When people introduce Dave Barry, they always say he won a Pulitzer Prize. Which is impressive, of course. But it doesn't really seem like the most salient fact about him. The funnyman is the author of almost 60 books and approximately eleventy billion articles. He is a member of the World Famous Lawn Ranger Precision Lawn Mower Drill Team. Most importantly, the last line on his Wikipedia page is "See also: exploding whale."
For four decades from his home base at the Miami Herald, Barry wrote a syndicated weekly column, for which he earned the aforementioned Pulitzer. He continues to author an annual despairing, hilarious "Year in Review." A longtime libertarian, he once warned that "as Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government."
Barry's books formed the basis for a '90s sitcom about his life, Dave's World, and his novel Big Trouble was made into a film of the same name. It's the story of a group of miscreants who wind up inadvertently stealing a nuclear suitcase and hijacking a plane due to their own incompetence. The film was set to be released—inauspiciously—on September 12, 2001. (It was delayed until the following year.) He has also been running for president on a vaguely libertarian ticket continuously since the 1980s, when he kicked off his first campaign in anger over toilet regulations.
In June, Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward sat down with Barry at Reason's Washington, D.C., office to talk about America's strategic helium reserve, the jokes he can't tell anymore, and his new book, Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog (Simon & Schuster).
Reason: When you spoke to us in 1994, you were running for president. Are you still running for president?
Barry: Well, yeah. I used to view it as sort of a joke, but it's getting harder and harder.
But the Barry 2020 campaign is taking off. What is your platform?
Well, the No. 1 thing that really got me started—this is sort of a Reason-related thing—was low-flow toilets. I was against them. I was one of the first people against them. I'm still against them, and I think we still have them. We had really great toilets in this country. As I grew up, as you grew up, we had really great toilets.
Make America's bathrooms great again?
We could suck down a mature sheep with our toilets. And now, look what we're dealing with. So that's the bedrock principle. That's my equivalent of Trump's wall. It's sort of a deregulation thing. And then of course I'm always up for accepting campaign contributions. That's a fundamental part of my campaign, is people giving money to it.
You have a long, glorious history of using the federal government as a punchline.
Well, I've said this for many years: If you view the federal government as a form of entertainment, it's a lot easier to cope with it mentally. So when I write the quarterly check for my income taxes, I think: I'm getting a lot of value for that. Lately, I feel the federal government—just strictly as an entertainment medium—is pretty good.
What's your response to people who say, "Dave, that's all very well and good, but things are really serious now."
I'll give a semi-serious answer to that. There are issues that they should be upset about, issues we're all upset about. But I really had a lot of friends who, when Trump was elected president, honestly thought—and I don't know why they thought this—but they thought they were going to be in trouble with the police for I don't know what. And I would say to them, if the Coral Gables police find a time to come around to your house, let me know and I'll do something. But there was that level of concern. That's insane.
I think those people have figured that out at some point that whatever's happening, it's happening at a much more macro level.
This is my lecture where I turn into an old person for my kids. I grew up in the '60s when, in this very city that we're in right now, Washington, D.C., there were troops in the streets, fires raging, snipers on buildings. The president was assassinated a couple of years before. Then his brother was assassinated, and Martin Luther King. Not to mention the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement, where it was pretty clear that terrible things were happening in the South. I can't imagine that you would look at all that and say that right now—today—things are worse. Does that make me a stupid old person?
I, too, take comfort in the fact that the entire late '60s appeared to be on fire.
There's so much drama in people's minds now. Twitter fuels drama about how everything is horrible. I'm just too old. Fuck it—there has to be some actual issue to make me more upset.
In the past you've described yourself as a "soft libertarian" and as a "cynical libertarian." Do you have a preferred modifier these days?
I'm always afraid to even bring up libertarian because there are so many really on-your-case libertarians ready to determine that you're the wrong kind.
You probably are. I'll just come out and say right now that you're the wrong kind of libertarian.
I've failed many tests of purity. I'm the kind of libertarian who, when there's a group of people at a party, I'm the only one who is a libertarian. So I don't have to worry about which stratum of libertarian I'm on. I'm representing all libertarians. And it's always at the basic level of [responding to questions such as]: "What about the roads!? We wouldn't have any roads!" That's the level of libertarianism I'm on. And I never get really beyond the roads or "Won't people have sex with goats if we don't have a law?" So I'm fighting easy fights. I'm not fighting other libertarians about really fine-tuned issues.
But won't people have sex with goats?
They sure will! In Miami, heck yes. I mean, I know I will as soon as it's legal. I'm just biding time.
You sometimes say you don't do satire. You're a humorist. What does that distinction mean to you?
