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Tue March 4, 2014
Catching Up With Dave Barry
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson first spoke to humorist Dave Barry back in 1993. At that time, Hobson was an 11-year-old interviewer for “Treehouse Radio” for radio station WILL in Urbana, Illinois.
Hobson catches up with Barry as his new collection of humorous essays, “You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About,” hits bookshelves (excerpt below).
They talk about how comedy has changed since that time, Barry’s thoughts on the comic potential of the Obama administration and how he feels about mining his family for comic material.
Interview Highlights: Dave Barry
On how comedy has changed over the years
“It’s gotten to be a lot shorter. There’s a huge emphasis on being able to tweet things, so I think more and more people sort of focus on that, on, you know, what is a quick gag that I can come up with, how can I show my Internet hipness. There’s a lot of that. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, you know, because there’s a lot of really funny stuff on Twitter. It’s just, I think it’s taken away a little bit from focusing on longer forms of humor, but, you know that’s what happens.”
On whether he’s writing for the same audience
“I never really write for an audience. I mean, I want people to laugh, I want people to think it’s funny. But I basically write what I think’s funny, what would amuse me, and I think you do better in the end if you stick to that approach, than if you keep trying to adapt to whatever seems to be popular.”
On his grammar essay about ‘affect’ versus ‘effect’
“This essay is based on a character I used do when I wrote my newspaper column, called ‘Ask Mister Language Person.’ And Mister Language Person was a language expert who every single thing he said was incredibly wrong, always. Like in this chapter, ‘why you should not end sentences with a preposition,’ and the answer is ‘because Hitler ended sentences in a preposition.’ But what used to get me about that when I wrote these columns, is the mail I would get. And they would often be from English teachers, but sometimes from others, people who I call the humor impaired who didn’t seem to notice that I was kidding. And here would be a column with literally 200 incorrect statements or ungrammatical sentences and they’d have circled two of them. ‘The way you call yourself an authority, Mr. Barry, perhaps you should check your own grammar.’”
Book Excerpt: ‘You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty’
By Dave Barry
In the movie Taken, Liam Neeson plays a father whose daughter is kidnapped by evil pervert sex traffickers with foreign accents. Fortunately, Liam’s character is a former spy, and he uses his espionage skills to go on a desperate quest, during which he terminates an estimated 125 bad guys with his bare hands before he finally tracks down his daughter and saves her.
Taken is on cable a lot, and every time I stumble across it I watch the whole thing because it combines two artistic themes with classic enduring appeal:
Liam Neeson beating the crap out of foreign
If you’re a man with a daughter, you can’t watch this movie without imagining yourself in Liam’s position—wondering how far you would go for the sake of your daughter, what desperate life-threatening measures you would be willing to take.
Well, I don’t have to wonder anymore. I know exactly what I would do because I have already made the ultimate sacrifice: I took my daughter to a Justin Bieber concert.
How bad was it? you ask.
It was so bad that I cannot hear you asking me how bad it was. My hearing has been destroyed by seventeen thousand puberty-crazed girls shrieking at the decibel level of global thermonuclear war. It turns out that the noise teenage girls make to express rapturous happiness is the same noise they would make if their feet were being gnawed off by badgers. Also, for some reason being happy makes them cry: The girl next to me spent the entire concert bawling and screaming, quote, “I LOVE YOU!” directly into my right ear.
She was not screaming to me of course. She was screaming to cute-boy Canadian heartthrob Justin Bieber, as were all the other girls, including my daughter Sophie and her BFF,1 Stella Sable. Sophie and Stella wore matching purple tutus (purple, as you are no doubt aware, is Justin’s favorite color) and spent the entire concert bouncing up and down, shrieking and vibrating like tuning forks. They are big fans. Sophie has covered one corner of her room—she calls it the Corner of Appreciation—with pictures of Justin Bieber gazing at the camera with the soulful expression of a person who truly believes, deep in his heart, that he is the best-looking human ever. On March 1 (which, as you are no doubt aware, is Justin Bieber’s birthday) Sophie posted on Instagram2 that he is, quote, “the perfectest person on the planet.”
One day, while I was looking at the Corner of Appreciation, Sophie and I had the following exchange:
Me: You know, Justin Bieber doesn’t have any idea who you are.
Sophie: Not yet.
This exchange disturbed me. I don’t want my daughter’s life goal to be to meet (and I say this respectfully) an overhyped twerp. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those fathers who think no man will ever be good enough for their daughters. I’m sure there’s somebody out there who is worthy of Sophie, and I sincerely hope that she meets him someday, with “someday” defined as “after I have been dead for a minimum of three months and all efforts to revive me have failed.” Even then, if Sophie is going to go on dates with this male, I want to go along. My body can ride in the backseat, with an air freshener.
