We're here with our Personal Hero, Mr. Dave Barry. Say a few words, Mr. Barry.
"I'm a one-man media event," Mr. Barry says. "I'm trying to become as well known as Roger Rabbit."He is close. Just a few minutes ago, adults lined up in a Loop bookstore like teenagers at a Who concert, waiting for Barry to sign his latest book, "Dave Barry's Greatest Hits," which is selling better than Cheez Whiz. Everybody likes his stuff a whole bunch.
Trained journalists like Barry, too, and they give him neat prizes. One is called the Pulitzer. He got it last April for Distinguished Commentary, which, in Barry's case, might be a contradiction in terms. He also got a spiffy prize called the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award. Many of us think he's the funniest writer alive. We could be wrong, but we doubt it.
He makes distinguished comments every week for the Miami Herald, the paper whose motto is, according to Barry: "If you don't buy our paper, we stake out your town house, too!!!!"
Anyway, when the Miami Herald people are finished with Barry's distinguished comments, they send them to more than 150 papers across the country. These distinguished comments make many people laugh. They also make Barry's books sell. This makes Barry's publisher send him on nationwide tours. This is known as Living Hell.
We're watching Barry sign the 43rd book he has signed today. He must have a callus the size of a kumquat.
He has done this for two weeks, chewing chicken-salad sandwiches and gulping Diet Coke in radio station lobbies, answering the same questions for the 147,836th time.
This can addle you somewhat.
"Last night, after the plane flight, I was being interviewed over dinner," Barry says. "And I'm sitting there, and I'm thinking, `I don't know what day of the week this is!' And I'm thinking, `I don't even know what city I'm in!'
"Luckily," he says, "the person interviewing me was blond, and she had a Midwest accent, so I said, `Aha! I must be in Minneapolis!' And I was right."
Right now, a very nice person is shoving this book at him, and saying, "Your column is my very favorite thing in the whole Sunday paper! I read it first, every week!"
Barry smiles and says, "Me, too."
A very pregnant lady is next. Barry says, "This is not my baby, as far as I know. When are you due?"
"July 7," the very pregnant lady replies.
"Move this lady right along, quick," Barry says.
You expect funny stuff from Dave Barry, who once called a pro wrestler "a genetic experiment gone awry."
About John Glenn, he wrote: "I doubt he could electrify a fish tank if he threw a toaster into it."
And of New York taxi drivers: "I want to interview the driver . . . only I can't, because he doesn't speak English. He is not allowed to, under the rules, which are posted right on the seat:
"New York Taxi Rules
"1. Driver speaks no English.
"2. Driver just got here two days ago from some place like Senegal.
"3. Driver hates you."
This fellow signing books is funny, too, but not like Dave Barry. He's more like the fellow who sat in the back of chemistry class, making weird noises with his hands and armpits. We could just call this guy, "Dave."
Dave is very pleasant. He says hello to everyone, talks to them, poses for pictures, even writes funny things in their books. This cannot be the professional wise guy who gleefully points out that the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service is named "Roscoe."
Well, it is.
Dave Barry might be the nicest guy since Gandhi. Just don't expect him to make you laugh like a jackal all the time. He can't. No one can. This is the hardest thing, he says, about being outrageous for a living.
"People used to come up and say, `Hi,' and then do this," Barry says, and he gawks like a geek. "I used to feel the pressure to be funny, and I'd do all this crazy stuff, and my wife finally told me that when I did that, I acted like a jerk. That's what you need wives for, thousands of them, to tell you when you're acting like a jerk.
"I like to think I have a good sense of humor, but no better than other people that I know, and I'm certainly not that funny to talk to."
He is hilarious to read. "I don't know of any other writer, writing currently, who makes people laugh out loud," says Gene Weingarten, Barry's editor at the Miami Herald.
Dave Barry is 41 years old. He has pale blue eyes, straight dark-brown hair and lives with his son and wife and dogs in their home in a suburb of Miami called Coral Gables.
He started in journalism as a reporter, writing for the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., and later moved to the Associated Press in Philadelphia. This was something like Ozzy Osbourne singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He soon wearied and took a job teaching - get this - effective writing to business executives, and on the side he sold humor columns to his old paper, at which his wife was features editor.
"He is an extraordinary writer, and that makes him an extraordinary humor writer, because he writes passionately and with great depth."
In 1981, his son, Robert, was born, via natural childbirth. Barry sold a free-lance story on the blessed event to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"I had never read anything so funny and fresh," says Weingarten, who had just been hired as the associate editor of the Herald's Tropic magazine. "I called him and found out who he was, some guy teaching businessmen how to write effective letters.
"I asked him if he was interested in writing regularly for us, for $400 a story, and that began an every-other-week relationship, which grew into a weekly, and that relationship led to us hiring him, after I had prevailed on the Herald editors to hire this loose cannon."
Now Barry is the Herald's unguided missile, turning out a humor column every week and five or six longer pieces a year. He has been traveling around the country covering presidential primaries, went to Atlanta for the Democratic National Convention and will go to New Orleans later this year to write about the Republicans.
"I love to target things that take themselves really seriously, and obviously government and politics are the best examples of that," he says.
His political coverage is informative, to the point and - surprise! - boffo. "Everybody in political coverage seems like they're walking around on eggshells, but Dave just straps on the hobnailed boots," Weingarten says.
Besides politics, another favorite target is other journalists, who, Barry says, "like to sit around awarding prizes to each other." He once wrote a column explaining why he never would win the Pulitzer Prize.
Now the joke is on him.
There is a serious side to Dave Barry.
It is rarely seen. Once was when his dad died in 1984. Another was two years ago, when Robert began kindergarten. Barry wrote as a father driving his boy to school for the first time, recalling how the child talked to his stuffed dolphin, and hearing "the dolphin answer back in
a squeaky version of Robby's little voice."
This is how that column ended:
"We're at his classroom. We're supposed to leave right away. They told us in Parents' Orientation. They said hanging around only makes it worse. It couldn't be any worse. Robby is fighting panic, asking questions, stalling to keep us there, tears running quietly down his cheeks.
"`How many hours will it be?' he asks.
"Thousands, I think. Thousands and thousands, in classrooms, away from us, until you've learned to accept it, and you don't cry when we leave you, and your dolphin never talks any more."
The column, "Commencement," was part of Barry's winning entry for the distinguished writing award and generated overwhelming reader response. Some say Dave Barry might not be just the funniest newspaper writer, but one of the best in any weight class.
"He is an extraordinary writer, and that makes him an extraordinary humor writer, because he writes passionately and with great depth," Weingarten says.
Barry refuses to stay serious.
"It was because bad things had happened to me when I wrote those columns," he says. "And because bad things like that have happened to me, I wrote about them, as my way of dealing with them. I don't want to write that, because that would mean bad things are happening to me.
"And so, even if people do get tired of humor, and beg me to write something else, humor is what I'm going to write. It's what I do."