Interviewee: Dave Barry
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date of Interview: 12-6-2003
P: This is fifth of December...
B: This is the sixth ...
P: The sixth ...
B: Or the third, if we go by my watch. It's somewhere, either the third, the fifth, or
the sixth ...
P: It's early December in Miami, Florida. [laughing]
B: ... of 2003.
P: I'm speaking with Dave Barry. Talk a little bit about how you decided to go into
B: I always wanted to write, and I really didn't think about a career to be honest. I
just wanted to do something that would allow me to write for a living as opposed
to work [laughing] or learn some useful skill. I had written for my high school
and college newspapers. Although, really all I did for them was write humor
essays. But in the summers in college, in the late 1960s, I worked as an intern
at Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C. It's a serious publication and I
sort of began to see the rudiments of journalism and also kind of enjoyed it. [I
liked] being in Washington [D.C.]. I was really just a gopher, but I got to spend a
lot of time on Capitol Hill and I would see Bobby Kennedy [U.S. Senator from
New York, 1965-1968; U.S. Attorney General, 1961-1964] or somebody. That
was very exciting to me. So when I got out of college, my first real job was, I
applied for work at a newspaper. In those days, it was easier, I think, to get a
job right out of college at a newspaper. I was just an English major. There was
no journalism program where I went to school.
I went to Haverford College, and they just had an English program. So I
was an English major. I applied for a job at a little daily newspaper, about
30,000 circulation, in Westchester, Pennsylvania. [It was] called the Daily Local
News. It was exactly what the name said. It came out six days a week, we
didn't publish Sunday, but it was very local. I had the perfect indoctrination or
exposure to journalism that way, I thought. From the first day, I was going out to
fires. I was writing obituaries, I was getting police reports, [and] I was going to
meetings. [I was doing] all the things that make up day-to-day, small-town
journalism, but a really good training for any kind of journalism. I loved it. I just
loved it. It was exciting. I thought I was in on everything. I had a police
scanner in my car. When the fire horn would blow, I would know what the code
was and rush out to the fire and all that stuff. That was my first journalism job.
P: What makes a good reporter?
B: Well, I think, good reporters [have] a couple of skills, the most important of which,
and I think the most difficult to explain or teach, is the ability to recognize a story.
It seems obvious, but generally reporters respond to events rather than stories.
So if there's a press conference, if there's a game, if there's an election, if there's
a speech [or] anything you can put on a calendar, reporters tend to gravitate to
those predictable things. The really great reporter sees other things happening
or little things that really are big things. But there's no event associated with
them. So nobody writes about it and nobody does anything about it until
somebody says, oh, that's a story, and writes about it. Suddenly everybody
says, oh, that's a story. That's a great skill and there's different levels of it.
Some people are really good at spotting a human interest story. They meet
somebody and realize that person's story is more interesting somehow than
other people's stories and more worth telling. Then, there's people who can
spot trend stories, which I think is the more difficult ability and the less common.
The ability to see something happening or changing in society and being able to
write about it, not some fake trend that was invented by Newsweek to put on the
cover, but some real thing that's happening, [is difficult].
P: Would somebody like Gene Miller be a good example?
B: Gene Miller [Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Miami Herald] is phenomenal.
He has another skill that great reporters have, which is unbelievable tenacity
and fearlessness. That's kind of what stopped me as a journalist. [laughing] I'm
just not willing to call people who don't want to talk to me. I was so happy to
become a columnist [so that] I could stop doing that. I just remember when I
started. I was watching some guy's house burn down. There's the guy,
standing ten feet away. My job is to go over and say, can I get your name, can
you tell me how the fire started? Boy, they don't really want to [answer]. Some
of them are very nice, but sometimes people really don't want to talk to you.
And they're absolutely right, they shouldn't want to talk to you. [laughing]
P: How do you ask them the question, how do you feel about losing your house and
your two daughters?
B: Well, I could never ask that question. I never did ask anybody, how does it feel?
To me, that would just be a beyond-stupid question. If you're a guy like Gene
Miller and you're taking on prosecutors or the police or people who are in
positions of authority and don't want to talk to you and have no professional gain
if they do talk to you; that kind of tenacity and courage does make for a very, very
P: I've talked to a lot of people who have said, that's the way, not only to learn
journalism but to learn how to write. Is that part of your background?
B: I disagree with that. I think that the longer I'm in this business, the more I see that
there's this giant disconnect between ability to recognize a story and the ability to
write well. I think there are a lot of terrific reporters who aren't really very good
at writing. Bob Woodward [Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington
Post.] springs to mind. I don't think his prose style is very elegant, but he's a
terrific reporter and he knows a story and he knows how to get it. I've had this
discussion with editors I respect a bunch of times. We all agree that if you have
to pick, the one quality you want most in a reporter is not writing ability. Editors
can help with that; it can be doctored. [The most important quality is] the ability to
recognize a story and then get a story. The writing part is nice, but I think there
is a tendency sometimes, not just in journalism but in almost any kind of
nonfiction writing, to let the writing sort of take over. If you're a really good
writer, you can make any story seem important, dramatic, or moving. There can
be a dishonesty about good writing. I'm assigned to do an obituary. I didn't
know this person or like this person, and I don't even really agree with any [thing
this person did,] but I'm going to make you cry for this person. We all know
writers who can do this, but they're lying, kind of. So I've become more cynical
about the great writing the longer I've been in the business. I love it when I see
it, and I love those rare occasions when a great writer is married to a great
reporter-I mean the same ability in one person.
P: Essentially, Rick Bragg [Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times]
might fit that designation. He said, I did not mind being designated the pretty
B: Well, he's done very well with it. Rick is a fantastic writer. But I think Rick is
also a really good reporter.
P: Yes, I think he fits both categories.
B: Yes, but there are not many Rick Braggs. There are not many at all.
P: Why did you decided to come to the Miami Herald, and who hired you?
B: This is in the late 1970s, early 1980s. I was teaching an Effective Writing
seminar. I left the Daily Local News after four or five years to go to the
Associated Press [AP]. I went to the AP in Philadelphia. I didn't like it at the AP
at all. It was, to me, very confining and restrictive. It was a lot more about
computers and rewriting than it was about what I had been doing, which was
finding stories and writing. So I became a consultant. A father of a friend of
mine hired me to teach Effective Writing seminars, which I didn't know much
about. It was fun for a while. I traveled around the country.
P: You were teaching business people?
B: Yes, we would go to a company like DuPont or something. Thirty-two chemists
would come in. I didn't know anything about chemistry, but literally what I told
them was journalism. I would say, get to the point and don't use too many
words. All the stuff we take for granted in journalism is not taken for granted in
the business world. If you do a project that takes you seven years, when you
write a report about it, you start at the beginning. Somewhere in there you have
to, presumably, tell people what happened, but it's not that easy to find.
I was doing that, but I was also writing humor columns for freelance. I
was writing them for newspapers that would take them, magazines that would
take them, and anybody who would take them. I was in a lot of different
publications then [in] little humor essays, some of which got into the Philadelphia
Enquirer. The Philadelphia Enquirer's Sunday magazine, back then most big
papers had Sunday magazines, when it would appear in there, it would be seen
by other Sunday magazine editors around the country. They all would exchange
each other's magazines so they wouldn't have to work that hard getting ideas.
[laughing] Every Sunday magazine would eventually have [sections on] the best
of the city or worst dressed, that kind of thing. Because they were reading it,
they would see my essays. Every now and then I would get a call from the
Chicago Tribune saying they'd like to reprint an essay that I've run at the
Philadelphia Enquirer. One of the papers that was getting the Sunday
magazines was the Miami Herald. [They] had a Sunday magazine called Tropic,
which was edited by Kevin [G.] Hall, who is now a journalism professor down
here [in Miami]; and Gene Weingarten, who is now a humor writer for the
Washington Post. Kevin and Gene, particularly Gene, just liked my style. They
like my writing and they started running my column regularly down here. Then,
they would fly me down to do stories down here. Then, they started bugging me
to work down here. I was living, at the time, in suburban Philadelphia in an
idyllic little community. I could not imagine moving to Miami. [laughing] It was
the early 1980s and the cocaine wars were raging. Miami is a shock to your
system no matter what's going on, but especially then it was a shock. I just
couldn't picture it, but I loved the Herald because they would let me do anything.
Gene and Kevin loved when I did outrageous stories. They would send me up
to interview Bob Graham when he was governor of Florida. I had a hilarious
interview with him. They would let me do whatever, anything. They would send
me to cover the New Hampshire primary [election], send me to cover the Super
Bowl, and [they would] just print whatever I wrote.
P: All this time you were writing only humorous pieces?
B: Oh, this was all humor. By that point, I wasn't writing anything but humor. After
I left the Associated Press and became a consultant, I was really writing to
amuse myself. I traveled a lot. I had time in hotels and I would write humor
essays. I didn't think I was ever going to go back to work as a writer. I thought
I was going to be a writing consultant. So this was just something on the side
for fun. I was not interested in doing anything useful or factual. That was totally
humor that the Herald and other papers were printing.
Then, in the fall of 1983, a lot of papers had started running my column at
that point and the Herald was running it all the time and so were a number of
larger papers at this point. I believe the Washington Post had started running it.
The Chicago Tribune had started running it. I was starting to make good
money from it, and then the Herald and the Philadelphia Enquirer both decided,
at pretty much the same moment, that they wanted to hire me as a full-time
columnist. The very logical choice would have been the Philadelphia Enquirer,
which was then edited by Gene Roberts who is a legendary editor. He was
winning Pulitzers left and right, and Philadelphia was where I lived. Every sign
pointed to [the Philadelphia Enquirer. Every single person I talked to said, you
should go to work at the Philadelphia Enquirer. Every single one [said that,]
there was no exception. But I really liked these guys, Gene and Kevin, down
here. Particularly [I liked] Gene, who has become probably my closest friend.
