We are not making this up: Dave Barry has made a career out of making readers laugh, and he’s gotten only funnier over the past several years. The author of a popular humor column that ran from 1983 to 2004 and earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Barry has also written more than 50 books, including novels and collections of his humorous essays.
His latest book, “Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog,” describes what he’s learned from his beloved 10-year-old pooch, including “Let go of your anger” and “Don’t stop having fun.”
Barry spoke to The Times via telephone from his home in Miami. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
First of all, how’s Lucy’s doing?
Lucy’s doing great. She’s actually lying on the floor here, and when I said her name she looked up just in case it meant that I was going to give her a treat or take her for a walk. But Lucy’s fine. She’s a year older but doing great.
What made you decide to make Lucy the star of your newest book?
My editor at Simon & Schuster suggested I write a dog book. I’ve written a lot about dogs over the years, but generally the columns I write about dogs, the point of them is dogs are not that bright. I was thinking about writing a “dogs are not that bright” book, but I had kind of a serious moment, because last year I turned 70 and Lucy turned 10, so basically we’re the same age. And I realized when I thought about it, she was actually doing a better job of aging. She was a lot happier than I was. So that ended up being the premise of the book: What is it that dogs do, at least my dog is doing, that makes her happy that I don’t do? And it’s nothing complicated, and it’s nothing that I didn’t already know, really. It’s just that Lucy’s very consistent about what she does, and I tend to get distracted by all kinds of stuff, because I’m so much more intelligent than Lucy that I end up being a lot stupider.
Last year I turned 70 and Lucy turned 10, so basically we’re the same age. And I realized... she was actually doing a better job of aging.
I know the feeling. Your book has seven lessons that you’ve learned from Lucy. Is there one in particular that’s been the hardest for you to take to heart, to apply to your own life?
It’s the idea of continuing to make friends. I think when you get older, especially if you’re a guy, it’s not just that you don’t make friends, but you’re not even in touch with the friends you already have.
Honestly, when I was writing the book I was thinking, “I don’t even know that all my friends are still alive.” I think it’s kind of a guy thing. If I do talk to somebody that I’ve known for a long time, a guy, we’ll take maybe 30 seconds to catch up on our entire lives. And then we run out of things to talk about, and it’s, “See you in another 10 years.” I think that’s a guy thing. Not to overgeneralize, but my wife, who is not a guy, she can run into a friend she hasn’t seen in 10 minutes, and they can still have a half-hour conversation about what happened in those 10 minutes.
I’ve tried to be better about it. I will write down, “OK, tomorrow I’m going to call this friend of mine who I haven’t talked to in a long time.” I didn’t use to do that. And it’s been good keeping in touch with people. But still, I have trouble meeting new people. I’m kind of shy, I’m old. I’m like, “I don’t need new friends.” That’s been harder. Whereas Lucy is just, every single person or dog she meets, she wants to make friends with that person or dog.
It’s no secret that you’re a dog person who’s maybe been a little bit skeptical about cats. What kind of lessons do you think you would have learned if Lucy had been a cat?
Probably nothing, because she would’ve disappeared for three weeks at a time and wouldn’t tell me what she was doing during that time. I guess the main lesson you learn from cats is you don’t need people. If they’ll feed you, that’s OK, but other than that, they’re kind of worthless. Maybe I’m a little cynical about cats, but that’s the impression I’ve always had.
You’ve written extensively about your home state. What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about Florida?
The biggest misconception they have is that all these ridiculous things that happen here are the fault of Floridians. Whereas in fact, they’re often the fault of people who came to Florida from places like California. The “Florida man” stories, you can’t exaggerate them. There’s so many, and they’re so wonderful. But a lot of the times when people do some really weird thing here, it’ll turn out that person is from, like, Ohio or Wisconsin. They just felt the need to come down here to get naked in a Walmart and pleasure themselves into a stuffed toy. Couldn’t do that at home! Got to come down to Florida, where people are more comfortable with that kind of behavior. We’re like the Ellis Island for weird and stupid people. They’re drawn to us. Give us your weird, your stupid…
Y’all need a statue with that on it.
We do. I’d hate to think what that statue would look like. I feel like maybe a giant pink lawn flamingo.
That sounds about right. There are a lot of great comic writers who come from Florida, like you and Carl Hiaasen and Kristen Arnett. Is there something intrinsically funny about the state?