Speaking of death: My wife nearly experienced it before the concert started. I have seen my wife perform some amazing physical feats; I once saw her produce, from somewhere inside her body, a live human being. But nothing I’ve seen her do was as brave, if not foolhardy, as what she did when we got to the Justin Bieber concert; namely, she purchased officially licensed Justin Bieber merchandise for Sophie and Stella. To do this, she had to battle her way through what was basically a mom riot—several hundred frenzied women3 engaged in a desperate elbow-throwing struggle against other moms to reach the merchandise counter so they could pay upwards of fifty dollars apiece for Justin Bieber T-shirts for their daughters.
God forbid this should happen, but: If we ever go to war with Japan again, and they embed their forces deep inside heavily fortified caves on Iwo Jima again, instead of sending in the Marines, all we need to do is put the word around that the Japanese forces are in possession of overpriced Justin Bieber merchandise. Within minutes they will be overrun by moms fully capable of decapitating an opposing shopper using only their MasterCards.
The concert itself was also pretty brutal, lasting (this is an estimate) twenty-seven hours. We had to stand the whole time because everybody else stood the whole time because that is how excited everybody was. Justin Bieber was preceded by two lesser heartthrobs. You could tell they ranked below Justin because they had fewer backup dancers. Your modern singing star does not go to the bathroom without backup dancers. Your modern musical concert consists of the singer prancing from one side of the stage to the other accompanied by a clot of dancers, everybody frantically performing synchronized dance moves and pelvic thrusts, looking like people having sex with invisible partners while being pursued by bees. At times the dancing looks silly, but it serves a vital artistic function; namely, keeping you from noticing that the music (and I say this respectfully) sucks.
OK, perhaps “sucks” is too strong a word4. Perhaps I am just being a flatulent old fossil clinging to memories of the Golden Age of Rock ’n’ Roll, back when I was young and all four Beatles were alive and nobody I knew had ever heard of gum disease. Musical acts in those days didn’t have to distract you with dancers because, goldarnit, they had talent. When you went to see, for example, Sly and the Family Stone, you did not go expecting to see dance routines. You went expecting to see a funktastic band made up of highly entertaining musical performers who, in all probability, were not going to show up.
Headline acts that failed to appear were a distinguishing feature of the Golden Age of Rock ’n’ Roll. Back then, the concertgoing experience often consisted of sitting in an auditorium amid dense clouds of smoke, listening to some nervous promoter announce, for the eighth time in three hours, that the headline act was at that very moment en route to the venue, when, in fact, the headline act was passed out facedown in a puddle of vomit in an entirely different time zone.
But my point is that during the G. A. of R. and R., on those occasions when the headline acts did show up, they didn’t race all over the stage inside a clot of hyperactive backup dancers. They stayed in one place, which made them easy to keep track of, which was helpful if you had spent some time inside the smoke cloud, if you know what I mean. Here’s an example of what I mean: In approximately 1969, I attended a performance by Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, and I was able to watch the entire show lying on my back on the floor next to the stage pretty much directly underneath one of the Youngbloods, who was known as “Banana.” I did get stepped on occasionally, but overall I had a relaxed, mellow experience as well as an excellent view of the band, which stayed in one place the whole night and never attempted any dance maneuvers, and which for all I know is still standing in basically the same spot at the Electric Factory.
If I had lain on the floor at the Justin Bieber concert, within seconds I would have been trampled into human lasagna. I had to stay on my feet in the throbbing, screaming crowd, which shrieked even louder whenever Justin and his backup dancers pranced past, or when Justin did something especially awesome, such as remove his sunglasses. The most exciting moment, which caused a level of shriekage that I’m sure alarmed dogs as far away as Canada, came when Justin took off his shirt and revealed his physique, which reminded me (and I say this respectfully) of the Geico Gecko.
But as thrilling as that was, it was not the highlight of the concert. The highlight, for me at least, came toward the end, when Sophie and Stella decided to execute their plan to invite Justin Bieber to their bat mitzvahs5. They had both brought large square white envelopes containing official invitations: On Stella’s envelope, she had written, “Justin please come to my bat mitzvah ♥.” Sophie’s envelope said “I ♥ you! Please come to my Bat Mitzvah!” Their plan was to somehow get the invitations to Justin Bieber, who would read them and decide to attend their bat mitzvahs.
1 “BFF” stands for “Best Friends Forever.” This is a term that girls my daughter’s age use to describe essentially everyone they know.
2 Instagram is an Internet service that young people use to post photographs of themselves every eight minutes so their BFFs will not forget what they look like.
