Barry Funny: Dave Offers Columnists a How-To

By: Dave Astor Dave Barry offered his "rules" for good humor writing, colorfully blasted newspaper editors who wrote headlines giving away his column punchlines, cracked ad libs in response to audience questions, and got serious when skewering Don Imus.

Barry received one of the biggest laughs from National Society of Newspaper Columnists attendees Friday when former NSNC President Suzette Martinez Standring requested that he discuss humor based on stereotypes.

"Only a woman would ask that question," quipped Barry, whose former weekly column for The Miami Herald ran in more than 500 newspapers via Tribune Media Services.

Barry said he usually didn't mind when various kinds of headlines were placed over his syndicated column by newspaper clients. But his response to editors putting a punchline in a head? "F--- them!," he screamed dramatically.

The Pulitzer Prize winner said he labored hard over each of his columns, and was lucky to have had editors who treated the finished product with respect.

One such person praised by Barry was Gene Weingarten, the former Herald editor who's now a Washington Post humor columnist syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group.

But Barry would get upset when some papers buying his column via syndication sliced a lot from a piece for space reasons. "If you're going to cut that much, don't run it at all," he said.

Barry said he's often asked for advice about getting syndicated, and notes that it's harder than ever with newspapers cutting back on space and using local columnists. And he observed that a popular local humor column might not necessarily be successful on a national level.

The speaker began writing a humor column in 1973 while working as a reporter for the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa. By the time of the paper's office Christmas party that year, Barry had written just three columns. Yet his editor told him: "Your column used to be funnier!" --proving to Barry that "people tend to like you best when they first discover you."

Barry was asked, in advance of his speech, to give his rules for good humor writing by conference host Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News. Barry said it's hard to describe the creative process, and rules can be broken, but here's some of what he came up with:

-- Humor columns based on personal experiences or one's own reporting can be funnier than columns based on reading something in a newspaper. "First-hand information is better than second-hand information," said Barry.

He recalled driving around Miami in a "wienermobile" with a huge hot dog on top, and getting a deadpan "let me talk to my manager" reaction from a car salesman when he tried to trade the vehicle in for a smaller "wienermobile." Barry informed the NSNC audience that the U.S. "leads the world in 'wienermobile' technology, though Iran is building one."

-- A humor column should be funny quickly, in the first line or paragraph.

-- A humor column should have different jokes, not variations on the same joke.

-- It helps for jokes to be unexpected in nature. "You want to avoid being linear," Barry advised. "The Marx Brothers are 'Exhibit A,' as is Robert Benchley. He's my idol."

-- Use reader reaction for follow-up columns. Barry recalled writing a piece making fun of some hokey lyrics in a Neil Diamond song. Angry and funny responses from Diamond fans inspired another column, responses from Diamond detractors inspired a third column, etc.

-- Humor columns should have a funny, memorable ending. "Ideally, the last word should be 'weasel,'" quipped Barry.

The writer also discussed book signings, noting that they're often scheduled for "3 p.m. on a Wednesday when everyone who can read is at work!"

When asked about Imus losing his job after the radio host's infamous remark about the Rutgers University women's basketball team, Barry replied: "People who make racist remarks deserve what they get. I don't have much sympathy for Don Imus. The remark wasn't even funny -- just plain racist."


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