They were crazier and they didn't care what I did. They would let me write
anything, and the more outrageous, the better. They liked the idea of my writing
once a week. They wanted me to write one 800 or 900 page piece a week plus
maybe some longer pieces. Whereas the Enquirer really saw me in the role of
a three-days-a-week, 500-word, writing-about-the-city kind of guy. So, to me, [it
was] more confining.
So I got wooed. It was very nice. The Herald flew me down here. I
thought Miami was nuts, but I really liked the guys. Then, I went to Gene. He
took me out one night. He got me phenomenally drunk and took me back to his
house. We watched John Wayne movies, and [at] about three o'clock in the
morning I'm wondering, when is he going to tell me? We're getting ready to
leave, standing on his doorstep, and he offers me the job. [laughing]
P: You were in a weakened condition by then, I guess. [laughing]
B: That was his style. He was not direct. So I had that choice, and I picked the
Herald on one condition. I said, I really like your paper better, I really like you
guys better, I really want to work for you more, but I don't want to move to Miami.
[laughing] I thought, that would be that. They said, okay. They said, fine. So
I became, in November of 1983, the Miami Herald Sunday magazine humor
columnist living in Glenn Mills, Pennsylvania. That's what I did for the next three
years. I lived there, I wrote for the Herald. I did it all by phone and computer.
I would come down maybe five or six times a year to do stories down here and
hang out. In that time, I came to like Miami. It's different from any other city. I
imagine, in some of your other interviews, you've probably talked to folks about
how different south Florida is and how attractive it is for journalists. If you're
looking for stories and you can't find them here, well, you're blind.
P: Carl Hiaasen [author, reporter for the Miami Herald] told me it was the best city in
America for journalists.
B: I think it is. Sooner or later, if you're just a metro reporter here, you're going to
be involved in a huge story. You just cannot avoid it. Anyway, it's just a
fascinating place. I came to like it more and more, and, in 1986, I got wooed
again. This time the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times began to,
again sort of simultaneously, make runs at me. It was very nice [and] very
flattering. They flew me out. I got to meet Ben Bradlee [at the Washington
Post], and [I] flew to LA and spent a couple days. Again, everybody said, well,
you have to go to the Washington Post or the LA Times. But I had really come
to love the Herald and love south Florida. The Herald, as part of matching offers
and stuff, said, we would really love it if you would move down here and work for
us under these new terms and live here. I said, yes. I came to Miami in 1986
and lived here ever since.
P: Have you ever thought about leaving?
B: [I've] only [thought about it] in the summer or when a hurricane is coming.
[laughing] So that's about nine months out of the year. There are times I think, I
wish I had a place to go for July and August in the mountains, where it's quiet
and you don't wake up in a pool of your own sweat. But, no, I really love it here.
I've traveled a lot and I don't know where I'd go that I'd be happier, and my
wife's family is here.
P: If you have a city where your mayors are "Crazy Joe" and "Mayor Loco," it's hard
not to have really good material to write about.
B: That was the golden age, "Mayor Loco" against "Crazy Joe." It's still to hard to
imagine that really was happening. It was wonderful for us. [laughing]
P: Rick Bragg said, when he came to Miami, that he loved Miami like a man loves a
B: I'm not sure what that says about Rick's sex life, but okay. [laughing]
P: When you write a humor column, as you mentioned earlier, you write a lot for
yourself. If you laugh at it, do you assume other people will find it humorous?
B: Well, I don't get to laugh, because by the time I've actually finished the joke, I
know it too well. Essentially, yes, I'm writing what I think is funny. I've always
said, one of the fatal mistakes that people make when they try to write humor is
to try to write in someone else's style. That doesn't work. I mean, I think you
can learn technique and stuff, but in the end it has to amuse you. It has to be
funny to you, or I don't think you can write it well. Yes, I've always assumed that
if I thought it was funny there would be at least some critical mass of people who
would think it was funny also. I rely on that. But what I don't do, and I don't think
you can do, is try to keep taking the pulse of the readers and find out what
they're going to think is funny next, or what they like or what they don't like. I
just think that's too dangerous to feel like you've got to please some market. I
don't think good writers do that. I think, even in low-rent humor columns, it's
better to try to write what you think is the right low-rent humor column and not the
one that you think someone else wants you to write.
P: I think you write, in the broad context, for every man. People can relate to what
you write about. It's not pejorative. It's not particularly caustic. How would
you describe your style?
B: Well, I think accessible is probably one of the key words. I'm not trying to be
complicated usually. The point I'm making is rarely complicated, and I'm not
trying to make it look more complicated than it is. I generally try to do the
opposite and take something that is supposed to be complicated and oversimplify
it to find the humor in it. I think of myself as the regular guy. I'm not, I guess,
because I'm a syndicated humor columnist, but I try to lead as normal and
ordinary life as possible. I don't travel in media circles. I don't live in a media
capital. I go to the supermarket with my three-year-old daughter. My life is
pretty domestic and simple. I try to write about that part of the world and not the
part of the world where important things are happening, because I don't know
anything about them, to be honest. In that sense, I think, I'm trying to represent
what I think most readers see.
I also feel like I'm a little bit of an outsider in the paper. There is certainly
a tendency toward self importance in journalism. It reaches its zenith on the
editorial page, where wisdom is unseen; a group of unidentified people tell us
what the Herald thinks about this or that. I just find [it] obnoxious, to be honest,
not the people, but the practice of unsigned editorials as the voice of God. I
think of myself at the extreme opposite end of that. [I'm] more with the comics. I
don't have any special wisdom. I don't think the editorial board does either, but
I'm freely admitting [that] I can be wrong and emotional and irrational.
P: As long as you are funny, that's okay.
B: As long as I'm funny, as long as I'm amusing them, [it's alright].
P: In your book, Hits Below the Beltway. In describing Washington and the 2000
election, I noticed one of your techniques is exaggeration. I suppose it's very
easy to do, to attack the federal government.
P: Obviously you like to do that sort of thing? Are you interested in people or
B: I think both. I definitely use exaggeration a lot and always have. I don't think
it's ever enough to say somebody is stupid if you can say somebody has the IQ
of a rutabaga. That's a long established element of humor. I wouldn't say I
invented it, but I do use it a great deal. I also use the false authority voice,
where I will proclaim with great authority that something is obviously stupid and
wrong. I like to do that a lot.
P: That's an interesting point. If you say, dumb as a tomato, that's not as funny as
saying, dumb as a rutabaga.
B: Right, well I spend a great deal of my day [looking for the right one]. [laughing] I
will spend a half of an hour coming up with the right vegetable. [laughing]
P: One time, I think, you referred to the Miami Herald editors as dumb as lunch
B: Yes, lunch meat is a good one. [laughing] Then I have to remember if I've used
that before. I mean I've been doing this for close to thirty years now. There are
only so many vegetables out there and so many inanimate objects you can pair
P: Certain names are funny. I notice that if you're going to use a state, New Jersey
is always good.
B: New Jersey is a good state to use because people just have this idea of New
Jersey, which offends New Jersey people, which just makes it more fun to do
really. [laughing] Canada is kind of similar. If you ever just want to get some
funny letters . Periodically, I'll just say something just really dismissive of
Canada. Everybody in Canada will write me a letter. It's like eighteen people
and they'll all write me. I'll suggest that if we've got to test nuclear missiles that
Canada is a good place to aim them, because what could we possibly hurt?
People will get offended if you say something like that, and they'll write you very
serious letters. That's one of the joys of being a humor columnist, being taken
seriously by people who have the brains of lunch meat and have not figured out
that you're kidding. [laughing]
P: Occasionally you have to say that, but I'm just kidding.
B: If I want to tell you what really happened but I want to make a joke first, I'll say,
and so the officer, having talked to both parties in the dispute, decided to shoot
them in the head to improve the gene pool. [Then I'll say,] no, what really
happened [is the following]. [I'll do] that kind of thing. What I find more often that
I have to do is say that I'm not making things up. It's a phrase that's become
associated with me over the years. I really don't think I originated it, but I've just
used it for many years because I lie so much in my column. So every now and
then, when something really amazingly weird has happened and I have to
somehow get across to the readers that, unlike usually when I am lying, I am not
P: Well, sometimes the reality is funnier than what you can make up.
B: Most of the time, the funniest stuff [is real].
P: Wilbur Mills and Fannie Fox was a real story that's very funny.
B: Oh, yeah.
P: You couldn't make that up.
B: No, it's truly one of the more [funny instances]. To be honest, when I went back
and read the news accounts of the Wilbur Mills/Fannie Fox thing ... I proposed
that we have a statue in Washington, D.C. erected to Wilbur Mills, who was
maybe the funniest man ever to serve in Congress. For the benefit of those who
don't know, he ran off with a stripper named Fannie Fox, "The Argentine
Firecracker." At one point, the two of them were skinny dipping in the tidal
basin, I believe. [laughing] Wilbur was trying to explain it. He was a married
man. As head of the Ways and Means Committee, he was the most powerful
man in the United States Congress, or close to it, when he was skinny dipping in
the tidal basin. Well, Wilbur had to try to explain that to the people of Arkansas.
Maybe it's something in the Arkansas water. [laughing]
P: He was a role model for Bill Clinton.
B: Yes, the early prototype model.
P: Well, another thing a friend of mine was telling me is that he got drunk one night
and woke up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. [laughing] Now see, that's funny.
B: Yes, it is. Even if it's not true, it's a good line.
P: What makes those kinds of things funny?