To me, satire is humor that is not funny. That is to say, you read it and you know the person is not serious, and it's trying to make you laugh, but it never rises to the level of being actually funny. When I was an English major in college I read a lot of satire, and it was usually Jonathan Swift or something like that. And you get that it was a joke. But one joke took them, you know, 8,000 words. And I get why, if you had a lot of time on your hands and nothing else to do, that would be one of the more funny things you would read probably in your life. But nowadays there's a lot of other humor out there. To me, jokes make you laugh. Like, [comedian] Anthony Jeselnik is funny. Within a minute of watching him, you'll laugh—probably against your will, and you'll think you're a horrible person for it, but you will laugh.
What jokes used to be funny to you that aren't funny now? Have you gotten "woke," as the kids say? Are there any jokes you don't tell anymore?
I didn't really ever trade particularly in any kind of ethnic humor or sexist humor, [although] I've made a living out of talking about the differences between men and women.
I read all your books growing up, and 100 percent of what I believed about the differences between the genders was based on Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys, so thank you for that. It served me well.
I don't know if somebody would look at it now and say, "Well, that's unacceptable." I don't really think there's anything I would change. I still think that most of us living in the world know there are certain fundamental differences between—am I even allowed to say the genders?— between the sexes. And the ways that the sexes interact are funny. I guess maybe somebody would say that's not "woke" but I'm not really up for changing.
I will say one thing: Remember there used to be Polish jokes? This is like the '60s and '70s, and there were millions of them. And they were sometimes very funny, but I don't think anymore I would tell a Polish joke.
Is that because no one in America identifies as Polish anymore?
I wouldn't get a laugh. That's the reason. No, I would think maybe somebody could rightly find that offensive. If it was a person I knew who was Polish, and he and I were good friends, then I would tell a joke and we would just laugh and laugh. But then I would get him to tell a joke about my ethnicity. Which nobody knows, so I'm safe.
You had a run-in with politically incorrect humor, with the movie that was made out of your book Big Trouble. Can you tell the story of the trouble that got into?
Oh man. So the plot involves a nuclear weapon on a plane, but it was otherwise comedy. At least, I thought it was funny. It was supposed to come out September 12, 2001, the day after 9/11. The second phone call I got the morning of 9/11 was the movie people saying, "Uh, the movie's not going to come out." It sort of dribbled out months later. The point is 9/11 really screwed me over. Not to compare my getting screwed with anybody else.
If you have a catchphrase, it's "I'm not making this up." We now live in the era of fake news. But did we always live in the era of fake news? The need for you to reassure people as far back as your early columns suggests that maybe distrust of the media is not a new phenomenon.
When I started saying "I'm not making this up," it was because the things I was talking about were so ridiculous. And I lie a lot in my column—my column is mostly lies. So on those rare occasions when I was going to say something that really did happen, I would say "I'm not making this up" as an indication that even though it's ridiculous and it's in my column, it's true. I wasn't really talking about the distortions and biases on the part of news media people, although they've always existed. I mean, I've spent my life in the newspaper business. Obviously a lot of us are biased, and we like to say we're not.
Let's talk briefly about Florida Man. You did not invent the concept of Florida Man.
No, I'm not responsible. Florida is responsible for it. You can trace when that happened to the 2000 presidential election, when Florida was unable to determine who it had voted for for several weeks. And it really isn't still sure who it has voted for. I think we should just give our electoral votes to, like, Montana or someplace that can count. So Florida got mocked.
And then there are these incidents that happen in Florida. And people started noticing that there are these incidents happening. It's not like they're not happening anywhere else, but probably a disproportionate number are happening in Florida, because there are a lot of people in Florida and because a lot of people didn't start there. That's my big defense of Florida, that most of these people—like, if you just are seized by a need to get naked and pleasure yourself with a stuffed animal in a Walmart, you're not going to probably do that in Zanesville, Ohio. You're going to go to Miami, you're going to go to Tampa, you're going to go down there where it's warm and there's a welcoming environment for that kind of behavior. We're the Ellis Island for weird, stupid people. They come to us to do weird stupid things. I live there, so material just washes up on my doorstep. I think it's a good thing. If you're a humor writer, there's no better place to live than Florida. But also, it protects the rest of the nation. All right? They can all look down on us. But if they wanted to get naked in a Walmart, they know where they can go.
Has it been good for your original home paper? Does the Miami Herald own the Florida Man beat?
Yeah, it is. People still want to work at the Miami Herald just because so many weird things happen in the Miami area. So the young people who would otherwise be wise enough to never pick journalism as a career are drawn to it and come until we have enough low-paid workers.