Yeah. I mean, as Carl says, you don’t need an imagination to come up with weird story ideas. You just need a subscription to the newspaper. Because nothing you could make up would be as weird as the things that routinely happen here. We had this story just a week or so ago in Pasco County, in the town of Port Richey. They had a mayor who they had to kick out of office. I can’t remember what he did to violate the law, but he was shooting at the police. So they kicked him out. He was arrested. And then the vice mayor who replaced him just got arrested. So now they’re trying to find somebody in Port Richey who isn’t a felon to be the mayor of this town. And OK, that could happen anywhere, but you know it will happen in Florida. So it’s easier to be a writer here than most places. There’s just too much material.
What in your mind makes Florida, as you called it, the “best state ever”? What would you say to encourage people, good people, to go and visit or move there?
I would not encourage any good people to come visit here. If they’re good, they have no business in this state. But there’s a number of things. First of all, it’s not really one state. It’s all these different communities. There’s Key West, which is completely different from Miami. Miami is basically Latin America, that’s where I live. Then right up the road is Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, these are basically Long Island. Then across the state, Naples and that area, it’s Ohio. It’s all retirees. And in the middle of the state is Orlando, which is its own weird mix. Then you get north in the state, and it becomes the Deep South. It becomes Georgia and Alabama. There’s no connection between these communities, none. Nobody says, or very few people say, “I’m proud to be a Floridian. Here’s what a Floridian is.” Because there is no such thing.
It’s all these weird different communities, and more people are arriving constantly. The state grows by, I think it’s a thousand people a day. And then you have the weather; it’s warm all the time, so people tend to be outside. There’s an incredible amount of alcohol and drug use. You’ve got all these things just mixed with this gigantic stew of different people and different influences, and it’s just not like any place else. It’s just natural that strange things are going to happen here. But as I say, I would not advise anybody decent to come here. We have no use for that. That’s not our brand.
Twenty years ago you kind of ran for president of the United States—
No, I’m still running. This year particularly, I don’t really think I’m a joke anymore. I mean, is there anybody not running for president of the United States? Raise your hand if you’re not running for president. So yeah, I’m still actively accepting cash contributions. That’s kind of the extent of my campaign.
So you’re still going to be throwing your hat in the ring for 2020?
Yeah. I mean, if it benefits me in one way or another, yes. If it involves any kind of work, no.
OK. That’s the most honest answer I think any politician has given to that question.
I will say this, I don’t know who’s going to end up reading this, but I agree with that person, all of them, all those people about everything. That’s where I stand.
Would you be willing to accept a vice presidential slot?
As long as I get a plane. I’m mainly in it for a plane. So yes, if the vice president gets a plane, I’m good with that. And it sounds like less work also, being the vice president, to be honest. I mean, I don’t want to have a lot of meetings with people. If Vladimir Putin shows up, I really don’t want to talk to him, to be honest. Vice president would be probably better for me.
Another thing I have to ask you about is your band, Rock Bottom Remainders. You have a gig coming up, I understand, in Minneapolis in May.
We do. It’s really weird, because there’s absolutely no demand for this band. We’re not really very good. There’s not a huge popular demand. It’s more that we want to do it. But yes, somehow we convinced a book festival called Wordplay to invite us, and pretty much the entire band has accepted. The only downside is we’ll have to then play, which never works out well. But other than that, it should be a lot of fun getting together.
Who’s going to play this time around?
Stephen King will be there. Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom, Greg Iles, Ridley Pearson, Roy Blount Jr, James McBride, me, my brother Sam. It’s going to be a big band with almost everybody there. Again, this is not necessarily a good thing, because we’ll be holding instruments, making noise with them. We’re one of the bands where the fewer people playing, the better we sound. But we’ll be enjoying ourselves, and that’s the important thing.
This could be your year to break out.
No. This is not going to be our year to break out. That year will never happen. We’re never going to break out. We’re going to forever be in. Whatever it is you’re trying to break out of, we’ll be in that forever.
The political climate in America has become very polarized these days. Do you think that’s been a good or bad thing for the state of American humor?
Bad. Very bad. I’m not the first person in the humor industry to lament this, but in several ways it’s bad. One is that we’ve become incredibly sensitive because of the nature of the political debate and incredibly sensitive about what comedians are allowed to say and not allowed to say to the point where comedy is not even so much about comedy anymore. It’s about policing comedy. And I understand that there are offensive people and offensive things get said. But that has always been the case with comedians. I think we’ve become less grown up about how we deal with it and how we respond to it.
