Dave Barry is growing up. OK, not really. But in his new, 30-somethingth book, the 62-year-old humorist does come perilously close to dealing with the topic of adulthood. I'll Mature When I'm Dead is a collection of 18 almost completely new essays on topics ranging from parenthood ("after the birth of your child you will have the same sex life as a waffle iron") to colonoscopies ("HE'S GOING TO STICK A TUBE SEVENTEEN THOUSAND FEET UP YOUR BUTT"). Being Dave Barry, he also weighs in on Miami, the differences between the sexes, and emptying your dog's impacted anal scent glands. We caught up with the Pulitzer Prize-winning former syndicated columnist on tour in Arlington, Virginia.
What's remarkable about your style is how off-the-cuff and spontaneous it seems. Do you have a very structured approach to writing a column, or just start riffing and then hope it comes to a point at the end?
Definitely the latter. Two things are at the heart of the way I write. One is that I'm very insecure. I really don't believe that I can rely on any reader to stick around and be amused. I have to grab 'em really early and keep amusing them. There has to be some kind of humor payoff constantly, or I'll lose them. With everything I write, that's what I'm thinking as I'm writing it.
The other thing is that I write very slowly—painfully slowly—and while yes, I really want it to look spontaneous and random, generally I'll spend a lot of time just on the first joke, till it seems right, and then I'll think, OK, what would be a good one to go after that. At that point I'm really not thinking about how it's going to end or how it's going to be structured—only about what the next joke will be. And then the next joke after that. There are exceptions, for instance if you're writing a screenplay or something you have more of an idea of what the structure will be, but most topics I don't. It's just a question of what's the next joke going to be. And I won't go on until I have it.
I hear about people who really rip through the first draft—but I don't know how you would do that with humor. What do you do? I'm gonna put a joke here, and I'm gonna put another one here—but what is the joke? That's the whole thing: the joke. There's no point for me, really, beyond the joke. I'm happy that your reaction was as you described it because that's what I want it to look like.
I found an interesting interview with you where you talked about your process. The main takeaway was that you work very hard at what you do, and I wondered, "Is he working hard to make it look easy?"
Well, I think all humor writers do that, I mean, the ones who are good. I take a lot of time to produce very few words, but then I don't know of very many people who can think of a whole series of jokes on any given topic right off the top of their heads—that would be any good. It's kind of like the illusion of the standup comic where he goes on this long riff and it's spectacular and it's hilarious and you're dying, but then you realize later, oh, he didn't just think all that stuff up—he got every one of those laughs by trying different versions of the same joke on many different audiences and then figuring out how they go together best, and then adding to them bit by bit as he thinks of other lines that work well.
I'm sure you saw The Aristocrats...
I actually never saw it. The only way I could see it is if I took my wife, and when I told my wife what the joke was, she refused to go.
Well, just lie. Tell your wife you're going to a strip poker game or something. Whatever it takes to get out of the house and see it.
You're actually the third or fourth person who's authoritatively told me that I have to see that film. It's interesting. I wrote for the Oscars this year, as I did in 2003, which meant that I spent a few days sitting in a room in LA with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin and a bunch of really good humor writers—comedy writers. And to watch them dissect a joke, talk about how to set up a specific line, and how best to deliver it, it was fascinating to me, how precise it is—and then you realize what we're actually talking about, which is farting or something.
Not that we're talking about Alec Baldwin here, but it's interesting what a great comic actor he's turned out to be.
He gives a lot of thought to it. Nobody thinks about jokes as much as Steve Martin, who is one of the most analytical people I've ever met. Self-critical, able to completely disassociate himself from his persona, his ego and everything else. That's why he wants the material to be perfect. But Baldwin is much more from the gut, but he's really, really smart, and he will suddenly go on this incredibly serious analytical riff about a joke. It's interesting to see. Kind of intimidating. I'm always used to being Mr. Humor—not in that world.
I wanted to ask you about one of the pieces in the book, "Elephant and the Dandelion." It's an examination of Darwinian imperatives, the vast differences between the two sexes, and the unlikelihood of any of it ever working out. I love the way it argues the point. How much of an outline had you worked out before you began?
Here's what I started with: I went to a spinning class with my wife and listened to the women talk about men, i.e. how men are inadequate, unacceptable. "This would be a good essay—um, you know, to write about," I thought. That was it.
Then a couple days later I started writing. I really didn't know where I was going to go, just that I knew that in a chapter I wrote primarily for women I wanted to talk about why we do what we do, why men are the way they are. Because women find it so fascinating. Men are not as fascinated with women. At all.
Except for their gazombas. As you point out.
Yeah, but that's not a really complicated issue.
I've been in some pretty long arguments about breasts, I have to admit.
You've talked elsewhere about the particular peril of humor writing, how when you call it humor writing you are demanding a particular reaction from a reader. And if you don't get that—
—you've failed. Yeah, I think that's true with humor in general, whether it's humor writing or standup comedy or sitcoms or whatever. It's more high-tension than most kinds of art because you can't really hide. You can't say, well, they didn't get it—they didn't understand what I was doing. In the humor business, a person has every right to say, "I didn't think that was funny." You can't argue with him—"Yes you did!" Sometimes it's obvious that the person is stupid—that was a joke, and you didn't get it. More often than not, though, when it doesn't work, it's because it wasn't good, and it's really obvious that it wasn't good.