Dave Barry just may be the only Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist who earns a living telling booger jokes. The retired syndicated humor columnist has been making a fool of himself and then writing about it for nearly 30 years. Barry stopped writing his weekly column in 2005, but he's been hard at work on a number of other projects, ranging from children's books to movie scripts about chickens. Barry talks to TIME about Twilight, what he thinks of the Kardashians and the time he threw a snake into a swimming pool all topics that appear as essays in his new book, I'll Mature When I'm Dead.
You wrote a humor column for the Miami Herald for more than 20 years. Then you retired. And now you've written a book that is essentially humor columns. Why?
I wrote an essay for the Miami Herald about getting a colonoscopy. It was longer than my old columns, and I got a good response from it, so I thought, Huh, maybe I'll do more. Maybe I'll make a book. I had some ideas kicking around that didn't really fit in the column format. I wanted to write a parody of a vampire novel, for example.
The vampire parody was great. Have you read Twilight?
I've read every Twilight book except for the last one. I think the premise is hilarious, that these brilliant vampires would be high school students. I'm sorry, but if I'm a 200-year-old really sophisticated, cultured being that can do whatever I want, I'm not going to high school. And then the whole idea that all these beings find the protagonist so unfathomably attractive even though she's the most self-centered girl I've ever encountered? It's just so absurd.
You write about being invited to participate in a failed Disney World parade. And once, a long time ago, you wrote a column about being a corpse in an opera.
Yes, I was a corpse in a production of Gianni Schicchi in Eugene, Ore. I had to lie motionless on stage and be shrieked at by a baritone. That was my job.
You get invited to these things because, as you put it, you're mildly famous. What's the weirdest stunt you've been a part of?
Having a sewage-lifting station named after me amid much pomp and ceremony in Grand Forks, N.D., ranks very high on the list. It's an honor that not many people can claim.
A sewage station? How did that happen?
I wrote a column making fun of North Dakota, which I don't recommend because those people there's only like 11 of them, but they're proud. I was making fun of them because they had this conference to figure out why people don't want to visit North Dakota on vacation. They were brainstorming ways to improve the state's image, and one of the proposed ideas was to change the state's name to simply Dakota. They thought if they changed the name, the state would become powerfully attractive to the rest of us. It'd be like, "Hmm, where do we go on vacation? Hawaii? Or Dakota!" So I wrote a column making fun of them, and wow, they got really mad at me. Really mad. But they had a sense of humor about it. They invited me to Grand Forks, N.D. which is just across the street from East Grand Forks, Minn., you'll be interested to know and they dedicated a sewage-lifting station to me. They had a whole ceremony, wherein the mayor of Grand Forks even very eloquently compared my writing to the production of human excrement. If you go there, there's a foot-high plaque that says "Dave Barry Lift Station, No. 16." I'm pretty proud.
Was that the most hate mail you ever got? From North Dakotans?
No. Neil Diamond fans were possibly the worst. I'd written a column in which I said I wasn't crazy about his song "I Am I Said," in which Neil Diamond says, "I am, I said to no one there, and no one heard at all, not even the chair." And I thought if he'd taken another 10 seconds to come up with a better rhyme, the song would be so much better. He just looked around the room for a rhyme and saw a chair. It's obvious the chair wouldn't have heard him it's a chair. So that's what I said, and they got so mad at me. It was almost like a Salman Rushdie situation, with Neil Diamond followers. I'd get letters like, "How dare you. He changed my life. I listened to 'Heartlight' 14 times, and it cured my goiter, Mr. Barry."
You live in Miami and write a lot about what it's like to live there, especially among tropical wildlife. You briefly write about a day when you're working at your desk, only to look over and notice a snake next to you.
True story! I was sitting in my office, working. I reached over to grab a Diet Coke that was sitting next to me at my desk, and I heard a hiss. There was a snake just sitting there on my desk. At the time, I would have estimated its length to be 18 to 20 feet, but in retrospect, it was more like three feet. But three feet's not small, especially when it's cuddling with your Diet Coke on your desk. My heart completely stopped, and I ran to the kitchen, and the first thing I saw was a pair of barbecue tongs. I ran back to the office, equipped with the barbecue tongs, and I grabbed the snake right in the middle of its body. But the snake was longer than the barbecue tongs, so it started to reach around at me. I ran outside, and I flung him into the yard. He flew into the air and landed in our swimming pool. I [was] still wielding the barbecue tongs, and my heart was pumping. I got the snake out of the pool, and everything was O.K. But that was probably not a good experience for my heart.
Does that sort of thing happen a lot in Miami?
Not on your desk! Mostly our wildlife consists of cute lizards. We have these little lizards all around the house. You'll wake up in the morning and look up at the ceiling, and there's a lizard looking down on you like, "Good morning! I could have pooped in your mouth. Maybe I did! You'll never know."
Can you tell me about your "celebrity exports" idea?
Well, as a minor celebrity getting more minor all the time, I'm concerned about this rash of people who are famous for nothing. There are too many celebrities now. How many Kardashian sisters are there? Thirty? Forty? And now there's this rash of DJ celebrities. They put one headphone on and act like they're performing brain surgery with a record player. But they're just playing a record. It's not even their music, it's someone else's music. It's operating an appliance. I don't know when that suddenly became artistic or worthy of celebrityhood. I think we need to get rid of these Kardashians and celebrity DJs. We shouldn't kill them we should just export them to other countries that don't have as many celebrities. Like Belgium or Luxembourg.
You wrote for Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin when they hosted the Oscars this year. How did that happen?
I wrote for Steve Martin in 2003 when he hosted it alone. We've known each other for a while and are friends. He asked me to be a writer for this one. That's not really the world I live in, so it was fascinating for me. You sit in the room with all these writers who are really funny, smart people. It's a little scary because you have to say your joke ideas out loud. I tend to write mine down and then e-mail them to Steve Martin, even if I'm in the same room as him. And then they go through every joke, what works and what doesn't and why. One of every 25 of your jokes might be considered. All the while you drink a lot of caffeine and eat junk food nervously.
You've been in the band the Rock Bottom Remainders with Amy Tan and Stephen King for a long time. How long has the band been together?
We've been doing this for 18 years. Longer than the Beatles.
You should put out a greatest-hits album.
We would, but there's one problem. We don't have a hit. Also, we don't really know how to play songs. There's never a moment when we're onstage when we really know how a song is supposed to go from the beginning to the end. I understand that's one of the tricks of the top bands when they start a song, they know what they're going be doing all the way through it. We're not sure what the chords are. We make elaborate gestures to each other to indicate things like, "Now we're going to stop!" But then we don't all stop at the same time and there's one person left hanging. It's a mess.
I have one last question. In your decades of experience as a successful humor writer, what's funnier: fart jokes or booger jokes?
I'm going fart over booger. Yep, I'm putting it out there.