The other thing is that there’s such a huge part of the culture that’s devoted to establishing how much it doesn’t like Donald Trump, the entertainment world, anyway. They’ve sort of lost their imagination. We went through years of Barack Obama being president, and I thought he was a great president, but nobody made fun of him. And now Donald Trump is president, and everyone makes fun of him. But it’s always the same joke. It’s not a particularly clever joke. It’s like, he’s an idiot and his hair is stupid and he’s fat. I’m not going to argue with any of those. I’m just saying at some point, that ceases to be funny or original. But a lot of people who are pretty smart and capable of much more creativity have sort of settled for that. So there’s a lot of not-funny comedy, and a lot of it’s on late-night television. It’s just kind of the same thing, I’m going to establish how much I hate Donald Trump and we’ll all clap because we all agree with that. But that’s not very clever anymore. Every now and then you’ll see something that is really, really funny. Like “Saturday Night Live,” what’s his name? The guy who did Brett Kavanaugh.
That was funny as hell because it was pitch perfect. But for every one of those, there’s a lot of just same old same-old jokes. I wish we could just either get away from political humor altogether or go back to the stage where you were allowed to say anything about anybody and not feel that you had to establish yourself culturally as the right kind of person. I don’t think that’s what humor’s for.
Is there any candidate that you’re rooting for, not politically, but as a humorist, that you think has a lot of potential to be made fun of?
[John] Hickenlooper. Because his name is Hickenlooper. I believe that’s pretty wonderful. No, there’s just so many of them. I’m sure that somebody with great humor potential will emerge. Joe Biden can be pretty funny, I think. I mean, if you’re a comedian. Just as long as we’re allowed to make fun of him. That’s what I want.
When you started writing humor in the early ’80s —
During the Civil War.
What humorists did you read or comedians did you watch when you were growing up, when you were in your infancy as a humorist?
I was obsessed with a guy named Robert Benchley, who nobody’s ever heard of anymore. But he was a great humorist in the ‘20s, ‘30s, the Algonquin Round Table and all that. But after that, there were many people. The National Lampoon, the early “Saturday Night Live.” I read Mad magazine and millions of comics when I was growing up. I was a huge fan of Steve Martin. I lean toward silly humor, which is what Steve did. And Robert Benchley, what I loved about him is he was a combination of smart but also silly, which is rarer than it used to be in comedy. There always seems to have to be a point now. I like when it was whatever just seems funny, even if it’s truly ridiculous and almost embarrassing.
Do you think that’s one of the reasons that your work has endured so long? I mean, people are still reading your columns from 30 years ago.
I don’t think they’re going to be reading my columns too much longer. That’s one of the things I’ve decided, from my own interest in Robert Benchley. I’m the only person who even remembers him, and he was considered just absolutely brilliant 80, 90 years ago. And I don’t think humor, written humor anyway, lasts that long because it tends to rely on cultural references that eventually change.
That’s kind of true of all humor. If you ask people to name some great American comedy acts, a lot of people will name the Marx Brothers, for example. I like the Marx Brothers, and I watched Marx Brothers movies when I was in college. But the truth is that nobody really watches the Marx Brothers anymore. They just kind of agree that it’s funny, and they can recite two or three lines from Groucho that were really funny. But if you actually go watch the movies, they seem kind of weird now. The bits go on too long, and you recognize lots of things that comedy has gotten more sophisticated about. I don’t think comedy really endures the way horror does or tragedy does or romance does. That’s just my view. In other words, I should just kill myself right now.
Oh, God, please don’t. I would be the least popular journalist in the world if that happened.
I wouldn’t blame you. I’d say that Mike had nothing to do with it. I was just getting downer and downer with his questions, and then I killed myself. But it really could’ve happened with anybody. No, I have to stay alive to go on this book tour. I have to.
What would you say to people who are planning to attend the festival to lure them into coming to see you speak?
Well, I’ll be giving everybody who shows up a thousand dollars in cash. Actually, that really won’t happen, but I figure if I’m going to run for president, I might as well start with promises now. Or a puppy. Maybe I’ll give everybody a puppy. That would be a great book tour promotion to just show up with a lot of puppies. The logistics of it might be a little tricky, especially flying between cities. No puppies would be harmed in the execution of this giveaway program that I’m just now thinking of. Yeah, put that in there too, that’ll I’ll be giving away a thousand dollars and a free puppy to everybody. Subject to change. We need some kind of legal wording in there to make it clear that I’m actually lying when I say this.
Let your publicist worry about that.
Exactly. I’m the creative guy. They have to make it work. Let’s make it $2,000 and a puppy. Why be stingy? It’s not really our money we’re talking about here. And a pony. Actually, no. I’m not going to give away ponies. Maybe the first 10 people can get a puppy and a pony and $2,000, but that’s it. Let’s be realistic. Let’s not be crazy.
Dave Barry at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Barry appears at 4:30 p.m. April 13 at the L.A. Times Main Stage, interviewed by Times columnist (and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner) Patt Morrison.