The news was his muse (National Post, January 5, 2005)
Two days after the Boxing Day monster tsunamis struck, 125 Russians leaped at the opportunity to purchase "disaster discount" tickets to Thailand for a beach holiday. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!
From the subject matter -- the bottomless stupidity, greed and recklessness of human beings as evidenced in the daily news -- and from these signature capitalized words, you doubtless realize this column is about humourist Dave Barry, who recently announced he is taking a leave of absence from his syndicated Miami Herald column after almost 30 years without a single week's break, and not at all about tsunamis -- except for the kind that starts as an earthquake in your gut and rolls upward, flattening your ribs, squeezing all the air out of your lungs, forcing tears out of your nose and eyes and finally erupting from your mouth as howls of laughter, causing people around you (in church where you have been surreptitiously reading one of Barry's columns tucked into your hymnal) to glare at you with commingled expressions of fear, loathing and disgust.
I vividly recall my first exposure to a Dave Barry column, because I pretty well experienced the exact internal upheaval just described. Fortunately I was not in church, but on vacation, lying on a chaise lounge in Miami Beach. The year was 1982, when Barry began writing for Tropic, the now defunct Sunday magazine. I can't remember the column's actual content, but it would have had something to do with the singular nature of Miami culture, perhaps a send-up of Miami's armada of tiny old Jewish men straining to peer over the steering wheels of their Cadillacs as, oblivious to the cacophony of horns, they creep along Collins Avenue at 20 miles an hour, heading for the early bird special at Dennys. Or some such.
Barry helped define Miami's "peninsular paragon of the peculiar," as Tropic editor Tom Shroder put it. As with much of the observational humour Jerry Seinfeld and others exploited in the 1990s, the Florida oldies theme could be traced to his writing.
Born in Armonk, N.Y., Barry started his career as a reporter for Philadelphia's West Chester Daily Local News, writing up the tedious parochial concerns (bilious debates over sidewalk cracks) that became fodder for his quirky comic insights. He is possibly the most successful and honoured -- he won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary -- and no doubt one of the richest humourists in history. In spite of his achievements -- 25 books and a column printed in 500 Sunday features sections, not to mention a hit TV show based on his life, Dave's World -- Barry has never succumbed to the blandishments of celebrity culture, and in public still projects the self-conscious air of teenage geekiness that brands his humour.
Barry has lived the kind of adult's life that sobers and humbles a man: marriage, fatherhood, divorce and now, in latish middle age, remarriage and fatherhood again, but the emotional effects of his vicissitudes never encroach on his adolescent writing persona. As Tom Fiedler, the Herald's executive editor put it, "Since Dave's column began appearing every Sunday in the Herald, an entire generation has been born, raised and reached adulthood. Yet his unique sense of humour never grew up and never got old. Learning that Dave wants a breather is like hearing that Peter Pan joined AARP."
Barry intends to remain in South Florida with his wife, Herald sports writer Michelle Kaufman, and their four-year-old daughter, Sophie, and will continue writing humour and children's books. He has also to finish the screen adaptation of Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys, in which he stars as himself.
In response to fans who moan about the humour void his absence will open, Barry insists they will be well served by his Herald colleagues Carl Hiaasen and Gene Washington, by reading The Onion on the Web or by watching Jon Stewart, all of whom in one way or another are his creative progeny. If he read the Post's own Scott Feschuk, Barry would surely have included him as well; stylistically, Scott is a worthy steward for Barry's comic domain of roguish, merry cynicism.
Many comedians run out of steam when their source of material -- family neuroses, sex, George Bush -- goes stale from overkill. Barry's source is inexhaustible: He just reads the news every day. Before he leaves, I'd love to see his take on the 125 Russians who couldn't resist a bargain.
© National Post 2005