B: I wrote a line like that. It was something like, you know it's a good party
because you wake up the next day, you're naked, and you're at least three states
away. That's how you measure a good party.
P: [laughing] Do you ever submit your writing to anybody to look at?
B: I will from time to time. What I have found over the years is, there is almost no
correlation between how hard it is to write a column and how well it's going to
come out, how much I've struggled. Some come out really easy, but really easy
for me is still a couple of days, [because] I'm a slow writer, and I will wrestle for a
week with an 800 word column. [I will spend] a week, literally just rewriting.
Those week-long ones where I've just considered every possible angle and joke
317 times and I've just twisted my guts over every word, I will ask usually
somebody [to look it over]. Usually it's my wife, who's a journalist, she's a
sportswriter, Michelle Kaufman. We work in the same office there. I'll say, will
you just read this, because I really think it's over for me and I'm going to have to
become an insurance salesman. That's what I always [say]. [I'll say] I'm just no
good at this, whatever it is. She'll read it and she says, no, that's funny. I'll say,
you just said that because you have to because I'm desperate. She'll say, no,
no, no, I really think it's funny. I'll say, where [and] why do you think it's funny?
I'll make her go through and tell me what jokes [she likes]. I'll do that only in that
case, where I've just wrestled with it. There will be every now and then, once
every couple months, where I'll just throw it away. [I'll think,] I'm not getting this,
it's not happening, I'm not going to even show it to Michelle. Most of the time,
I've found that when I wrestle with it, it's still okay, it's just that it was harder for
me for some reason on that topic on that day. I don't know why. If it's not hard,
I don't ask. I figure, I know it's okay. But if I reach the point where I'm starting
to doubt myself, then I'll ask somebody.
P: Carl Hiaasen said he didn't know anybody who worked harder on a column than
you do, which is a compliment, because it looks like, when you read your work,
it was easy to write.
B: Yes, I've always said, to me, it's a lot like magicians. Humor, it's got to look
effortless. There's nothing worse than labored humor, overdone, overwrought.
If you're a magician and you're going to pull eight doves out of your sleeve, you
better know how to do that so that it looks like you're just pulling doves out of
your sleeve. It better not look like, oh, God, where's the little thing that feeds me
the dove, so that you know that he worked really hard getting to that point.
Likewise, stand-up comics, when they deliver a routine, have generally spent a
lot of time making that routine look natural and like they're just thinking it up on
the spot, but that's not really the way it is. Humor, I think, is very much like that.
You've got to work hard to write humor.
P: It is probably the most difficult kind of writing there is, isn't it?
B: I don't know if it's the most difficult, but it's the only kind [of writing] where you are
promising a result to the reader. You are promising the reader that you will be
amused, even laugh, and if he's not, you have failed. Whereas, if you're George
Will [syndicated conservative columnist] and you're writing about the European
Union, and I'm not saying George Will is not a good writer, because he's a very
good writer, he's not saying to you from the onset, boy, you are going to have a
certain feeling about the European Union when I'm done. He just presents his
argument in a logical way, and you just read it and then you go on. It might
strike you as a great column or not, but you're not going to think to yourself, he
failed. With humor, if you fail, you fail.
P: At least you get some information from George Will. [laughing]
B: Whereas I give you nothing. [laughing] I actually subtract from your knowledge.
P: [laughing] There are people who tell me, which would be my observation, that
you're actually funnier in person than you are when you write. What's the
difference between writing humor and presenting humor on stage?
B: Well, when you're on stage, I find, and I've done both now for a while, it's a
completely different kind of humor that works. The worst thing I could ever do
would be to just get up and read a column. It just won't work. Some people
might laugh at parts of it, but it's not really going to work as a performance.
Generally, you must be simpler when you're talking. The humor/the joke has to
be simpler. You have to take more time to set it up. It's just kind of slower
pace. In written humor, you can have a joke within a joke within a joke and a
referral back to that joke all in one sentence. People can go back and go again
to see what you did. You can be weirder in writing, because people have more
time to absorb it. They can take the time to see what you meant, but in speech
you have to slow it down and simple it up. Certain kinds of things are just going
to work better in speech. Lines that wouldn't strike anybody's funny if you wrote
them down will just slay an audience, and I don't know why.
P: Do you write out your presentations or do you just wing it?
B: I usually have an idea of where I'm starting and the main areas I'm going to talk
about. There's a story here, a story here, a story here, but I don't write it out.
That's also pretty deadly for a humorist, reading it to people.
P: Do you ever practice what you're going to say?
B: No, I've never done that. But I've done a lot of talking and you get comfortable
in front of an audience and you get a feel for how to say what you want to say. If
you kind of remember where you're going, you'll find a natural way to get there in
P: People talk about the difference between people who tell funny stories and
people who tell a story funny. I remember Jerry Glowers [southern cultural
humorist]. I don't know if you remember him. He told a story funny.
B: He was the guy that was always with the thing up in the tree. [Dave Barry makes
a sound: whooo-eeee]. He made all these noises. I've heard he was wonderful
in person, but I saw him just die on the Johnny Carson Show.
P: Well, that wouldn't work. It has to be a certain kind of audience, and you have to
feel out your audience, I guess. He was telling a story that he'd never eaten hot
apple pie. He said he put it in his mouth and made a loud yowl and then spit it
out on his aunt's linen table cloth. Then, he says you know, there's many a
damn fool who would have swallowed that. [laughing] Now somehow those
stories are funny if they're told in context to the right audience. Do you know
your audience before you start?
B: Yes, I agree with that. For me, the main distinction I make is what I think of as
domestic humor and political humor. If you have any question about what
audience you're talking to, it's better to steer away from political humor, for the
most part, [and] especially lately because there's a lot of anger. It's gotten to the
point where people won't just disagree with one another anymore, they've started
hating each other. [They'll say,] I hate [U.S. President] George Bush [2001-
present], or I hate the Democratic candidates. It sort of started during the [Bill]
Clinton era [U.S. President, 1993-2000]; you either liked him or hated him. I
guess it goes back farther. There were plenty of people who hated Richard
Nixon [U.S. President, 1969-1974] and plenty of people who hated Lyndon
Johnson [U.S. President, 1963-1969]. It just seems that it used to be more
about the political positions and [there was still the sentiment that] we're still all
Americans and everything. Now, it just seems to me that [people think.], I can't
even talk to people who don't agree with me. I just get more of that sense from
people. So if I don't know what kind of audience it is, I don't know where they're
coming from politically, I won't talk much about politics. Even thought I never
ever do jokes that are meant to just rip a candidate, I would not get up and do
jokes that say George Bush is stupid or the Democrats are stupid ...
P: But you would write that.
B: I would write that, but I generally try to write ... I mean, I get accused by
Democrats as being pro-Republican. I get accused by Republicans as being
P: That's means you're right [in the middle].
B: It just means that I try to offend everybody or be equally insulting. I just don't
believe in using my column as an ideological tool, I don't, I just never have. In
talking to an audience, I may make some sort of general political jokes that
everybody can find, I hope, amusing. I'll much more likely talk about being a
dad or having kids, or my own personal embarrassments and things that have
happened to me rather than aim my humor at cutting people down.
P: Do you intend for your columns to be social commentary?
B: No, I don't intend my columns to be anything else than just diversion. I really
would be perfectly happy if my column ran on the comics stage. So to be
perfectly clear, and I'm not saying I'm here to change your life, I'm not here to
make your life better or worse or anything, to convince you that I'm right. I will,
from time to time, write about politics. And I will, from time to time, even take a
position. I made fun of the war on smoking, the whole tobacco lawsuit thing,
which was an elaborate, complicated scam to get money to lawyers and
politicians. That's really what it is. It had nothing to do with smoking or
stopping smoking or public health. To me, it's just offensive and easily ridiculed.
It rarely gets treated humorously, but it is preposterous really. So, that's a
natural target; I'll write about stuff like that. Other than that, I'll write about
[people such as] telemarketers. I don't know if you could argue that's political or
not, but I wrote about the do-not-call list and that kind of thing. I have a point,
but not always, and most of the time, no.
P: Didn't you put their number in your column? [laughing]
B: Yes, the power of the press. [laughing] I put a toll-free telephone number. This
is back when the telemarketers had sued to block the do-not-call list. There was
one group, the American Teleservices Association, it's a lobbying group, sued to
block it on the grounds that it was a violation of their First Amendment rights.
I'm sorry, I'm not a judge, but that just struck me as so [wrong]. I thought, well,
okay, if they have the Constitutional right to call you, you have the Constitutional
right to call them. So I looked up on the American Teleservices Association
website and they had an 800-number and I put in the column and suggested
people might want to let them know what they think. [laughing] Man, it was
unbelievable. Thousands upon thousands never stopped [calling them].
P: Did you hear back from them at all?
B: Not directly, [but] they complained. It was an inconvenience to them to get all
these unwanted phone calls, if you can imagine.
P: At least they understand how the rest of us feel. [laughing]
B: Exactly, they had to disconnect their line. I heard a lot from the public, and it
was probably 99 percent [praise]. [People would say,] thank you, we love you,
you're God. One percent was from telemarketers and they were not happy, but
I'm sorry they weren't happy.
P: Talk a little bit more about writing your weekly column and then writing your
books. What different approach do you take when you're doing these two
B: With the columns you're very aware of space. Eight hundred words [is how
many] you've got, which is not that many. It's painful to try anything at the
beginning. [You wonder,] how will I ever get 800 words. Then, at the end,
[you're saying] oh, my God, I don't have enough space nearly to develop this
concept. With me, there's a very distinct process. The first paragraph is
critical. If I can think of a funny first paragraph on this topic, then I know I can
finish it, I know I can do it, I know I can get there sooner or later. I will spend a
day sometimes writing one paragraph. I've done that more than a dozen times
in my life. Then I get in and I get going and I'm kind of working the jokes out.