Let's talk about your new book Lessons from Lucy. It's about your dog. I want to just confess right now, I am not a dog person.
How can you not like dogs? Do you like any other animal? Do you like cats?
No. I barely like people. You like your dog. But the book isn't really about dogs anyway. It's about the fact that you are super old. What does Lucy teach you about being super old? Unless you object to that characterization.
I'm about to turn 72. The next major birthday I face is 80. So how can you not call me old? And I was just at my 50th college reunion. If you don't think you're old because you just have this image of yourself, go to your 50th college reunion. All these guys that you used to know, that you used to drink bourbon from the shoe of, are doddering around, bloated and bald, and sometimes even trying to dance to music from your era. Then you feel really old. So the premise of the book—it was a simple premise—is that I'm old [and] Lucy's old. I wrote it last year when I was 70 and she was 10, so 70 [in dog years].
I think everybody who turns 70 goes through this phase of taking stock, because you can't keep pretending you have forever left when you get to that age. But I'm looking at Lucy, and she's not taking stock. She's fine. She's just as happy as she ever was. And I'm thinking, "Why can't I do that?" So the book is an attempt to figure out what I could do to be more like my dog. Except for drinking from the toilet.
One of your resolutions from the book is to spend more time with your lawnmower drill team, the Lawn Rangers. How did Lucy tell you that important lesson?
The idea there is that dogs are not self-conscious. Whatever they think is fun, they just do it. And people—me among them—you get older and you think, "Well, I'm too old for that kind of behavior. That's unbecoming. I'll look stupid." And except for wearing really skinny jeans, I don't think there's anything old people shouldn't do if they feel like they want to do it. You know?
And yet you are anti-AARP.
They have this preposterous attitude, which is that you're not getting older, basically. All your mail that's not from AARP is from catheter companies, and yet they say, "Let's get rid of all these memes about how old people can't handle technology." And I'm thinking, "Really, AARP?" When I go on a book tour, people often want to take pictures with their cellphones. Which is nice. But there is a radical difference between the way people my age take the picture and the way young people take the picture. Young people take the picture like this: Click. People my age go: "Hold it. Now smile. OK. Oh, wait. It's on Google. Hold it. OK, smile. No, wait. It's taking a video." And then they hand it to a young person. So obviously there's a reason for the stereotypes about older people. I live in Miami, where I see old people drive all the time, and they don't drive well. They just don't. AARP says I can do anything. I just don't want to get on a plane with a pilot my age. I want the pilot to be young and alert and able to take a picture with a cellphone up there if need be.
And yet old people are basically driving our politics, right?
I started getting Social Security finally when I turned 70 years old. So now I think it's the greatest program in history. Let me ask you, since I'm in the beating heart of libertarianism: If you pay into Social Security your entire life and you're never going to get anywhere near the money you paid in back, is it still wrong to take the money? Actually, I'm taking the money. Whatever answer you give, I'm taking the money. And if they came along and said, "Dave, we've increased Social Security a lot because old people want it," I'd take that too. I probably wouldn't say no.
It seems like we've done good work here today, hammering out your presidential platform.
Let me just add that if I were the president of the United States, and I had access to a big jet that could go anywhere in the world that I wanted to anytime I wanted to, I'd take that baby all over the world. I have a commitment to jet travel as president. That would be kind of the cornerstone. I wouldn't even try to hammer anything out when I got there. I just drive around and screw up traffic in a motorcade, maybe go to the beach, and then fly home. I would never have any meetings with anybody. I would not meet with foreign leaders about anything. They say you guys are busy; do what you want. I'm just going to the beach.
You would be the Calvin Coolidge of air travel.
Did he do that? Did he go there?
He was a pretty chill president.
The very last thing I want to ask you is: In 1994, for some reason, your interview with Reason centered heavily around the strategic helium reserve. It is still an issue. I looked it up. People are still mad at other people for filling balloons with our scarce helium just to have fun.
I've done that.
Do you still have deep political thoughts about the helium reserve?
I guess first of all, we need helium to have a country. You can't have a country without helium. I assume? So as president, I would go to war for the helium. We got missiles, right? Who has the helium?
I read somewhere that Texas has 30 percent of the world's helium.
Fire a couple of missiles at Texas if they're not giving it up!
OK, so we're declaring war on Texas.
Yeah, if we need to. I mean, for the helium. We really want the younger generation to hear Uncle Dave inhale the helium and then talk with a funny voice. We don't want to give that up. That's America, isn't it? Isn't that why we have America? So that we can do that and things like it?
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a video version, visit reason.com.