A New York Times profile once said that Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry "makes his living by taking prosaic ideas to incongruous extremes." He is the only Pulitzer Prize winner to have a sitcom—CBS's Dave's World—based, very loosely, on his life. (They turned his one son and two dogs into just the opposite, but he enjoys cashing the checks.)
The Pulitzer Prize judges gave Barry the award for commentary in 1988 "for his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns." His concerns include beer, Barbie, a "worldwide epidemic of snakes in toilets," exploding Pop-Tarts, and, perhaps most famously, "the worst songs ever recorded."
To be fair to the Pulitzer committee, the real Dave does devote more column inches than the average pundit to making Very Big Government look silly and obnoxious. This is a fresh insight in New York and Washington, and wildly popular with readers, who have bought more than a million copies of his books.
Taking prosaic ideas to incongruous extremes, he writes things like: "With the federal deficit running at several hundred billion dollars per year, Congress passed a transportation bill that, according to news reports, includes $30 million for a 'hightech' moving sidewalk in Altoona, which happens to be in the district of Rep. 'Bud' Shuster, the ranking Republican on the surface transportation subcommittee.
"I don't know about you, but as a taxpayer, I am outraged to discover that, in this day and age, Altoona residents are still being forced to walk around on regular low-tech stationary sidewalks. I'm thinking of maybe organizing a group of us to go there and carry Altoonans on our backs until they get their new sidewalk. I'm also thinking that maybe we should donate an additional $10 million or so to build them a high-tech computerized Spit Launcher that will fire laser-guided gobs onto the moving sidewalk, so the Altoonans won't have to do this manually. 'What have I done today to help keep 'Bud' Shuster in Congress?' is a question we all need to ask ourselves more often."
Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin interviewed Barry at his Miami Herald office.
Reason: You were in Washington recently to do a story. What was it like there?
Barry: It's like going to Mars. When you come back out no one is talking about any of the things the people in Washington are talking about.
If we're spending $853 trillion on some program now, and next year we spend any less, that's "budget-cutting" to them. For them, the question is always, "What kind of government intervention should we impose on the world?" They never think that maybe we shouldn't.
It gives me a real advantage as a humorist because I get credit for having insight and understanding—and I don't. I don't have any insight or understanding on anything about the government. All I think is that it's stupid—which is the one perspective that's almost completely lacking in Washington.
Reason: Did people there find your perspective peculiar?
Barry: They know this is what I do. Reporters aren't stupid. We were standing around talking about which of the 900 health-care proposals that nobody's going to accept is that day's hot news. They know how silly that is. But that's what they do. And if they don't do it, they'll get fired and someone else will do it. There's tremendous pressure, if you're in that system, to be involved and be interested and to care about it. There's no room to say, "This is stupid."
(One of the two tape recorders goes down. The reporter fiddles with it.)
Reason: I see why they wanted me to bring two. I'm totally humiliated. Virginia will be able to say, "Good thing I told you to bring two."
Barry: You know, if we had strict government standards about tape recorders, this kind of thing wouldn't happen. The consumer would be protected.
Reason: Was there anything surprising or unexpected about Washington?
Barry: I've been to Washington many times over the years for stories, and it always seems remarkably the same. More the same than the rest of the country. It's almost like they dress the same as they did 20 years ago. The same old guys are sitting outside the same dirty, dingy secret offices in the Capitol that you're not allowed to go in. But there's always this endless crowd of young, enthusiastic people who are in their Junior Achievement club or whatever, and someday they're going to be assistant to an aide to somebody. But they're making important contacts now that will serve them well the rest of their lives.
Reason: You're not sounding like a guy who has the fire in his belly for the '96 presidential race.