The thing is, with humor writing, you can't just go through it and then later on go
back. There has to be a joke there. [laughing] You can't have joke A, joke B,
[and so on]. You have to produce at least some form of a joke that you can
work on. To me, it's much more rewriting and rewriting. But after that first
paragraph, you're kind of building on it, coming up with new jokes and honing
them. [Then I] go back and rewrite it all again, again, and again. Finally, I get to
the point where I've got too much, I cut it back a little bit, and then I'm done.
That takes a couple of days usually.
When you're writing books, you have more room to spread out. The
chapters can be longer, you can put pictures in and stuff like that. It's a more
relaxed process for me than writing a column. You don't have that constraint of
space or time. The deadlines are not as bad. Novels [are] the hardest and the
easiest. [They are] the hardest because plots are really hard [to formulate].
Nobody told me [that]. [laughing] The characters have to have a reason all the
way through. You can't forget them in the third chapter or invent a new one ...
P: And you can't change the name.
B: Exactly. And they have to have some reason for existing; they have to do
something. You have to have an end. So that's hard, but once I know where
I'm going, though, it's the loosest and easiest [project] of all. There doesn't have
to be a joke every sentence. People can talk for a while, and I find that to be a
[more] pleasant kind of writing.
P: Carl Hiaasen writes strange and bizarre novels, and I've talked to him about how
B: We just hope that Carl keeps writing the novels and doesn't get loose with a
machine gun someday. [laughing]
P: What possessed you to decide, after you had been very successful with your
other books, to write a novel.
B: I got asked to do it by an editor, and it was Carl's editor. [laughing]
P: It must be something in Miami, right?
B: Neil Nyren at Putnam [Publishing Group], a really great guy, asked me to do it.
He said [that] he thought I could do it. He read a chapter I had written. I wrote
one fiction chapter to the serial novel we did at Tropic magazine called Naked
Came the Manatee.
P: Oh, I remember that.
B: Carl wrote one of the chapters as well to that. I never did think it was that great
a book, but you never know. It sold really well.
P: Maybe the title hooked the public. [laughing]
B: Yes, I think it had to do [with the title]. Elmore Leonard wrote in that too, and
Les Standiford and James [W.] Hall. Carl's editor saw that book and he
approached me about writing a novel, and, just to see if I could, I did it. It was
kind of fun and it did reasonably well. They asked me to do another one and I
did. I don't know if I'll do another one any time soon just because it's hard. It's
P: Is it as much fun writing those as the column?
B: It is when you're really cooking on it, when you know where you're going and
where the plot is going. But to get to that point is [laborious]. You think about it
night and day. There's a time when you're working on a novel, unlike any other
kind of writing I've done, where it just takes over your soul. These characters
are on your mind all the time.
P: You have to think, what are they going to do?
B: What are they going to do? Would he do that? How would he do that? That
would explain that, and it's just all on your mind. You become very distracted
and weird. That's why novelists are the way they are.
P: Some writers have a story board where they have all the characters and a time
B: I have a great friend, Ridley Pearson, who is a very successful writer of police
procedural novels. I'm in a band with Ridley [called The Rock Bottom
Remainders]. When I was wrestling with my second novel, I had no idea what
all these characters were going to do. I went and visited Ridley in St. Louis. I
went into his office, and he had one whole wall of his office [marked] as a flow
chart. Across the top was all the characters, and down the side was the time
line. In every cell he could tell you what everybody was doing. Even people
who were not going to get in the book, their actions offstage were there so that
he'd know what they were up to. I was terrified. [laughing] This was a book he
hadn't even written yet. I was two-thirds of the way through my book and I had
no idea [what my characters were doing]. I said, Ridley, is there anywhere on
here where I can see what my characters are going to do?
P: Could I borrow a couple of yours?
[End of Side A:1]
P: Talk about the creative process with a novel.
B: Well, the problem is that there are too many options. What a novelist really has
to do is narrow down his options. Let's say you want to start a book with, a guy
walks into a room. Well, maybe it shouldn't be a guy, maybe it's a woman
walking into the room. Maybe it's not a room, maybe it's a restaurant. What
kind of restaurant? Well, maybe he's got a gun. Well, maybe he doesn't have
a gun. Anything could be anything. [laughing] So even if you think you've got a
story, it will always turn out that there are so many things you haven't thought
about, so many possibilities, so many implausibilities. It's so hard to make it all
work. Should you describe things or not describe things? I lean toward not
[describing things]. [I] just sort of let the story carry itself along.
There are novels I admire immensely. Guys like Martin Amis just seem to
know when the right time [is] to tell you what somebody looks like or what
something is. You just have to constantly make [these decisions].
P: Some writers spend three pages describing a restaurant.
B: Usually those people are bad writers. [laughing] I learned early on in reading,
there are certain writers who you can skip almost all [of their] description. They
just feel that any time any character shows up they have to say everything he's
wearing, even if it's a character who is only going to be there for one page and
not really matter. That's one of the skills that really great writers have. They
know when to tell you and they know when not to tell you. I think knowing when
not to tell you is probably the harder of the two skills.
P: How have you felt about how television and films have dealt with your work?
For example, talk about Dave's World and your novel Big Trouble that was made
into a film.
B: Well, I don't know that there's any pure way to translate my humor into any other
medium for the simple reason that I'm not very logical or rational. I'm just sort of
a silly writer. Are you familiar with Robert Benchley?
B: He was my idol as a kid. The characteristic he had that I loved most, and still
love most, is his whimsical silliness. It's perfectly fine with him to just change
the whole point of the column or the logic or the point of view. [Those are] all the
things you're not allowed to do in real narrative structure. I don't say that I'm as
good a writer as Robert Benchley, but if there's anything that I emulate in another
writer, it's that. In the end, it doesn't matter. What I'm telling you doesn't
matter, and I'm just trying to be funny and I don't have a point.
That's really hard to translate to a TV show or a movie, the TV show
Dave's World especially. You cannot have characters who are believable
characters on the screen who talk or think the way I do in my column. So they
kind of had to extract from my column the kind of sitcomy parts of a family and a
guy. They tended to focus on, he's a guy who writes a column, which really is
not what my column is about most of the time. But the show can't be about
exploding toilets, but that's really what I'm probably writing about. So they kind
of create a guy, a wife, a kid, and an editor. In that context, they did fine. It
was a funny sitcom, and every now and then it would have elements where I
would say, yes, that's right from a column I wrote. Mostly, it was just a good
P: Did you have any influence at all on what they did?
B: No. I like to say, I had total creative control over what I did with the check that
they mailed me. But no, I didn't write for the show. I was on the show once,
very briefly, in a cameo role. They were very nice to me. It wasn't like they
were shutting me out. I'm sure they would have welcomed any input, [but] I was
busy back here in Miami writing columns while they were in L[os] A[ngeles]
putting on a show. It was a staff of 100 or something people and actors.
[There were] technical people and it's company; it was like a business out there.
I really didn't have much to do with [it].
Big Trouble is different in the sense that it wasn't a whimsical comedy, it
was a book with a plot. It was a different issue. I think they did a pretty good
job. Barry Sonnenfeld had to take this elaborate, complicated, zany, madcap,
antic plot with many characters and try to fit it into a movie that ran under eighty
minutes. Given that, I think they did a good job. It wasn't brilliant drama, but
neither was my book. It was meant to be a quick, easy read, and I think the
movie kind of got that. I like the movie, I should say.
P: Good. You mentioned Robert Benchley, I was wondering what other humorists
you might admire. Do you admire [James] Thurber, S. J. Perelman, Garrison
Keillor, P.J. O'Rourke, or Mark Twain?
B: [I admire] all of those people. P.J. [O'Rourke] is actually a friend of mine, and
I've always loved P.J. I used to read him when he was at the National Lampoon.
I didn't realize that he was basically my age. I thought he was this brilliant older
guy, but I finally got to know him. I like Garrison [Keillor] a lot. I was more of a
Benchley fan than a Thurber fan. I like Perelman, but I kind of came to him
later. P.G. Wodehouse, I love. I truly love [him], but I could never write like
that. Talk about a guy with a style all his own.
P: After reading your book, Hits Below the Beltway, I think of P.J. O'Rourke's
Parliament of Whores.
B: Parliament of Whores, yes, in fact, in my book I put a little footnote saying, if you
want to read a book that's funny about Washington but actually has information
[then you should read O'Rourke's book]. P.J. is frighteningly smart and well
read. I don't do what P.J. does. P.J. actually goes out and finds real
P: Oh, he did incredible research for this book.
B: He does terrific reporting. He just came back from Iraq. There was a piece in
the Atlantic he wrote. I was once again reminded of what a great reporter he is.
He's got a real strong point of view and an edge to him, but I contend [that]
whatever your politics [are,] if you read what P.J. has to say about a situation you
will learn a lot.
P: One of the things that I never see in your writing is ...
B: ... is tact? [laughing]
P: I never see any pejorative statements or any scatological terminology. How do
you feel about writers who use that kind of style, or even comedians like Richard
Pryor or Redd Foxx or somebody like 2 Live Crew who use these devices?
B: Well, I would distinguish between 2 Live Crew and Richard Pryor. [laughing]
P: I went one too many. [laughing]
B: Well, I actually don't have a problem with it. One reason that my writing is pretty
much PG [usually a movie rating, Parental Guidance suggested] is that my
medium is the newspapers. Now, for the newspapers I'm considered risqu6.
There are papers that will routinely not print columns I've written.
