By: Rob Tornoe
What do you give a man who has everything? A lifetime achievement award.
Dave Barry, the Pulitzer-prize winning humor columnist, book author, and booger fan, has been honored with the 2013 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC).
“Whether you label him a columnist, author, humorist, essayist, or larger-than- life personality, Dave Barry represents the best of what we admire and aspire to at NSNC,” said the society’s vice president, Larry Cohen.
I figured it was as good an excuse as any other to speak to the famed writer about his career, the path of newspapers, and the consequences of making fun of Neil Diamond.
How do you feel about being awarded the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award?
Honestly, I’m a little nervous, since winning this type of award suggests my lifetime is over. I’m going on the assumption that they simply ran out of people to give this award to, so now it’s my turn. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever really achieved anything and can’t say that I have. I suppose that’s an achievement in itself.
I’m really looking forward to receiving this award, because my recollection of the NSNC convention is that nothing productive happens over the couple of days. In fact, there’s no real observable purpose for any of it, which is really a great thing.
Even though you gave up writing weekly columns years ago, you continue to write a yearly gift guide and year in review.
Actually, this year, I’m writing a number of columns. In addition to my annual gift guide and year in review, which I do every year, I’ll be writing daily pieces from the Olympics for The Miami Herald that will get syndicated throughout McClatchy. Then I’ll be attending both political conventions and writing daily from there, and they’ll all be picked up in a number of newspapers. I don’t know how many, but I imagine it is a decent amount. Otherwise, they’re playing an elaborate prank on me.
You retired your weekly columns long ago, but you still blog daily at the Miami Herald and are going to be filing these daily reports. Do you just love to work so much?
Blogging is really a poor man’s kind of creation. I don’t really work very hard at it. Basically, I share links that I think are funny. Every now and then I can announce something important, but that doesn’t happen too often.
I’ve been very lucky, because on a lot of websites comments quickly become an idiot’s septic tank or devolve into some wacko political debate. On my blog, the commenter community is filled with really funny people who post interesting stuff and are great at self-policing.
I used to write a lot of columns about weird news stories, and thanks to the Internet, the weird story supply has gotten even bigger. Writing on the blog is basically a fun way for me to keep track of what’s going on and share it with my readers, but I wouldn’t compare it to producing a humor column.
So what role did newspapers play in the decline of humor columns?
Newspapers have had a consistent problem over the past 30 to 40 years that whenever they are offered two options, they always pick the one that is more boring and less desirable to readers.
Personally, I attribute the modern failure of newspapers to English majors. We let our business be run by English majors, but since the model was a foolproof way of making money and the only place for Sears to buy and print a full-page ad, they could do whatever they wanted. This created the notion that whatever they were doing had huge market demand, and when the Internet came along, we found out that wasn’t necessarily the case.
With the decline of print, do you think there are opportunities for aspiring humor writers out there to get a break like you did?
I was lucky. When I started writing in the mid-1970s, newspapers were really flush. Baby boomers were subscribing in huge numbers, and they were my audience. I did meet with some resistance, because my columns were different and weird. I violated a lot of newspaper tenets. I lied a lot in my columns; I was willing to be completely absurd and didn’t worry that the end of my column didn’t have anything to do with the beginning.
My columns were different enough that readers felt they could relate to them with their own lives, and they liked them for that. Plus, back then newspapers could take a chance on someone like me. They were more fearless back in those days. The idea of someone canceling their subscription was kind of a joke. Now they’re terrified of doing anything that might offend readers and fall outside their marketing plan.
It doesn’t really matter, because I don’t know of any young, funny person who wants to get into the newspaper business anyway.
Was there one column that got the most reaction from readers?
I recently wrote a column about getting a colonoscopy and got an unbelievable reaction. I guess since millions of baby boomers went through the same thing I did, they wanted to share their experience with me.
Probably the most mail I received was for a column I wrote about songs I don’t like. It all started by making fun of the lyrics of “I Am, I Said” by Neil Diamond. Not even the chair? Come on man, it was a chair.
Anyway, I initially got it much worse than Salman Rushdie, but eventually people started defending me and pointing out other songs they hated. Eventually, it snowballed and I must have received 20,000 to 30,000 letters. So I threw them all in a book and shared them with everyone.
People tell me that Americans don’t care about the issues. Write about Neil Diamond, and you’ll see if they care or not.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.