3 There were roughly eight men at the Justin Bieber concert, counting the janitorial staff.
4 Not really! The music sucks.
5 A bat mitzvah (for boys, it’s bar mitzvah) is a Jewish religious ceremony in which a thirteen-year-old child formally becomes a thirteen-year-old child who has received a lot of gift checks from relatives he or she does not always know.
Excerpted from the book YOU CAN DATE BOYS WHEN YOU’RE FORTY by Dave Barry. Copyright © 2014 by Dave Barry. Reprinted with permission of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Bestselling author Dave has just published a new book, and the former Miami Herald columnist is joining us to talk about it today. But it's not the first time that I have talked to him. There was this interview for a show called "Treehouse Radio" on WILL in Urbana, Illinois that I did back in September of 1993.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
HOBSON: What do you think of the Clinton administration?
DAVE BARRY: I don't really think too much about it, to be honest. I'm pretty busy with booger jokes. No, I think it's performed pretty much the way most of our administrations have in recent years, you know, which is comically - which is good for me, you know? Bad government is good in humor columns.
HOBSON: Well, Dave Barry joins us now from WLRN in Miami to talk about his new book, "You Can Date Boys When You're Forty." Dave Barry, do you remember that interview?
BARRY: Of course not. How old were you then?
HOBSON: I was 11.
HOBSON: I actually did not know who you were. I just knew that you were somebody famous that was coming through town that I was going to be interviewing. I was very excited about interviewing the famous Dave Barry. But I really...
HOBSON: ...had never read any of your columns.
BARRY: And where was that now?
HOBSON: This was in Urbana, Illinois. We did it at the airport.
BARRY: Was this when I was down there for the Arcola Broom Festival, my march...
HOBSON: I think that's right. I think that's exactly right.
BARRY: I marched with the world-famous Lawn Ranger precision lawn mower and broom team.
HOBSON: See - and somehow I wasn't memorable as part of that experience, I guess.
BARRY: Well, they had more beer than you did. I think that's probably the key.
HOBSON: That could be. Well, let me ask you this: How has comedy changed over the years since then until now?
BARRY: It's gotten to be a lot shorter. There's a huge emphasis on being able to tweet things, so I think more and more people sort of focus on that, on, you know, what is a quick gag that I can come up with, you know, how can I show my Internet hipness. There's a lot of that. I don't think it's necessarily bad, you know, because there's a lot of really funny stuff on Twitter. It's just sort of - I think it's taken away a little bit from the focusing on longer forms of humor. But, you know that's what happens.
HOBSON: Do you think you're writing for the same people? Or are you writing for a different group of people now?
BARRY: I never really write for an audience. I mean, I want people to laugh. I want people to think it's funny. But I basically write what I think is funny and what would amuse me, and I think you do better in the end if you stick to that approach than if you keep trying to adapt to whatever seems to be popular. So I can't remember the question, but that's my answer to it.
HOBSON: Well, OK. Let's talk about something that's popular that you do talk about in the book. You talk about Justin Bieber.
BARRY: Well, I have a daughter who is 14 now. But last year when she was 13, I took her and friend Stella to a Justin Bieber concert. That was one of the louder - I have been through a hurricane. Actually was in Hurricane Andrew. It went right over me. And that, I thought, was the loudest thing I would ever hear. But it really does not compare with just the girl sitting right - I don't know who she was, the girl sitting - maybe, you know, 15-, 16-year-old girl sitting to my right. Just her alone was making more noise than all of Hurricane Andrew. Mostly she was going, I love you...
BARRY: ...right into my ear. Not me. She didn't love me at all. She loves Justin Bieber very much. So anyway, I did do that. And then - the only thing that made it worth going to was both Stella and Sophie had their bat mitzvahs, and they brought invitations for Justin Bieber. And in the end, they fought their way through this mob of screaming, you know, adolescent girls and threw their bat mitzvah invitations. Of course, I don't think he ever saw them. He certainly didn't come to Sophie's bat mitzvah that I know of.
HOBSON: That's too bad. He missed it.
BARRY: Yeah. His loss. It was a nice one.
HOBSON: Well, so I asked you about President Clinton back in 1993. Do you have any thoughts on the Obama administration?
BARRY: Well, I think, you know, to me, this is - it's been a weird thing because they definitely had their problems, especially with, you know, I'm sure it's tragic for a lot of people, but I thought it was pretty funny, the roll out of the, you know, who would thought that people in Washington, D.C., would have trouble with technologically sophisticated, complex...
BARRY: It comes as a big surprise to everyone. But there's a reluctance to make fun of the Obama administration.
HOBSON: By comedians in general, do you think?