B: Yes, but I think that's less likely to happen these days than it was twenty years
ago. If I write a column that has any reference to flatulence in it, there will be a
bunch of papers that won't print it, even if I don't use such an awful word as fart.
But somehow, they'll kill it. I have to say, in both novels I wrote, particularly the
second one, there are characters who use horrible language. In fact, I got angry
letters from readers of my column. [Readers wrote,] I always loved your column,
[but] I can't believe the foul [language]. I began both books with warnings to
those readers. [I said,] if you don't like to read obscene language, do not read
this book, because there are characters in it who are bad people and that's how
they talk. And I'm not going to have them talk any other way, but if you don't
want to read it ...
To me, funny is funny. If a guy just gets up there and thinks that he can
say, fuck, and that's going to be funny, then I'm not going to be amused. If you
go to a comedy show, there's usually three or four comedians who come out
before the main guy. The main guy is usually very funny, but the guys who
come [out before the headliner may say,] hey, are there any fucking Cubans
here? [laughing] Everybody laughs, but it's kind of the way you [nervously laugh]
because you're hearing the f-word. You think, well, what did he say? It's not
funny, he's just relying on that [shock]. That I find not at all amusing. There
has to be humor there. Having said that, I have heard comedians with just filthy
mouths [who I enjoyed]. Richard Pryor was a good example ...
P: Robin Williams
B: Eddie Murphy. [They will] just kill me. They use scatological words, but they
use them just right [and] at just the right time, and it's funny. It's shocking and
funny. I'll never condemn any kind of humor if it's working as humor. I'm never
going to say, oh, I can't [listen to this]. I'm just trained for all those years I've
worked for a newspaper. Always on my mind is ...
P: ... a family newspaper. [laughing]
B: Exactly, and I will often make fun of that. I know there are some qualms no
matter what. I couldn't believe this. [I once wrote] a parody of Harry Potter.
[laughing] The premise was, I'm sick and tired of this woman [J.K. Rowling] who
sells all these damn books. She sells more books in a minute than I'll sell in my
entire life. At one point I have Hermione, the girl, say to Harry, is that a wand in
your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?
P: Oh, sacrilege. [laughing]
B: Well, people said, I was reading this to my eight year old son and then how could
I explain that joke to him? I think, well, don't. I'm not going to leave that joke
out because it might not be appropriate for an eight year old. So whatever I
write, sooner or later somebody gets offended by it, even in a family newspaper.
I'm sort of walking to the edge of that line sometimes.
P: Talk about some of the letters you receive from people that you have allegedly
offended, like the Canadians. Are these people really outraged?
B: Oh, yes, I've learned over the years that it's a source of amusement really. The
things that people will be offended by [is amusing]. First of all, you cannot write
a column about anything that will not offend somebody. There are people out
there who are just sort of sitting around waiting to be offended, and they will be
offended. Second, there are people who are just too dumb to figure out that it's
supposed to be funny. I wrote a column [about France] once and I said, among
the sites to see in Paris are the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Leaning
Tower of Pisa. I'm not saying that was a great joke, but I'm saying that it's pretty
clearly a joke. I got 100 letters easy on that one sentence. They would circle it
and they would say, how dare you represent yourself ... They would correct me.
I wrote those people back. It's fun to write those people back. I said, you are
mistaken, the Leaning Tower of Pisa was moved to Paris in 1996. [laughing]
Then they'll write you back again [and say,] no, it wasn't. So there's those
I write a column called, "Ask Mr. Language Person," about once a year.
Mr. Language Person is an expert, but he gets everything single thing wrong.
Every single piece of advice he gives is incorrect, so this column is riddled with
grammatical errors from Mr. Language Person. Whenever I do that column, I
get mail where somebody has cut it out and circled one error. There's
eighty-three errors and they found one, and they almost always say, I am an
English teacher and this is incorrect. Then, if I write anything that makes fun of
somebody's [favorite celebrity, I receive letters]. If I ever make a joke about
Barry Manilow [pop singer], which I routinely do just because it's fun to get the
letter from the angry Barry Manilow fans who can't believe that a pathetic loser
like me is daring to criticize their god, Barry Manilow.
P: You do answer back, so you sort of enjoy this repartee.
B: I mostly enjoy the really outraged letters, because usually it's just some silly
thing. You cannot believe that people are upset. If people write me a really
nasty letter, I don't enjoy that. People have criticized me in a way where I think,
maybe they're right, maybe I should not have made that joke, [or] that was
maybe cruel. I've got to say, that's not very often. It's happened to me a few
times where I've written a joke that in retrospect I could see how it could really be
hurtful. I don't mind hurting people's feelings, but I like them to be like Dick
Cheney [U.S. Vice President, 2001- present], somebody who can take it. Or Bill
Clinton, somebody who maybe deserves it and [won't be affected by it]. I don't
like the idea of singling out some innocent person or to have a joke at that
P: I noticed in one of your columns that not too long ago you were writing about
blood drinkers ...
B: The vampire community
P: [laughing] One person admitted that he was afraid he was the only one in the
office and then found another one in the office. Thanks for coming forward Mr.
B: I don't think Dan will care. [laughing] I've made a lot of jokes about Dan Rather
[CBS News anchorman]. Dan Rather is one of the weirder people to ever be a
P: Do you remember the time that somebody stopped him on the street to ask
"What's the frequency, Kenneth?" [laughing]
P: So he's fair game, right?
B: I think Dan's a little weird. I think Dan is one of those guys [where] any minute
the mother ship is going to come back and pick Dan up and take him back to the
home planet. [laughing]
P: So people like Dan Rather, Barry Manilow...
B: I don't mind [making fun of them]. I'm sorry, I'm not always fair to them, but I
think I can make up a Britney Spears [pop singer] joke and I'm not going to worry
about if it's going to hurt Britney Spears' feelings. Somebody who is
overexposed, over-hyped, somebody who is in your face all the time in the
media, to me, I can make a joke about that person. [I will make fun of] some
innocent person somewhere if [they've] done something incredibly [stupid]. I
just wrote a column, in fact, about two guys, it hasn't run yet, who got into a leaf
blower war. I like to write about guys and things guys do. When this happened,
one guy had leaves on his property, so he blew them with leaf blower. I don't
like leaf blowers. [He] blew them onto another guy's property. So I wrote, what
would you do? Would you go over and say, hey, you blew your leaves [over
here and] would you please get your leaves? If so, you're a woman. [laughing] I
tell you what a guy does. He gets his leaf blower and blows them [back to the
other property]. So then the two guys end up blowing the leaves back and forth
and finally they're blowing each other right in the face. Then, they're starting to
hit each other's leaf blowers, and then the police have to come. So I wrote that
column and I really made fun of these two guys, but I don't name them.
P: This actually happened?
B: This actually happened; it's a real story. They're stupid, but they're also just a
couple of guys who happened to get in their local paper. It won't make it any
funnier if I tell you who they are.
P: I notice that you were describing the state of Florida and you said it was the
same height above sea-level as Dustin Hoffman [actor].
B: Yes. [laughing]
P: Would it have been as funny if you had said, Danny DeVito [actor]?
B: I have used Danny DeVito in a height joke.
P: So in the back of your mind you have these individuals that you can use?
B: No, I'll just cast around for who is famous, not that tall, and it's not a big deal. It's
not like this is a deformity; Danny DeVito is comfortable with who he is and he's a
very successful actor, and everybody will immediately get the reference. I don't
know, it's just purely a gut feeling. My feeling is no, it's not [cruel]. Maybe not
everybody would do it, but I'm not going to worry about it.
P: How do you feel about British satire, which is quite a bit different from the
American sense of humor?
B: Well, I think, as a rule, it's superior [to American humor]. In my late college and
post-college years,  was a huge, huge Monty Python fan. I love little British
movies. They're little gems. [I like] Little Voice, Waking Ned Devine, or TV
shows like Absolutely Fabulous. They [have] just so much more of an edge and
so much more of a willingness to assume intelligence on the part of the viewer
than we have generally on our TV. We have brilliant television sometimes. I
think Seinfeld was a brilliant show. I think Friends is a really funny show. But I
think they're [British] consistently smarter than we are. I hate to say that
because it's sort of a cliche, but their humor tends to be very smart. On the
other hand, they had Benny Hill which was consistently as dumb as humor can
P: Well, in Monty Python these guys dress up like women.
B: Yes, but when they're being silly they're just whoa, out there being silly. It's not
in a calculated way ...
P: That doesn't appeal to most Americans though, does it?
B: Well, Monty Python does. I mean there may never be a show as popular. That
show is still incredibly popular in this country, at least with a whole generation of
us. What we tend to do is borrow their shows and then dumb them down over
here [in America]. Absolutely Fabulous, I don't know if you ever saw it, but when
they brought that over they just put it on the air and it was a big hit. I became an
instant, voracious fan of that show. We would not have a mom as unlikeable as
that mom. There would be characteristics of the mom [that would cause us to
say,] oh, she's really [not so bad]. She wouldn't just be this vapid, frequently
irresponsible bitch. She is the mom and she's not going to change, and her
best friend is an alcoholic, drug addict and she's not going to change. Neither
one of them really care that much about the daughter. It was [just accepted] that
those were our characters and we don't have to like them
P: The American television gurus would have said no.
B: [They would say,] there has to be a man and we have to do that, which is why
there are so many failed American sitcoms. Then Seinfeld came along and said,
no, we're going to trust the audience a little more to figure out that we're not
necessarily loveable, likeable characters, we don't necessarily have a consistent
happy ending, and we don't have hugs and learning. And Americans loved it.
They were smart enough to love it.
P: There was a group called Beyond the Fringe.
B: Oh, yes, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were a part of that.
