -- he wants to live a "normal" life, he wants to guard his own privacy and that of his wife, Beth, and son, Robby, 12. And despite the natural showmanship, the seemingly inexhaustible vein of humor, "normal" is what Dave Barry appears to be. He's friendly, articulate and not averse to a serious discussion. (Some of his

best-known columns have been on such non-humorous topics as the deaths of his parents and his son's starting school. And he's proud of a piece he did for The Herald on Grant Long, a little-publicized pro basketball player in Miami, that was picked for the annual anthology "Best American Sports Stories.")

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