BARRY: Yeah. Yeah. And they'll admit it. They kind of hold back. They're afraid they'll be called racist or, generally, the comedians tend to be more liberal-oriented and they're happier making fun of George W. Bush than they were, you know, I think they secretly kind of root for there to be another white guy Republican in office so they can go back to just, you know, every night taking a whack.
HOBSON: Well, it seems like it's harder for them to make fun of him and also because he doesn't have a Texas accent, you know? He's a little flatter.
BARRY: No. And he's kind of a cool guy. He's, you know, he seems a reasonably sophisticated guy. You could tell he's got a good sense of humor. So it's probably that, but I think it's just probably this, hey, we're not going to make fun of him, you know? Just kind of the rule.
HOBSON: Now, you also have a section in the book about grammar and how people should use it. And I just want to read one of them. This is - people often ask the question, what about affect and effect? A-F-F-E-C-T and E-F-F-E-C-T. You say the answer is you should never use either of these words.
BARRY: Yeah. This essay is based on a character I used to do when I wrote my newspaper column called Ask Mr. Language Person. And Mr. Language Person was a language expert who every single thing he said was incredibly wrong, always. Like in this chapter, I'll be like, why you should not end sentences with a preposition, and the answer is because Hitler ended sentences in prepositions. But what used to get me about that when I wrote those columns is the mail I would get. And they would often be from English teachers, but sometimes from others, people who I call the humor impaired...
HOBSON: We get those too.
BARRY: ...who didn't seem to notice that I was kidding. And here would be a column with literally 200 incorrect statements or ungrammatical sentences, and they'd have circled two of them.
BARRY: You know, the way you call yourself an authority, Mr. Barry, perhaps you should check your own...
BARRY: So yeah.
HOBSON: Now, you dedicate this book to your son and daughter, which reminds me of another question that I asked you back in 1993 about your Miami Herald column. Let's take a listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
HOBSON: Do you mention your family in any of your columns?
BARRY: I have no family. I just make all that up. No. I do. I do mention my wife and son, but I'm careful about how I do it. With my son, Rob, we agreed that I would never write a column about him if he didn't get to read it first. So he always reads the column. And if he's uncomfortable with it, then I'll change it or drop him. And my wife, Beth, reads all my columns. She edits me before it goes to the newspaper, so there's no way I can say anything embarrassing about her.
HOBSON: Dave Barry, is that still the way it works?
BARRY: Pretty much, you know, except I'm no longer married to Beth. I'm married to a woman named Michelle Kaufman who's a sportswriter. And she doesn't read my stuff except every now and then when I think it's - and this is pretty much my normal state of writing - is despair, like, oh, my God, this is horrible. It's the worst thing I've ever written. Nobody is going to laugh at this. You could read this at a funeral. It's so bad, you know? And I'll show it to Michelle, and she'll say, no, that's funny, you know? She's very good at - anyway so. And Rob is now a grown man. He's 33 years old, and he's a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. So he can handle his own stuff.
Sophie, my daughter, I still do write about. And I have still the same basic rule, which is that if, you know, if I'm going to write about her, she still know it. She's, you know, I'll let her read it. She knows what I'm going to say. You know, she read the Justin Bieber essay. But the thing is - I was, like, pointing out to Sophie, if you don't want to go to college, I mean, then I'll, you know, I can stop writing about you anytime. But if you want to go to college, I'm going to need - daddy needs material, and you might sometimes - you know, she gets that. She totally gets that.
Both of my kids always kind of knew what I did and secretly, I think, kind of liked it, enjoyed it. You know, maybe there were few awkward moments, like I did pick my son up at middle school once in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile...
BARRY: ...which was - that was a tough one for him but - and then he got over it. He adjusted.
HOBSON: Takes some time though.
BARRY: Yeah. There will be - because, you know, and, yeah - no, he was fine.
HOBSON: Well, Dave Barry, the book is called "You Can Date Boys When You're Forty." It was great talking to you again. And let's set a date for, what, 21 years from now?
BARRY: Yeah. Yeah. You don't - you don't really - you have not changed a bit, I just want to say.
HOBSON: Dave Barry, thanks so much.
BARRY: You bet. Thanks for having me.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
So, Jeremy, you're like the Nixon Library. Your tapes have finally been released.
HOBSON: They're opening up, yes.
YOUNG: Where can we hear more of Treehouse Radio?
HOBSON: Well, sadly, we have a tape at hereandnow.org. Thanks to Sean Powers at WILL in Urbana for helping us find that and forever cementing 11-year-old Jeremy.
YOUNG: Well, and he's right. You haven't changed a bit. It was just a little while ago.
YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.