B: There are still a couple of routines they did, [such as] when the Welsh coal
miners are talking, that can make me wet my pants. [They would say,] and Esau
was an hairy man, [laughing] but Jacob was an smooth man. [laughing] Yes, they
were just ripping on the pompous ass preacher. Oh, it was brilliant. And you
know those shows were all huge hits over here. They came over here [and]
people loved them.
P: But it still didn't have a mass audience, did it?
B: I don't know.
P: I remember one they did called the "Royal Box". They were talking about where
the queen sits in the royal box in the balcony. One fellow says, well, the Queen
is not here tonight. The other guy replies, well, she could be crouching. Now,
for the Americans, they probably wouldn't laugh at that or understand that, would
B: I don't know. [I'm speaking] just from my own experience with editors here in this
country. The problem that I had a lot in the beginning of my column, when I was
not in many papers, I was in a few, and I would send my stuff out, and I would
get [the same] response over and over again. I got very used to it, which was,
we think it's pretty funny, but we think it's a little edgy for our readers. What I
think happens is that in a newspaper business we have a tendency to assume
our readers are stupid. The reason we assume that is [because] the ones who
call us often are.
If I write a column and one hundred people read it and ninety-eight of
them think it's funny and two of them are offended, who do you think you're going
to hear from? Well, you're going to hear from the two who are offended, and
they're both going to threaten to cancel their paper. So that's [your editor's]
sampling. [He'll think] oh, this Barry guy is costing me subscriptions. I think that
tends to be with every edgy thing we do in television, radio, and newspapers.
People running those media tend to think, I want to put out a product that doesn't
get me any phone calls. But that is also a product that will not necessarily
entertain or amuse or interest anybody else. In other words, we tend to cater to
This got started because we were talking about British humor. I think
British humor tends to work fine over here. Douglas Adams, he's a hugely
successful author. I think in the book world it crosses over more easily because
there's no need to censor books, but in mass media we tend to take the safest
possible route. We're losing readership in the newspaper business, and part of
the reason is because they don't think we're that interesting.
P: Is part of that also the bottom line, since corporations now own most of the
newspapers? This newspaper is owned by Knight-Ridder, and Carl Hiaasen told
me that Tony Ridder was asking for something like 22 to 25 percent profit
margin. They've had to fire some photographers and don't cover city hall maybe
as closely as they used to.
B: This is true. It's not just the Herald, it's all over, but it's clearly happened here.
When I started at the Herald, I don't know what our profit margin was, but we
were making a lot of money. But it's been jacked way up. I understand all the
arguments for that. If they don't do that, we'll get bought by somebody else
who's even worse than Knight-Ridder. But the simple truth is that the result of
this need to keep our profits high and our stock prices high, is that we don't put
out the same product we used to. We put out the best product we can
considering the constraints we have. We have an incredible staff here and they
work incredibly hard. We're still, I think, a really good paper. I travel around the
country and I put the Herald against anybody except the New York Times, the
Washington Post, the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal-the ones with an infinite
amount of money and no worries about budgets. But, having said all that, we're
not as good a paper as we were when I came here. I don't see how we could
be. We just don't have as many people, we don't have them in as many places,
we don't give them as much time to do their jobs. Maybe we had too much time;
maybe people wasted time before, but now we don't have any time. We're just
slapping the paper out as fast as we can and working as hard as we can. I think
it's a tribute to the dedication of the journalists that we do as well as we do.
P: I think Ben Bradlee called it the morning miracle. It's difficult to do this every
B: I've been associated with papers for a long time, and I have no idea how they get
out. [laughing] It's just a miracle to me.
P: How important are clippings sent in by alert readers?
B: [They're] pretty important. I get stories regularly from that. More and more, it's
from the Internet. I've got to say, now, by the time I get a clipping, I've usually
seen it already on-line. I usually use stories sent in by people as a basis for
columns. I like to do that for two reasons. One is, you get good stories that
way. The other is, the readers like it, they like to think that there's a connection
between them and me. They can suggest something, and I listen to the readers
and I always give them credit. [I write,] this was sent in by [whoever the person
is]. I think that draws me and them together and I like that.
P: One of the things that is difficult for me to understand is why there are not more
humor columnists. I realize it's very, very difficult, but clearly there's a huge
market for that type of column.
B: There are two answers to that. One is, their space is shrinking. Newspapers
use way fewer columns than they used to. They use way fewer of everything,
but columns are one of the things that have shrunk. Syndicates are finding it
tougher and tougher to get newspapers to take new columns. There are some
really funny columns out there, it's just hard for them to get in the paper or hard
to get me on their paper. The other reason, I think, is that my generation was
the beginning of a big change away from the print to the electronic for humor
people. People my age and younger, especially younger, who want to write
funny are much more likely to think in terms of screenplays, Hollywood, TV
sitcoms, and that kind of thing. Even the internet, there's really pretty wonderful
humor on the internet. Probably the funniest publication to appear in this county
in the last ten years is The Onion, which is brilliant and is totally an Internet
phenomenon. It originally was in some print form in Wisconsin, but [it gained it's
popularity on the Internet.] People like the internet [because] It's more immediate.
Just thinking in terms of sitting and writing a column that will appear a day or
two days or a week later is kind of alien to the thinking of people who create
P: Of course, it takes a while. Your column must be syndicated over 500 papers
B: Yes, it's about that.
P: It takes quite a while for you to build up that sort of commitment from the
newspapers, does it not?
B: Yes, you have to be at it for a while. I was at it for ten years before it really
started to snowball, and, I think, now it would be much tougher to expand into
P: Do you assume people would buy the Miami Herald to read your column?
B: No. First of all, it only runs on Sunday usually. No, I think they buy the paper to
read a lot of things, and the comics would be one and my column would be one. I
think I would add to the mix of things that would make them want to buy the
paper, but I can't imagine anybody would buy the paper just to read my column.
P: But you would understand that people would buy the paper and go directly to
B: Yes, I mean there are favorite things that I go to straight away if I know they're in
the paper. And some people have told me that that's how they treat my column.
Some people say, I read your column last, which is, in their mind, also a
P: What is your take on editorial cartoonists?
B: Well, a lot of them are my friends. First of all, I think it's really hard to do. I
don't know if I could do it. Second, I think it's changed a lot, and not necessarily
in a good way. More and more, editorial cartoons have come to sort of
resemble just cartoons, where there's a punch line but it doesn't really have a
point. It's not an editorial, it's not really anything. It's kind of like Marmaduke,
but with Dick Cheney instead of a big dog. What I said about it being hard [to
create good editorial cartoons] maybe adds to why that [could be]. I know I'm
not making a new argument. I know there's [been] arguments going on in
cartooning community for many years, and a lot of my friends are cartoonists, so
I feel funny saying this. I think it's degraded the art form a little bit to the point
where a lot of guys seem to be looking for the joke first when they're writing what
are supposed to be political cartoons. So it comes off often as good
commentary satire of the times, sort of like a New Yorker cartoon rather than
[what it used to be].
P: The reason I ask that question is because I talked to Don Wright and that was his
B: Well, Don is a classic example. He's a very political guy, but you knew what his
point was. He always had it figured out. He was a terrific cartoonist, obviously.
P: He said, there are not many people like Mike Peters and Pat Oliphant, who
really, as you indicated, don't just do a joke but combine something that's
humorous with a specific point. Then, of course, to do it everyday is very
B: No, it's brutally hard, I think. I don't know how you could do it every day, I really
don't. Our guy, Jim Morin, he makes a point, and I often disagree with his point,
but I know what he's saying.
P: That's what editorial cartoonists are supposed to do. If they don't get a
response, they haven't done their job.
P: Where were you when you first learned you won the Pulitzer Prize, and what was
B: I was standing fifty feet from where we are now. I was out there, and they
tricked me. My family was going to Key West that day. My son Rob was then
seven years old. He was all excited about going to Key West, because when we
go to Key West, we always rent a motor bike and then he would ride around [on]
the back. So he thought that was a lot of fun. My editor, Gene Weingarten,
called and said, you need to come into the Herald today for a meeting. I said, I
can't, I'm going to Key West. He said, no, no, no, this is a mandatory meeting.
Janet, who was our editor then, says you've got to be at this meeting. I said, oh,
shit. He said, no, you have to come. I said, alright. So my family comes with
me, and we come in. And as we walk in the newsroom, everyone is gathered
around the middle of the newsroom. I [say,] oh, today is the day they announce
the Pulitzer, and I know we're up for [some prizes]. So, you see, [I'm just
P: [laughing] You're trying to figure out who won it, right?
B: Right, but I knew it wasn't me. In fact, I wasn't even on the list of finalists. This
is really true. The way it works is that the nominating judges send three names
to the Pulitzer board, but the Pulitzer board can reject those and go back and
look into [it]. That's what happened in my case. They picked me, having not
decided to use the others. The names of the finalists leaks out weeks ahead
because we're all newspaper people, so I know for a fact that I was not a finalist
for a Pulitzer. So this absolutely never occurred to me that I was going to win
one. So we're all standing there in the newsroom, and then thirty seconds
before they started to announce the category, somebody says something to me.
