An interview of Dave Barry for a mass communications research class
|I’m from a town you blogged about a few years ago when a local bank employee hired an exterminator to get rid of some pigeons, and there were dead pigeons all over the place when we had a downtown festival. Do you remember that?
Yes, I do. I think that should be a fixture at your festivals in the future.
What kinds of columns did you write in high school?
Pretty lame ones. The main one I remember writing was about this tradition at Pleasantville High School of an annual touch football/tackle football game played by the senior guys. It was called Bud Ball because there was a great deal of beer involved. I wrote an account of the game as if it were an actual sporting event. Everybody except the poor lady at the high school newspaper knew. [My classmates] thought it was funny.
Were you a newspaper geek in high school?
I was much more of a class clown. I didn’t view myself as seeking a career in the industry then.
Who are your biggest writing influences?
The guy that I was a really huge fan of was Robert Benchley, who was an essayist back in the 20s and 30s. He’s really not very well known now, but when I was young, there were a lot of older folks like my dad who were still big fans of his. My dad had his books, and I read them over and over again. I thought he was really wonderful. I read Mad Magazine and comic books a lot.
Did you ever take a picture of yourself with a Mad Magazine and send it in for their editorial page?
No, but somebody else did! I actually met a reporter from Mad Magazine, and they took a picture of me holding one. I remember wondering, did it matter if you got anything right or wrong if you were a reporter for Mad Magazine?
On your website, you suggest that young journalists take classes in English and history rather than journalism itself – why is that?
I’m not saying that journalism classes are utterly useless. I’m saying that they’re close. Just in the sense that whatever you learn in journalism class, you learn a lot more if you actually get journalism out there in the real world. You can’t in school. You can work for the school paper, or you can string for the town paper, but you don’t really learn anything until you go out there and do it. Maybe it’s good to take one journalism class just to get some basic stuff under your belt, but really, practicing journalism is the only way to learn it. My wife teaches a sports writing class, but what makes that class useful is she makes them go cover things and write stories. They actually have to do it instead of talk about it. When a newspaper is looking to hire somebody – of course, that doesn’t happen anymore – they never say, “Where did you go to school? What is your GPA?” They want to see what you’ve written; they want to see your clips. I think too many journalism classes consist of talking about journalism or writing papers about journalism but not actually doing journalism.
Can you tell me more about working with business-people for 8 years at Burger Associates?
That was my job when I quit journalism. I was at the Associated Press, and I was kind of sick of it. I left and taught effective writing seminars for a little company. It was part-time work; I was a consultant. It wasn’t like I was doing it 50 weeks a year. I could do a lot of writing on the side, and without planning, that’s how I started my column career. As the years passed I wrote more and more columns and was in more and more papers. It sort of transitioned into the column writing being more important than the teaching.
Did working there give you any fodder for your columns?
It gave me a different perspective. Some fodder, yeah, but really it was the best thing I could’ve done, in a weird way. Instead of working for a newspaper where I’m surrounded by newspaper people and politicians, I was traveling around the country and seeing a lot of the country I’d never seen. In the newspaper world, you talk to newspaper people and politicians. It didn’t matter to me whether I was fitting in with the newspaper career, because I didn’t have one. I wrote about everything. The result is that my column was so different. There were basically two types of columns – Art Buchwald, who wrote about politics, and Erma Bombeck, who wrote about household stuff. Mine was kind of neither one, sometimes one, sometimes the other, but not really either one. It just struck a chord. In a way it wasn’t so much that it was things about my job that I was writing about, but the mere fact that I was out of the newspaper business altogether. It made it possible for me to write a different kind of column.
How does your thought process differ between writing columns and writing books?
The big difference is whether the book is nonfiction – if it’s humor, then it’s the same process [as column writing] but longer. Rarely would I know when I’d start a column where the jokes were going to be. Each chapter would be kind of like a column, sometimes longer. Fiction is an utterly different process because you have to have a plot. Now, after years of writing fiction, I’ve come to appreciate how important and hard that is. With humor, the hard part is the writing. With fiction, the organizing is much more important and much more difficult. I just like to plunge in and start writing. [Fiction] feels very different to me. I like them both. I did just plain humor writing for so many years that I was kind of happy to shift to fiction, and I really enjoy writing books for young adults. It’s really been fun. But I still like to do humor columns. I’ll be going to both [Democrat and Republican] conventions and the Olympics with my family and writing daily from those places.
Why does blogging appeal to you?
I just like it. I like the Internet. I’m on it a lot. I think it’s fun and fascinating. Maybe five years ago, I just started blogging. I don’t really write a blog. That would be dignifying what I do. Real blogging to me is people who produce a lot of original content, and I don’t do that. Mostly what I do is post links to stories that people have sent in that are funny. I think of myself sometimes as an editor. That’s one of the things I really like about blogging – there’s no format you have to follow, no specific length or deadline. It’s extremely interactive. I don’t worry whether it’s commercially viable or anything else.