I think it was Pete Weitzel who was our managing editor. He went like this, and I
realized he made a mistake. He thought I already knew and I didn't know, and
then I suddenly realized, oh, my God, I'm about to win a Pulitzer prize. I don't
know how, but I am. The first thing I thought [about] was Rob, my son who is
just chomping at the bit ready to go to Key West, that we weren't going to go to
Key West. You can't just win the Pulitzer and then walk out. I mean a lot of
stuff happens then. I turned around and I said, I'm really sorry, but we're not
going to go to Key West. [I said,] I'm about to win an award here. His face just
fell and I felt terrible. I said, but I'll you what, and he said, what. [I said,] I'll buy
you a Nintendo. He had been bugging me and bugging me for a Nintendo game
and I kept saying wait for your birthday. He said, really? I said, yep, I'll buy you
a Nintendo tomorrow, I promise you. He jumped up and hugged me. Janet
Chusmir then says, and the winner for the Pulitzer Prize is Dave Barry. They take
a picture of me and in next day's front page of the Herald is a picture of the staff
cheering and I'm smiling and my son has got his arms around my neck and is
giving me this huge hug. [laughing] Everybody said, wow, it was so great how
excited Rob was that you won the Pulitzer Prize. [laughing]
P: He won a Nintendo. [laughing]
B: [laughing] He didn't know what the Pulitzer Prize was, but he knew he was going
to get a Nintendo game. So that's my big memory of winning the Pulitzer Prize,
being hugged by Rob because he was going to get a Nintendo.
P: When you look back fifteen years later, what's your assessment of winning that
prize? What has it meant to your career?
B: I have to say, it didn't mean as much to me. I mean it meant a huge amount to
me, but I didn't realize it at the time, in that it's a burden off your shoulders. In
the end of your career, one of the issues [is] did you win one or didn't you win
one? So that's resolved. For ever and ever, you won a Pulitzer Prize. Whether
it's right or wrong, you won. So in that sense it was like a relief, although I didn't
start feeling that relief until a little bit later. But at that time I was already doing
well as a humor writer. I don't think people put you in their paper or not on the
basis of winning a Pulitzer. A good example would be a photographer at a small
town paper. [If he] wins a Pulitzer Prize, he goes from being a photographer to a
small town paper to a guy who could probably could get a job at any paper in the
country. That's not really what was happening to me. I was already in a lot of
the big papers in the country. I wasn't going to get to suddenly be more
[popular]. Professionally, I don't think, other than some resentment, it had a
huge effect on my life. [laughing] It's just a nice thing. I've got to say, the first
column I had to write after that ...
P: Lots of pressure.
B: Oh, and I'm thinking, what do I do now? Am I supposed to be good now? Am I
supposed to be meaningful? I remember the column was sort of a joke. I said,
I was going to write about toilets today, but then I won the Pulitzer Prize. I really
don't think I can write about toilets, so I think I'm going to write about the Middle
East. So, let's talk about how the Middle East would effect our toilets. [laughing]
[It was] something like that. I just got back to whatever [I usually wrote]. That
wasn't exactly what the topic was, but it was something like that. It just
acknowledged it and then got back to what I did. After a while it doesn't matter
anymore, and then, after fifteen years, nobody even remembers it. [laughing]
P: Well, it was for commentary, was it not?
B: Yes, in fact, the actual category title is "Distinguished Commentary." Which is
P: One of the things I wanted to get your take on as well is the Jayson Blair incident.
I noticed in one of your columns you had the new motto of the New York Times:
No longer making things up, as far as we know. [laughing] What do you think
the impact of that has been on the New York Times and newspapers in general?
B: Well, I only know what I read. I only know what I read in the papers, but it's
obviously been massive on the New York Times. But I think [it has been
influenced] in a positive way. There was something pathetic about that situation.
I talk to a lot of reporters here and say, how could a guy have been that
flagrantly lying and gotten away with it all that time at a big-time paper like the
New York Times? That was just terrible management. I mean Jayson Blair is
an idiot, he's still an idiot, and it pains me greatly that he is cashing in, because
he doesn't deserve to. There are a lot of people who deserve to get a book deal
before Jayson Blair. I hope nobody buys his book, to be honest, just like that guy
P: Stephen Glass has had a movie made about him.
B: I know, and I hope nobody goes to see his movie. I'm sorry, but these people
are not good for our business. They're liars and they cheated, not only the public,
but they cheated everybody who does the same thing they do. They make the
rest of us look bad. We have enough trouble already without people actively
lying to make journalism worse. I was astonished that the New York Times was
so pathetically incompetent about noticing this problem. I think that was
probably a good thing for the New York Times; whatever corporate culture that
allowed that to happen has been changed. It's hard to not compare it to your
own newspaper, and I don't think that would have happened here. I don't know,
but I don't think we've ever had a situation where somebody is just making stuff
up and didn't get caught pretty quick.
P: Well, certainly there was lax editorial control somewhere.
B: But also apparently [there] was an unwillingness to say to the editors, hey, this
guy is a liar. Actually, people did say that and nobody listened to them. We can't
do that in our business. We have no room for error left in journalism. We have
completely lost the public's trust for a number of reasons over a number of years.
We've lost it, [and] we have to try to get it back. We can't get it back if we don't
even listen when our own people tell us, by the way, this guy is a liar that we're
putting stuff in the paper [of his].
P: You wrote that polls show, in terms of public trust, the news media now rank
lower than used car salespeople, kidnappers, tapeworms, Hitler, and airline
announcers. [laughing] Now, how do you go about picking those terms.
B: That's one of the things I do. There's almost always a joke in a list. I love list
jokes. You can't do it every time, but you've got to pick it right and it's got to
start out seeming kind of reasonable, then it should take a couple of right turns
that the reader couldn't possibly expect, and then you've got to end with a punch
line, which airline announcers is. [laughing] That will be an hour of my day, that
sequence of things we don't trust.
P: The offbeat one is tapeworms. [laughing]
B: Tapeworms, just to throw that in, a little [turn in the sequence].
P: [laughing] In the end you say, we're still slightly ahead of lawyers. So that's
really a second punch line.
B: Comedians call that a hat on a hat.
P: Talk about the presidential election recount in Florida.
B: That was seriously too easy to be a humor writer for a couple of months down
here. Every day the news was so absurd. You kept saying, but at some point
grownups will arrive and take all these chads away and all these lawyers away
and say, okay. But it never happened, it just kept getting weirder and weirder.
Lawyers were landing in the state in parachutes and people were counting these
boxes full of cards. Everybody in the country is [saying,] what are you doing?
We don't know, we don't really know what we're doing. We're as confused as
you are. It was a wonderful time to be a humor writer, and it sort of confirmed
this thing that Carl Hiaasen, others, and I have been saying for years. There is
just something strange about south Florida. Sooner or later, given the chance,
we will mutate, whatever the situation is, to something even weirder and then
something even weirder still.
P: I remember when you were trying to describe what went on. You said, the
problem with the butterfly ballot is that people in Florida have trouble with arrows.
B: Yes, I was saying, anybody who has ever driven down here knows that we don't
know what arrows mean. [You'll understand what I mean] if you've ever sat
behind somebody in a left-turn lane with a left-turn arrow and a big arrow in the
road, and they're [wondering,] what the heck do I do now? As soon as I saw
that ballot with the little arrow going from the name to the hole I thought, that's
your problem right there. [laughing]
P: Then you mentioned, with [actor] Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, California
has now taken the title of doofus state away from Florida.
B: They were obviously unable to contend with our getting all this attention and
being the joke on [The Tonight Show with Jay] Leno every night, so they decided
to take it back. God bless them, they really outdid themselves. That was a
hilarious election, not so much the election but [that there were] 130 candidates
running around with strippers and porn stars and Arnold.
P: In your column on California you mentioned and I was intrigued by the name
Harold R. Wankmilker, a resident who got on the ballot when he tried to pay his
speeding ticket by mail. [laughing] Is there any significance to the name?
B: Well, no, actually I didn't even think about it. I got in trouble with the Washington
Post, which refused to run that name. They decided wank was too close to
wanker, which is masturbation. I think it was Tom Shroder, my friend who is the
editor up there, who called me. I said, Tom, change it to whatever you want. I
didn't even think of that; I just like to think of names that sound funny. Their
copy editor up there was convinced that I was trying to insert an obscenity into
[end of Side A:2]
P: You indicated you write a lot about guys. Obviously, you understand how male
minds work. One of the things that was particularly amusing to me was your
take on husbands going to the grocery store with lists made out by wives.
B: Right, not knowing when she writes detergent [that you will be] confronted with
the reality of what detergent [you should buy]. You end up bringing home fabric
softener, which I actually have done. [laughing]
P: Then, of course, you get the wrong size.
B: No, you never get anything right. My wife is never happy with what I bring home
from the supermarket, but there's no way she could write a list specific enough
for me unless she took pictures, and I would still not be able to find it. She
always rolls her eyes. I always say, they didn't have potpourri scented carpet
cleaner, and she rolls her eyes because, of course, she knows they do. Just
because I genetically have male-product-blindness, I could not find it. Probably
the most consistent source of humor ever, for me and for a lot of people, is the
difference between men and women. It has endless permutations and it's so
consistent. I've always said, what makes people laugh is not some weird thing,
the things that really make them laugh are the things they know are absolutely
true. The truer it is, the funnier it is. You can say, yes, that's exactly right, that
happens to me. With [the differences between] men and women, it's so
consistent. I just wrote column where I was talking about how men can't see dirt
the way women see dirt.
P: It's male-genetic-dirt-blindness. [laughing]
B: Right, they don't see it. There obviously are some expectations to disprove the
rule, but this is an extremely common problem in every relationship I have ever
[witnessed]. [laughing] I wrote in there that women think that we're thinking all the
time. I said, often we just have this hum in our brain, which is maybe not literally
true but it's close to true. I contend, just based on observation and talking to my
own wife over the years, that women are thinking more than we're thinking.
[laughing] There are not as many things going on in our brains. There's just not.
That is unacceptable. She can't believe that I'm not thinking as much as she's
thinking. No, I'm not. I'm just watching television, I'm not thinking anything.
P: You're probably thinking the wrong things anyway.
B: Well, yes.
P: My theory is that if you only have to go back twice to the grocery store, it's been
a successful trip.
B: You've done well. You've done very well.
P: They have things on the list like endive. How would a male know what a shallot
or an endive is?
B: I don't know.
P: We have no context for those things.
B: I don't even know why you would want an endive. What would you do with it.
P: [laughing] That's right. How do you think your audience has changed since
you've been writing your column?
B: I don't really know that I've noticed a change. There's sort of a bell-shaped
curve. There are probably some people who have always liked me. They
range from young people to old people and both genders, and they're just going
to stick with me forever and they like my column. Then, in the middle, there's a
bunch of people who read it for a few years or maybe read it for ten or fifteen
years and then just didn't read it anymore. Then, there's the other people who
never read it. I've never noticed any particular age or gender or anything like
that break down. They just seem like ordinary folk to me. I mean, I get a lot of
mail from all over the demographic spectrum. I never think of one specific group
when I'm writing.
P: One thing I notice you do occasionally, and I presume this is while you're
ruminating about your next word, you create anagrams. One day you mentioned
Cokie Roberts, which also spells I broke corset.
B: I don't even remember that.
P: But you must, as you look at that word, see the anagram.
B: I don't know why I do anagrams sometimes. They are so easy to do now. I
used to have to do them by hand, and now I can do them on the internet.
There's the internet anagram generators. I periodically will just see a name and
I'll think, I wonder, a joke like that would work here, I wonder if that name has
anything funny that it spells. If it doesn't, than I don't use it, but if I does then I'll
put it in. [I put it there] in case the reader is getting bored in the middle of the
sentence. [laughing] The other thing I do, somewhat like that, is, I'll periodically
announce that some phrase that I've just used would be a good name for a rock
band. Again, it's got nothing to do with what I'm talking about, it's just in case
[they're] getting bored. Here's something else, reader.
P: [laughing] Your band is the Rock Bottom Remainders?
B: That's correct.
P: How often to you play and where do you play?
B: We play usually once a year, and that once will sometimes be a three-city trip.
We raise money for a literacy charity called America Scores. We typically play
in cities where America Scores has a program. It's an inner-city-literacy-soccer
thing, a home for kids who don't have a good home to go to. Last year we
played in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Next year we're going to be
in Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, I think. We've done New York. We just
travel around and do it like that.
P: This is a rock band?
B: Yes, we're a terrible rock band. We're authors, not musicians. Although, some
of the people in the band can actually play their instruments pretty well. But
when we get together the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. Amy
Tan is in the band and Mitch Albom is in the band, Scott Turow, and Stephen
King [is in the band]. Although, in the last couple years, he [King] has not joined
us for mostly health reasons. Ridley Pearson and Roy Blount, Jr., who is one of
the funnier people in the world, [are in the band].
P: You guys must have a fun time anyway. [laughing]
B: We have a wonderful time. That's why we do it. We started ten years ago, it
was supposed to be just one time at a booksellers convention. We had so much
fun, not necessarily by popular demand, [laughing] but we had such a great time.
As Amy Tan put it, I would do this to kill the whales. [laughing]
P: Instead of saving the whales. [laughing]
B: Yes, and we just decided to keep doing it. We have ever since. These have
become some of my closest friends, because it's nice to be hanging with people
who do what you do. It's such a solitary thing, sitting in a room writing. To go
out and just do something silly as a group, and just hang out, has been a
wonderful thing for us.
P: What is your instrument?
B: I play lead guitar, or I play guitar anyway, but not to any particular standard.
P: What do you hope to accomplish during the rest of your career? That's a little bit
B: [laughing] Well, I'm looking forward to death. I don't really know. I don't think I
have any professional goal, none. As a matter of fact, I know that. I feel that
I've been really lucky. Things have gone really well. I've had a wonderful career.
I've had more success than I ever would have hoped for even I had been hoping
for this career, and I wasn't, it just sort of happened to me. So, in that sense, I
don't feel I have anything to do or achieve, and nothing will make me more
fulfilled. Almost all my goals now are personal. I would like to spend more time
with my daughter, who is three and a half, when she's growing up. Maybe [I
should] pull back in something. I don't know whether it's books, columns, or
what, but [I would like to] just not do as much, to be honest. [I want to] not be as
P: You average about a book a year.
B: Well, some are collections of columns, but some of them are original and they
take time. You just always have that deadline hanging over you.
P: Well, certainly in financial terms you've been successful, so that's not an issue I
B: No, I think I could probably retire if I wanted to. I don't really want to retire, but I
think I probably could. That's a luxury to know that.
P: When I talked to Carl Hiaasen, he has made enough money so he could retire,
B: Yes, I don't know why Carl even writes for the paper. I'm glad he does.
P: He loves to do it, and he writes about the environment and issues that are
important. I think he said, as long as I feel like it's important and something I
want to do, I'll keep doing it. Do you feel that way about your columns?
B: No, it's not important. [laughing] I do it because I like it. If it wasn't fun, I
wouldn't do it. I think the last thing I would give up is the column. In a way, it's
the thing I've always done, it's immediate, and it's still pretty fun. You can
change from week to week what you're writing about.
P: In that sense, you're very lucky in that you enjoy what you do.
B: I am blessed beyond [my expectations]. I have no right to have had as
wonderful and as happy a career as I've had.
P: I wanted to go back. I'm always intrigued by your use of different words. I was
talking to Carl Hiaasen, and he uses some of the same terminology you do. He
was talking about Umberto Hernandez whom you know. He referred to him as
"a malicious ferret." [laughing]
B: [laughing] There's nothing better than when Carl is going after a sleazeball.
P: He really gets after them, doesn't he?
B: Oh, man, it is just such a pleasure when Carl just doesn't like somebody.
P: I said, that was pretty harsh. He said, not as harsh as I should have been. He
said, I don't care if they wake up in the middle of the night worrying about what I
said about them.
B: No, that's true. That's a quality that you really have to have to do what Carl
does, and I don't think I could do that. He just has to not care what they think of
him. [As a] humorist, you want people to like you in the end. So it's like a
tradeoff for you; if you make fun of this little honey... but all these other people
will like you. Carl just tees off sometimes, and when he does it's just a pleasure
P: I wanted to read a couple of your comments into the record, if I may.
P: You talked about Steve Forbes has the worth of Finland and the charisma of a
cheese log. [laughing]
B: I don't remember saying that, but I will stand by both of those statements.
[laughing] He may be worth a little more than Finland now, but I honestly have to
think that I was being unkind to cheese logs. [laughing]
P: He's not very animated. [laughing]
B: No, and I actually agree with him about a lot of stuff, but I watched him on the
campaign trail and you just knew [he wasn't going to win]. [I wanted to say,]
Steve, give it up, because you're never going to get elected to anything.
P: Well, when people read these. You want people to say, that's right on.
B: Yes, because it won't work [otherwise]. If you say something about somebody
like Steve Forbes or Michael Dukakis and people have seen them on TV and it's
not true to what they're [projecting], they're not going to think it's funny.
P: You wrote, "Michael Dukakis has the same range of facial expression as an
iguana." [laughing] Now how long would it take you to come up with that?
B: I think I came up with that [while] watching him talk once. He does look kind of
vaguely lizard like. He made it look like a bug is going to fly by and his tongue is
going to just flick out and grab it.
P: You must have had great fun with [Bill] Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. I think
every humorist and editorial cartoonist hated to seem him leave office. [laughing]
B: It was the golden era. Anybody who doesn't miss the Clintons who is in the
humor business is crazy. They were funny. They didn't mean to be, but they
were just never-ending funny. [laughing]
P: Isn't that the best kind of humor, to make fun of people who are trying to be
B: Yes, and the higher they are, the more ridiculous it is, and the more seriously
they're trying to get you to take them, the better it is for a humorist. I love
election years. I love to go to Iowa. I go to New Hampshire, and I go to the
conventions. I don't know why real reporters go to these things, because they're
just ludicrous. The way we elect presidents [is crazy]. I guess, as they say,
there's no better way, but it's pretty funny when you're out there in the field.
Certainly, with nine candidates for one party running around, that's always a
P: You mentioned here that running for president is such a degrading experience in
that the candidates come out of it either moderately deranged or actively insane.
Their first official act as President would be to launch nuclear strikes against Iowa
or New Hampshire. [laughing]
B: It's so true, if you look at what these poor guys have to go through to get
nominated, I mean it is so degrading. All the serious ones have been doing it
month after month. Every day they're on the phone begging for money, and
then they're going into these coffee klatches where they have to give the same
speech that they've given a million times. They don't even hear what they're
saying anymore. Then, they have to pretend that they really want to shake
hands with all these people and listen to lectures from people. A normal person
with normal values and a normal need for comfort and sanity would simply say,
no, it's just not worth it. I want to have a life again. It's only the ones who are
just so driven to be the guy in the plane with the bodyguards and stuff who can
get to that level. On some level, they're crazy [laughing].
P: If you have to go to Iowa and pose with a pig or something, that's a pretty low
B: That's where they are right now.
P: Of course, where would any of us be without people like Dan Quayle.
B: Dan Quayle [U.S. Vice President, 1989-1993] was a gold mine. Really, the
golden era there was the Bush/Quayle, and then the Clinton/Gore. That was
twelve good years for humor. [Since] 9/11 [September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon], there's just a lot
more tension and anger in our political life today. A lot of the humor is [saying]
that Bush is stupid. Well, it's not really that funny. First of all, it's not true as far
as I can tell. To hear it repeated endlessly that that's the joke for the left, and
then the right's joke is that the left is communist, it's just not as funny as it was.
You have to work harder.
P: Well, I know you've got to get to a radio show, so I'm going to end the interview.
Thank you very much.
B: It was my pleasure.
[End of interview]